Alone or Lonely? The Bear & Madame Odette

The Invisible Bear – written and illustrated by Cécile Metzger, Tundra Books, 2020

The Invisible Bear is a picture book full of beautiful ambiguity.  Since many young children accept the premise that an imaginary friend or a toy can be as real as a member of their own family.  They also understand loneliness, and they often feel a connection to old people.  Cécile Metzger alludes to all of these childhood truths in both the text and the ink and watercolor illustrations of her new book.  Readers enter the quiet and monochrome world of a possibly invisible bear, but later discover Madame Odette’s complementary world of bright flowers and cozy domesticity.  These two worlds each have their own dreamlike reality.

There is a difference between lonely and alone; Metzger’s bear, a large white creature pictured against a sepia background, seems a little sad: “No one ever came to see him,/and he lived all alone in his colorless world.” His day is characterized by a busy routine: waking to an alarm clock, cooking, drinking tea, while rain mysteriously falls on him from a small cloud suspended over his head. 

His life is radically altered when a grandmotherly woman, Madame Odette, comes to live next door. All of a sudden, pink green, and red take over the pages, as Madame Odette is the loving caretaker of flowers, dragonflies, and potted plants.  If the bear is solitary, Madame Odette is the opposite; “She lived in a/cheerful world of color and sound.”  

Yet Madame Odette’s world is as empty of companionship as the bear’s.  There are no other humans, only a cat.  The difference is that she seems perfectly content, chopping vegetables, talking on an old-fashioned dial phone, and lounging in an antique bathtub with feet. She has a radio out of the nineteen-forties, cheerfully emitting pink musical notes.  Her world and the bears are not opposites, but parallel to one another.

Neither has friends, but Madame Odette seems to be happy as long as she is nurturing plants and creating beauty with them. Her rustic house features plants in every window and a wooden weather vane. A few items of clothing hanging on the wash line are the main evidence of human habitation.   One day, Madame confronts an emergency.  A lack of water threatens her plants, and the bear decides to intervene, bringing friendship along with water.

The book’s ending is enigmatic. The bear’s life has changed; “And his gray world would never be the same again.” There are many questions to discuss with children about Madame Odette’s lasting impact, the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the ways in which people (and bears) do and do not change.  Some of us carry a portable rain cloud, and others can seemingly provide beauty and comfort to the rest.  The bear may be invisible, but the book’s message just requires some patient contemplation.

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