No Lions or Tigers, But Bears, Oh My! Bears in Children’s Books

Once before in my life, I was led by a bear that walked into a dream home and sat down on the dream couch. (I need to know you better before I tell you the whole story.) Now, once again, a bear is leading me down paths I did not anticipate. (I’ll tell you that story when I know more about it myself.)

Bear fetishes, the smaller ones in front are made from jaspar





Teachers whose words continue to teach long after a class has ended and the grades are in are a real gift. And my college anthropology teacher’s words (see bread crumb #3 of Oct. 4th post) are helping me navigate this bear journey. As he said in one of his papers (his wife Ann recently gave me an over 7 inch stack of his writings about bear beliefs and rituals), some people are captured by bears. When I look around my home, I can see that for me, that captivity started a long time ago.
Books about bears are visually leaping at me in bookstores these days. I’ve been picking them up to see if I can find evidences of the old beliefs. Today I’m just going to write a little about the books and not about connections to research in anthropology.

Necklace with bear track design

On a trip to the San Diego Zoo, I found several picture books by Jon J. Muth (all published by Scholastic). In a video on Amazon, author/illustrator Muth says, “It’s important that children read to become and not just escape.”

Zen Ties (2008), the most recent, is about Stillwater, a panda Zen master, and three human children. Stillwater’s visiting nephew speaks in haiku, the children learn more about a crabby neighbor, and they all find ways to savor their ties to others.

Zen Shorts (2005) won a Caldecott medal. Three Zen folktales are embedded in the overall story as Stillwater guides each of the three children to a different realization in “becoming.”

The Three Questions (2002) is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. Nikolai has questions about how to be a good person and goes to ask a wise friend, who helps him see he has already answered the questions with his actions.

These are lovely books, both in content and illustrations which are gently humorous.  Of the three picture books, my favorite is The Three Questions, but I don’t want to rush to judgement too soon since there is another Stillwater tale, Zen Ghosts, that I haven’t read yet.

If you look for Muth’s books, you will find other covers and titles that you will probably recognize. Have any of Muth’s books captured you?

Raku fetish by Jeremy Diller

But bears aren’t just picture book subjects.

Seekers: The Quest Begins, written by Erin Hunter and published by Harper Trophy in 2008, introduces this new series by the author of the Warriors books. These bear seekers do not know each other or even inhabit the same part of the world as the story begins. Kallik is a polar bear cub; Lusa is a young black bear who longs for a world bigger than her zoo enclosure: and Toklo is feisty grizzly cub. All three must learn to survive on their own. I will be looking for the next book in this middle grade series.

Touching Spirit Bear, written by Ben Mikaelsen and published by Harper Trophy in 2001, is an affecting book. The main character, fifteen year old Cole, is a bully who thinks he is smarter than anyone he meets, and has full confidence in his abilities to charm, manipulate, or intimidate his way out of anything . . . until he can’t. Most stories about bullies feature the struggle of the victim and how the bully is finally bested. But how does someone come to face his own ugliness, realize he can’t undo what he’s done, and then live with himself? Touching Spirit Bear, winner of the Napra Nautilus Award, is for a more mature young reader. I’d really love to hear your reactions to this book.


Instead of writing this week, I was busy finishing this wedding quilt for a wonderful young couple that I’m blessed to call friends. They wanted desert colors of yellows, orange, and red—colors that aren’t in my usual palate so I was worried about how it would work out. When I first got the blocks together, I got so excited. It works and my color world has expanded. The quilt is supposed to range from dawn to dusk.

The back of the quilt shows the vows they wrote together. I was so impressed with the promises they made to each other that range from the big stuff, like loving each other forever kind of promises, to the day-to-day promises to hike together and play board games together. The relationships of others contribute to ours. And the promises we witness couples make to each other reinforce the promises we ourselves have made.

But back to my blog excuses. I finished the quilt a little before nine last night. I’m old enough that I start winding down at that point in the evening—past the days of the night is just beginning.

And this was my morning:

The lump in front is brown sugar on top of cranberries and ginger.

Hope your day has been as good as mine. I am so grateful for my family and friends, our earth, all who dream for peace and justice, and people who craft those dreams into art.

The Giving of Thanks

Since next Thursday is our National Holiday, I thought we’d talk about Thanksgiving

Our fall harvest of pomegranates

books. Three of my favorite Thanksgiving picture books are older books about ways people are linked together on this day. At least two of them make me cry. They all make a lovely family read-aloud before or after your meal. (Before I forget, you’ll find the answer to last week’s question at the bottom of the post.)

