It is the 90th anniversary since the beloved bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and his forest friends were born and to this day, the story still continues to be read worldwide. Western graduate Kathryn Aalto, writer of “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh,” explores the landscape in England that inspired it all.
Currently on tour, Aalto read excerpts from her book at Village Books on Thursday, Feb. 18. Aalto’s book brings readers to the magical Hundred Acre Wood, describing the history of how the Ashdown Forest inspired the creation of the honey-loving bear.
“I was reading aloud to my children at the time … and it was a simple question,” Aalto said. “‘Is there a real Hundred Acre Wood and can we walk there?’”
Aalto’s natural, literary and biographical history-styled book ranked number seven on New York Times Best Sellers list in travel for the month of February.
The book begins with Aalto talking about Alan Alexander Milne, writer of the classic children’s story, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and how he moved to Ashdown Forest, a 6,500-acre wildlife haven, located about 36 miles from his hometown in London.
Ernest Howard Shepard is the illustrator who brought the Hundred Acre Wood to life. Shepard lost his mother at the age of 11.
“You can see that gentle sensitivity of Piglet reaching up to Pooh and the simple emotional sensitivity of the drawings,” Aalto said.
After moving to Cotchford Farm, his home in Ashdown Forest, Milne wanted his son, the original Christopher Robin, to have the kind of childhood he had. He let his son play outside and roam mile upon mile through the forest, Aalto said.
Aalto said the stories come from memories of Milne’s own childhood paired with observing his son play.
The rest of the book explores the origins of both the creators and the stories themselves, as well as a guide to the flora and fauna of Ashdown Forest. The book also includes pictures taken by Aalto herself.
Aalto described climbing a tree in Ashdown Forest and falling into a gorse bush, just as Tigger had done.
“So if you think the writing is really good, like, ‘She really takes you there,’ it’s because I suffered for you,” Aalto said.
Most people don’t know that many Disney characters are historically based, Aalto said.. “Disney did not create these [characters]. They were created in 1926 and 1928.”
The characters of “Winnie-the-Pooh” are based on real stuffed animals Milne’s son owned, with the exception of two. Owl and Rabbit are based on animals Milne saw as he walked through Ashdown Forest, Aalto said.
The remaining stuffed animals are kept at the New York Public Library.
“Roo is missing. He was eaten by a neighbor’s dog and left in an apple tree,” Aalto said.
“My nostalgia for the book is a nostalgia for my son’s childhood and the way his dad animated his stuffed animals to tell stories with them,” Jessica Steele said. Steele attended graduate school with Aalto at Western.
Most of Aalto’s book was written in English pubs.
“I would have my computer out, papers strewn everywhere … People would say, ‘Well what do you do?’” Aalto said. “I would say, ‘I’m a writer.’ And they would say, ‘Well what kind of horse?”
All of the photography was captured by Aalto herself, traveling to the forest frequently as it was relatively close to her new home in England.
Tom Read is a professor of mathematics at Western who came to Aalto’s book reading at Village Books with his wife.
“I think it’s quite hard for an American to understand the [Winnie-the-Pooh] books [in the way] an English person would because we don’t have a background of the landscape,” Tom Read said.
Tom Read’s wife, Rosemary, said being English, she knows the Ashdown Forest to be huge.
“You can’t call it intimate. It’s beautiful on a big scale,” Rosemary Read said.
Aalto said she isn’t sure she knows what happens next. She has two different ideas in the works: one story may be a memoir, and the other may possibly be a literary landscape piece, Aalto said.
“The real and imagined places of the Hundred Acre Wood are tender touchstones for the precious time of childhood,” Aalto said. “Milne’s stories remind us that aimless wandering and doing nothing are very big somethings for little ones.”