Picture Book Round-Up: I’m trying really hard not to type “Some Beary Good Picture Books” here . . .

h1 September 3rd, 2007 by jules

. . . Or how about Ursus-tastic?


Anyway, yes, it’s Picture Book Week here at 7-Imp! Just a random declaration of an entire week of lovin’ those picture books. Normally, we feature blogger interviews on Mondays, but this week will be a tad different. Plus, we’ll bring you our interview with Mo Willems tomorrow, so that’ll be fun.

We got things started yesterday with a little feature on Jonathan Bean at our kicks list, including an illustration he shared with us, and a picture book round-up. Here are some new titles all about bears that, for one reason or another, stand out to me. Think of it as a sort of Part Two to this post from May — some picture book titles you can’t bear to miss. Buh-dum-ching. As Little Willow pointed out last time, if Stephen Colbert (or shall we say Colbeart) hears of this, I’ll end up on ThreatDown, but I take my chances.

(Yeesh again. I’m just going to get right to it then) . . .

Old Mother Bear
by Victoria Miles
Illustrated by Molly Bang
Chronicle Books
February 2007
(review copy)

No cutesy, anthropomorphic teddy bears for you here in this lengthy and well-written picture book by Canadian author Victoria Miles with oil-and-chalk illustrations from Molly Bang. “Rare is the bear who lives to a ripe old age,” Miles tells us. The tale is fictionalized but is based upon a grizzly bear in the Flathead River Valley of southern British Columbia along the Montana border. Bruce McLellan, a biologist, observed a bear dubbed “Blanche” (or grizzly #385) and recorded her existence for posterity, and it is this bear around which Miles’ story revolves. In a dignified, reverent, and realistic manner (yet sometimes a bit lyrical: at the inevitable death of the bear in the book’s close — handled beautifully and lovingly by Miles — she writes: “In the night, a crying storm descended upon the slope. But the grizzly bear knew nothing of it. She was already gone, past drowse and beyond winter. Her memory she left with every cub she had ever reared; her body she released to the mountain”), she writes of the life of a grizzly bear living on a mountainside, starting with the birth of three cubs during a hibernation (and recalling the bear’s own birth twenty-four summers before) and ending with the spring of her twenty-seventh year when “the old she-bear awoke in a worn body.” We read about her nursing and nurturing her young; their emergence from the mountainside through the wet snow; tearing the meat loose from a deer for food for her family; hunting for ground squirrels during the spring; defending her young from a male grizzly while eating blueberries; the “slow, steady ache {that} accompanied her everywhere” as spring continues in the mountain and her cubs grow; and another winter hibernation. In the third summer of her cubs’ lives, they left their mother: “And every summer, when the huckleberries were ripe, both {sisters} would trace the tracks of their mother up into the alpine meadows.” Miles handles the old mother bear’s death at the end of the book with great respect and even tenderness:

Memory and scent were all that remained true. She followed the maps in her mind to swampy patches of skunk cabbage and later up to the huckleberry fields. She ate, but did not gain weight. She no longer hunted, not even for ground squirrels. Her claws were hardly worn at all, she’d scarcely dug all summer, and the muscle between her shoulders had lost its fine swell. She neglected her scent marking, and male grizzlies, in search of a mate, left her alone.

The roof of the old mother bear’s den collapses the following spring — with her having lain down a last time, still inside — and “there grew, in that rich country, a field of beauty as never was before.” Prior to this final moment of the book, Bang’s final illustration of the bear, standing upright before us and before her final rest, is striking, beautiful in its eloquence. And she graces the final spread with a brilliant bed of anemones all over the mountainside where the bear’s body rests. The rest of her illustrations in the book give us a very realistic portrait of a grizzly bear and are conveyed from varying angles (from panoramic scenic views to close-ups) — the illustrations are soft when they need to be and dramatic when it’s called for (the confrontation with the male grizzly).

A lovely book, which can be put to use in approximately one blajillion ways in a classroom (upper elementary or middle, due to the length and vocabulary) — science lessons, animal lessons, respect-and-take-care-of-our-Earth lessons (the Afterword tells us that “grizzly bears are vulnerable to a shrinking, altered habitat caused by human demands for the forests, fish, and mineral resources”), and much more. But, even if you work no where near a classroom in any capacity whatsoever, treat yourself to this well-crafted, lovingly-illustrated tale — grounded in real science — of a bear whose story will stay with you.

