Sally M. Walker likes to connect young readers with history. In her new picture book, Winnie, she does just that, telling the little-known story of the real bear who inspired A.A. Milne’s legendary children’s book character, Winnie-the-Pooh.
When World War I soldier and veterinarian Harry Colebourn first saw the bear for sale at a train station in Canada, he knew he was the one to take care of her. He named her Winnipeg (later shortened to “Winnie”) after the capital city of Manitoba. When he was transferred to a training camp in England, he brought Winnie with him. She became a beloved member of Colebourn’s regiment, though in 1919 he donated her with a heavy heart to the London Zoo. It was there that a young boy named Christopher Robin first visited her. And the rest is literary history.
Winnie and Harry Coleburn at Salisbury
Walker has a passion for research and “finding the story” in her subject matter. “There are so many stories out there,” she tells BookPage from her home in Illinois, “especially if you’re a history geek.” Turning this slice of history into a book for children was particularly exciting for her, given that it’s a story most people haven’t heard.
Her own moment of revelation was one she won’t soon forget. “I was flabbergasted when I found out about it,” Walker says. Mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear was discussing her new book at a local bookstore and explained that the Veterinary Corps was very active during World War I due to the number of horses in use. Winspear briefly noted that Winnie-the-Pooh was a real bear, bought by Canadian veterinarian Harry Colebourn. “And I totally blacked out the rest of what she was talking about,” Walker says, “because I was busy writing down: Colebourn. Harry. Canada. She just casually mentioned it, but that was all I heard. A real bear!”
It was then that the author eagerly embarked upon her research, which she describes as a grand adventure. “I realized that the story was legitimate. But still, as a nonfiction writer, I always want to track down the roots and confirm things.”
Walker contacted the archivist for the Ft. Garry Horse Regiment in Manitoba. She discovered that the story was well documented and that all the materials were in their archives. Colebourn, she learned, not only kept diaries during World War I but also mentioned the bear in them. Walker was thrilled. “Sifting through old documents is what excites me,” she says with a laugh. “I contacted the provincial archives of Manitoba, and sure enough, Harry Colebourn’s son, Fred, had copied the diary onto microfilm. I spent several days doing nothing but reading through all of Harry’s diaries that he had during the war.”
Though mentions of Winnie in Colebourn’s diaries aren’t especially detailed, there are also photos in the archives—many of Winnie with other soldiers. “It’s clear that she was very much a mascot of the unit,” Walker says. “You also get a sense from Harry’s diary that he was a social and caring man. He mentions at one point in his diary having to take a bullet out of his horse and caring for horses that had various kinds of illnesses. You have the sense that Harry was a man who loved animals. I think he enjoyed people. He liked to help out. He liked to be good. And I think this sense is what came out in Winnie—his genuine caring.”
Walker also traveled to the London Zoo and speaks with enthusiasm about her research there. “The archivist there let me look through the ‘daily occurrences book,’ ” she says, “which lists what’s going on at the zoo. It’s intriguing, the kinds of information they liked to record for the zoo materials. The day Winnie arrived at the zoo, it was foggy. There were 243 visitors in the zoo. When she was accessioned into the zoo, they also brought in two African civets and a kestrel. You really have a sense that you’re touching history and touching the story. You can even read about the day that Winnie died, May 12, 1934. It was a fine, warm day at the zoo, and they note that one American black bear, a female, was put down on that day.”
Colebourn died in 1947, but not before witnessing the success of Milne’s Pooh stories, the first of which was published in 1926. And while the fictional Pooh became a beloved character around the world, the real Winnie was remembered in stories passed down through Colebourn’s family. Fred ensured that his father’s story was not forgotten, and Walker speaks with great respect for his efforts.
She also describes what the zoo calls their “Winnie Files.” These include zookeepers’ testimonies and letters from soldiers who wrote about what Winnie meant to them. “And what you see in there repeatedly,” she says, “is that the zookeeper would say, ‘Yes, we had some other bears, but no one could trust those bears. The only bear we could trust was Winnie. Winnie was special.’ ”
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.