The best picture book illustrations are true art. I’ve always loved the art of beautiful picture books, I never outgrew the love of them. Two years ago the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had an exhibit of Robert McCloskey’s drawings and watercolors. Now they’ve got Pooh, an amazing exhibit featuring the drawings of E.H. Shepard, the original illustrator of the best beloved Winnie Pooh stories.
Anyone who has followed my blog from the beginning might remember that when Bella was a toddler she lived and breathed Pooh. All children obsess over favorite books and most parents groan when the favorite is pulled out *yet again*. But I rather relished this phase. Every day at nap time we’d read one or even two full stories and over time I came to appreciate A. A. Milne’s genius. These stories were rich in language and humor and wisdom. They simply did not get old. I didn’t mind reading them over and over again and again.
I had a big two volume set that two dear friends gave me in college. One was the World of Christopher Robin, containing all the poems in both When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. The other was The World of Pooh, containing the stories in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. At the time I received them I thought I loved Pooh. I had vague memories of reading the stories when I was young and I had the young adult’s nostalgia for them. But I don’t think I really knew Pooh until I was a mother and Bella and I had our full immersion experience. I got to know those stories from the inside out. I came to have a favorite long sentence. Bella came to have Pooh and Piglet as her imaginary friends.
(Let me just say that I do not at all consider Disney’s Pooh to be the same thing. At all. I know many people are quite fond of Disney’s Pooh, but I feel like it’s a betrayal of all that I love best. Their Pooh is watered down, flattened out. It is all cute and whimsy, and lacking in the acerbic wit and deep insight of the original. And the Disney films and books none of the poetry of Milne’s language, the rhythms and flow and feeling. On occasion my children have found copies of the Disney books and brought them to me to read. I don’t often refuse to read them books. But I do draw the line there. I’m sorry, I say. I really just can’t read this to you. Let’s find something else to read. Disney and Hallmark– it’s a crime what they did to Milne’s prose.)
With my love for Winnie the Pooh and the art of E. H. Shepard, it would have been enough to see the exhibit at the MFA. But an overabundance of grace was visited upon us: my friend Julia and her sons came from out of state and joined us in our adventure. I’ve known Julia for a long time online, but this is the first time we’d met in person. There is always such joy when at last you get to meet a long-time friend face to face. A feeling that you’ve known each other forever and at the same time a getting to know their voice, face, mannerisms, presence.
Our children had a wonderful afternoon together, drawing, playing, talking, eating. It was a practically perfect day. The only shadow was that it was all too short.
The exhibit began with a small sampling of Pooh merchandise through the years and around the world. Then a small room with a child-sized bed that had a basket full of Pooh books next to it and a sign inviting children to sit and read. There was a case with reproductions of Christopher Robin’s original stuffed toys: Eeyore, Pooh, Piglet, Kanga and Roo and Tigger. And on the wall Shepard’s preliminary sketches of the stuffed animals, which he made as the first step before creating the characters as they appear in the books. There is a window through which you can peek to the next room and a period phone to play with, which was out of order.
The next room had a child-size door made to look like Pooh’s door with a bell that you could actually ring. (It was a very LOUD bell, which made me wonder if the exhibit’s curators had really sufficiently imagined the noise a large crowd of children can make when given the opportunity. If one child rings it, the all must. Multiple times.) There were larger than life reproductions of some of the sketches on the walls, a little bridge with screens on either side of it where one could pretend to play poohsticks, the virtual sticks and fir cones appearing on one screen, drifting out of sight under the bridge, and then appearing on the other side.
There was a child-size table with plenty of paper and pencils where kids could draw while parents looked at the art. There were stumps to sit on, and a slide to go down, and nooks and crannies to explore.
The next gallery had Eeyore’s house for the kids to crawl into, a large round green shag rug with a basket of books where one could sit and read, and a stairway which one could climb up to the point marked “Halfway Up”.
Most of the exhibition consisted of Shepard’s original pencil and ink sketches. The final gallery included some that had been water colored and then some prints from the books and some of the metal plates used to print them and also some of the books themselves. But by the time we got there, I was being hurried along by children who were quite done— not all of them were, but some were very ready to go get a snack.
I’d love to go back and linger some more over the sketches. Maybe on a quieter day midweek when there are fewer crowds. Still, I’m incredibly grateful that I got to share my first exploration of the exhibit with Julia.