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.