Bear Meets Bear – written and illustrated by Jacob Grant
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020
Bear Meets Bear is a picture book that successfully appeals to both children and adults, without patronizing the kids or relying on double entendres for the grownups. The central premise of this appealing rom-com about a brown bear and a panda is that people, or in this case animals, may choose awkward ways to connect with one another. The language is simple, the pictures bright and bold with familiar settings and retro accents. The plot point involves Bear ordering a redundant number of teapots just to have the joy of seeing the Panda deliver them to his home. If young readers do not bring the same knowledge of human nature to the story as their adult caregivers, as they read, or listen to, the book, it all begins to make sense.
If you are familiar with Jacob Grant’s two earlier books about Bear, then you know that he has a loyal best friend and roommate, Spider, who helps him to navigate difficult emotions. (In Mike Curato’s wonderful Elliot books, a smaller animal, Mouse, also helps his large but vulnerable friend.) Bear’s eagerly awaited delivery of a new teapot turns into something more when he finds himself mysteriously attached to Panda, the delivery person who shows up with the item. Love-at-first-sight leaves Bear dumbfounded, “He stood there, nearly the dropping the teapot,” but his savvier friend seems to understand what has happened, “Spider found it all rather funny.”
If Spider’s attitude seems insensitive towards his smitten friend, readers will learn that, by allowing Bear to deal with the problem through trial and error, the nimble arachnid is actually helping. We see him suspended from his web reading books, playing the banjo, and patiently watching as Bear’s dilemma unfolds. Children will appreciate Bear’s logic: “One teapot is nice…But wouldn’t two teapots be nicer?” Who could argue with that?
One of the keys to this child-friendly plot is that Spider both empathizes with Bear and occasionally loses patience. When he first observes that his friend is “speechless” as Panda arrives with another teapot, he feels sorry for Bear. But when Bear persists in repeating the same ploy of ordering teapots without speaking to his soulmate, Spider “felt less sorry.” Waiting for his friend to change is not going to bear fruit. So, Spider intervenes with some practical advice and encouragement. The picture of a tiny spider gesturing with some of eight limbs while standing on top of carton, as Bear listens timidly, is a reminder to children that being bigger does not guarantee superior wisdom or confidence.
There is a brief glitch when a grumpy raccoon shows up on Panda’s day off, but eventually, with Spider’s intrepid search for answers, everything is resolved happily. The long-sought meeting between Bear and Panda shows them communicating as if they have known each other forever. When their conversation reveals that even couples don’t share all the same tastes, a community yard sale solves the problem. The book’s bit players show up, from the grumpy raccoon to other assorted animals, read to take the teapots off Bear’s paws. Each customer is an individual, eyeing the teapots carefully, absorbed in their task, while Bear and Panda are a picture of contentment. Spider, sitting on Bear’s shoulder like a cartoon conscience, reminds readers of both the joys and limits of friendship. Ultimately, Bear had to make an effort, too.