March 2, 2012
By Kevin Henkes; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Primary Greenwillow 26 pp.
978-0-06-155205-2 Hardcover $17.99
Old Bear begins on the cover, with the shaggy, sweet-faced protagonist walking though falling autumn leaves and the first sprinklings of snow. Right away, we know that winter must be coming, and we can guess where this bear is heading. He continues his walk on the copyright page and then on to the dedication page so that by the time we reach the first official page of the story, Old Bear is asleep in his den for the winter, and it is snowing hard. The effect is subtle and dynamic without sacrificing the coziness of Old Bear's hibernation. Soon, Henkes writes, "he was dreaming" and this gentle introduction to the seasons starts full swing. Old Bear dreams of spring and of himself as a cub, curled up asleep in a giant crocus (one of my favorite images in the entire book). The text and illustrations (even Bear's outline) in the spring spread are awash in pinks and greens and purples communicating the freshness and light of the season. He dreams of a summer where the sun is a giant daisy and a blueberry rain sprinkles the lush, green world. The autumn spread is red and we see a slightly older cub clinging to a tree next to a river full of orange and yellow fish. Winter returns in the next spread, icy blue and cold, but with a sky full of blazing stars and a light, lemony moon. The text mirrors the cyclical nature of the seasons ("Old Bear slept and dreamed, dreamed and slept"), saying just enough to support the illustrations. When Old Bear wakes up, it's spring again, (this time for real) and he walks out into with a lightness in his step.
Old Bear, which was named an ALA Notable Children's Book and a "Best Book" by School Library Journal among others works magic on several levels. For the youngest readers, it's a lovely introduction to seasons and colors, especially in the intimate setting of a parent-child storytime at home. For older kids, Old Bear provides a great opportunity to discuss cycles in nature and hibernation, while the text is simple enough for early sight readers to work through aided by Henkes's lucid illustrations. This would be an especially great book for preschool storytime, as Old Bear literally walks the reader into an exploration of the seasons. Lovely to look at and soothing to read, Old Bear has something for every cub and depth enough for the adults who read it with them.