Study Guide

The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh Signs

By A. A. Milne

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We're not talking crop circles here. Nope, we actually mean signs. Almost all the tales contain some use of signs or notices used to communicate a piece of valuable—or perceived as valuable—information.

There's Got to Be a Meaning

As early as the introduction, Milne uses the signs at the zoo as a way to signify important locations. "There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called WAYIN, and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they get to the one called WAYOUT" (Winnie-the-Pooh.Intro.2). But the meaning of the words is lost by removing the spaces between them.

Indeed, the signs that Christopher Robin and his friends so often encounter do not mean the same thing to them as the words actually communicate. But even though they can't read the words, they know that those squiggly lines mean something. So they go ahead and make up their own meaning. Think this is too abstract for a kids' book? Check out our analysis of Fox in Socks for a bit more info on signs and the signified in the theoretical sense.

Suffice it to say, from a young age we see signs everywhere. We've been trained to think that they signify something. Even if we can't read the words, we know there are words there, and we know there's a message we're supposed to understand. For example, Pooh lives "under the name of Sanders." "'It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it'" (Winnie-the-Pooh.1.21).

Even more removed from real meaning is the sign that marks Piglet's house—"TRESPASSERS W" (Winnie-the-Pooh.3.1). Not knowing what the word "trespasser" means, but knowing that signs always mean something, the characters attribute an arbitrary, but reasonable, significance: Piglet's grandfather, who gave him the house, was named "Trespassers W."

Listen to THIS!

Of course, knowing that signs convey important information also leads our characters to give their own messages a sense of importance. When Eeyore's tail is lost, for example, Owl's first suggestion is to write a notice and share that with the other animals in the forest (Winnie-the-Pooh.4.45). When the gang finds the North Pole, they mark the occasion with a sign (Winnie-the-Pooh.8.155). And when Owl looks for a new house, his first order of business is to make a sign for it, even if he doesn't have the actual house yet (House.9.61).

This Is the Way We Learn to Read

The use of signs, messages and notices in the Pooh tales illustrates a lot about how children in the real world go about unraveling the mystery we call literacy. They go through stages that begin with this first concept-based version of signs—that they mean something. Sometimes, the string of letters doesn't appear to be separated into real words (as in WAYIN and WAYOUT).

As they start to learn letters, pre-readers can pick out bits and pieces and make more reasonable guesses. Consider when Pooh sees Piglet's SOS from a house surrounded by water. The message says HELP! PIGLET (ME) and IT'S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP (Winnie-the-Pooh.9.9-10). Pooh only recognizes the letter P and concludes, "''P' means 'Pooh,' so it's a very important message for me'" (Winnie-the-Pooh.9.26).

Then, of course, there's "invented spelling," where children try to write words based on their understanding of the letters that correspond with the sounds in words. They end up spelling them incorrectly a lot of the time, like Christopher Robin's BACKSON (meaning "Back soon") (House.5.11). Eventually they learn the rules of grammar and spelling and all that good stuff. But Milne's signs show us the stages that we all go through to get to where we are right now, reading and actually analyzing the very books that teach us to read in the first place. 

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