Where Bear? by Sophy Henn (2015, just published here in the U.S. January 2nd.).
This picture book is delightful. So I thought I’d take a look at what makes it tick. Turns out, it’s like a lesson in picture book structure.
Every illustrated story has its own style and construction, of course, but I think this one has some really great elements of what can make a picture book truly A+!
(click image(s) to enlarge)
AN UNREALISTIC THING INTRODUCED AS TOTALLY NORMAL
In Where Bear? the first spread tells us that a bear cub lives with a little boy. That’s weird, right? But we immediately believe it and we certainly don’t want an explanation. It just is.
This sets us up for any unrealistic stuff that follows (and it does follow).
That unrealistic stuff is sometimes where the magic is.
(One more thing: we then get to see both the bear and the boy grow, which is so clued into the life of a child, that stuff of growing and getting bigger and wearing birthday hats once a year. But that’s a slight digression.)
REPETITION WITH SLIGHT VARIATION FOR INTEREST
When the bear is too big and bearlike to live with the boy any longer, the boy wonders, “Where Bear?” As in, where shall you live that will be suitable?
With each place the boy suggests, we get a repetition of the same theme: that place is not suitable for Bear.
Bear says, “No.” Over and over. But he also says no in a slightly different way and for a slightly different reason. This is shown through the text (“NO”; “NO“; “NOOOOO”; etc.). It’s also shown through the illustrations that so beautifully bring to life how bear is feeling through facial expressions and what else is going on in the artwork. (e.g. Bear’s big eyes or a too-small shop window.)
The reader gets that wonderful satisfaction of repetition and kinda sorta knowing what’s coming next, but it’s a different scenario each time. Yup, satisfying without a trace of boredom.
ROOM IN THE TEXT FOR INVENTIVE, STORY-TELLING ILLUSTRATIONS
I’ve touched on this a bit, but let’s just look at that toy shop illustration again. It may take a while to locate the boy and bear. And then, so much to notice! That bear belongs in a store window as much as a crocodile does. And a boy doesn’t belong there either, even if he is wearing a marching band hat.
We get to see the town the boy lives in here, too, its shops and windows. It locates us, first, in the human world of the boy before we travel elsewhere.
And let’s look too at the woods spread. The Bears’ eyes tell us he’s scared. Wouldn’t you be, all alone in those dark, gray woods?
And if you’re really, really tricky, you may think to yourself that you’ve never seen a white bear in the woods before. (Foreshadowing!!)
SPREADS THAT LEAVE READERS GUESSING (AND TELLING THEIR OWN STORY)
The popsicle spread is my favorite. First, it has popsicles. Next, it has the boy scratching his head, just as we the readers are invited to do.
WHERE could bear go to live? How might a popsicle be a hint? What is the relationship between the bear and the refrigerator? They are the same color and about the same size after all. Hmmm.
This is the part when reading to kids that you ask, “What do you think might happen next?” “Where do YOU think the bear should live?” That kind of interaction is golden.
We’ve heard the bear say, “NO” many times. (In fact, that’s all we’ve heard him say.) But now, we hear him say, “SNOW!” Why? Because he’s home. Where the snow is. And because snow rhymes with No!
Here we have a pattern and sound we’re familiar with, but with a difference. No has turned to YES! But the bear’s own special kind of yes.
ENDING AS IT BEGINS, OR WITH THE TITLE
The last spread has the boy and the bear talking on the phone. (Good thing that we can totally roll with all that unrealistic stuff without skipping a beat by this point. But here’s one more!)
The boy and bear discuss going somewhere, like the old days. And the boy asks that familiar question, “But where, bear?”
We love that question. Especially when the answer doesn’t have so much riding on it anymore. Only friendship and taking a trip together.
That last spread as well as a super fun little illustration on the last page keeps the story alive outside of the book. In our own imaginations we can wonder where the boy and the bear will go, what adventures they might have, and how their friendship will grow with new experiences. In that way, the story never ends.
We feel satisfied but we don’t really have to say goodbye. Because we don’t want to say goodbye to these two.
There you have it. My deconstruction of a fine picture book specimen. I hope this is of interest as you read them (or write them or illustrate them)!
Thanks to Sophy Henn for images!
I’m giving away a copy of Where Bear? Come find me on twitter to enter!
I received a review copy from Philomel of PenguinRandom House; opinions are my own.