Review of the Day – Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories by Jarvis
Why do I review the books that I review? There are hundreds upon hundreds of children’s books published every single year here in America and of them I’m lucky if I’m able to review even 45 in a given 365 days. So how do I perform triage on the masses and figure out what’s reviewable? Well, often I can only review those books that have a kind of “hook” to them. Something to chew on that makes for good reviewing. Much of the time I’ll consider books that I feel are important in some way and deserve wider notice. But once in a great while I’ll review a book for a single, solitary, scintillating reason: spite. Spite reviews are rare but they do occur. I don’t write them to spite the book’s creators, though. Often it will be to spite the wider world. For example, in 2022 I learned that My Parents Won’t Stop Talking didn’t get a single star from a review journal. Incensed, I poured my heart and soul into that book’s review. Now I find in 2023 a similar, if slightly different, situation and I cannot stay silent. While I love and adore Kirkus Reviews (and, indeed, I review for them myself) when one of their reviewers gets something wrong they can potentially get it WRONG! And when I read their review of the first book in the new Jarvis penned series “Bear and Bird”, I was on fire. How dare that person impugn the beautiful (and very funny) writing, fantastic art, and honest-to-god heartfelt moments of this new series. Truth be told, I probably would have reviewed Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories on my own anyway, but spite has given me the kick in the pants I needed to do it sooner rather than later. Trust me when I say that after reading this book, my rage over anyone not properly appreciating this book will become your own.
Four little stories of two little friends. Bear and Bird are best friends, actually. In their first story “The Flower”, Bird accidentally gets trapped in a pretty red flower and Bear misunderstands who precisely he’s speaking to. In “The Picnic” Bear and Bird set off for a fun day, and when Bear realizes he’s forgotten all the provisions it’s up to Bird to play along. In “The Painting” Bird comes to realize that Bear is a better painter, and Bear comes to realize that there’s a price to pay for propping up your friend’s ego. Finally in “The Blanket” coziness for one is not half as good as coziness for two.
I’m naturally suspicious of any new children’s book that is compared to classics of the past. Proceed cautiously when you hear anyone say that a book is just like The Westing Game or Where the Wild Things Are or The Snowy Day. To be clear, no one has done this with Bear and Bird that I am aware of. The problem? It’s me. I want to compare it to a classic. And the classic I want to compare it to is none other than the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel. My reasoning is sound. What was it that Lobel did so well? Essentially, he was capable of making interesting plots and interesting characters with a minimum of words. AND on top of all that, he knew how to make these characters emote on a level that children would understand. Add in the beautiful art of the books and you have yourself a near perfect series (with the possible exception of the “Bathing Suit” story which always struck me as out of place). Each of those little ticked off items also applies to Bear and Bird. The watercolor art is infinitely expressive. The characters trade off who has the moral high ground from story to story. You know these characters too. You both feel for them and understand when others make allowances for them. The wordplay? Succinct. The storytelling? Complex. The entire package? Dee-lightful!
Not to keep harping on it, but the Kirkus review had a couple very specific objections to this book. The review called one of the stories “mean-spirited”. It conceded that the art was nice but, “with characters too often relying on lies to fix their problems.” And to cap it all off it ends with how the book, “Goes too far in avoiding moralistic characters and instead actively endorses bad behavior.” The key here, I think, is that phrase, “Goes too far in avoiding moralistic characters.” Methinks the reviewer here is a bit uncomfortable watching flawed characters in stories that don’t wrap up with succinct little didactic endings. Which completely elides the fact that many of these stories do have little lessons wrapped into them. My favorite story, “The Picnic” does a brilliant job of showing the small ways we make allowances for the people that we love. But the reviewer couldn’t separate the idea that Bird is lying through omission. By not bringing up the fact that Bear forgot everything for their walk, she allows him to think that she didn’t notice his goof. And she, being a kind friend, could not see any benefit to making him unhappy, so she plays along. The idea that this is just a web of tangled lies misses the point entirely. I didn’t, for the record, see the stories Bear told about Bird in “The Flower” as “mean-spirited.” I thought it was a lovely little example of silliness, which kids can recognize. And are characters lying to solve their problems? They don’t call their friends out, true, and sometimes that’s the wrong decision. You know what happens when they make the wrong decisions? Consequences! Very cute, rather adorable, consequences but consequences just the same. Who’s eschewing moralism now?
Easy books/early chapter books straddle a line that avoids easy identification. They can be read as bedtime books to some, and be read by interested kids who have graduated beyond Beginner books and need something more complex (but aren’t ready for out-and-out chapters yet). They are so difficult to find, in fact, that when you spot one in the wild I highly recommend that you grab it as fast as you are humanly able. There’s a reason we rely so heavily on the aforementioned Frog and Toad and it’s as much to do with the books’ brilliance as it is the fact that there are so few seriously well-written books for this reading level out there. So here’s a thought. When you’ve that child that’s read all the Frog and Toads they could get their hands on, and they’ve long since left Elephant & Piggie behind, consider a final friendly pairing. Consider Bear and Bird and all their myriad adventures from the small to the slightly less small but always cozy. Raw charm on the page.
On shelves May 9th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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