Bulgy Bears in Picture Books

Few of us have encountered bears in the wild, but we know that they hibernate during cold winters when food is scarce, and to survive prolonged periods inactivity they must lay on stores of fat.   If play is the child’s work, then the bear’s is stuffing.  The Katmai National Park and Preserve frame it more scientifically to nature lovers in the promotion of 2022 Fat Bear Week:

Fat Bear Week is a celebration of success and survival. It is a way to celebrate the resilience, adaptability and strength of Katmai’s brown bears. Bears are matched against each other in a “march madness” style competition and online visitors can vote who is ultimately crowned the Fat Bear Week 2022 Champion. Over the course of the week, virtual visitors learn more about the lives and histories of individual bears while also gaining a greater understanding of Katmai’s ecosystem through a series of live events hosted on explore.org.

Sorry Pooh, but bears are more closely associated with food than song in children’s books.  As foragers, they have better manners than their real-life counterparts in the woods and streams, that is to say, they can be persuaded (not effortlessly) to share food they have found. In author/illustrator Joerg Muehle’s Two for Me, One for You (English translation 2019, c. 2012) the bear gives mushrooms to his friend the weasel to cook, but they quarrel over how three can be divided fairly between two.  Whose work is more important: bear’s in the woods or weasel’s in the kitchen?  Who likes mushrooms the most?  Who’s bigger?  Who’s grabbier? During the squabble, a fox comes along and snitches the  mushroom in contention, which causes the pair to set aside their differences and enjoy one each.  While this is a good fable for small children, the bear’s gracious capitulation to circumstances seems not quite ursine.  What bear could possibly be satisfied with such a small meal?  To eat so sparingly would be against its best interests.

Alice Bach imagines in The Smartest Bear and His Brother Oliver (1975) a  bear family’s consumption of massive amounts of calories in the fall as feasting, a succession of meals, many on the scale of Thanksgiving dinners.  Mother cheerfully makes the epic shopping trips, wheeling home two carts at a time.  One of her twins, Ronald, hates fall feasting because it takes time away from his project of reading through the encyclopedia to become the smartest bear in the world, which would prove he’s not the same as his brother Oliver, who has an appetite for everything, emptying pots of stew and pudding and plates of flapjacks and syrup and muffins and applesauce and sleeps on a blanket next to the kitchen stove so he won’t miss a spoonful.

At every meal, Ronald resists.  The arrival of Aunt Bear for dinner, loaded down with five enormous baskets of her famous  teeth-achingly sweet winter tarts, interrupts his progress through volume 5.  He says he’s really not hungry, prompting her to scold, “If you don’t eat enough, you might not sleep through the whole winter.  Your stomach will wake up.  There you’ll be, wide awake, while the rest of the bear world is cozy and plump sleeping through the cold time.”  He whispers under his breath, “You all feast without me” and plots to stay awake all winter so he can reach his goal, a thought that cheers him up enough to eat creamed squash, multiple slices of wheat bread and honey, and some of few his aunt’s tarts loaded with nuts and dried fruits to be sociable.

Before the dishes can be piled in the sink, Ronald races back to his encyclopedia, thinking he can get to the Rs before the first snowfall, no matter how often his no-neck brother with the clogged-up brain tells him to give his eyes a break.  After an outburst of unbrotherly love, Ma and Pa give them their birthday presents early—a bakery truck for Oliver and a typewriter for Ronald.  Confirmed in his identity as the future smart bear, Ronald rebonds with his “identical” twin over an enormous casserole of baked sweet potatoes and marshmallows just before collapsing into the snug family bed until spring.   Stephen Kellogg’s illustrations celebrate the glorious excess that humans fancy is a bear’s birth rite, most likely a projection of our desire to overindulge in rich foods  without consequence when the weather turns nippy.

Victoria Miles’ Old Mother Bear (2007) is more likely to satisfy readers with a taste for “truth and realities” for having poetically documented the last three years in a twenty-four -year-old female grizzly’s life, in which she raises a last litter of cubs. Several of Molly Bang’s inset illustrations show the bear family feeding quietly in the alpine meadows and hills.  The climax of this factual account, based on a real bear in the Flathead River valley of southern British Columbia, is when the mother bear fights off a male half her age and twice her size in three double-page spreads.  The culmination of the cubs’ education is symbolized by their return with their own young to the huckleberry patches their mother led them to those three summers.   The description of the old bear’s death is somber but ultimately not sad.  Toothless, deaf, and blind, she crawls into an old den on a mountainside.  The den’s roof collapses on the body in the spring and the slope is eventually covered with a lush carpet of anemone flowers.

