Children’s books are never too far from the minds of children’s librarians. On a recent hiking trip to the North Carolina mountains, a phrase from a children’s verse got stuck in my head: “We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, it’s a beautiful day, we’re not scared!” Maybe our bear bells scared them away, but the black bears that populate the coves and ridges of the Nantahala National Forest never showed themselves to our group (thank goodness).
Michael Rosen’s version of the rhyme, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” beautifully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, features a bear that’s more puzzled than scary when he’s discovered in his cave. Tom Jackson’s “Black Bears,” a nonfiction book for readers eight and up, explains that in real life, bears weigh about 375 pounds and measure five feet long. Being nearsighted, they depend on their keen senses of smell and hearing to warn them of enemies. Despite a bear’s ability to attack and kill prey, it leads a mostly quiet life, eating insects, roots and berries.
As we hiked across a North Carolina “bald,” a gentle mountain summit covered with buttercups, I was reminded of another bear story. Though Robert McCloskey’s classic “Blueberries for Sal” is set in Maine, I could easily picture the story taking place right there on Huckleberry Knob. Little Sal and her mother go to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries to can for the winter. While her mother sets off purposefully, little Sal drops three berries – “kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk” - into her pail and then eats every one.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Blueberry Hill, Little Bear and Little Bear’s mother are also gathering blueberries, eating them to store up food for the long winter. Little Bear dawdles just like Little Sal, and soon enough the two youngsters have lost sight of their respective mothers and go off in search of them. Before you know it, “Little Bear and Little Sal’s mother and Little Sal and Little Bear’s mother were all mixed up with each other among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill.”
All ends well, with the mothers more startled than their children when they turn around and find that the other’s child is the one munching and swallowing all those berries. Don’t miss the end papers showing every detail of the 1940s-era kitchen complete with wood stove, where Little Sal and her mother can their berries.
Karma Wilson’s series of picture books about a friendly bear begins with “Bear Snores On,” in which a bear sleeps obliviously in its cave despite an impromptu party of small forest animals drawn to his cheerful, warming fire. In “Bear Wants More,” the bear has awoken from his winter sleep and searches ravenously for food, eating so much that he ends up stuck in the entrance to his cave.
This episode reminds me of the most famous bear in children’s literature. In A. A. Milne’s classic “Winnie the Pooh,” Pooh enjoys a snack of milk and bread and honey at Rabbit’s house, but when it’s time to leave he’s eaten so much that he finds himself stuck half in and half out of the rabbit hole. It takes him a week to slim down enough to leave.
As for the hikers, we’re considering Montana next year. Grizzlies, anyone?
First published in the Free Lance-Star on June 22, 2010.