Sunday, November 11, 2012

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what have you seen?

I don't have any childhood memories of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? That seemed strange to me given the 1967 book's current ubiquity, but apparently (thanks, Children's Book-A-Day Almanac!), it was originally published as part of a basal reader series, and gained much of its popularity when it became an individual book in 1991. By that time, I was more interested in what Kristy and Mary Anne were arguing about than in what a brown bear saw.

My first memory of encountering Brown Bear is from my high school babysitting years (see what Kristy and Mary Anne did?). I had a healthy appreciation for picture books then; those were the years when I developed the party trick of reciting The Cat in the Hat. But my initial response to Brown Bear  was, "What's the point?"

The point, I realize now, is that Bill Martin Junior's text is really for very young children. Oh, reading in sing-song with a responsive child can certainly be fun, and so can appreciating Eric Carle's illustrations. But the joy in the text is not in a plot arc or a big reveal. It's the repetition, the silliness of a blue horse, and the satisfaction of having the "seeing" turned on children who can stand in for the reader.

That combination has a near-magical way of reaching children. The book is a favorite with toddlers, and I remember a sitting charge who was really struggling to learn to talk pointing out the duck quite clearly, and repeatedly. The appealing animals and repetitious sentence structure makes it a great book for English language learners. We have a Chinese customer who sings it with her daughter, and the daughter keeps singing long after the book is closed. I've also recommended Brown Bear to customers shopping for children with special needs. One young customer who has autism, was drawn to the book because of her love of animals, and she's returned to it again and again.

I bet there are lots of good Brown Bear, Panda Bear, and Polar Bear stories out there. Sometimes, it's amazing what a simple book can do.

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