Here a Bear, There a Bear, Everywhere a Bear: Part 1

Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke, 1899

Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke, 1899

My earliest memories of anybody telling me stories are memories of my grandfather telling my brother and me stories about the rivalry between a fox and a bear. The bear wanted honey, but so did the fox. The bear was willing to put a lot of energy into procuring honey, but the fox didn’t want to work that hard. No, the fox preferred to trick the bear out of its hard-won honey. My grandfather must have told us dozens of the bear-fox stories, and the fox almost always won, due to the bear’s naivety and (perhaps) slower-functioning brain. The fox was tricky, cunning, lazy, and untrustworthy. I hated the fox. I loved the bear. Thus my love of bears in literature was born. Perhaps my hatred of injustice, too.

I’m not sure where other people’s love of bears comes from, but I can tell you that a huge number of people (artists, especially), seem to love bears. Take songs, for example. One of my favorites is Fred Small’s “Larry the Polar Bear,” based on a true story that occurred during the 1930s, when the Los Angeles Zoo took their born-in-captivity polar bear, Larry, to the Arctic to make a film. The humans assumed that Larry preferred captivity to the wild. Wrong!

My second introduction to bears in literature (after my grandfather’s stories) came from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which my mother bought me when I was six or seven. Many of the stories enchanted me: “Rumpelstiltskin,” for one; “Seven Swans for Seven Brothers,” for another. But, especially, “Snow White and Rose Red” captivated me, from the moment the bear knocks on the sisters’ door and asks to come in and warm up, to the moment the bear swipes the evil dwarf’s head off. A dramatic finish, for sure.

WALTUR_JKTMy conscious thoughts never ran along the road of writing about a bear, real or imagined. But my subconscious must have, because while I was researching my nonfiction book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, I was also writing children’s early-reader stories based on idioms . . . and the character who could not understand idioms turned out to be a bear, Waltur by name.

These stories were later published by Houghton in two books, Waltur Buys A Pig in a Poke, and Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner. During the years I worked on these stories, I shared some of my thoughts with fellow writer Robin Koontz, who is, in addition, an illustrator and designer.

Illustration by Robin Koontz,

Illustration by Robin Koontz,

One day, a long cardboard tube arrived in the mail. It was from Robin. I had no idea what the tube contained, but I opened it eagerly. Inside was Robin’s version of my bear Waltur, holding a baseball bat in his paws. Notice the initials on the bat: WAP, for Women at Play. I thought that was very cool, combining baseball and bears. This gift hangs in my office and inspires me.

Bears are present in adult literature, too . . . and that’s what Part Two will be about.

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