The bears that emerge from hibernation in spring don’t have to be grouchy and gruff. Many of the children’s book heroes that have charmed us for years are bears of the most innocent, lovable sort.
Two lovable bears full of charm and character that have stood the test of time marked my childhood – A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh in his Hundred Acre Woods and Don Freeman’s Corduroy with his lost button.
Little Bear is the endearing young cub at the center of Else Holmelund Minarik’s “Little Bear” series. In her books, short vignettes full of heart unfold in a simple, Dick-and-Jane style appropriate for early readers. But the books’ life and charm ultimately come from Maurice Sendak’s illustrations.
Scratchy pen-and-ink drawings and simple color washes draw us into a childhood world full of nostalgia. The nuances of facial expression and body language communicate Little Bear’s personality – a personality not unlike Sendak’s famously feisty Max from “Where the Wild Things Are” (Harper & Row, 1963), the 1964 Caldecott Medal winner.
One of Little Bear’s early adventures involves his abrupt announcement that he will fly to the moon.
“I’m going now. Just look for me up in the sky,” he tells Mother Bear as he sets out wearing a cardboard-box helmet topped with twirly antennae. He may be an adventurer, but spunk and imagination are always balanced with innocence in Minarik’s stories – and framed with the intimacy of home.
Mother Bear is a realist who radiates tenderness, much like the mother rabbit in Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Runaway Bunny” (HarperCollins, revised, 2005). In “Little Bear,” the first book in the series (Perfection Learning, 1957), she may challenge Little Bear’s dreams of flight, but she is also the one to surprise him with an unexpected birthday cake.
The books’ sweet, domestic charm is reflected in the last chapter of “Little Bear.”
“You always make me happy,” Little Bear tells Mother Bear as he gets ready for bed.
“Little Bear’s Visit” (HarperCollins, 1979), in which family stories captivate the little cub during a visit to his grandparents’ house, is a Caldecott Honor Book.
Michael Bond’s Paddington is another kind of innocent altogether: a bumbling bear set loose in the big-city world of London, where he gets into wonderfully absurd scrapes.
In “A Bear Called Paddington” (Houghton Mifflin, 1958), the first of the series, the Browns adopt Paddington after finding him at Paddington Station’s “lost property” desk, wearing a placard marked “Please look after this bear.” Paddington is more lost cause than lost property, and the Browns come to be fondly wary of their muddle-prone charge from Darkest Peru.
I discovered Paddington when I was 8 years old and living in London for a year with my mother. The hilarity that ensued as Paddington committed one blunder after another often made it hard for us to read the books aloud to each other on the Tube, where our laughing fits outnumbered the station stops.
Like the sensible housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, we could sense the impending disasters, and the dramatic tension was delicious as we watched simple projects like repainting a room or cooking dumplings turn apocalyptic.
Though he may be misguided, Paddington is driven by a strong sense of right and wrong, and there’s something beguiling about the bewilderment he feels as his well-intentioned actions constantly backfire. It’s impossible not to love this gentle, bungling arbiter of justice, with his fondness for marmalade sandwiches and hot cocoa. And fittingly, the stories always end well, thanks in large part to the good sense and good humor of others.
Bond received the Order of the British Empire for services to children’s literature in 1997. And it’s because he’s created one of the most compelling bears in chapter-book history.