Teddy Bear of the Year – Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson, Tundra Books, 2020
If you have children, or if you are still connected to your own childhood, you probably have a recollection of the 1932 classic children’s song with lyrics about the fantastic Teddy Bear’s picnic, an event where stuffed animals take over their lives, free of human control. There have been several recorded versions, as well as picture books, based on this event, including one by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry García (illustrated by Bruce Whatley
Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson’s new interpretation of the premise is warmhearted, unpretentious, and up-to-date. A modern little girl, Amena, and her loyal stuffed bear, Ollie, are inseparable, in the way which children inevitably find reassuring. Amena is cute, affectionate, and competent. Even when she has a bad day falling off her bicycle, (wearing a helmet), she picks herself up and carries on.
Yet her friendship with Ollie is as important as Christopher Robin’s with Winnie the Pooh. We know that Amena is social and happy; when we meet her at her afternoon tea party with Ollie, she has arrived home from school. Ollie’s job, “the best job in the world,” starts at 3:00 p.m., although he shifts to full-time in the summer. One night, Amena and Ollie’s peaceful sleep is interrupted when a ship, right out of Neverland, arrives at their window. A more senior bear invites Ollie to the Teddy Bears’ picnic for some continuing professional education, specifically in the “ABCs” of “Always Be Cuddling.” While it seems improbable that Ollie needs this reminder, the night voyage becomes a pretext for some great networking. My favorite picture in the book is actually the ship’s approach to the picnic, held, as always, “deep in the woods.” The bears have their back to the reader, looking out towards the white moon and the distant event, so far that the picnic’s guests look like the circle of Stonehenge. A deep green and sparkling lights suffuse the step into fantasy.
The picnic has gathered bears from every walk of life. There is plaid bear, a lavender bear on horseback, and a pirate complete with eyepatch and hook. (Imagine the story there!) Adults, and maybe some kids, will recognize a special guest checking out the food at one end of the table. VanSickle and Hanson have filled their book with allusions to the past, a touch of humor, and the recognition that children are intrigued at the secret life of their stuffed animals. Here they have a pretty complete picture of what goes on, under the leadership of bears with titles: “Scottie from the Department of Bedtime Planning…Jessica, Regional Stuffing Manager and Stitchery Inspector.”
After an unforgettable experience, which turns out to be an annual event, Ollie returns to Amena. For children who have questions about their teddy bears’ activities while they themselves are sleeping, this book offers some comforting and entertaining answers. Adults will enjoy the excursion, as well. “Flying sailboats, honey tarts, and a picnic in the woods,” make for a nice dreamlike trip into childhood.