Our books today are three children's books featuring bears - three of roughly three billion, bears-in-kids-books being wildly popular ever since the 'teddy bear' fad started in response to the publicized hunting stories of Theodore Roosevelt. Said fad swept the world like wildfire despite the fact that all of Roosevelt's own bear-stories involved him blasting them into eternity - and more importantly, them deserving it. Adult bears, you see, especially males, especially grizzly bears (far and away the most popular type of bear in kids books, even including pandas), are near-mindless, savagely vicious anger-junkies who tend to eviscerate first and ask questions later. There's nothing cute or cuddly about them; Baloo would've eaten Mowgli the first minute Bagheera wasn't looking.
But not in kids books! Not only are bears ubiquitous in kids books, but they're universally portrayed as extremely oversized labrador retrievers - slightly slow on the uptake but as good-hearted as could be. That might be true of bear cubs (I've only ever met one, and I can report he wasn't a homicidal maniac - yet), but it's the wildest flight of fancy when it comes to adult bears, who are like adult hippos (another kids favorite) in that they never met a temper tantrum they didn't like. In this case, as in so many cases, it's appearance that rules: kids love books with bears in them, because bears look like the bear toys they already have. It's a vicious circle, centering on a vicious animal.
And yet, I love several of those three billion bears-in-kids-books books, and these three are a good place to start, beginning with Brinton Turkle (before any of you ask, no, he's not me - yes, he's got the kind of name I fancy in my noms-de-plume, but he's got a lot more artistic ability than I do)'s 1976 book Deep in the Forest.
Deep in the Forest is a charming little inversion of the Goldilocks story - a bear cub wanders away from his mother and brothers and finds a log cabin in the woods (vaguely American Colonial, from the look of it). It's unlocked and empty, and the cub goes exploring. He finds a rocking chair and promptly destroys it; he finds bowls of food set out and hungrily empties them; he finds three beds and begins shredding them, before crawling under the covers of the smallest one, just as a happy family - father, mother, little girl - returns to their home.
They find the wreckage and puzzle over it, until the little girl finds the cub in her bed! The father chases the cub out of the house, and eventually the little guy returns to his family.
Turkle's book takes a big risk for a kids book: it has no words. Instead, the whole story relies on the evocative nature of his heavy pencil-and-wash artwork, which is very detailed and very accurate despite being slightly idealized. Unlike our other two books today, Deep in the Forest represents something that could actually happen and no doubt did in Colonial days.
Our second book is 1988's Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell, with wonderful illustrations by Barbara Firth. It tells the story of Big Bear and Little Bear, who play all day in the sunlight and at night return to the Bear Cave. Big Bear puts Little Bear to bed in the dark part of the cave and settles down with a good book by the fireside.
But Little Bear can't sleep - he's afraid of the dark. Big Bear puts a little lantern by Little Bear's bedside and returns to his book (in ten pages, Waddell more expertly captures the heartbreak of being interrupted while reading better than the overrated dolt Calvino could do in 200 pages of if on a winter's night a traveler). But Little Bear still can't sleep - the lantern casts some light, true, but not enough: there's still dark. So Big Bear goes through a couple more lanterns of increasing size, but Little Bear still can't sleep (and Big Bear only has two pages more to go!).
Eventually Big Bear decides to switch tactics: no, he doesn't kill and eat Little Bear, although an even slightly annoyed real bear wouldn't have hesitated - no, he takes Little Bear by the paw and leads him to the last place Little Bear expects: out into the dark!
Little Bear is afraid, but Big Bear points out the enormous, beautiful yellow moon shedding its gentle light over everything. "I've brought you the moon, Little Bear," said Big Bear. "The bright yellow moon and all the twinkly stars."
But Little Bear isn't listening, because he's sound asleep. Big Bear carries him back into the Bear Cave and cradles him in one arm while he returns to his book by the fireside. It's a sweet, wholly reaffirming little story that hints to kids that some of the things that frighten us aren't really all that frightening at all. And it's also a pretty accurate picture of how whimsically willful kids can be when they're supposed to be going to sleep. Barbara Firth's charming, perfectly detailed illustrations have a fine edge of humor about them.
Humor's done best, however, in our third book, Jez Alborough's great 1992 classic Where's My Teddy?
The story here involves Eddie, who's wandering in the woods looking for his teddy, whose name is Freddie. The woods frighten Eddie, but he's determined to find his teddy - but when he does find a teddy, it's enormous! "You're too big to huddle and cuddle," he said. "And I'll never fit both of us into my bed."
While Eddie's pondering this, he hears a loud rumbling coming closer through the woods, and eventually he makes out the words: "You're too small to huddle and cuddle," it said, "and you'll only get lost in my giant-sized bed!"
Suddenly a gigantic bear comes into view - holding an eensy-weensie teddy! The bear spots the oversized teddy at the same moment Freddie spots the bear:
"MY TED!" gasped the bear.
"A BEAR!" screamed Eddie.
"A BOY!" yelled the bear.
"MY TEDDY!" cried Eddie.
The two are so terrified that they grab their respective teddies
and race for safety the way they came.
The book ends with utterly charming pictures of the two of them, back in the safety of their beds, covers pulled up to their noses, teddies clutched tight. It follows the general pattern here, of bears as harmless doofuses who look a lot more frightening than they really are, and although a naturalist (or nature-lover with any hiking experience) might quibble over such a depiction, how can we complain about results this sweet?