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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Board book – September 15, 1996
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The Origins of Brown Bear
On a train ride in 1966, the title phrase Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? popped into Bill Martin Jr.'s head. Later, he spotted an illustration of a red lobster in a magazine and contacted the creator, Eric Carle, to ask if he would illustrate his poem. So began Eric Carle's career as a children's book illustrator--along with a life-long collaborative friendship with Bill Martin Jr. Since then, Brown Bear and the three companion titles, Polar Bear, Panda Bear, and Baby Bear, have gone on to sell millions of copies worldwide.
The Bear books are a cultural landmark and a key milestone in many children's reading lives. And many adults today remember reading the Bear books themselves as well as the experience of reading them for the first time to their own children. Whether in a picture book or a reader, and now in eBook and audio, the same bold graphics and repetitive, rhythmic text have truly stood the test of time.
Throughout Eric Carle's career, he has shown an unshakeable commitment to artistic integrity and a dedication to making art accessible to children. His skillfully designed and beautifully rendered collage art is admired by fellow artists, colleagues and fans in equal measure. And in 2002, with his wife Barbara, Eric founded The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the first museum of its kind in the United States.
--Laura Godwin, Vice President and Publisher, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
A Question for Eric Carle
Before the Bear books, you worked in advertising but had not yet created a children's book. What went through your mind when you first heard from author Bill Martin Jr. about the Brown Bear manuscript? What made you want to illustrate it?
Eric Carle: At that point I was doing work-for-hire and I was very pleased to have the chance to do something different. I went through the manuscript and could see in my mind images of bright colorful animals, big and bold and simple like in posters. I was actually able to finish the art for this book and deliver it in one weekend. The whole process felt right and I was very excited by the opportunity to work on the book with Bill, which really changed my life and set me on the true course in my career.
Eric Carle at work in his studio, Northampton, MA
Sketches of Mama Bear for Baby Bear
Eric Carle, holding a sketch from Baby Bear
The gentle rhyming and gorgeous, tissue-paper collage illustrations in this classic picture book make it a dog-eared favorite on many children's bookshelves. On each page, we meet a new animal who nudges us onward to discover which creature will show up next: "Blue Horse, Blue Horse, What do you see? I see a green frog looking at me." This pattern is repeated over and over, until the pre-reader can chime in with the reader, easily predicting the next rhyme. One thing readers might not predict, however, is just what kinds of funny characters will make an appearance at the denouement! Children on the verge of reading learn best with plenty of identifiable images and rhythmic repetition. Eric Carle's good-humored style and colorful, bold illustrations (like those in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Grouchy Ladybug, and Have You Seen My Cat?) have earned him a prominent place in the children's book hall of fame. (Baby to Preschool) --Emilie Coulter --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I know it seems like a simple book, but there's a lot more depth to be uncovered on repeated readings, as I've had the luxury of experiencing every night (and sometimes multiple times during the day) for the last three months.
It opens with a simple question: "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?" And if you were to judge this book by its cover, you might assume the bear to be the protagonist of the story. But as it unfolds, we are...
*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
... taken through a tour of the real and familiar (brown bears, red birds) along with the fantastically surreal (blue horses, purple cats). And despite the cartoonish illustrations and unassuming prose, we come to find that this is a world of paranoia and domestic surveillance. A world where neighbor spies upon neighbor.
"Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?"
"I see a red bird looking at me."
"Red bird, red bird, what do you see?"
"I see a yellow duck looking at me."
The book begins with a lie. When the red bird is asked, "What do you see?", the truthful answer is "a brown bear." But she does not admit that she is spying on the brown bear, only complains that the yellow duck is spying on her.
As the pages turn, we learn that all characters are being watched: from the strong (the bear), to the useful (blue horse), to the outcast (black sheep). We learn that all characters know that they are being watched (presumably, this keeps them in line). And we learn that all the characters (except for the bear) are watching one of their peers. (As an aside, it's interesting that this society's only celebrity -- the titular bear -- is the only character to be watched by his peers without the power to watch back. I can only assume that this is Martin's commentary on the impotence of fame.)
As the camera pulls back, we learn that each animal is merely a minor player with myopic vision. In its dramatic, Usual Suspects-esque conclusion, we learn that we are not in a forest or frolicking in the outdoors, but we are in a classroom. An authority figure is introduced:
"Goldfish, goldfish, what do you see?"
"I see a teacher looking at me."
With the introduction of this (white) teacher we realize that these characters who seemed to be free, roaming in their natural habitat, are actually prisoners trapped in the hardbound confines of this book. And yet, even the teacher's vision is limited, for she too is trapped.
"Teacher, teacher, what do you see?"
"I see children looking at me."
The children are vastly more powerful and knowledgeable than any other character. For it is only they -- the readers themselves -- who see all of the characters.
"Children, children, what do you see?"
"We see a brown bear,
a red bird,
a yellow duck,
a blue horse,
a green frog,
a purple cat,
a white dog,
a black sheep,
and a teacher LOOKING AT US.
That's what we see."
It is those three words -- "looking at us" -- that are most chilling.
If the animals were looking at the children this whole time, why don't they say so? When the bear was asked what he saw, he mentioned only the bird. When the bird was asked what she saw, she mentioned only the duck. Every single character in the book is looking at the children and yet every single one refuses to admit that they see them. It's only the authority figure who has the courage to acknowledge their presence.
How tight must the children's tyrannical grip be to force an entire population into unified submissive silence? The children have complete control, for they not only know everything about the world the characters inhabit, but they also have the power to destroy that world (as many of this book's youngest readers undoubtedly have).
It is the proverbial bear who is not to be poked. But through the bear's opening omission we learn that even he is too scared of the children to publicly acknowledge their existence. The true revelation to this book's opening question is not that the brown bear sees the red bird. It's that he also sees the omniscient, omnipotent children, but is too terrified to say so.
But the children know that he knows.
I don't believe the rumors that this book originated as recruitment propaganda by US intelligence agencies to entice young children to join an elite, "all-seeing" organization that has complete control over the rest of the population, including its powerless authority figures.
Instead, I like to believe that Martin wrote this book (just one year after regular US troops were deployed to Vietnam) as a subversive allegory daring to ask the question "Who watches the watchers?" A question more important today than ever before.
A+++. Would read again.
And oh dear God make it stop.