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.