What Next in Kiddie Sequels?
A fellow book lover called up in a lather the other day to ask if I'd seen "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood," the authorized sequel to A.A Milne's beloved children's classic "Winnie-the-Pooh."
The new book hit bookstores earlier this month, with writer David Benedictus and illustrator Mark Burgess expanding on the original by Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard.
"Is nothing sacred?" she huffed. "What classic will they update next? The New Adventure of Mother Goose? Huck Finn on Wall Street? How about a snappier sequel to Aesop's Fables, or Stuart Little or even the Bible?"
I saw her point. But I pointed out that we Americans crave a good second act, a juicy sequel. How else to explain Richard Nixon, the comeback of padded shoulders, and 26 bad Rocky Balboa movies.
On the other hand, it is hard to beat an original. The original Pooh, published in 1926, happens to be one of my all-time favorites. I loved reading Mr. Milne's gentle stories to my kids when they were tiny fluffheads resisting sleep. Pooh was a natural soporific, at least to me, though I managed to commit several choice quotes by Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl and Eeyore to memory before I nodded off mid-story, suitable for any occasion.
To this day, for example, whenever a snotty copy editor or superior proofreader remarks upon my gift for creative attempts at spelling, I simply smile and reply in my best Pooh manner, "You can't help but respect anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling TUESDAY simply doesn't count." That often puts a nice fat cork in it.
On Sacred Ground
Some years ago, as it happens, I actually visited Milne's home in England's Ashdown Forest and bumped into an elderly history buff at the local golf club in East Sussex who claimed to have known the author reasonably well when he was a lad.
The old fella kindly took me on an impromptu hike through the edge of the Five Hundred Acre Wood that was the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood in the book. And over a pint of John Courage at the local pub, he regaled me with stories about Milne's eccentric behavior in the neighborhood.
"Milne was always out walking about, climbing walls, investigating stumps and tree moss and such, collecting odd bits he found, writing away in little sketchbooks," my companion told me. "Sociable but solitary, he was. Never quite grew up in his own head, I reckon."
In other words, just the way you would imagine the creator of Christopher Robin and company to be, the kind of quietly sensible chap who could sensibly point out: "It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long and difficult words but rather short, easy words like: 'What about lunch?'"
Milne sold the North American trade rights in 1930 to a man named Stephen Slesinger for $1,000 and 66 percent of any income generated by film or recording rights, thereby creating the modern licensing industry.
Thirty years later, those rights got sold to Walt Disney, who amped up the juice and produced an avalanche of movies, TV shows, stuffed characters and animated cartoons that never quite did it for me.
As evidence of this fact, I confess that when my fluffhead daughter toddled off to college a few years back, I swiped the well-worn copy of "Winnie-the-Pooh" from her bookshelf and tucked it into my own bookshelf for safekeeping until she either has a fluffhead of her own or simply wants to recall her happy childhood in a Five Hundred Acre Wood on a hill in Maine.
In any case, my worried friend got me thinking. What other beloved classics of the kid-lit genre might soon be subject to commercial touch-ups or modern updating and in the sequel game? One can only imagine:
"Trend in the Willows":
The whole gang you loved as a small child are back -- Mole, Water Rat, Mr. Badger, and that irrepressible rogue, Toad! Life had certainly changed for the gang down by the sleepy river bank.
With the new highway through the forest came an explosion of exciting new development including The River View Mall, Mr. Toad's Super Auto Mile, and Badger's Luxury Estate Homes. When the principals of Willow Partners Ltd. discover their old associate Toad has struck a secret deal with Rush Limbaugh to bring a professional football franchise to the protected site of their first adventures, everyone hires top legal counsel and things get mighty ugly.
It isn't until Badger invites everyone over to his cozy woodland retreat for mocha lattes and a friendly chat that everyone makes up and life gets back to normal.
"Charlotte's Web of Intrigue":
Ever since Charlotte the gray spider's untimely death at the fair, after heroically helping the runt pig Wilbur the pig win a blue ribbon, there have been alarming whispers around Zuckerman's farm that Wilbur the isn't the cute and cuddly ham everyone thinks he is.
In this pulse-racing sequel to the beloved children's classic, while Wilbur the pig and devious Templeton the rat battle for control of the animal yard, Fern and Charlotte's clever hatchling daughters Nellie, Joy and Aranea set off in search of their previously-never-mentioned father. The amazing webs they spin on public road signs -- "Daddy Long Legs, Where-R-U?" and "Some Deadbeat" -- attract coverage by CNN and result in a new reality spin-off show.
"Peter Rabbit, P.I.":
Haunted by memories of how his father met an unfortunate demise in Mr. McGregor's garden and wound up in a pie, still smarting from his own narrow escape and the loss of his jacket and shoes to a scarecrow, young Peter (who now goes by "Pete") hangs a shingle as a private investigator who specializes in recovering lost valuables.
With the help of his good bunny sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, P.R.P.I. goes undercover as an organic certification inspector and shuts down the McGregor enterprise, recovering his jacket and shoes and revealing a vast vegetable cartel run by none other than the scarecrow himself. A new TV series starring Justin Timberlake in the title role is rumored to be in the works.
"Jungle Book II: The Revenge of Shere Khan":
Mowgli, the plucky man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle, now successful new media consultant based in Bangalore, returns to the jungle of his boyhood to help his old pals Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther -- now partners in an award-winning eco-tourism theme park -- fend off a hostile takeover bid by the ruthless and once-defeated tiger, Shere Khan, Asia's leading commodities broker.
With help from an aging Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, dean emeritus of Mongoose University School of Economics, the former friends combine forces to engineer a stunning reverse stock-swap acquisition that guts Shere Khan's financial empire and leads to sweeping reforms in the new global marketplace.
Shere Khan vanishes for good or does he? Look for Jungle Books III and IV soon at your neighborhood bookstore.
And for you older kids. Or merely the young at heart:
"To Thrill a Mockingbird":
Atticus Finch has translated to that great courtroom in the sky. Dill has grown up and moved to a loft in Soho, where he designs high fashions for full-figured gals. Despite his broken arm, Jem grew up to star on his college baseball team and made a decent stab at making it in the pros, only to lose his fastball and wind up managing a crummy farm team in Hogbreath, Ala.
Back in sleepy Maycomb, however, life has never been sweeter. In the tradition of Nicholas Sparks comes a love story for the ages -- Scout and Boo Radley, together at last, sharing the ordinary ups and downs of running a charming guest house and inn (made famous by the Academy Award-winning film starting Greg Peck), proving love and good non-judgmental communication skills through a simple tree knot can conquer any obstacle.
(Special bonus for readers: Check out Valentine package rates or sign up from intimate couple counseling weekends at the Inn's new website: "www. ScoutandBooandYou.com.")
Just for the heck of it, I wandered around the corner to The Country Bookshop to check out "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood." I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.
The 10 new stories were, in a word (two, actually) perfectly delightful -- a faithful rendering of Milne's original story and then some, including a saucy new character named Lottie, a mischievous otter.
Christopher Robin also comes home from school for a welcome reunion with his friends, and there's a mystery about some missing bees and perhaps the most lucid explanation of cricket I've read anywhere.
Call me a Bear of Very Little Brain if you must, but I just don't see what all the Eeyoring by critics like my indignant book-loving friend is about. Some actually say the new Pooh is too faithful to the original. For the moment at least, I'm putting off telling my friend I liked the book so much I bought a copy for my daughter and any fluffheads in our family.
As Pooh pointed out many years ago, "If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a piece of fluff in his ear."
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence with The Pilot, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story