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?

My New Favorite Piece of Writing Advice

Karen Cushman (author of many books including, The Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine, Called Birdy, and Will Sparrow’s Road) spoke at the SCBWI conference. She said we should look into our own writing to find solutions when our story stumps us. We write more than we know and should go back to find the clues and the implications we’ve already dropped like bread crumbs.

Some recent bread crumbs are convincing me she’s right.

Bread crumb #1Rita Mailheau, a friend, had about a month to write a complete novel for a contest. She had a very exciting scene at the end of the first chapter. It grabbed the reader and moved the plot, but had little connection to the overall conflict. Several chapters later, the protagonist was dealing with a family member whose actions were hurting the whole family, and it was unclear where the story should go.

What the hero had to do to survive in the first chapter became the metaphor for what he has to learn to do in other areas of his life. Connecting the two issues helped clarify one of the hero’s problems and to suggest solutions. And the best part was she had already put it in her story without realizing it.

Rita is a writer who loves her characters and laughs as she writes about them. She is able to immerse her characters in different historical times. If you’d like to meet Rita, you can find her on Facebook or Pinterest

Bread crumb # 2:  I got to meet Miranda Marks through another artist/author friend who suggested Miranda and I talk about a picture book she was writing and illustrating. The problem seemed to be that Miranda started her book as a fantasy and then switched into science. We talked about different ways to go one way or the other. But when I asked her what point she was trying to make, she spoke of the wonder a child feels when the world seems magical, and that she personally found that same sense of wonder in learning scientific reasons for natural phenomena. She wants children to see the wonder in learning about nature. She really had already put in what she wanted to say, she just needed to organize and connect it a little differently.

Lucky me! Miranda and I are now working on a book together. (I’ll tell you a little about it in a minute.) Her art work is beautiful. When she showed me her sample painting, I almost cried. You can find other examples of her work on her web site:

Miranda’s painting

Bread crumb #3The Grizzly _____’s Christmas is the book we’re working on together. It is a children’s story written by my college anthropology teacher, Malcolm Farmer. Shortly before his death, he asked me to help rewrite the story. One of Malcolm’s strong interests was the place/role of bears in various cultures’ rituals and belief systems so his story is about a bear. He had included, but didn’t explain, some of those beliefs.

For example, part of his story is about what this bear should be called. Various names, such as George, Smokey, or Louis are suggested and rejected. And he makes a reference to a taboo. Hmm? Rewriting this story was going to take research and I no longer could ask Malcolm directly so I’ve had to go to other academic sources.  The research has led to finding the other rich deposits of meaning that Malcolm hid in his story, leaving them for us to uncover and polish. I am so excited to be working on this project with Miranda. Will be keeping you posted periodically

Bread crumb #4:  One of the most satisfying experiences in my life was writing The Pig and the Dragon. Many times I felt I was being given a gift

rather than being an author. There were times as I wrote that something that had previously “appeared” suddenly resurfaced in a way that made me say, “That’s why that (the old line) is there. Here’s where it connects.”

Now, finally, I’m learning to consciously look for those bread crumbs. I had an ending to a story that felt right and good, but not quite perfect. I found a bread crumb, part of a sentence to add to the end, moved two sentences and added three lines—there was the ending that felt complete.


Which brings me to fairy tales. Bread crumbs aren’t just bread crumbs. They point the way home. What crumbs have  you found in your writing?