On the surface, Kadir Nelson's mesmerizing oil paintings for a picture book about a baby bear's attempt to find home may not seem to have a lot in common with his previous works. Readers might think first of his Sibert Medal–winning history of the Negro Baseball Leagues, We Are the Ship; or the multigenerational history unspooled by the eloquent grandmother figure in Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans; or his captivating artwork for Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story and his Caldecott Honor–winning artwork for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. But in all of these books, his characters embark on a journey—many of a physical nature, but all of a spiritual nature.
The hero of Baby Bear is lost, but he does not search for his mother, father or family. He searches for home. Each animal the cub encounters in the dark of night offers suggestions to point him in the right direction. As Kirkus wrote in a starred review, "Strung together, these gems could stand as a guide to life for readers of all ages: Retrace your steps. Trust yourself. Hug a tree. Listen to your heart. Climb a little higher. Sing a song. Look up and keep going." Nelson thinks of this as a story of self-discovery. "What is the definition of home?" he asks. "For this story, home is really about finding your spiritual home. These animals are like the people in our lives who give us advice. But no one can tell you the way. You have to discover it for yourself."
The cub makes his way at night, and the velvety backdrops of midnight blue along the riverbank and the forest's aqua green call to mind Nelson’s nighttime scenes from Moses. The night feels alive with possibilities for Baby Bear. "The challenge was how to give a variety of nighttime images—a mix of not just color variation, but also perspectives and lighting," Nelson explains. "If you've ever watched a full moon, it actually does change color. At the horizon when it's rising, it's very orange; it follows the colors of the rainbow almost. I ended up moving through the colors of the rainbow. It helped a lot when it came to altering the palette for each scene or each encounter."
Nelson prefers to work in watercolor and pencil, as he did in his earlier works, but he's had to move to oil paintings out of necessity. "When I was working with watercolors, I was at a dry table, and it took a toll on my neck, bent over for hours on end," he explains. "For 10 years I did that, and it got taxing. I was literally trying to save my neck." Nelson said he also looked forward to using larger canvases, which he does with his oil paintings.
In one of the book's rare wordless spreads, Baby Bear's face dominates the entire painting as he looks up at the full moon and we see it reflected back in his eyes. This immediately follows his encounter with Owl, who tells Baby Bear, "I am here with you. You only need look up and keep going." The artwork throughout reinforces Owl's words, with an opening image of the moonrise and Owl soaring in the sky, and the feeling is implicit that Owl could be floating above each scene. Baby Bear's expression with the reflected full moon in his eyes is one of complete trust. "There are a couple of images here that I knew I really looked forward to doing,” Nelson recalls. “I had them in my head from the beginning.”
The author-artist remembers sitting at the Caldecott-Newbery banquet in 2008 in Anaheim when Laura Amy Schlitz delivered her speech. He remembers her description of a mythical bear, her companion bear-spirit. "She described encountering this bear in the forest and the moonlight ‘poured into the clearing like a giant bowl of milk.’ It was such a powerful image, so visceral that I couldn't get it out of my head," he says. He didn't yet have the idea for Baby Bear, but he says, "that's the image that inspired the scene of Baby Bear and the owl in the clearing." Nelson also knew that he wanted to paint that portrait of Baby Bear looking up in response to Owl and for children to see in the cub's eyes a reflection of what Baby Bear sees.
On a visit to Hawaii, on the Big Island at night, Nelson took in the view of the sky with no cars and very few lights. He could see the Milky Way and every star. "The feeling I got from that was the feeling Owl describes: I felt I wasn’t alone," Nelson explains. "Baby Bear looks up and sees he's not alone. He's comforted by that blanket of stars. I hope viewers will feel that sense of love and connectedness." He likens the expression on Baby Bear's face to the feeling he gets when he looks into the eyes of his children. "It's hard to describe," says Nelson. "It feels like pure truth and love when you look into a child's eyes. It's a sense of deep connection—like looking into the eyes of God." For the last leg of Baby Bear's journey, Salmon (after making Baby Bear "promise not to eat me") guides the cub across the river. "A lot of this story is about harmony," Nelson says. "We can overcome our animal selves by reaching higher. That's what Baby Bear is doing: He's reaching higher."
On that final spread, when Baby Bear has made that last climb up, the hero says, “I am home.” Readers turn to the endpapers and see the sunrise. The image echoes the opening scene of the moonrise. We see most of the animals the cub met on his way. "You're seeing what he's seeing," Nelson says. "He's seeing the sun rise over his home and realizes he's always been home. He doesn’t have anything to fear."
Jennifer M. Brown is the children's editor of Shelf Awareness and the director of the Center for Children's Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.