I like to think of myself as having a low cutesy tolerance. Cute is fine. Cutesy is not. As a new mother, though, I find myself in the peculiar position of finding books cute that in my pre-maternal state I would have laughed off as saccharine. Suddenly When My Baby Dreams is a book I literally cannot stop staring at whenever it comes across my desk (it’s unnerving how it plunges me into a near vegetative state) and Someday by Alison McGhee actually causes saltwater tears to form in my eyeballs against my will. Determined not to let the adorableness of the picture book world get to me I put up an extra coat of armor and trudged dutifully into my library to see what cropped up in the current season. Trouble is, that armor falls to pieces instantly when it comes in contact with something like Baby Bear Sees Blue. Not because it’s cute (though it is). Not because it’s beautiful (though it is). Not because it has a clever way of incorporating the theme of colors or because the writing is the perfect length or because it walks the tightrope between succinct and evocative (though it does, does, does). It’s because the darn book does all these things at once. An infinitely touching and strikingly beautiful title, this is one little picture book that I’m not ashamed to openly love.
On a beautiful day with the sun rising high into the sky a little baby bear wakes up alongside his mama. Drawn to the new light he asks “Who is warming me, mama?” “That is the sun” she replies, so he sits and looks at it a while. Once they leave their den there are so many other things to see. Leaves are waving green. Birds are flying blue. Fish are swimming brown. As the baby bear explores his world we see dark clouds slowly move in. At last the sky is gray, the rain falls, and the two bears are snug in their den again. As they watch, a rainbow appears, and then finally it’s time to say goodnight in the velvety black of the cave.
Ashley Wolff’s name will sound familiar to some of you out there. If you’re a children’s librarian like myself you may try to work out where you’ve seen her before. As the author and illustrator of more than sixty books my bet is that you probably know her best for her Miss Bindergarten series (Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, etc.). Then there are the books she’s worked on over the years that you’d remember if you saw them. For me, the Wolff books I’ve always known best were the illustrations for Raffi’s Baby Beluga, Who is Coming to Our House? and I recently had a friend recommend to the high hills the too little known (and now out-of-print) Only the Cat Saw. One thing I appreciated about the text in this newest book is that it’s cute without ever getting too cute. So Baby Bear might say something like “Who is waving at me, Mama?” when he sees a leaf blowing in the breeze but his mother doesn’t reply with any of those faux endearments like “my dearest one” or “my darling cub”. The answer is straightforward and to the point. “That is the oak,” she says. Additionally the writing combines informative text on colors with a story that’s actually rather exciting. In the course of the day the baby bear experiences the world through shades and tones and then Ms. Wolff closes with a supremely clever and comforting “Then Baby Bear closes his eyes and sees nothing but deep, soft black.” So on top of everything else, this is a bedtime book as well.
Though she is capable of using a variety of different illustration techniques it’s Ms. Wolff’s grasp of printing with linoleum blocks in black that impresses me the most. In this book the lines are much of the fun. Her art retains that sharp cut look of the block printing, but at the same time she’s managed to soften the images. There’s a great deal of painstaking work going on here. The best example of this for me was the two-page spread when the baby bear bats at orange butterflies. Look closely and you’ll see the striations in the wings of the delicate insects both near to the viewer and far. Sometimes block printing has trouble with bends and curves. Wolff, however, seems to have no difficulty presenting everything from a bird’s sloping beak to the bend of a mouse’s back. Added to this are some particularly vibrant watercolors. It was interesting for me to note when Wolff chose to fill a page with color or simply dot a moment or two with a significant shade. When Baby Bear sees blue, the left-hand page fills with a bird so large and impressive that its wings don’t fit the confines of the borders. Contrast this with “Baby Bear sees red” where a pair of tiny strawberries are mere splots of color in a sea of back fur and green foliage.
Normally when I review a book for kids I like to do it in a kind of self-inflicted vacuum. I refuse to read any other reviews for fear that I might inadvertently appropriate a turn of phrase or an idea. In this case, though, I sort of wanted to see what Goodreads made of the book so I broke my personal embargo. Interestingly enough I discovered comment after comment that mentioned this book in the same breath as Blueberries for Sal. Most of you, I’d wager, are familiar with that Robert McCloskey classic. It’s the book that taught us all to recognize the sound of blueberries being dropped into a pail (a onomatopoetic sensation only rivaled by the sound of snowflakes going “peth peth peth” in Lynn Rae Perkins’s Snow Music)… but I digress). The comparison seemed a little strange to me at first since I couldn’t find that there was too much in common between the books aside from the fact that they both contain cute baby bears and their mamas. Many is the children’s librarian who has discovered that for all its charms Blueberries for Sal is impossible to read aloud to a group of squirmy toddlers or preschoolers (due to its length it’s more of a one-on-one title). Baby Bear Sees Blue, on the other hand, is ideal for that age group. The length, the vibrant pictures, the wordplay, and the simple concept (colors) all combine to make it a surefire storytime hit. Finally I realized that the Goodreads folks kept invoking Sal not solely because of the baby bear but because on the book’s flap Ms. Wolff credits McCloskey’s classic as part of the inspiration for the tale.
Honestly the book this reminded me the most of was the Kevin Henkes picture book Old Bear. Like this book that one follows a bear through a variety of different hues. Yet while this one touches on all the colors of the rainbow in a single day, that one shows them in the context of their four seasons. Still, with their similar reading levels and simple text, these two books would be perfect complements to one another. Still on its own Baby Bear Sees Blue knows how to stand out. Though Ms. Wolff has plenty of books to her name, I suspect that this is going to be the one that sticks around for years and years and years and years. Infinitely comforting while remaining informative, this is for those kids who have graduated from board books but aren’t quite ready to sit still for anything longer than 32 pages. A book that doesn’t sacrifice good storytelling and gorgeous art for cute. A crowd pleaser for every age.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Old Bear by Kevin Henkes
- All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant
- Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
Blog Reviews: Kid’s Book Blog
Other Reviews: The Giggle Guide
- See some magnificent behind-the-scenes glimpses of the book over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- Read parts of the book here.
- And for you children’s librarians out there, here’s a flannelboard version of the story and here’s a storytime with good companion books.
A book trailer here that shows you the book start to finish:
Ms. Wolff also posted this video of two baby bear cubs so that you can see firsthand her influences.