Sunday, January 16, 2011

Children's Classic: The Biggest Bear

There are some stories from my childhood that I remember vividly. That I can conjure up in my minds eye with just a title. Caldecott winner, The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward is one of the most vivid for me. Ward's story of a young boy named Johnny Orchard who goes out to collect a bear skin for his family's barn and comes back with more than he bargained for is imprinted in my mind.

Johnny lives in a farming community where his family raises apples. Every other farmer has shot and skinned a bear and Johnny feels the shame of not having a bearskin for the family. So one afternoon he sets off with his shotgun to shoot himself a bear. But the only bear he finds is just a cub. And he's hungry. So Johnny feeds him some of his maple sugar. And then takes the bear home. While his parents aren't happy with a bear for a pet, Johnny promises to feed him. The bear can certainly eat. He is quickly eating the family out of house and home. And growing...rapidly. He quickly becomes one of the biggest bears around.

When the bear starts eating the neighbor's food, the Orchards know that they need to do something with him. Johnny takes the bear out into the woods and leaves him several times but the bear always finds his way home. Finally the boy is told that he will have to take the bear into the woods and shoot it. But as Johnny is loading his gun the bear takes off, with Johnny holding on to the leash. He is dragged along with the bear into a humane bear trap where they are found by men collecting bears for the zoo. So the bear goes to the zoo and Johnny goes to visit him. And bring him maple sugar.

This simple and sweet story touched me greatly as a child. I loved the relationship between Johnny and the bear. I loved the way Ward personified the bear. I loved the maple sugar. But mostly I was touched by a story of a boy who went out to shoot a bear and found a friend instead. Ward's pages are sparse and clean with the illustrations done is soft black and white. Ward created the images using woodblock and they stand off the page like nothing I've ever seen.

The early scenes with the bear rival some of the cutest illustrations ever drawn. I would compared Ward's illustrations to Robert McCloskey but these seem a bit softer and even more detailed. The are also not cartoony in any way. The humans look like humans I've known and the bear looks very much like any bear you would find in the woods. The bear is never anthropomorphized but he is imbued with tons of personality. There is not a ton of text in the book (although a lot of pages) but the story is complete, with a bit of humor, a bit of sadness, and a lot of sweetness. This was one of my favorite books from childhood. And even now, it stands the test of time for me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I've bought three boxes of Cheerios in the last week. Three large family sized boxes. With the knowledge that I'm the only one who'll eat them. And while I'm a cereal fan in general, this might push me to my oat cereal limit. But I simply can't pass up free books.

Yep, Cheerios is again doing their Spoonfuls of Stories giveaway. Each year the company (in connection with Simon and Schuster) gives away millions of free books included as prizes in their family sized boxes. And I have to admit that I'm working to collect all five. This year the company has picked five fun titles to give away. I picked up Scott M. Fischer's Jump! at the beginning of the week. New Years Eve I picked up All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee. When we stopped into Target today I picked up Chaucer's First Winter, written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Henry Cole. Three down, two to go.

I love the idea of books as prizes and even more I'm happy to have gotten copies of the books. I already owned All the World but I love the miniature version written in both English and Spanish. What a wonderful idea to promote literacy. I have to admit that while I never ever buy cereal for the cheap plastic prizes, these books get me every year. I simply have to collect the whole set. I'll be eating Cheerios for weeks.