Return to the Hundred Acre Wood
by David Benedictus, illustrated by Mark Burgess
Dutton Juvenile, 160 pp., $19.99
When I first heard that a new Winnie-the-Pooh story was in the works, I immediately felt two emotions. The first was sheer jubilation. Having enjoyed the original A. A. Milne tales as a child, I couldn’t wait to see Pooh and his friends end an 80-year period of hibernation. The second was mild trepidation. When authors are afforded opportunities to continue popular fiction stories, the results have been mixed. There have been successes—Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006)—and there have been less-than-equal sequels, most notably Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, the 1991 follow-up to Gone With The Wind.
Fortunately, David Benedictus has adapted Winnie-the-Pooh stories into audio book format, and concocted a marvelous little volume that Milne would have been proud of. To his credit, he remains true to the original story line, preserved the characters’ unique traits and personalities, and brilliantly replicates Milne’s formula of silliness and zaniness. And while Benedictus has obviously added his own deft touch, including a new character, the continuity between his writing style and Milne’s is clear and well appreciated.
Time appears to have stood still for the honey-loving bear and his pals. That is, until a big Rumour spreads through the Hundred Acre Wood: Christopher Robin is coming back. Pooh and Piglet excitedly pass on the news to Eeyore. Meanwhile, Owl and Rabbit attempt to sort out if the Rumour is true. Kanga says that it’s true, while Tigger hops around, of no use to anyone. The result?
And so, if Pooh and Piglet thought that it was true, and Owl believed that it was true, and Kanga said that it was true, then it really must be true. Musn’t it?
Of course, Christopher Robin does come back into their lives. He’s a bit older now, riding a bright blue bicycle (with no helmet, reckless child that he is) and bearing presents for everyone. Yet it’s quickly evident his love for the Hundred Acre Wood has never diminished: He will see his woodland friends during the summer, especially the bear who dreams of honey and mutters the word “bother.”
From this point on, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood picks up where the last Milne/Pooh story, The House at Pooh Corner (1928), left off. Pooh and his friends have innumerable exciting and fun adventures in the land of milk and honey. Owl’s attempt to complete a crossword puzzle leads to a grand spelling bee in which all participants are “welcum.” Rabbit gathers information in the Forest for a census—or, as Piglet points out, “It’s not a Census, it’s a Nonsensus.” Pooh searches high and low for honey (“I can only think of honey, and having none”) in one chapter, and Owl becomes—and mercifully stops being—an author in another one. Christopher Robin attempts to teach them cricket, and the mysterious heffalump is mentioned again and again.
And there is a new character, Lottie the Otter. After decades of male bonding it seems to have dawned on Benedictus that it might be time to add a second female protagonist. She joins the cast in the fourth chapter: a “Silver-and-Silky Slinky Thing” with confidence, charm, a savage wit, and the ability to play music on her “mouth organ.” Although it’s risky to introduce a new character in an established series, this turns out to be an excellent idea. Lottie is a perfect fit among these animal misfits and adds an intriguing dynamic for readers.
And just who will read this book? It’s hard to say. As the Hundred Acre Wood returns to life, opinions will vary. Some will simply refuse to read Benedictus’s sequel, believing that, when A. A. Milne died, the sequence died with him. Others, having suffered through Walt Disney’s animated version, could take a pass on this current reincarnation. Still others, who couldn’t understand the Latin version, Winnie Ille Pu (1958), may fear that a Sanskrit or Esperanto edition is on the way.
Most skeptics will be pleasantly surprised by Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. As a traditionalist who is pro-Piglet, I can say with confidence that this is a worthy successor to Milne’s body of work. With each passing word, sentence, paragraph, and page, Benedictus preserves tradition and builds an exciting new legacy for coming generations of readers. Which goes to show that old bees can, at times, produce new honey.
Michael Taube is a journalist and former speechwriter for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.