One of my favorite times of the day is that moment before bed, when my kids and I snuggle together on the couch and I read to them about courageous trains and suppers that are still hot and anthropomorphic animals of all varieties. Their eyes droop and they yawn until they are so tired I have to carry them to bed, leaving them contentedly snoring with the glow of a goodnight kiss on their foreheads.
At least, that’s what I wish would happen.
Instead, my youngest is spinning in circles on the couch next to us during the second and third story, and afterward all three of them end up running a hundred-yard-dash around the coffee table until someone trips and bumps their toe. Then it’s mostly screaming and crying until we can manage to stuff them under their respective covers, the glow of “don’t you dare get out of bed again, or else…” lingering in the air.
My kids love stories, but finding a story that combats the crazy, busy time before bed is a difficult task. Thank goodness for Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead. Somehow, this one works. Maybe because it starts with…
“It was almost winter and Bear was getting sleepy.”
To make the most of this through-line of sleepiness, my kids and I yawn big and wide at that line.
The premise of the book is simple: Bear wants to tell his friends a story. It’s right before winter, however, so many of them are too busy to listen. Bear takes this in stride, choosing to set aside his story in favor of helping his friends with their winter preparations. He helps Mouse find nuts and berries, checks the direction of the wind for Duck, and tucks Frog in for the winter.
Unfortunately, each friend is unable to hear Bear’s story, so he hibernates without getting a chance to tell it. When spring comes, though, he’s the first one up and ready to tell his story. “But first…” Bear takes the time to make sure all of his friends are cared for, once again.
The strength of this story is twofold.
First, the art supports the personality of its characters. Bear exudes a good-natured drowsiness, and in almost every interaction is inclined downward toward his smaller friends. He gets down on their level perpetually. He and his friends have a real familiarity with each other. It’s easy for little readers to know Bear, and to like him very much.
Second, the story is not just about telling stories, it’s about being a good friend. After all of his patience and kindness toward others, Bear finally gets everyone gathered.
“He sat up straight and cleared his throat. He puffed out his chest, and with all of his friends listening… Bear could not remember his story.”
And in perhaps one of my favorite panels of the book, we see Bear slumped in dejection while each of his friends awkwardly looks to the side. Because right after this, his friends jump in to help him tell the story, about the busy time before winter and how he showed them all true friendship.
Besides the fact that I just want to hug Bear most of the time, I’ve noticed that my kids are unusually quiet during this page. It hangs in the air: he forgot his story, after all of his patience and kindness. It’s the perfect blend of tension and empathy, built across a sleepy story of a bear helping his friends.
And in the end, the best story was really that one, anyway.