The Poetry Before Pooh: When We Were Very Young

There are some books that don’t age well, and others that are beloved classics that only seem to get better with age. While We Were Very Young definitely falls into the latter category. The first of A.A.Milne’s work before his Winnie the Pooh stories, this collection of poetry is beautiful and begs to be read aloud, a perfect addition to your National Poetry Month reading list!

When We Were Very Young, the first of A.A. Milne’s four world-famous books for children, introduced Christopher Robin to innumerable friends, and has probably been read more widely than any other book of verse for children published in our time. For sheer delightfulness the children’s rhymes of A.A. Milne are in a class by themselves, with their charm, humor, and understanding – to say nothing of their irresistible rhythms. Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations are an important complement to the verses. A.A. Milne has here created a book of proven classic quality, a book that goes straight to the heart.” E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961

when we were very young
E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1961

biblio basics

  • When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard
  • Publisher: E.P. Dutton & Co,. Inc., 1924 (1961 reprint)
  • Format & Genre: Picture Book, Poetry
  • Age Range: 3-7
  • Themes: Poetry
  • Source: Purchased Copy

When I was very young, Winnie the Pooh was one of my favourite literary characters, so much so that when my younger brother was born my sister and I tried to convince my parents that we should name him Christopher Robin. I’m pretty sure my siblings and I wore through our first VHS copy of the original Disney adaptations of the stories.

The poem Teddy Bear, which started the Winnie-the-Pooh dynasty we know now, was first printed in Punch (a British magazine of the 1920s) and then published in Milne’s first poetry collection for children, When We Were Very Young. The poem is filled with the whimsy we associate with Winnie-the-Pooh, then named Mr. Edward Bear, and is a bit of literary history that both you and your littles can enjoy!

Illustration for “Teddy Bear”

When We Were Very young truly stands the test of time and Milne’s delightful and whimsical verse is still a pleasure to read. The rhythm of the poems is lovely and meant to be read aloud, shared with those that are still very young. There is a poem for every child in this collection, from the ridiculous to the pensive. While some of the wording might not be familiar to North American children, like nurse instead of nanny, the meaning of the poems is still quite clear. You can even have fun researching the money in the poems like pounds, tuppence, sixpence, and shillings.

One poem that has not aged well is called Nursery Chairs, where the speaker pretends that a chair is a ship taking him to the Amazon to play with the “Indians” he finds there. This type of language is dated and I would suggest skipping this poem, as the rest of the collection is much less problematic. Overall the poems are delightful and have whimsical subjects, like foxes who don’t wear sockses, and a fussy king who must ask a cow for butter for his royal bread.

corner of the street
Illustration for “Corner-of-the-Street”

Shepard’s illustrations are classic ink drawings, and their simplicity compliment the poetry nicely. In later editions of the book the illustrations have been enlarged and coloured. It might just be my nostalgia for the book talking, but I prefer the black and white illustrations to the coloured ones. There is something about viewing art in the way it was intended, like a direct connection to the artist. But for some the coloured images might be more engaging, so really it’s up to you what version you choose.

Overall, this piece of classic children’s literature is sure to entertain your littles, as I am sure it did Christopher Robin, for whom the book is dedicated. I’m sure it would please Mr. Milne very much to know that the works he created to entertain his son, have brought joy to millions of children (and adults) around the world, and will continue to for many years to come.


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