Well, OK then. The fact that the child is not wearing a red hood already differentiates one story from the other. And there’s the bear. Not a wolf, mind you, but a big, white bear. As the rosy-cheeked girl in Alessandra Lecis and Linda Wolfsgruber’s new book I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood is so keen to remind us, her story has nothing to do with the Grimm (or Perrault, depending on the translation) fairy tale. Yes, she has a red scarf, and she takes a basket into the woods, but that is the end of it. This is her story.
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?
I Want My Hat Back by Governor General Award Winner Jon Klassen is my favourite book of the year. Yes, there are still three months left in 2011, and yes, I have lost my heart to several wonderful books in the last nine months, but I stand by by my statement. A book about a bear looking for his lost hat, with simple yet breathtakingly lovely illustrations, and even simpler (but hilarious) text is a perfect creation. And I kinda knew it would be just from the cover. Some books, like some people, have a charisma that precedes them. Maybe it’s the bear, who looks like a beaver, all alone on the cover, with a slightly accusatory expression on his face. Bears already hold an esteemed place in children’s literature. Who doesn’t love Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle, or the perpetually troubled Berenstains? We may fear bears in the woods, but in picture books, a bear is a slam dunk, and in I Want My Hat Back, the bear is a star in the making.
A black bear on a quest for food, in preparation for hibernation. I know the feeling. I realize we evolved from apes, but sometimes I think my genetic lineage has more in common with Ursa Major than Simianus Nofatus. I’ve never swung from trees, nor do I have any aspirations to do so, but I know all about the irresistable drive to fatten up for the winter, which invariably leads to very long naps in my cozy den. And, I like honey. Clearly it’s genetic memory, not lack of willpower.
Darwin was almost right.