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Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Guest Post: Rosanne Tolin on Writing and Paddington Bear

When I examine my love for learning alongside my writing aspirations I notice a through-line—a preoccupation with curiosity. To write for children is a privilege, and I feel dually obligated to use this opportunity not to preach what I already know, but to ask questions about what I don't.

My inspiration comes from many places, but in particular, weekend afternoons spent at my grandmother’s house as a child remain as vivid to me as her swirling works of watercolor—delightful rainbow canvases that now adorn my bedroom walls. Her modest home was just around the street corner from the conservative St. Louis temple she attended every Sabbath. 

Week after week, rain or shine, my sisters and I marched to grandma’s after long mornings spent in Sunday School. 

Though my Iowa-bred mother had long since ditched a second set of dishes for keeping kosher, my grandmother held tight to the Jewish tradition.

Each Sunday at noon, Grandma gleefully announced that day’s lunch menu. Sometimes it was tuna croquettes that she embellished with sprigs of parsley; other times, she dished tough slabs of cow tongue from the slow cooker onto our plates. We drank iced tea from tall, gold rimmed glasses, but never had milk with our meat. 'Isn’t this delicious?' my grandma always cooed, complimenting her own cooking before we even took that first bite.


There was something so comforting about having this weekly ritual. It always played out the same way: my grandmother insisting the food was delicious, and sharing stories of her art group’s successes. She was a creature of habit, and this trait of imperfect predictability was something my husband insists she passed down to me. Rise at 4 am for calisthenics, have coffee, check stock portfolio balance. Though a creative soul, my grandma was fiercely independent and money savvy. Teaching herself about financial markets was as much a part of her life as knitting, and making paper from dryer lint. Ask questions, execute—become an expert! This, in a nutshell, was my grandmother’s credo.

It makes sense that, growing up in a Jewish family, I was taught to analyze everything. This, after all, is the cornerstone of Jewish faith—scholarly rabbis famously sought answers in the Talmud. As I grew into adulthood, I realized this inquisitiveness was a cornerstone of Jewish faith, and when I had children of my own, I welcomed their questions. Books filled our shelves from floor to ceiling. I considered reading with them the ultimate joy. Fiction or non-fiction, fifty pages or 500, I told them the answers to life lie somewhere between our local library and their endless imaginations.

Three years ago, I came across an article in Tablet Magazine about a small bear named Paddington and his brilliant creator, Michael Bond. As I read about the inspiration for Paddington—Kindertransport children arriving in London during World War II—I felt compelled to learn more about this literary hero who’d left a mark on my heart as a child. Lifting the stones to find the real story beneath the bear has been a rewarding journey since.

One of the hardest and most important things for a children’s author to do is expose their own fallibility, by posing questions without concrete answers. Was the congenial Michael Bond selfish with his writing time, or were his books worth any hardship to his family? From an outside perspective, I’d say the latter is mostly true.

Fred Rogers once said that kids can spot a phony from a mile away. Like Rogers, Bond was the genuine article. As was his beloved gift to the world, Paddington Bear.

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Rosanne Tolin is a wife, mother of four, avid runner and author. 

While studying law abroad in London, she subsisted mainly on a diet of tea and toast, and frequented Paddington Station. An experienced and well-respected journalist, she has focused her work primarily on children's publications. She was the former creator and editor of an ALA notable children's website, managing editor of Guideposts for Kids magazine, and a Hoosier State Press Award-winning features writer. When not writing, she can be found hiking with her dogs in the Indiana Dunes National Park. Her middle grade book debut MORE THAN MARMALADE: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear (Chicago Review Press) was released on 3 March, 2020.

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