A Literate Bear

Bearnard’s Book – written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2019

Bearnard Writes a Book – written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2022

Bears play many roles in children’s books. They may be big, lumbering friends, or hibernating mammals looking for the perfect cave, or beloved stuffed animals that come to life.  Deborah Underwood and Misa Saburi’s bear is large, friendly, and a bit naïve, but he’s also a lover of books.  In his first appearance, he is thrilled to receive a letter from the Queen of Storybook Land, informing him that he has been chosen to be the character in a book. What could be more exciting?  In the second volume, as often happens to bibliophiles, he determines to become an author himself.  Sweet and witty at the same time, both books invite children to think about what it means to use their imagination, and to take a step beyond into creativity.

Bearnard doesn’t just passively accept his new role as literary character. He weighs the most promising possibilities: astronaut, superhero, knight.  Then he decides to do a little research, and here Underwood draws in parents and caregivers as well as kids. He might emulate “a bear who floated away in an umbrella,” a bear whose favorite food is marmalade, or the three porridge-eating bears who make the mistake of leaving their home unattended. (The endings are not predetermined, with a terrifying monster taking the place of a curious little girl.) Sometimes authors take an easier route, offering in-jokes to parents that will go over children’s heads, but there is none of that patronizing tone here.  Adults can explain the allusions, but even without that input, kids will relate to Bearnard’s earnest approach to his new opportunity.

Saburi’s lovely pictures reflect her own mastery of classic children’s book illustrations, but also great use of color and composition, and sensitivity to the way that children visualize the world.  In one two-page spread from Bearnard’s Writes a Book, our hero sits on a couch reading the earlier story.  He is large and solid, but not out of proportion to the substantial couch, the goose friend sitting next to him, or the sagging bookshelf overlooking the scene.  The facing page gives an extended view of his home, including a refrigerator also topped with books, a water cooler that dispenses honey, and a pair of sturdy boots. He’s a fully realized character. Saburi’s depiction of the writing process is also on-target, as a perfectionist challenged by writer’s block slumps at his desk and litters the floor with rejected manuscripts. The final page resolves the book’s conflicts, with Bearnard and Gertie the goose as collaborators.  They look out a wide window, their backs to the reader, while absorbed in their work.  Goose’s small, elevated platform to reach her desk is the kind of tool every writer needs.

The potential plots that Bearnard considers include some scary pirates and a goose who transforms into a dragon, but also the more mundane challenge of a broken crayon. The joys and frustrations of writing are presented to kids as real and tough, but not overwhelming.  These books are perfect for people who already are drawn to literacy, but also for those just beginning to consider its possibilities.

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