Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Veterinarian's Hands, A War And A Child's Love For Bears

I like to think that even in the most fabulous, fantastical piece of fiction there is a shred of truth.  Perhaps the writer saw, heard, smelled, tasted or touched something real which triggered a thought carefully saved in their memory or journal.  All stories start with a single captured moment.

If we are fortunate enough to read a story, an entire story, so wonderful it feels like fiction even though it is based upon fact, we have been given a gift.  Finding Winnie:  The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear (Little, Brown and Company, October 20, 2015) written by Lindsay Mattick with illustrations by Sophie Blackall is one of those books.  It's about chance, choice, connections and love.

"Could you tell me a story?" asked Cole.
"It's awfully late."  It was long past dark, and time to be asleep.
"What kind of story?"
"You know.  A true story.  One about a Bear."
We cuddled up close.
"I'll do my best," I said.

A mother begins a story to her son Cole.  It takes place at least one hundred years before the boy is born.  It's about a veterinarian named Harry Colebourn.  It's said the warmth in Harry's heart moves to guide his skillful hands in caring for all animals.  A war in Europe extends its influence across the ocean to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where Harry lives and works.  Harry leaves his home to care for the horses used in this war.

After the train carrying the soldiers weaves through the countryside for several days a stop is made at White River.  Strolling along the platform Harry sees a bear cub tied alongside a man, a trapper.  Reaching into his pocket, kindness guiding a decision, the veterinarian offers the man twenty dollars for the young animal.  As you can imagine, the Colonel is initially shocked by Captain Colebourn's actions.  The rest of the men in his regiment are intrigued and thrilled with the bear's antics. The bear is given the name of Winnipeg, Winnie for short.

Winnie is never far from Harry as he works in the special tent, among many as far as the eye can see, designated for horses. He makes sure she acts like a proper solider and her skills surpass those of her human counterparts when it comes to finding something.  When all those men and all those horses sail for Europe, Winnie sails with them too.  She is the mascot for the men.

When the orders are issued for the men to join the fight in France, Harry makes another choice.  His love for Winnie is greater than his need to be with her.  She is placed in the London Zoo.  Young Cole can't believe this is the end of Winnie's and Harry's tale, but it is.  It is NOT the end of Winnie's story.  Nor is it the end of Harry's story.

A boy looking for a name for his stuffed bear visits the zoo, spying the bear cub and thinking her name would be the perfect for his beloved toy.  Again and again he returns; allowed inside the enclosure to be close to Winnie.  His adventures with his stuffed bear, inspired by Harry Colebourn's Winnie, are written down by the boy's father, A. A. Milne.

Happily Harry returns home to Winnipeg tending the animals under his care.  His son has a daughter who has a daughter who has a son named...Cole.  One man's love, one boy's love and one father's love are linked forever.

If you've ever read aloud to a child or a group of children, even though you are speaking and they are listening, there is an exchange taking place and a bond is being formed.  If they are comfortable with you, questions will be quietly asked during pauses or blurted out loud as curiosity overwhelms them. Lindsay Mattick writes with a natural and knowing voice both in the conversations between Cole and her and as she is relating the story of Winnie and Harry and Winnie and Christopher Robin.  Her words flow effortlessly as one who is familiar with the truth and with the wisdom of life experiences.  Here is a sample portion of a passage which resonates on many levels.

"Sometimes," I said, "you have to let one story end so the next one can begin."
"How do you know when that will happen?"
"You don't," I said.  "Which is why you should always carry on."

You can't help but marvel at the genius of the dust jacket as designed and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. On the front Winnie is looking right at the reader as she might have looked at Harry Colebourn when he first saw her.  She clings to his boot knowing he will care for her.  To the left, on the back, the blue and white pajama leg of a child and a part of their top is visible. In their hand is a teddy bear.  It's the two Winnies.  If you read a tweet below you can learn how the background was chosen.

Across the book case left to right are seven marching soldiers in a line silhouetted against a sky blushed in either a rising or setting sun.  Birds fly above them as Winnie leads the way.  On the opening endpapers a lush forest scene, a stream winding through the trees, greets readers.  A lone fox looks up.  Another two-page spread for the title page shows us what is beyond the stream. A small bear cub looks down from a tree branch.  The closing endpapers complete six pages of a photo album highlighting actual photographs and memorabilia of Harry Colebourn, his regiment, statues of Harry and Winnie, Christopher Robin and Winnie and Lindsay and Cole.  By turning the book the verso can be read on the final page.

Rendered by Sophie Blackall in Chinese ink and watercolor on hot-press paper the illustrations sing out warmth and love.  The trees in the first two images are seen again as wallpaper in Cole's bedroom.  The colors and patterns selected for Lindsay's and Cole's clothing as well as the bedding, books and the shelves are a beautiful blend of shades and geometric bliss.

In the telling of Harry's and Winnie's and Winnie's and Christopher Robin's stories picture sizes vary spreading across the gutter to leave a column on either the left or right with an inset of Lindsay speaking with Cole within a small circle.  Sometimes an image will cover a single page edge to edge or a partial page leaving room for the narrative on the side or bottom.  Blackall groups three or six illustrations framed in cream to show the passage of time.  The layout and placement of pictures is wonderful.

The details readers see on every page will have them pausing to take notice; the cost of reading material on a rack at the train station, the engine number on the train, the military uniforms and tents, the initials on Harry's duffel bag, the scenery as Harry drives Winnie to London, the bird's eye view of the London Zoo and the comparison views of the soldiers leaving for Europe and their return home at the train station.   One of my many favorite pictures is of Harry first holding Winnie on the train after she has eaten a variety of food.  She is happily sucking on a bottle of condensed milk, humming away.  The other men watch, grinning and laughing.  In the midst of what was surely a frightening time for them Winnie provides a pleasant distraction, a reminder of home.

This book, Finding Winnie:  The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear, written by Harry Colebourn's great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick, with illustrations by Sophie Blackall is a stunning work of textual and pictorial storytelling.  Every reader, no matter their age, will find these tales touching their collective hearts.  It's all about being connected and we are...we truly are.  It would be interesting to compare this title with students along with Winnie:  The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh (Henry Holt and Company, January 20, 2015) written by Sally M. Walker with illustrations by Jonathan D. Voss.

To learn more about Sophie Blackall and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Update:  At Sophie Blackall's blog she has posted Finding Winnie, Part 1, The Making of Finding Winnie Part 2 and The Making of Finding Winnie Part 3.  At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt starting with the opening endpapers.  It's interesting to see the image chosen for the UK version book case.  At CBC Books is a nice graphic timeline.  Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson has a remarkable post about this title at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, One Picture-Book Roundtable Discussion Before Breakfast #4: Featuring the Women of Finding Winnie.  This link takes you to an educator's guide.  Historica Canada has a conversation with Lindsay Mattick.  Be sure to listen to PW KidsCast:  A Conversation with Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall.

UPDATE:  After the announcement of Sophie Blackall winning the 2016 Caldecott Medal for this title she was interviewed at Publishers Weekly.

Enjoy the tweets below.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher to view the other choices in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge by other bloggers.


  1. Sounds great. Love Winnie- will have to read this.


    1. It's a must read for fans of Winnie, Lisa. After sharing it earlier in the week, students were still talking about it on Friday.