Remember those Dick and Jane books we parents were weaned on in grade school? It’s a wonder that any of us learned to love the written word from those tedious little volumes. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with titles that urge children to “come and see Spot” or “run fast, Sally,” they don’t make for scintillating reading. Of course, the dilemma lies in the inherent complexity of good storytelling. Excellent stories need to be communicated in complicated language—or so one might think if he’d never read Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series.
Born in 1920, Minarik emigrated from Denmark when she was four and despised having to learn English upon settling in the United States. But she eventually mastered the language and even went on to teach the tongue she once loathed to grade school students. Sensing the gap between basic instructional materials and full-fledged novels, she penned “What Will Little Bear Wear,” the first story in what would become a collection of six short books that were almost all illustrated by Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame.
Every Little Bear book is excellent, but my favorite has to be Father Bear Comes Home. You need to understand something first, though: The series has roughly the same syntactical complexity as the Dick and Jane books I mentioned earlier. They aren’t ornately written, although they may end up sounding that way as I describe them because Minarik manages one compositional coup after another. An example? Sure.
In “Little Bear and Owl,” the first story from Father Bear Comes Home, Mother Bear asks her cub to catch a fish. Simple enough, right? But as Little Bear perches on a log with his friend Owl, Minarik turns the tale toward one of childhood’s chief joys—imagination. Suddenly, the log becomes a boat that sends the pair sailing the deep sea and regaling each other with news of their pretend catches:
“Hurray!” said Little Bear. “See what I have.”
“What is it?” asked Owl.
“An octopus,” said Little Bear.
“Oh,” said Owl. “But see what I have.”
“What is it?” asked Little Bear.
“A whale,” said Owl.
“But a whale is too big,” said Little Bear.
“This is a little whale,” said Owl.
What an authentic flourish. Minarik constantly draws attention to the humorous surreality of children’s thought processes, whether they’re imagining that Father Bear will return from his business trip with a mermaid (“Father Bear Comes Home”) or concocting remedies for a chronic medical condition (“Hiccups”). She also highlights parents’ tender teasing of their tots even as they encourage their childlike fantasies (“Little Bear’s Mermaid”). All of this is underpinned by Sendak’s striking illustrations, which seem to show greater detail and discipline than when he’s envisioning Max’s wild rumpus. A suit-clad Father Bear peers in puzzled bemusement as a bevy of youngsters ask him to produce a mythical creature. Owl perches at a jaunty angle on a self-satisfied Little Bear’s fishing pole. A mermaid’s hair twines as if stroked by underwater currents, the interlocking scales of her tail shining a cool azure. Father Bear Comes Home provides truly beautiful instruction.
(Picture: Copyright 1959 by Maurice Sendak; used under Fair Use)