The Sad Tale of Henny Penny: “What’s Fair is Fowl, What’s Fowl is Fare”

Stories don’t get much sillier than Henny Penny.  The plot is set in motion when a chicken gets beaned on the head by an acorn.  The nitwit jumps to the conclusion that the world is ending and the king must be told.   On her way, she meets a series of birds, each of whom asks permission to accompany her on the mission.  That question—and its response–is always posed to the group, not its leader Henny Penny, which requires the repetition of all the characters’ silly rhyming names in the order in which they joined.  Galloping through the list in the correct order without mistakes takes concentration and a straight face.  The number of feathered delegates to the king would have increased until the castle gate was in sight, had not a fox helpfully offered to show them the short cut via his den.

The pictures of the birds in Paul Galdone’s classic picture book version plays it straight, putting all the pressure on the reader to keep things moving along to the inevitable conclusion. To Leonard B. Lubin, an artist who liked to imagine animals in elaborate historical costumes,  the cast of barnyard fowl posed an irresistible challenge. Where Beatrix Potter hesitated to dress up birds in her illustrations, he plunged in and designed exquisite eighteenth-century robes with appropriate headgear for a chicken, rooster, duck, goose, and turkey.  The only concession made to reality was to give them human feet that would look daintier than webbed ploppers in high-heeled slippers and pointed buckled shoes.When our flock of beribboned, furbelowed, and flounced birdbrains come barreling down the road, who should they meet but the fox, gentlemanly and helpful as can be, dressed for a day’s shooting in the countryside.  How they were picked off and plucked for the platter is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, but not a whisper of hope is offered that any escaped the fate of being eaten in one greasy sitting.

Jane Wattenberg’s retelling lovingly blows up the old story with wild photocompositions full of sly verbal jokes and a text stuffed with jaunty puns, vivid verbs, cool apostrophes, and emotive type setting. It’s unapologetically and deliciously over the top from the copy on the front flap “Come flock along with Henny Penny and her feathered friends flap around the world in search of…  King Kong?  King Tut?  Or is it Elvis…  But when they meet up with that mean ball of fur Foxy-Loxy, their plans suddenly go a-fowl” to the back cover illustration of Henny Penny  captioned “Was it REALLY all my fault?”

Wattenberg’s poultry wear nothing but their feathers and combs, but they talk like no other birds in picture books—“Shake, rattle, and roll!  The sky is falling!  It’s coming on down! Henny-Penny saw it and heard it and it smacked her on her fine red comb. We’re full tilt to tell the king.”

In a picture narrative where the pace never lets up, it is seems just right that the ending doesn’t mince words or dial back the jokes about the mayhem  in Foxy Loxy’s cave.

Leaping gizzards!  What a skanky prank!  For with a Gobble-Gobble-Gobble! That sly Foxy-Loxy wolfed down poor Turkey-Lurkey.  With a Squonk-Hiss-s-s-s-Honk! That fleazy Foxy-Loxy gobbled up Goosey-Loosey and Gander-Lander.  With a Quack@  Don’t Look Back! That cunning cad Foxy-Loxy wolfed down Ducky-Lucky and Drake-Cake.  With a Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!  What I Do to You?  That greedy grunge of a Foxy-Loxy gobbled up poor Cocky-Locky.

The darkness is softened by the way the fox’s treachery is underscored with each gulp and allowing Henny Penny, the unwitting perpetrator of the carnage, to escape.  The last one waiting outside the killing room, she figures out what is going on and runs away as fast as her little three-toed feet can carry her, squawking that she’s got to get home and lay the daily egg.There’s nothing like justice in the tale of Henny Penny and her unfortunate friends, but it isn’t the way of the world to look out for the gullible, whether the sky is falling or not…  Perhaps that’s why the story continues to be retold and we cry with laughter with every one.