Many years ago, I first heard the famous quote by CS Lewis that “a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” That observation has served as a good reminder to me that books I cannot enjoy are probably not good books for my children overall.
Looking for audio books for my children, I tripped over A.A. Milne’s delightfully funny little story, Once On A Time. In the preface, Milne echoes Lewis:
“I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he writes it for himself first.”
This quote captures not only something very true but also a revelation of who he was writing this one for.
Like almost everyone of our time, I grew up enchanted by Winnie the Pooh. My earliest memories of Pooh are, thankfully, of the Ernest H. Shephard illustration. However, I have a soft spot for the Disney repackaging as well. Imagine my delight when I read this in the preface to Once On A Time:
“This book was written in 1915, for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing; it was published at the end of 1917; was reviewed, if at all, as one of a parcel, by some brisk uncle from the Tiny Tots Department; and died quietly, without seriously detracting from the interest which was being taken in the World War, then in progress.” -Milne, A. A.
Milne treats us to his lovely dry humor in the preface and really prepares us for the treat that this little fairy tale will prove to be. It is most certainly not Winnie The Pooh. It might be compared to George MacDonald’s The Light Princess in tone, but even that is a stretch. It really is a totally different side to the creator of Christopher Robin and his Pooh. Darker, more complicated and much more interesting. In fact, Milne hints at how he would like us to read him in the preface when he asks if Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows are children’s books. Once On A Time is *that* kind of book. A complex story with hidden subplot that would amuse and entertain children while also tickling the curiosity and imagination of grown-ups.
Lest we see Once On A Time as straight allegory or a clever satire, Milne warns against that assumption: “it is not that sort of book.”
“But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won’t.”
Just as the title suggests, this is a fairy tale. Something almost akin to The Princess Bride or Ella Enchanted, this is one of those fairy tales where everything is just a little too neatly organized for it not to be funny. Milne wastes no opportunity to poke fun at stereotypes and turn things sort of on their heads. Just when we are finally satisfied that the prince and princess are going to take care of the menacing countess, the princess ruminates on how little she likes the prince’s involvement and the prince takes a fancy to the very beautiful countess who he knows is, in fact, evil and scheming. In this way, kids may be a bit confused. Adults will know that this is just the classic archetype of the girl who wants what she can’t have, and the boy who wants all that he can get. Thankfully for the younger listeners, everything moves at a very quick pace and so most of the strangeness may go right over their heads.
If I had read this as a children’s story, I would have been very disappointed. It is so contrived and so predictable. If I had read this as satire, I would have been left unsatisfied. Knowing, however, that this is a story that Milne told to his wife at night as a delightful joke, it completely hits the mark. It is fun, does not take itself too seriously, and is very entertaining!
I am recommending this book for moms. And if moms don’t want to read a fairy tale to themselves, I think that this might make a lovely read aloud. The kindle and audible match are lovely – the kindle has sweet illustration and the Audible has a great narrator. There is nothing truly objectionable in it, and so it is safe to share with littles. Whether or not they like it may depend entirely upon how much mom or dad is enjoying it as they read it aloud or how dry a sense of humor the young listeners possess.