Cute is hard. Picture book cute, that is. A lot of people might disagree with that, but I’m going to make a case here. There’s a perception out there that if you slap a pair of big brown eyes and a furry tail on something, badda-bing! Instant adorable. Picture books, however, offer the greatest test any author or artist has to face. Because cute isn’t just a visual state. It’s reliant on a story that can be touching without becoming candy-coated and saccharine. It requires a certain level of restraint on both the author and the illustrator’s part. Cute is hard to do and do well. Like I say, anyone can fake it and end up on a line of greeting cards, but very few people can make cute count for something. Bonny Becker can. With her remarkable A Visitor for Bear, Becker teams with top notch illustrator Kady MacDonald Denton to bring us a book that actually goes on beyond “cute” into something more. This is a book that warms the cold cockles of even the grumpiest heart. People who cringe at the sight of Bambi and shudder at baby chicks will be instantly charmed by Becker and Denton’s tale of a grump that learns that sometimes the right visitor is worth the vexation that comes with giving up your privacy.
Bear’s pretty good at keeping people away. No one ever visits him, and just in case one does he has a big sign in front that reads, “NO visitors allowed”. Just in case. Everything is fine and dandy until one day a mouse “small and gray and bright-eyed” knocks on the door. Bear says in no uncertain terms that he is not keen on visitors. The mouse seems to understand, but when Bear attempts to get out a bowl for himself, there sits the mouse asking for a spot of tea. After throwing out the unwanted guest Bear tries to open his bread drawer next, and there again is the mouse! To Bear’s increasing frustration the mouse is absolutely everywhere, and no amount of stoppering or locking keeps him away. At last, Bear consents to having a bit of tea with the miniscule visitor and soon discovers that the mouse is attentive, easily impressed, and laughs at Bear’s jokes. And when it is time for the mouse to go, Bear finds himself unceremoniously ripping down the “NO visitors allowed” sign. After all, he says, that is a sign for salesmen. Not for friends.
The book works because in the space of a mere 56 pages it establishes character and personality perfectly. In a way, this is a story of two fastidious creatures, one open to new friends and one not. It makes perfect sense to me that Bear and the mouse would get along. Just look at how they are presented. Bear lays out his single cup and single spoon with a delicacy at odds with his sheer mass. The mouse, similarly, is taken to speaking in polite, clipped tones. “Terribly sorry… Now you see me; now you don’t. I am gone.” I imagine him being voiced by Basil Rathbone, perhaps. And Bear would be John Houston.
My boss read through this book and sighed with relief when he got to the end. “I was worried that at some point we’d see a large group of mice.” It actually never occurred to me that the mouse might be pulling off his appearances by being of a number greater than one. And though that would have been a nice enough idea, it’s been done before (with frogs, apparently). Also, had the Bear discovered twenty or so mice hiding within the crawl spaces, nooks, and crannies of his home, it would have taken away from his slow realization that maybe having someone over for tea isn’t so bad. Bear’s change of heart isn’t actually all that fast for a picture book. It’s only during the course of tea that he comes to see how nice it is to have someone around to laugh at your jokes and listen to your stories. I also loved that the mouse brought along his own teacup. He must have, since it seems unlikely that Bear would have had a mouse-sized cup sitting about is cupboards.
And talk about a great readaloud. As the bear gets increasingly vexed his words get more and more delicious. “Vamoose!” he says at one point. “Begone!” he cries at another. “This is impossible! Intolerable! Insufferable!” And as he says these things Bear’s face turns the faintest shade of pink as blue lines almost emanate off of him. And what does Bear say when at last he has been outwitted by the mouse’s persistence? “I am undone.” Picture books that read aloud well are not as common as you might think. The advantage to Becker’s story is that her characters are so distinct. The mouse’s mode of speaking is definitely different from Bear’s, allowing the reader to give them wonderful voices of their own. As for the illustrator’s pictures, Kady MacDonald Denton’s images telegraph well across a crowded room. The size of the book is ideal for large groups of children and though the colors are soft and natural, that is not to say that they don’t pop off of the page with aplomb.
I guess I’d never seen a book illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton before. I say this because I think I would remember her style. Denton is like the Bob Fosse of children’s illustration. Characters’ movements often come down to the most delicate turns of their wrists, or the way their feet stick up in just the right way. The mouse is an adorable and delicate fellow. He is indeed small and gray and bright-eyed but it’s really his single-minded attentiveness that makes him such a sterling companion. Bear, on the other hand, really does feel as if he has weight and bulk. His belly sags believably and Denton has been very careful to make his weight fall in such a way that he never looks unbalanced (unless, of course, he is flinging himself to the floor on purpose). The delicate illustrations are done entirely in watercolor, ink, and gouache, which is rather nice. I was particularly taken with the choice of season. This is a distinctly autumnal book. The trees in the background are changing and there’s always a spare leaf floating to the ground in one scene or another. It is clear that Denton thought through Becker’s story since why else would Bear create a roaring crackling fire in the fireplace unless it was a slightly chilly day outside? And the occasional illustrated word really made the book pop. At the height of his frustration Bear roars a massive “Begone!” that unlike every other word in the book is actually illustrated. It only happens once, but I like seeing an illustrator know how to ratchet up a story’s build-up and suspense through carefully chosen moments.
On the bookflap of this book Ms. Becker says of herself, “I hesitate to admit how much Bear is in me, but I’m grateful for every lovely mouse in my life.” Everyone has a little bit of Bear in them, I think. We’ve all had those days when we just want to sit and stew in our own solitary juices. When the thought of sharing our space with another human being sounds like way too much work. A Visitor for Bear is as much a fabulous picture book as it is a cautionary tale. Sometimes it takes a mouse to get us moving. Consider A Visitor for Bear a book with classic-appeal.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Listen to Daniel Pinkwater on NPR as he recommends the book highly.