Pay Attention to the Bear!

Australian flame tree—did it get your attention?

If you read “No Lions or Tigers, But Bears, Oh My!” posted on 11/29/12, you know

Miranda’s first illustration.

something about my capture by bears. And you may remember that I’ve been working on a children’s book titled THE GRIZZLY’S CHRISTMAS. I’m very excited to tell you Miranda Marks, a local fantastic artist, has nearly completed the illustrations, and the manuscript is now in the book designer’s hands.

Some of you may also remember the original book was written by my college anthropology teacher, Malcolm F. Farmer, who asked me to rework his story. My first thoughts were that it was a cute story in the “Who Pulled Santa’s Sleigh?” category. But Malcolm left hints of deeper meanings underlying the story. The first clue to grab my attention was a passing reference to a “taboo concerning bear names.”

Taboo about bear names? What was that all about? Turning to what my husband calls “the intra-net,” I found that people in many different cultures didn’t use their word for “bear” (which is apparently itself a euphemism for whatever pre-history word originally meant bear.) Since this taboo was found in many varied cultures, there is a long, long list of euphemisms for the word bear.

Over the course of more than a year, I have rewritten the story itself. I’ve used Malcolm’s other writings about bear beliefs along with papers and books by other anthropologists to add notes that explain what some of the old bear beliefs were. I understand why the most popular stuffed animal is the bear and why I have felt such a strong connection to them.

The word “bear” is not used in the story portion of THE GRIZZLY’S CHRISTMAS. And I shouldn’t just leave you wondering how to address a bear if you meet one. While there are lots of possibilities (of course, you’ll find more in the book), “Grandfather,” “Auntie,” and “Good-Tempered Beast” should do for now.

Now, as I read books that star or include bears, I look for evidence of the old beliefs still lurking deeply in many of us.

A STORY FOR BEAR, written by Dennis Haseley, illustrated by Jim LaMarche, and published by Harcourt, Inc. in 2002, is a gentle, loving story that falls into the category of books I wish I’d written. The beautiful illustrations fit the story so well. The woman in the story doesn’t know the taboo about calling a bear “bear”, but the bear in the story doesn’t mind. Many ancient people thought that bears were the animals closest to people and that although animals could no longer speak, bears could still understand. The love in the story reminded me of the fox sitting in the wheat field in THE LITTLE PRINCE. A STORY FOR BEAR is worth a search and will delight a bear and/or book lover.

See the post of 12/20/13 for a review of Red Sled, written and illustrated by Lita Judge and published by Atheneum in 2011. This wordless picture book has a bear as the most “human” of the animals in the story.

Also back on 11/29/13, we looked at Seekers: The Quest Begins, written by Erin Hunter and published by Harper Trophy in 2008 – 2010. This series is geared for older elementary students and apparently me too. Because I’m hooked and now have five in the series. On the first page of the first book, a mother tells her child an old tale of the bear constellation Ursa Major. Only this is a polar bear version.

As I’ve continued to read in the series, I’ve found more instances of bear beliefs. Before I would have read some of these things as an example of the writer’s individual imagination.* Now see I connections to beliefs that are thousands of years old. The only hint I’ll dangle right now is there is a character who brings to mind one of the Navajo names for bear—”Turning into Anything.”

And, lucky for me, there is at least one more book in the series.

Did you have a teddy bear when you were a kid? What did that bear mean to you? And, do you still have it?

*Did you know that Erin Hunter is more than one person?