September 20, 2007


Very Hairy Bear. By Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Harcourt. $16.

Beetle Bop. By Denise Fleming. Harcourt. $16.

      Parents with children ages 3-7 have two great ways here to charm and enthrall their kids with stories about nature: a narrative way and a pictorial way. Very Hairy Bear is the narrative, and it is a marvelously poetic one – without containing any of the simple rhyming poetry usually used in books for children in this age range. Instead, Alice Schertle offers such lines as: “Each summer,/ he’s a sticky, licky honey hunter,/ with his bare nose deep/in the hollow of/ a bee tree.” It’s free verse with enough occasional rhymes to give it a particularly pleasant lilt: “He eats the berries and the bushes, too./ He’s a very full/ berryfull bear.” Schertle’s description of the bear’s activities closely tracks what real-world bears do, so this book is instructive as well as enjoyable. But if the narrative romanticizes without anthropomorphizing, the lovely pastel-and-pencil illustrations by Matt Phelan do more: they make the bear look like a huge, roly-poly dog with a perpetual faint smile and thoroughly endearing habits – the picture of the blue-faced bear lying on its back in the blueberry patch, with berries stuck on the ends of its claws, is a particular delight. Phelan also gives character to the supporting cast of animals, such as fish and squirrels. The narrative starts “deep in the green gorgeous wood” and continues through the seasons, ending with the bear going to sleep for the winter with “his shaggy, raggy/ very hairy/ bearpaws/ on top of his nose.” It’s a treat for any time of the year.

      Beetle Bop, in contrast, has no real story. Denise Fleming simply describes these insects, using more-traditional rhyming poetry to talk about “brown beetles,/ green beetles,/ not-often-seen beetles.” It is the visual impact of her book that is the point: not only “brown” shown in brown and “green” in green, but also the words “not-often-seen” shrinking from a large “n” to a much smaller one. And the pictures in this book are quite amazing. Created by pouring colored cotton fiber through hand-cut stencils, they show all sorts of beetles in all sorts of situations – including danger (a bird and a frog are shown as they are about to eat some). There are flipping beetles and flying beetles, beetles hiding in a crack just beyond a child’s toes, glowing beetles and crashing beetles, beetles of all colors and many sizes, tumbling all about: “Bark beetles,/ sand beetles,/ fill-up-your-hand beetles.” This book is a riot of color and a celebration of the beauty of nature – a feast for kids’ eyes that will hopefully serve as an introduction to insects as an important element of the Earth’s bounty. Fleming points out at the end, in a page that parents can read to and interpret for young children, that beetles “are one of the largest groups of animals on Earth. Some are pests, some are friends.” The ones Fleming portrays in Beetle Bop seem not only friendly but also quite magical.

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