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A Visitor for Bear (Bear and Mouse) Hardcover – February 26, 2008
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Cheery persistence wears down a curmudgeonly bear in a wry comedy of manners that ends in a most unlikely friendship.
Bear is quite sure he doesn’t like visitors. He even has a sign. So when a mouse taps on his door one day, Bear tells him to leave. But when Bear goes to the cupboard to get a bowl, there is the mouse — small and gray and bright-eyed. In this slapstick tale that begs to be read aloud, all Bear wants is to eat his breakfast in peace, but the mouse — who keeps popping up in the most unexpected places — just won’t go away!
- Format: Paperback
- Publication Date: 8/14/2012
- Pages: 56
- Reading Level: Age 2 and Up
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And Bear protests. On almost every page before the troubling climax, Bear is fighting the mouse's intrusions: ordering mouse to leave, erecting barriers to keep mouse out, or checking hiding spots for signs of the unwelcome creature.
The book has won numerous awards and garnered much praise, including the E.B. White Read Aloud Award. This is no Charlotte's Web, though. The lesson of this book is not about friendship, respect, cooperation, or -- despite claims to the contrary -- perseverance.
In fact, the book seems to honor capitulation: Bear, in the end, learns that what he thinks he wants isn't actually what he wants. A complete stranger -- one who won't take no for an answer -- knows what Bear really needs better than Bear himself. This is not a lesson that we should be teaching our children.
The position that the story teaches a valuable lesson in persistence is equally problematic. Mouse's desire to be friends is not made explicit: we're presumably supposed to assume good intentions from mouse's innocuous expectations: a cup of tea, a warm fire, a piece of cheese. These overtures, innocent-seeming as they may be, are accompanied by behavior that is best described as creepy: repeatedly entering a private place after being told to leave -- and, significantly, after agreeing to leave. We are expected to judge mouse not by his clear lack of respect for Bear, but by the modesty of his demands. It seems quite natural that this repeated violation of Bear's clearly-expressed preferences (in his own home!) eventually pushes Bear to tears. Which mouse, predictably, ignores. Apparently, to mouse, tears are simply a small hurdle one must leap over on the way to a rewarding friendship.
Again, this is not a lesson we should be teaching our children.
There are numerous other troubling implications for this story: that the desire to be alone is simply wrong, or at the very least misguided; that superficial compliments are the defining feature of friendship (and not honesty, respect, and a commitment to shared happiness); that you, by virtue of (presumably) good intentions alone, are entitled to other's belongings, space, and company; that the solution to one's problems can be obtained by the entrance -- literally, in this case -- of another, and are not the responsibility of one's self.
E.B. White was a master of weaving moving narratives that teach compassion, respect, and sacrifice. This story does precisely the opposite.
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.