First off, I like it.
I think it’s important to make that note right upfront. Particularly since I’m probably going to break out terms like “bizarre”, “peculiar”, “odd”, “weird”, and “eerily strange” (or “strangely eerie” depending on my mood) when describing this book. I will undoubtedly be simultaneously inclined to warn you off of the whole enterprise while luring you in with terms like “artful writing” and “deft turns of phrase”. I think that it is safe to say that A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a study in contrasts. A uniquely British import with an internal logic so fixed and solid that you’re willing to go along with it, even when it goes against everything you’ve come to expect in juvenile fiction. It’s Waiting for Godot for kids. Life of Pi for the grade school set. A bit of big picture fiction that dares to challenge reader expectations, even if that reader happens to be nine. It’s brilliant and flawed and pretty much the most interesting chapter book fare for children you’ll read this year, even when it strikes you as dull. One thing’s for certain. There is nothing else quite like it on your library or bookstores shelves.
“Will it take long?” “A little while.” A boy steps into a boat captained by a rather large bear. His destination? The other side. At first all appears to be going well. The sea is calm and the sky clear. The boy even takes a nap, only to wake up to find that he has not reached his destination after all. After a couple days pass it seems fairly clear that the bear has gotten the two of them hopelessly lost. Their survival on the high seas takes the form of many small adventures, from teatime to sea monsters, and everything in-between. In the end, the boy and the bear reach a kind of peace and a desire to keep going, no matter what.
Big picture fiction is what I called this book earlier and I stand by that phrase. Once in a great while you’ll encounter a novel for children that selects the road less taken, for better or for worse. These tend to be books that try to make child readers really sit down and think. They also tend to be imports. Nothing against American writers or publishers, but the market these days is not exactly inclined to give much space to the more speculative and philosophical titles out there. Not today anyway. In the era of Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child I’m certain an American writer could have gotten away with A Boy and a Bear in a Boat easy peasy. These days, not so much. Unless you are dealing with an independent publisher, most big publishers would much rather put out surefire hits than titles where two nameless characters go nowhere for pages on end.
It’s the journey, not the destination that counts. Now try telling that to an eight-year-old when you’ve decided to take the scenic route on any trip. I’ll tell you true that I would have hated this book as a child. But then, I was a pretty unimaginative person. I have distinct memories of reaching the end of Stuart Little only to be appalled and disgusted with its ending. And yes, I am about to discuss the ending of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat so consider this your spoiler alert warning, such as it is. I think Shelton’s intent here is to make the book so engaging and the small adventures so enticing that kids will root less for the characters to find their way and more for them to continue having adventures. Their quixotic quest, however, may make the mistake of starring two characters so loveable that in spite of the enjoyment you derive from watching them on the page, your desire to see them safe and sound trumps all. And when that happens, expect some serious middle grade reader fury to manifest itself when they reach the last page.
So why stick with it at all? Well it’s hard to put in so many words but I suspect it has something to do with the character development. Here you have a boy and a bear, and we don’t find out much of anything about them, not even their names. Where’s the boy going and does he have a family waiting for him? No idea. Why is the bear the captain of his boat and who was the “Harriet” he named it after? Not explained. Actually, this is sort of a feat of writing in and of itself. Try writing a 294-page story without delving into a character’s background even once. Now at the same time, find ways to really highlight what makes these two people tick anyway. Begin their meeting with a low-level animosity that climbs as things go from bad to worse. Now build a believable friendship between them and make it so that you’re rooting for them both. Go boy! Go bear! Find that land! Find it, I say!
And the writing . . . oh the writing. It excels, it soars, it flies. Most important of all, it’s funny. Shelton has a mad genius for squeezing large drops of humor out of what would otherwise be pretty bleak fare. Starving to death on the high seas is nothing to laugh at, but you’d think otherwise when you read some of the man’s lines. For example, when the boy finds some biscuits on a boat the book says, “It was very hard and dry and tasted almost of nothing at all, only not as nice.” There are also moments so sad and funny all at once that you end up hooting rather loudly as you read the book on your morning subway ride. The part where the bear has constructed a rather perfect raft with which to save himself and the boy, then proceeds to lose it all thanks to a stiff gust is this pitch perfect moment of clarity that I would hold up as one of the finest funniest bits of humor writing for kids this year.
I was admittedly a little surprised to find that the illustrations were by Shelton himself. Apologies to Mr. Shelton but when I think of long books written by great artists I think of works of nonfiction (We Are the Ship), illustrated novels that rely as much on visual storytelling as narrative (Wonderstruck), or cute animal tales (A Nest for Celeste). What I do not think of is grade school ennui. Shelton’s illustrations, by the way, are a godsend in a book such as this. You find yourself relying on them to a certain extent. Sequences that feature bored characters in books are always in danger of boring the readership as well. Shelton’s pictures, however, keep eyeballs wide open. They’re just the right combination of cartoonish and classic. And for the record I was hugely impressed with a faux Eastern European comic book sequence that takes place after the boy finds an impossible to decipher comic under his seat, left there by a previous passenger. That two-page spread is worth the price of admission alone.
One librarian of my acquaintance put it far better than I ever could when she said that “the ending is both perfect and slightly infuriating.” You may as well say the same for the book itself. If the book is some kind of allegory then it’s pushing its lesson so lightly you won’t be disturbed in the slightest. To put it another way, this is the book that a decade from now college freshmen will hand prospective mates saying (somewhat untruthfully), “This was my favorite book as a kid,” so as to test their lovers’ resolve. Not the worst fate a book ever suffered. If you wish to feel the kind of frustration that ages like fine wine, here is the answer to your prayers. Guaranteed to, at the very least, put a kink in your brain.
For ages 9-12.
Source: Copy borrowed from fellow librarian for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Stuart Little by E.B. White
- The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
- The Swan’s Child by Sjoerd Kuyper
- The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
Notes on the Cover: To say that the American version ramps up the action is accurate. The British jacket was more in keeping with the tone of the book itself.
With a jacket like that you cannot say the readership wasn’t warned.
Finally, here’s Mr. Shelton himself reading aloud from his book.