A Bear’s Creator

More Than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear – by Rosanne Tolin
Chicago Review Press, 2020

Biographies of our favorite authors can be a source of fascination for loyal adult readers, but children should also have the opportunity to learn about how the characters they love came to appear on the page.  More Than Marmalade is not a picture book, but a middle-grade biography about how Michael Bond, after years as a struggling would-be author, finally found success with his small immigrant bear from “darkest Peru.”  Rosanne Tolin presents a consistent narrative in which two qualities of Michael Bond are of principal importance: his compassion and his persistence.  The beloved children’s author is definitely idealized, but the portrait does give children a sense of how life experiences, talent, and luck, often play a part in literature.

Bond, who died about four years ago, grew up in a warm and supportive working -class family in Reading, forty miles from London. His parents are so wonderful that they seem like the most benevolent characters in a Dickens novel, whose role is to contrast with the many less-than-wonderful other people in the world.  Michael’s father, a postal worker, never lacks time to play with or read to him, and his mother also inculcates in her son a love of books. Their only mistake is to send Michael to boarding school, which the future author, not of an academic bent, detests.  Otherwise, even the frightening years of World War II show his parents sheltering refugees and protecting their family.

One of the surprises of this biography is Tolin’s repeated assertion that Bond’s exposure to Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler was one of the most formative experiences of his life, and that Paddington Bear is virtually a stand-in for the young and desperate Kindertransport (written about directly in children’s literature here and here, for example) beneficiaries who arrived in Britain.  Certainly, Bond has written and spoken about this link. Tolin includes specific information about the antisemitic persecution which necessitated sending a small number of fortunate children to safety, even mentioning right-wing fear of Communism as a factor in the rise of fascism.  It is unlikely that middle-grade readers will understand this connection without further information.  Yet, overall, the book is accessible, tracing how contact with the most vulnerable in his country led to a lifelong commitment to social justice.

Bond worked in journalism and media, but published stories only sporadically.  He purchased a stuffed bear for his wife (number one; they later divorced), and eventually developed a backstory for the toy that virtually became a part of his family.  Adults might find the fact that Bond and his wife, Brenda, took the bear along with them to restaurants and other outings a bit odd, but children probably will not. Then again, Tolin signs her prefatory “Author’s Note,” “Bear-y Truly Yours,” so if you find that cloying, you should have known what to expect. The book manages to pack in a lot of information about Bond’s career, as well as the war years, London, and the merchandising of Paddington.

The tone of the book is a somewhat child-like and innocent: “Every night his father’s voice relaxed him. His home was safe and calm. The smell of his mother’s lavender bath salts drifted down the hall into his bedroom.”  Later, when readers learn that his marriage has collapsed and that the author sometimes suffered from depression, the narrative continues in the same affirmative way, emphasizing Bond’s satisfaction and humility at the great accomplishments he has achieved.  So please continue to look after, and read about, this bear, now with more context about the fortunate circumstances which brought him to life.

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