The Thanksgiving Door, written and illustrated by Debby Atwell and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. What kind of a day can you imagine when, at the end of Thanksgiving, someone is “most thankful that you burned our dinner.”? It’s definitely worth tracking down the book and finding out.

The Perfect Thanksgiving, written by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Joann Adinolifi, and also published in 2003, but by Henry Holt and Co. The rhyming story contrasts Abigail Archer’s perfect family’s Thanksgiving with the less-than-perfect family Thanksgiving of the narrator (Guess who I identify with?) and ends with what connects and allows us all to claim a great holiday.

Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, is such a classic that I don’t think I need to tell you about it. But if you don’t have time to track down the book, watch the video of on youtube. It’s good reminder of what it means to be a pilgrim. (Hint, no big shoe buckles are required.)

Walkway in the Denver Botanic Gardens

My favorites of the books I found at the bookstore all focused on a part of the history of Thanksgiving.

Squanto’s Journey, written by Joseph Bruchae, a native American himself, illustrated by Greg Shed, and published in 2001 by Voyager Books, Harcourt. This picture book tells of Squanto’s life as a member of a group of men who were kidnapped, taken to Spain, and sold as slaves. Eventually, Squanto made his way to England and then back to America. In America, he found his whole family had died from illnesses brought by the new settlers, who had moved into the area of his old village. That is the back story to the man who gave crucial help to the Pilgrims.

I’ve wondered if, when we talk about people of peace like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., we should also include Squanto. There are a number of biographies of this remarkable man for older readers also. Unfortunately, I can’t track down the particular one I wanted to write about.

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner, and published by Simon and Schuster in 2012. This is another nonfiction picture book. In the 1800’s, Thanksgiving observances were fading away. Sarah Hale spent 38 years petitioning presidents to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She urged President Lincoln to give the whole country something everyone could share; and the rest, as they say, is history. And, as Anderson reminds us, don’t “underestimate dainty ladies.”

Japanese garden in the Denver Botanic Garden. It’s in fall and it’s pretty–no real connection to the post.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2011. This book won several awards. If you are a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade fan or have the heart of an inventor, spend some time with this book and learn about the man who came up with the idea for the balloons and figured out the how-tos.

One of my friends, Ellen, has said that what we are thankful for, we get more of in our life. I think she also believes limiting celebrations to one day is a kind of stinginess. Get into practice before the big day, and remember to tell the people you love how thankful you are to have them in your life everyday.

Sculpture I made from a photo. Who is it?

Did you guess who is depicted in the sculpture? He was famous, but I don’t know if anyone knows his name. He is a storyteller in a photo from The Family of Man, a book/exhibit of people from all over the world depicting all facets of human life. It was a huge hit in the 50‘s and 60’s. I love the photo of the old man telling stories by the fire.

There is one other photo that is still vivid in my memory. Two  women sit on the ground one embracing the other. You can only see the face the comforter. I’ll give a book to whoever can tell us the quote under the photo.

Oh yeah, Happy Thanksgiving!

My Favorite Old Piece of Writing Advice

The last scream of Halloween

I have a beef with fortune cookies that give gratuitous advice instead of actual fortunes. (I want my future spelled out!) As a result, I’ve been trying to figure out how to couch a definition as advice. Here’s my best take so far: Remember the words in quotation marks!

One of my past writing teachers gave this definition and I’ve been helped by it countless times. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the teacher and can’t give him his proper due. I can remember illustrations from his book, but not the title.) But thank you, bearded guy in the late 70’s or early 80’s who taught through UCSD Extension.

He said, “A story is two ideas you rub together to

I made this sculpture from a decades old photo. Do you know who it is? Why do you think he connects with this post? Answers next week.

make fire.”

When I can’t get a story to ignite, this phrase pops into my head. This is probably especially important if you want to write something that makes a point. With only one idea, the story will probably just be preachy and certainly dull. Two ideas can collide, circle each other, and transform the characters, if they are real, and the ideas, if they are important enough.

One of the reasons I love writing is that it helps my ideas grow. I thought this post would be a piece that would be short, sweet, and quick to write (hey, it’s my birthday). But the process of putting keystroke to screen made me examine this phrase more closely

and revise what I had written. While it’s helped me

Tools of our trade

in terms of picture books, now I’m thinking of more complex stories with the interplay of the main ideas to drive the overall story arc and smaller ones to keep the flame going. Of maybe the two sticks idea can help me write and deliver better pitches? I have to think more about this and welcome any of your comments and ideas.

