02 December 2008

Countless Bear Encounters

I heartily enjoyed teacher Mrs. G's story of reading Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal to a group of third-graders, some of whom had already learned all about bears from the Discovery Channel. Sample of the classroom dialogue: "that mom is dead meat." (Thanks to Chris Barton at Bartography for the link.)

Some folks take issue with Blueberries for Sal for its unrealistically amiable portrait of wild bears. For instance, this camping columnist calls it a "delightful but erroneous book" and warns:

In my opinion, Blueberries for Sal should be on the banned books list as it can lull people into a false sense of security. . . . I am afraid this book may have caused countless bear encounters to go horribly wrong.
In fact, it gets worse. The success of Blueberries for Sal (1948, Caldecott Honor Book) led naturally to Lynd Ward’s The Biggest Bear (1953 Caldecott Medal winner). I read that picture-storybook (perhaps for the first time) at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last weekend. It shows young Johnny Orchard, like Sal's mother, meeting a bear cub in the woods, and he brings it home.

Then Johnny watches his bear cub grow into, well, a bear. I don't want to spoil the ending, but no characters are shot or eaten in the making of this picture-storybook. However, Ward's ending doesn't fit with our current sensibilities either.

Where’s My Teddy?, by Jez Alborough (1992), explores some of the same territory: young human and young bear meet in the woods. But it's a less realistic story from the outset: the text is rhyming verse, and the cub has a teddy bear of his own. What's more, Alborough writes from the safety of Great Britain, which hunted down its last wild brown bear about a millennium ago, so we can't expect him to understand the dangers these books create.

Soon we may not have Blueberries for Sal to kick around anymore--at least not in new copies. In May booksellers started to report that the book was out of stock and not being replenished. In August the publisher told Publishers Weekly: "We have been in negotiations with [McCloskey's] estate and we are hopeful that we may be able to put Blueberries for Sal back into circulation." The book is still listed on the Penguin website, but I couldn't find any online retailers with new copies in stock. So in this case, protracted contract negotiations may have saved lives.


Anonymous said...

Loved this piece. It both gives information and gently mocks at the same time.


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Jane!