A couple of weeks ago, I happened to notice a conversation on Child Lit, a children’s-literature listserv, about a book called Bear Story: Just a Silly Man Who Wears a Fur Coat and Needs a Shave, by Liz Scott and illustrated by Marju Rose. It had been reviewed and starred by Kirkus Indie, our review service for the self-publishing community, and we published the review in our July 15, 2012, issue.
This story about a bear that wakes up from hibernation to discover that a factory has been built around him and is continually mistaken for a worker rang a bell with a sharp-eyed librarian who was struck by the similarity both plot summary and subtitle bore to an old 1940s-era classic: The Bear That Wasn’t, by Frank Tashlin. In that book, the foreman tells the bear: “You’re not a Bear. You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.”
Was this plagiarism?
Certainly the plot summaries and tag line were suspiciously similar. We picked up a copy of The Bear That Wasn’t from the library as soon as we could for comparison. There were some differences, most notably in an expanded ending and all-new illustrations, which updated the tale by placing computers in the background. Nevertheless, it was clear to us that Scott's story was based on Tashlin’s satire.
This particular story has struck a chord through the generations. Chuck Jones made it into an animated short in 1967. German author Jörg Steiner retold it in 1976, with due credit to Tashlin, and it was translated into English. I myself first encountered it at a storytelling festival in the 1990s, where it was told by the great Kendall Morse, who credited Tashlin. Long out-of-print, it was brought back to the shelves by New York Review Books in 2010, so we can all enjoy the original.
It’s interesting and heartening that the central truth of the story holds fast—which, perhaps, makes it all the more vulnerable to appropriation. If I heard it at a storytelling festival, it’s entirely possible others have, too, with or without sourcing. Willy-nilly, the story is making its way into the oral tradition.
We don’t know much about Scott, her motives or how she came across the tale. Her author bio tells us that she “enjoys telling stories to her grandchildren,” so I like to believe that she acted out of naïveté, not a willful desire to appropriate somebody else’s words and ideas.
Nevertheless, willful or not, Scott did represent them as hers. Plagiarism is wrong, and we are deeply distressed that we abetted it, however unknowingly, just as we are enormously grateful to those who draw our attention to it. We have withdrawn our review and our star from our website, and we have worked with our licensees and business partners to remove our endorsement of the book from their products.
We take our responsibility to our readers and our industry seriously. We are grateful for the trust you have put in us for the past 80 years, and we’re honored to think we may enjoy it for decades to come. And we will work anew every day to be sure we have earned it.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor at Kirkus.