Title: When We Were Very Young
Author: A.A. Milne
Date: 1924, 1970
Publisher: E.P. Dutton (1924), Dell (1970)
Length: 102 pages
Illustrations: drawings by Ernest Shepard
Quote: “I never did, I never did, I never did like ‘Now take care, dear!’...It’s no good saying it. They don’t understand.”
Winnie-the-Pooh was fiction. Christopher Robin Milne, his human, was real, and before making up the stories about the stuffed animals A.A. Milne, the father of Christopher Robin, made up these mostly short poems about a toddler. When We Were Very Young became a bestseller about the time Christopher Robin was old enough to be embarrassed by the idea that he’d once been a toddler. Christopher Robin grew up and wrote snarky things about his father’s presumption in writing about his infancy...but he also noticed that Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six outsold all the books for and about adults A.A. Milne had written, so he kept those mortifying reminders in print, anyway, and eventually they were made into Disney cartoons.
So what can a reviewer say about any of these books? They’re classics, I have one, come and get it! When We Were Very Young is all verse, no stories, and the stuffed animals haven’t been named yet. The teddy bear, easy to recognize in the drawings, makes an appearance in one poem as “Mr. Edward Bear.” The subjects and scenery are vintage; nursemaids, horses going down to the village to get some hay, “coconut shieses” as games at the fair, dormice, knickers and braces abound. This is not even the world in which most of the grandparents of people reading to preschoolers today ever lived, but it’s a pleasant world to imagine, a world where the frustrations of being a toddler shrink down to just the right size to help grown-ups understand and children get over their tantrums, a world where perhaps one might “see suddenly a shining knight...as it would have been / Those many, many years ago.... / Perhaps I might. You never know.” There was more imagination and less commercial entertainment in Christopher Robin’s world, which is probably why today’s readers still enjoy reading about it. There might even be elves or brownies.
There’s rhyme and rhythm and repetition, all of which tend to appeal to young children. Mostly Milne remembers to put in some sort of plot line or at least a vivid mental image for the adults, too, although “James James / Morrison Morrison” sounds to me like a poet yielding to a temptation.
And there are the drawings...much more rewarding to the adult eye than Disney cartoons. Not, of course, in color. Your preschooler may decide to add some color.
Overall this is a delightful little precursor to Winnie-the-Pooh. Children seem to like the Pooh stories better but they like these poems. Adults do, too, the first half-dozen times, so perhaps it’s a plus point for When We Were Very Young that Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are the volumes you’ll be asked to read hundreds of times.
There are lots of different editions of this classic. The Amazon link above shows the edition I physically had, and sold, in real life. To order it here, send salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com $5 for the book + $5 (per package) for shipping. It's a small book and would probably feel downright lonely rattling around in a package all by itself, so feel free to throw one or more Fair Trade Books, whose authors receive a percentage of the price, in with When We Were Very Young.