February 18, 2012
Old Bear and His Cub
by Olivier Dunrea; illus. by the author
2-4 Preschool Philomel 32 pp.
978-0399245077 Hardcover $16.99
Old Bear loves his Cub and his Cub loves Old Bear, a fact that forms the foundation for this simple, pleasing story. The story arc is interesting in a modern picture book, particularly one for younger readers. It depicts the need for boundaries and balance at precisely the time when human "cubs" are learning to assert their autonomy. It also sets of refrain, though both words and images, of love being constant, despite skirmishes of will.
The full scope of this message is not made clear at the beginning. The book opens with Old Bear at the table while his Cub dives headfirst into a honey pot. Cub does not want to eat his porridge. Old Bear says he will. When Cub refuses again, Old Bear "stares at him hard," whereupon Cub finally capitulates. This pattern continues as the pair go for a walk and settle into the snow for a nap. Every time Cub refuses to do as he's told, Old Bear "stares at him hard" whereupon his Cub finally gives in. It is only when Old Bear catches a cold and the pattern reverses that the story truly takes off, with Cub staring at Old Bear until he goes to bed and drinks his tea. Cub's assertions succeed when they support his efforts to take care of Old Bear, just as Old Bear's stares worked when they were given in service to his Cub's welfare - a subtle but important message. The fact that Cub is able to push Old Bear into taking care of himself in the same manner that Old Bear pushes him into napping creates an empowering sense of balance without which the book wouldn't work.
The book's primary weakness is the text. Simply put, there is too much. Dunrea's illustrations communicate so effectively that the over-written prose brushes redundancy at times. Old Bear, shaggy and huge with a white mustache and eyebrows to match looks every inch the bear, despite the fact that he looks like he should have caramel hard candies and a pair of half-moon spectacles stashed away in a hidden pocket. Cub is likewise subtly anthropomorphized, with a toddler's impish posture and jaunty scarf. It is wordlessly clear, even in the cover image, that Old Bear and his Cub love each other, and yet the text, though sweet, needlessly clutters the resonance of the illustrations.
This is an intimate read, one not suited so much for large groups as for cozy chairs and crackling fires. It's a lovely way to address the emotional upheaval caused by a toddler's growing independence, and a sweet way to reassure not just the child, but his adult, that both will always be loved.