Very Hairy Bear
by Alice Schertle
Illustrated by Matt Phelan
Harcourt Children’s Books
September 2007
(review copy)

This book works in every way: Alice Schertle’s delicious text and Matt Phelan’s soft, lush pastel-and-pencil illustrations. I want to climb into these pastels, pull them up around me like a blanket, and stay for awhile. This is the story of a “boulder-big bear with shaggy, raggy, brownbear hair everywhere . . . except his no-hair nose.” Schertle takes us through his year — spring, as he searches for the “silver salmon {who} leap into the air” (no matter that he gets drenched as he looks for his fish meal); summer, when he’s a “sticky, licky honey hunter with his bear nose deep in the hollow of a bee tree” (no matter that the bees sting him) and when he’s a blueberry-hunter (no matter that his no-hair nose gets blue — he’s a “very full berryfull bear” in the illustration which Matt Phelan shared with us back in July); and in the fall when he eats all the acorns he can find (no matter that the squirrels scold him). But, when winter arrives and all the animals in the forest seem to be heading to sleep, he does care that his no-hair nose is ice-cold, though the rest of him is “all wrapped up in his big hairy bearskin coat,” especially when he’s so sleepy. Taking care of the matter by covering up his nose with his very hairy bearpaws, he goes to sleep.

Did you get a sufficient whiff there of this savory text? It all rolls right off the tongue and makes for a fabulous, rhythmic read-aloud. Phelan’s illustrations are unforgettable in every way — from the distinctive shape of and expressions of our very hairy bear to the bright, uninhibited colors in just the right spots (don’t miss the sunlight-infused honey tree spread and blueberry spread) to the spot-on composition on each and every page. In fact, if we one day see another Very Hairy Bear book, furthering our adventures with this one-of-a-kind bear, I wouldn’t complain. Even the very color of the book’s paper adds to the overall atmosphere — it’s printed on light brown paper, and the font is downright jaunty (ever heard of Cheddar Salad text type before? Not me. Not ’til now. Hey, it really works in this book). This is a delightful book to share with the youngest of readers. Schertle and Phelan make it easy to fall immediately under the bear’s charms. One to be read and shared with the wee ones — and then re-read and re-read and re-read again . . . you get the picture. Don’t miss this splendid, sumptuous little treat.

by David Ezra Stein
Putnam Juvenile
August 2007
(library copy)

This is a lovely little poem of a picture book (or, as the Publishers Weekly review put it in their starred review, more like a “haiku-like shape,” praising Stein for his willingness to let the story assume that form) all about the wonder of the ever-changing seasons and nature as viewed by an innocent, rather new-to-this-world bear. “It was his first year,” the book opens, the only text on our first double-page spread, showing us a bear on his little island of the forest with its dominant grassy greens and browns and a bit of yellow from the sun. In this first spread, we see two of Stein’s watercolor images bordered in a loose, relaxed black line (created with bamboo pen), as most of the images in the book are presented (Publishers Weekly wrote further, and I love this: “the joyously colored panels . . . hang on the pages like paintings—more intimate, somehow, than double-page spreads”). And there, on that first spread, is bear, simply taking in the wonder of a butterfly. “Everything was going well until the first leaf fell.” This is a spare text — that “Everything” gets its own, entire page, and there’s a line break there after “was going well” . . . Bear doesn’t understand and worries about the leaves, as even more fall over his island (Stein giving an entire wordless spread to the newly-emerging Fall, as bear watches). Just as Fletcher tried last year (reviewed here by Yours Truly), Bear tries to put the leaves back on the tree. He succeeds, but “it was not the same.” Eventually, as it turns cold, he hibernates for the winter, only to wake up “with wide eyes” to the wonder of spring, feeling the sun, seeing the new growth on the trees, and crying “Welcome!”, as he himself feels welcomed by the leaves themselves. As the aforementioned review notes, Stein’s illustrations seem to glow here — as does the wonder in the world that this fledgling bear possesses. Such an understated, unassuming, quiet, and engaging little title that I hope you see this year.

