Bears in Kids’ Stories
In Kidsworld, every fifth animal seems to be a bear.
To identify the kinds of animals the young feel close to, all zoologists need do is conduct a census of creatures in children’s stories. That would reveal a startlingly fact: In children’s books, every fifth animal seems to be a bear. In fact, a literary zoologist would observe a population explosion among minors of ursus major: blacks, browns, polars, grizzlies, pandas, and teddies.
What accounts for this? Why are the young more inclined to carry around teddy bears than, say, stuffed geckos or upholstered cows? And why are there so many stories about teddies: Paddington, Corduroy, Winnie the Pooh, Care Bears, Berenstain’s Bears, and more? To be sure, having lent his name to this stuffed creature, President Teddy Roosevelt bears some responsibility; but even before these furry replicas came to bear his name, youngsters carried around baby bruins as if totems of their tribe.
Of course, we should note that — bare naked, in its five-pointed-star shape — the stuffed bear fuzzily resembles our own bodies. And unlike other creatures, and as dancing bears at circuses reveal, these animals are also like us in being fuzzily upright. And for the young who seek the satisfaction of snuggling, the fur-covered teddy is — well, fuzzy. There is, in other words, a simple explanation for the overpopulation of bears in Kidsworld: the bear presents a “fuzzy” version of ourselves.
That “fuzziness” permits the child to think the “same only different,” to understand something under the guise of marginal difference. Take “Goldilocks.” When she samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)
Among the best stories featuring this creature are the “Little Bear” books by Else Homelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In the first of these, Little Bear dresses to play outside, makes a “birthday soup,” plays at being an astronaut traveling to the moon, and is put to sleep by Mother Bear. Replace bears with humans and the story would read no differently. But that slight difference and animal substitution is vital because it allows the child to understand by means of analogy.
“Animals are good to think with,” the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said. (Bears especially, we might add.)
Another honeyed story of this kind is The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, based on the song by Jimmy Kennedy (made famous in a 1950 recording by Bing Crosby) and illustrated by Alexandra Day. In Day’s visual interpretation of the lyrics, a boy and girl don bear disguises, travel to the forest to see the secret of how teddies picnic, then–at the song’s conclusion (“At six o’clock their mummys and daddys will taken them home to bed / Because they’re tired little teddy bears”)–their parents (also dressed as bears) help their offspring out of their costumes and to bed.
Inside every childhood bear, in other words, is a human. It may be a handsome prince, in the case of the fairy tales “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Snow White and Rose Red.” It may be a teacher, like Mowgli’s Baloo in The Jungle Books or the panda in Jon Muth’s Zen Shorts. Whatever the case, beneath the bear’s fuzziness is us–only different. This is something to bear in mind. Indeed, as countless children’s stories reveal, it bears repeating.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (July 2006). My New York Times review of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” can be found by clicking here. Pico Iyer’s interesting discussion of Paddington — in terms of racial discourse and autobiography — can be found in the New York Times Book Review can be found here.
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