When I meet fellow picture-book lovers who are fans of the work of author-illustrator Kadir Nelson, they are mighty serious about their fan-dom. No two ways about it, they are fervent in their adoration for his rich, sophisticated oil paintings and sumptuously illustrated nonfiction titles.
On shelves this month is a new picture book from Nelson, and I think it’s safe to say that his fans will be happy to see it, especially since with this one he is departing from his usual modus operandi. That is, this isn’t a biography, soaring in its subject matter and sweeping in its scope (not that Nelson has never illustrated fiction before). Baby Bear is the story of a small, meek creature. It’s a gentle, loving picture book with a big, warm heart at its center.
As you can tell from that handsome cover, Baby Bear has tenderness and passion in his eyes. He looks like he’s searching for something too. And can you note the book’s trim size from the cover image? It’s a larger, square book, hinting to readers that the journey therein is a big one. And it is—in more ways than one.
The opening endpapers give readers an aerial view at night of a valley and river, deep in a wooded area. Peek at the closing endpapers, and you’ll see the same location but during a resplendent sunrise. Looks like Baby Bear’s journey will be a nocturnal one.
Indeed, Baby Bear is wandering the woods at night, and he’s lost. He stops to ask various creatures he passes—a mountain lion, a short-tempered frog, a moose and more—if they can help him find his way home. Each animal has a piece of wisdom to pass along. When the mountain lion is lost, she tells him, she retraces her steps. The frog, busy eating a fly for dessert, tells him to trust himself. The moose says that sitting still and listening to one’s heart is foolproof: “It will lead you home.” The ram suggests climbing to a high spot to see all around. Oh, and singing a song helps: “[I]t will make you feel better,” the ram adds.
There are moments of humor and striking poignancy here. Since the squirrels’ plan of action when lost is to hug trees and think of home, Baby Bear determines to give it a shot. In the next spread, we see him embracing a large tree trunk but, seemingly, to no avail. The look of wide-eyed confusion on his face is pretty funny. And when the moose appears to ask him what precisely he is doing, he response, “Uh, nothing.”
Soon after, we see the searching Bear heeding Moose’s advice to sit still. It’s a beautiful wordless spread, the bear sitting next to the same monumental tree, thinking and watching. This is followed by a moving spread in which he’s quietly crying.
Yep. Still lost. Still trying to find his way.
It’s when he sees the owl that he receives an important reminder, buttressing him on his journey: “You are not alone, Baby Bear. I am here with you.…I love you.” The owl can be a symbol for many things, needless to say. Some will see the creature as Godlike. Other children may see it as a reminder that, when they have lost their way, they can lean on friends. Either way, this is a luminescent spread, the light reflected on the grass glowing with an almost otherworldly hue. It’s breathtaking.
Nelson brings readers more than one close-up of our protagonist. At what seems to be a turning point, we see his large eyes, the moon reflected therein. Just after that, the fish shows him the way. (Baby Bear has to promise not to eat him, of course!)
And you guessed it: The fish takes him to the very perch in the wilderness that gives us readers our endpaper views: It’s Baby Bear’s forest home. He sees he’s been there all along and that perhaps one isn’t really lost when friends and family are nearby to guide us.
More importantly, it was a journey Baby Bear had to take on his own, a realization—almost sacred in nature—that had to come to him after sifting through everyone’s varying nuggets of wisdom. And it’s hard: As the official Kirkus review for this book notes, “owing to Baby Bear’s childlike vulnerability, all this imparted wisdom can be psychically tough to implement in the moment.”
But he does figure it out on his own—well, after pondering advice from those he knows. And it’s an empowering notion for children, this process of self-discovery—all wrapped up in Nelson’s exquisite oil paintings. It’s a thought-provoking story for young and old alike.
[Note: Jennifer Brown recently chatted here with Kadir about this book, for those interested in reading more.]
The spread above is copyright © 2014 by Kadir Nelson and used with permission of the publisher, Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.