Baby Bear’s Big Dreams
by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Harcourt Children’s Books
August 2007
(review copy)

Here’s a brand new (and the third) Baby Bear collaboration between the seven-kinds-of-prolific Jane Yolen and illustrator Melissa Sweet. And it couldn’t be more of a Child Magnet, because what child hasn’t dreamt of what he will do when older? Oh my, all the nights he’ll have his friends over — wait! How about this? They can even move in! — and “play all day/ and stay up late,/ and never go to bed/ by eight.” They’ll leave the toys out (mwahahahahahaha); in fact, they’ll live in a shop filled with toys, thanks very much . . . You get the picture. The rhyming text is a testament to a child’s vivid imagination and a child’s desire to make all the rules themselves already. Sweet’s collage mixed-media illustrations are busy and detailed, as a child’s mind is, and take up every inch of every spread with bright colors and lots of action and a great deal of warmth, particularly when Baby Bear, as the grown-up son, returns home, getting bear hugs from Mama and Papa who . . .

tuck me in
my special bed,
with giant pillows
for my head,
and give me kisses,
one and two . . .
for that’s what
BIG bears always do.

Yup, he might want to be big and explore the world, as all children are wont to do, but he’s gotta have that Mama and Papa love in the end. What child doesn’t want to — and need to — come home to that, even as a grown-up? Does it seem a bit too awwwwwwwwww!? Well, Big Bear is painfully adorable, but this is Jane Yolen we’re talkin’ here, who never lets things get too schmaltzy. A very fun, rather child-empowering title. Heartily recommended.

9 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up: I’m trying really hard not to type “Some Beary Good Picture Books” here . . .”

  1. Aaaw. All of this bear talk makes me miss the Smokies. I think I’m going to have to find Very Hairy Bear just to see the Cheddar Salad font (and more of that fantastically fuzzy bear!)

  2. Sara, the Very Hairy Bear illustrations are just lush lush lush and beautemous. I really do want to crawl into them.

    I have to say that, as a mother myself, the Old Mother Bear story even made me choke up a bit. You know, she gets old, her children have left, “memory and scent are all that remain true,” and even the male grizzlies look at her and say: nah. But the way Molly Bang depicted her final moments — and the way both the author and Bang handled the death — well, it’s beautiful.

    (Of course, with all due respect to the great and talented and honorable Molly Bang, my husband says her name like this: “Molly BANG!” like someone’s just dropped a bomb or shot a bee bee gun, and it gets me every time. I can’t help but hear that in my head when I type it, and I’m giggling like a child).

    Oh and then David Ezra Stein’s Leaves is so lovely, too — like a poem. Well, I’m just sounding like a broken record now. They’re all good. The cover of Stein’s next book has very Sendak-ian monsters on the cover (go to his site to see them if you’re interested). I’m very intrigued.

  3. OMG !!! After all the bears in my house brushed their fur, I read them today’s post. They are now sending over 300 bear hugs your way. We LOVE reading about these new books. I mean picture books are always great, but BEAR picture books? Too much to . . . bear (sorry)!
    Seriously, I think Baby Bear’s Big Dreams and the Very Hairy Bear are going to make great Christmas gifts. Must check them out immediately!

  4. You know, for my sake, you should have put the news that Mo Willems was going to appear tomorrow on the blog at the END of the reviews. I found it hard to focus on the reviews, because all I could think of was, “Mo! Mo! Mo!”:)

  5. Oh, boy. We still are lovin’ our picture books, and Old Mother Bear has gone right on the list. Thank you, Jules, for all these titles. I can’t wait to see what else y’all mention this week.

  6. Let me know what you think of Old Mother Bear, Susan.

  7. Is it alright for the author to weigh in here? Thank you so much for the appreciative review of Old Mother Bear. It is incredibly gratifying to read a review that gets right to the heart of the story. I’m very grateful. And that last portrait of Old Mother that Molly did for the story? I know, I know. I sat in an airport with Molly while she sketched the thumbnail for that picture and even in that tiny image, all of a few strokes, I knew the old she-bear was in good hands.

  8. Hei! I really adore the template you are using here. Is this custom coded or can you point me to the location where I can install it for my blog? (: thx Jasmine

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