A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne playing with a toy teddy bear
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By Merrill Fabry
October 14, 2015

Correction appended, Oct. 14, 2015

A.A. Milne’s books—including the simply titled Winnie-the-Pooh, which was published on this day in 1926—made Winnie the bear and his animal friends world famous, but they were not only the product of Milne’s imagination. The author, along with illustrator Ernest H. Shepard, actually based his work on some very real stuffed animals—those of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne.

Although the book was published 89 years ago Wednesday, the beloved character got his start five years before, when Milne gave his son a toy bear for his first birthday on Aug. 21, 1921. But that bear wasn’t named Winnie: he was initially called Edward. The name Winnie came later, from a brown bear that young Christopher Robin Milne visited in the London Zoo. Harry Colebourn, a Canadian lieutenant and veterinary surgeon, had brought the bear cub to England at the beginning of World War I and named her for the city of Winnipeg, leaving her at the London Zoo when his unit left for France. Milne’s introduction to his 1924 book When We Were Very Young traces the origin of the second half of the name to a swan: “Christopher Robin, who feeds this swan in the mornings, has given him the name of ‘Pooh.’ This is a very fine name for a swan, because, if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him.”

But while only Rabbit and Owl were products of the author and artist’s imaginations, not all of the illustrations are actually of Christopher Robin’s toys. Indeed, because Shepard drew the bear for When We Were Very Young, Pooh himself was not based on Christopher Robin Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, but on Shepard’s son’s teddy bear, named Growler. Milne insisted Shepard draw the rest of the characters for Winnie-the-Pooh from Christopher Robin’s toys, but Pooh remained based on Growler.

Unlike Growler, who was eventually destroyed by a dog, and Roo, who went missing in an apple orchard in the 1930s, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga are still around today, and have been on display together at the New York Public Library since 1987.

Read more about Christopher Robin Milne and his childhood toys, here in the TIME Vault: Bear Essentials

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to Winnipeg. It is a city.

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