Even a Talented Bear Can’t Perform All the Time

Bear Is Never Alone – written by Marc Veerkamp, illustrated by Jeska Verstegen, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2023

Bear is a gifted pianist, drawing crowds of animal friends to his concerts.  His music is so entrancing that the natural world is completely quiet when he plays.  His back to the reader, and his long arms stretched across the keyboard, Bear has a captive audience in the forest. No one tires of his music; only Bear himself becomes exhausted.  Marc Veerkamp and Jeska Verstegen (whose earlier work I reviewed for Jewish Book Council) gently present a problem to young readers. What happens when an artist’s work brings joy to everyone but reduces him to a virtual prison? More broadly, what should one do when his own needs are in conflict with those of others?

The books pictures are rendered in black and white, composed against a white background. A dramatic touch of red draws the reader’s eye to select images: the sun, flowers, a bird, and a book. The book plays a key role, since it belongs to a zebra, the only one of Bear’s fans who understands the musicians need to sometimes be alone.  The bear and zebra meet on facing pages, and begin to communicate with one another. For once, Bear is an individual.  The zebra’s special attribute is language. In fact, his stripes are lines of printed words, and the red book balances on his back. 

Music is performative, at least some of the time, while reading is not, at least most of the time.  When well-intentioned Zebra offers to read aloud to his new friend, Bear becomes frustrated, and even rude: “If you really want to do something nice for me, why don’t you leave me alone?” While a child would be more likely to feel comfortable uttering that challenge, adults reading the book will definitely relate to its honesty.   Zebra gets the message, and if he is offended, he chooses not to show it.  Bear stands, holding the book, and realizes that flexibility might be the answer to his conflict.  Each picture advances the story like a scene in a play, while the minimalist text deliberately leaves much unsaid.  Being alone together is a novel idea and it might work.

The book quiet acknowledges and affirms children’s need for friendship, empathy, and a simple rest from the demands of their busy lives. Veerkamp and Verstegen also raise subtle questions in a way which children will understand.  The difference between language and music, the complementary nature of solitude and friendship, and the need to establish boundaries are all implicit in the story. Even the imaginative contrast between the endpapers opening and closing the book gives a hint.  A crowd of animals outdoors precedes the story, while the back endpapers feature a teapot and cups sitting on a hill in the same outdoors.  The domesticity of Bear and Zebra’s new friendship and shared love of reading does not compete with their natural surroundings. Maybe Bear will return to the stage refreshed and renewed.

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