Back to my teacher—he had more memorable lines.  When I explained how something I  wrote was based on an actual experience, this wise man said something along the lines of, “Just because it’s true is no excuse.” (This comment, of course, refers to writing fiction.) A lame or weak experience which

doesn’t serve the story may need to be dropped or

Same trade, different tool

altered—especially for the external story, whose job, for me, is to be the best support for the truthfulness of the inner story.

Finally, my past teacher also taught me a picture book shouldn’t have a cast of thousands. If there’s a character that isn’t needed to move the story along and you love him, save him for a different adventure. But you already knew that.

I’d love to hear about your thoughts and any of your writing projects.

October is a Scary Month

I always breath a sigh of relief when October is over. We have had some of our biggest fires in Southern California this month when everything is soooo dry and rain this early is an aberration. So far so good—here (although it’s supposed to be back up in the 90’s part of next week). But instead of wondering how far out into the ocean all the residents of San Diego County would have to go to escape flames, we have watched the pictures of a fire on the other coast raging amidst the storm and floods.

From friends who lost homes in fires, I know that rebuilding can take longer than someone who didn’t suffer the loss can imagine. But, rebuilding and regrowth, whether slow or fast, do proceed. Tragedies can help us order priorities, find inner depths of strength we didn’t know we had, and discover community with other people.

To my countrypeople who faced Sandy, I am so sorry for the danger and fear you had to experience, for any losses you have to bear, and I’m also grateful for the hug you gave a child who was scared and the hand you lent a neighbor. May your ultimate gains outweigh your losses. And may the rest of us be as generous.

And one thing I’ve learned from disasters here and afar, when the power grid goes out, people eat their ice cream first—proving my point about priorities.

What’s left the day after Halloween

Last week, I reviewed Halloween books, but mentioned that some of my favorites on the Halloween display were not actually about Halloween. Today some of those gems:

I Need My Monster, written by Amanda Noll, illustrated by Howard McWilliam, and published by Flashlight Press in 2009. What lived under your bed when you were little? My bed sheltered alligators, snakes, and unidentified scaries. Those night time creatures must have some purpose besides just making you think twice before you risk getting another drink of water. Find out in this wonderful picture book.

Nightsong, written by Ari Berk, illustrated by Loren Long, and published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2012. First, I have to give my disclaimer. I am a bit besotted with bats (as any gardener should be, but you don’t want me to get started). Chiro is a young bat cautious of the darkness. His mother tells him to use his “good sense.” She explains, “Sense is the song you sing out into the world and the world sings back to you . . .” It’s a lovely story of his adventure and discovery of the

This is not a bat hanging from a branch–just a squirrel imitating a bat. Can you find it?

meaning of his mother’s words. The illustrations will delight your visual sense, and the story will sing in your heart.

The Spider and the Fly, Tony Diterlizzi did “spine-tingling” illustrations for the 1829 poem by May Howitts. You can find his black and white drawings in this picture book published also in 2012 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. I have loved this piece since I had to memorize and recite a poem in sixth grade, and chose this poem. “Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly. “Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.” This is a cautionary tale is a delight.
Bunnicula, written by James Howe in the voice of his alter-ego, Harold X., a dog, and published by Avon Camelot Books in 1979. Harold belongs to a family that includes regular members—a mom and dad, two brothers, Chester, a cat with an overly active imagination, and a new bunny. When vegetables start turning white, Chester is sure the bunny is a vampire. I love the books in this series of chapter books. If you haven’t read them, you’re in for a treat.

Zombie in Love, written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Scott Campbell, and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2011. Although this book was on the Halloween table obviously because of the zombie connection, I would head out and get this book in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The jokes in the illustrations make this a book for older kids. And the story reminds us that sometime it takes a while to find one’s soul mate. Which brings me to my husband . . .

I was going to tell you about what was haunting him last night, but this is getting too long. So, instead, if you are in the San Diego area tomorrow night (11/2/12), come by The Yellow Book Road, a children’s book store, in Liberty Station and I’ll tell you about the haunting in person. The first Friday night of each month is Friday Night Liberty at the Pt. Loma Liberty Station. The museums are open for free. You can find info at
(It might or might not work as a link.)

We’ll be there from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm. and I’ll be signing my book. It would be great to see you there.

Finally, don’t forget the contest/drawing. You have one week to enter. Just tell me what blog post was your favorite and/or the most helpful to you. I will throw your name in a hat. If you also tell me why you picked what you did, I’ll throw your name in a second time. This helps me find out what most appeals to my readers. The prize is . . .  a book! See details in the last blog.

One last attempt this week to add a link. My sister sent the link this morning. It makes me proud to be a humanoid.

I couldn’t get the second one to work as a link. So copy and paste to see the video.