Those of you readers who saw Vulture View, a 2008 Geisel Honor Book, know what rewards are in store when author April Pulley Sayre and illustrator Steve Jenkins pair up. They’re at it again with Eat Like a Bear, released this fall.
Here, Sayre invites young readers to become a bear. “Awake in April. Find food. But where?” With short, lyrical sentences—each carefully chosen word has meaning and weight, just like a really good poem—she takes readers on a journey through the seasons. We are with the majestic bear, searching, feeding, finding—and making our way, in the end, to settle down during midwinter to hibernate.
Steve Jenkins’ cut- and torn-paper collages, rich in texture, are breathtaking in spots. As Sayre notes below, he used a handmade Mexican bark paper, created from the bark of a fig tree, just for the bear. The book’s closing spread, providing further information about bears, brings even more context to Sayre’s terrific text.
Given that at one point, as you will read below, she was writing this book during an earthquake, I’m glad she’s still in one piece to chat with me about it.
I love the text, the short and immediate sentences. Did you always know it would flow in this manner, or did you start out differently?
The book began quite organically. I knew, upfront, there would be munching and crunching and lots of varied bear experiences. I could feel the language flowing, lapping out in little waves. It had nuances and eddies. It tried a couple of times to fall into a predictable pattern, but I yanked it back. I had this deep focus, this confidence that it would work.
I remember carrying it with me on many travels. One night I stayed overnight, all alone, in a historic B&B in a seemingly abandoned town in an Amish area of Indiana. I was jarred awake by an earthquake that almost shook me out of bed. I sat on that bed in that stark wooden room and chewed away, line-by-line, on Eat Like a Bear before my school visits.
Language to me is visceral. This piece reminds me of freestyle ice dancing—there are curves and swings that repeat and echo here and there; there's a kind of weaving that ultimately makes a circle. It's all quite delicate and can be ruined. When we edited, we had to break it in a couple of places and then repair it and that took repeated readings over weeks since—with only this feel in my mind, not a regular scannable pattern—it was harder to fix. Ultimately, we changed just a few lines—and I love those hard-won words because they are so satisfying, as if they were always meant to be.
You mention briefly in your closing Author's Note the research you did for this book. Can you talk a bit more about that?
My research came in layers. Like the bears, I had to dig!
My husband and I visited Yellowstone. I watched documentaries where the bears ate moths. I read scientific papers about their eating habits. Fortunately, bears are well studied, so the source material was readily available. Writing the endmatter was like writing an entire second book; I dug even deeper and pushed outward to connect the bear and its world to the broader human world. That, too, had a feel; I knew when it was chewy and nutritious enough to honor the bear’s world. Scientific experts consulted with me all along the way.
A team of people, including Laura Godwin, Noa Wheeler, designer April Ward and others at Holt invested their caring at each stage. The typeface, the design, cover choices—they all contribute to the feeling. Everyone got onboard with the bear and seemed to want to honor her journey. It’s not just the author and illustrator who pour themselves into a book; credits, like a movie, could roll!
Do you have a favorite spread in terms of illustration? (I am partial to that beautiful dandelion spread.) And what was it like to see Steve's art for this?
With Vulture View and Eat Like a Bear, receiving Steve’s art was—oh, gosh, this gut-joy that just expanded through my chest. It was like a poem came to life and walked around.
Steve gets it. He loves nature and science and respects creatures for their world. My favorite spread is the one where the bear is catching fish. I also love the intro spread where the bear is looking forward with such warmth and intelligence.
When I learned Steve used Mexican bark paper from fig trees to make the bears appear fuzzy, I was jazzed. My husband is a native plant expert, so we spend a good part of every day talking about seeds, nuts, plants, trees, bark and so on. We’re plant people!
What’s next for you?
Right now, I am writing a book about plants and finishing edits on Raindrops Roll, which I photo-illustrated. Steve Jenkins and I also have three yummy projects in the works, one entitled Woodpecker Wham.
EAT LIKE A BEAR. Copyright © 2013 by April Pulley Sayre. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Steve Jenkins. Published by Henry Holt and Company, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of Steve Jenkins.
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.