Written by Dennis Haseley, Illustrated by Jim LaMarche
One day, a young bear was nosing through bushes when he saw something lying on the ground.
The plot in a nutshell: A bear takes an interest in books, thanks to finding a friend who will read to him.
The bear finds a piece of paper with tiny marks on it and takes it back to his cave. Years later, he wanders farther than usual away from his cave and sees a cabin, with a woman sitting outside reading a book. He comes back several times and watches her, fascinated by her reactions to the book she is reading. One day, she is not there, so he comes closer and puts his head on one of her books, curious about it. She comes up behind him and scares him away. The next day, when he visits, she calls him over and starts reading aloud to him. All summer he comes back to listen and although he doesn’t understand anything she is saying, he picks up on her emotions and enjoys the connection they share. One day, he brings her the scrap of paper that he found and she reads it to him. The next time he comes, the leaves are changing colors and she is gone, but she has left a pile of books with a note that reads, “For my Bear.” One by one, he takes them back to his cave and falls asleep with his head on the books, imagining her voice reading to him.
Okay, you guys, alert the media. A brand new entrant has cracked my Top Five Picture Books list. The story is warm and wonderful, the artwork is phenomenal and the plot even revolves around the magic of reading aloud, which is one of my favorite activities. When my children were babies, before they could understand even the most basic of children’s books, I used to read aloud to them from whatever I was reading, just to get them acclimated to being read to. Author Dennis Haseley taps into that same premise here and gives it even more meaning, by having the bear respond to the feelings conveyed in the author’s voice. I love that the bear never magically learns to read or even emulates the way the woman holds the books. For the bear, the joy of the experience is in having her read to him, which isn’t hard to imagine when you look at all the ways that humans and animals have shared meaningful connections.
Illustrator Jim LaMarche takes this already beautiful story to new heights with gorgeous artwork in acrylic paint and colored pencil on watercolor paper. I found it particularly astounding to have the bear seem so expressive, while just having simple black dots for eyes. He appears to be a grizzly bear and is drawn fairly realistically, not like a cartoon version of a bear, which makes a statement of trust that both the bear and the woman were able to overcome what would have been a natural fear. I choked up at the picture of the bear asleep in a nest of books, surrounding himself with his memories of his friend. Although the book ends there, it makes me happy to believe that she will be back the next year, to share more books with her bear.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that you share more than just a story when you share a good book with a friend.