When I bought Bear Has a Story to Tell a few weeks ago, I had planned to write a review in a post about Autumn picture books. Since then it has snowed more than 30cm and Bing Crosby has had a play or two on my iPod. Autumn is a short season in the north. Early September looks like summer. Late September, all the leaves are yellow. By mid-October, the leaves have migrated south and snow has erased all evidence that we had any autumn at all. It’s no wonder that Halloween and Christmas vie for space on the shelves of department stores.
I welcome the snow, but I long for a more patient autumn, where leaves are not in such a hurry to change clothes and fly away. The lumbering bear in Philip and Erin Stead’s new book would agree, I think. Wandering through the woods in search of an audience for his story, Bear finds no takers; just a lot of busy creatures readying themselves for winter. Untroubled by the lack of receptiveness, this would-be storyteller instead offers to help each animal with their various preparations. Bear gathers seeds for a tiny mouse, checks the direction of the wind for a duck who is about to migrate south, and ever so gently, tucks a frog into a blanket of leaves and pine needles. This is a very kindly and patient bear, not to be confused with a real bear. Real bears don’t tell stories.
Once everyone is settled for the winter and the first snowflakes begin to fall, Bear snuggles into his den. His story will have to wait until the spring. But will he even remember what it is he wanted to say?
Bear Has a Story to Tell reminds me of Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser, the first book I reviewed in 32 Pages, both of which are hibernation stories. In Waiting for Winter, the animals eagerly anticipate the first snowflake, but are so tired they can barely keep their eyes open. In Bear Has a Story to Tell, there is an equal measure of anticipation and drowsiness on the part of the animals, but there is also the other side of the story, when all awake again in the spring. Some days, the idea of sleeping through five months of winter has its appeal.
Erin Stead’s illustrations in Bear Has a Story to Tell are as lovely as they are moving. One pencil line, or a stroke of the paintbrush, and an illustration is elevated to something entirely distinct from the glut of forgettable art on the shelves of a bookstore. I knew instantly that I would take this book home with me, even before I realized that the illustrator was the 2011 Caldecott winner for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. What I see on the page is more than just innate talent. I dabble in illustration from time to time, and yet I am always floored (and humbled) by the ability of artists to make something beautiful and emotionally stirring out of the commonplace, such as a bear in the woods. Like all of the illustrators profiled in 32 Pages, Erin Stead has an exquisite eye. Her illustrations, though graceful and light of hand – as if sketched in a notebook, belie a complexity that is absent from most picture book art. There is a real understanding of composition and detail, of balancing creative interpretation with realism and yet somehow avoiding the trap of overt sentimentality. Not an easy thing to do with bears, especially storytelling bears. Helpful and kind storytelling bears.
Erin Stead studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and then the School of Visual Arts in New York. Erin and her husband, author and artist Philip Stead, with whom she co-created A Sick Day for Amos McGee, live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Stead’s are annoyingly young. I say this with the utmost admiration, and annoyance. Such a remarkable level of accomplishment and mastery of their respective mediums at such a young age. Like the bear, they have many more stories to tell.
Here’s a few suggestions for other books about Autumn (even as the snow flies…):
The aforementioned, Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser
Autumn Bear by Diane Cullins
South by Patrick McDonnell
Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear (N.M. Bodecker/Erik Blegvad)~I haven’t reviewed this book, but it is wonderful, and worth seeking out.
Newly arrived in the mail, Counting on Fall (Owl Kids, 2012) by Lizann Flatt with illustrations by Ashley Barron . As per the sleeve, Counting on Fall “…couples poetic prose with evocative artwork to introduce basic math and number sense.” Well, I have no numerical sense whatsoever, but this book is a fun and quirkily inventive place to start my lesson. Ashley Barron’s cut-paper collages are absolutely wonderful. Full of whimsy and glorious autumn-inspired colours. Even the appendix is lovely, with a guide to all the animals and plants depicted in the book.