September 04, 2014
(++++) BEYOND THE BEARABLE
A Bear Called Paddington. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
Paddington. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
The Paddington Treasury. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $21.99.
Paddington Bear All Day. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Paddington Bear Goes to Market. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Paddington Bear never went away, not really. Ever since Michael Bond created the first story about the bear from “Darkest Peru,” arriving in England with a tag saying “please look after this bear” – that was back in 1958 – Paddington and his gentle adventures have charmed kids and their parents. Bond, who is now 88 years old, continues to write and continues to produce Paddington tales: Love from Paddington, a particularly apt title, is due to appear later this year. But if Paddington has been around for more than half a century, he has not shown up in the many and various inevitable ways that beloved fictional characters do nowadays: in new editions, in collections, in board books, and of course in non-book media such as movies. All these forms of appearance have now come to Paddington, or will soon, and HarperCollins is leading the print-media charge with a series of highly attractive reissues of some of the Paddington tales.
Nowadays kids’ stories are differently told for children of different ages, and differently packaged at various “price points” and in various formats. So the original A Bear Called Paddington is again available, intended for ages 8-12, and is as great a charmer today as it has been for all those years. Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations have much to do with this, complementing Bond’s writing as beautifully as E.H. Shepherd’s did those of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Fortnum is expert at suggesting Paddington’s expressions and activities rather than making them perfectly clear and obvious, and this adds to the charm of Bond’s book, which is part fairy tale, part wry amusement, and part (large part) gentle surrealism. The Paddington stories that collectively make up A Bear Called Paddington are individual gems, from the initial discovery and naming of the bear to his inadvertent re-painting of Mr. Brown’s art to his seaside adventure – and more. Everything is sweet, the problems small and amusing ones that bring no harm to anyone and actually bring the family (Paddington included) closer together. Reading or re-reading the original book is a pleasure, despite the fact that there is a faint whiff of an earlier, apparently more-innocent life and era about it – or because of that fact.
Paddington makes a wonderful character for younger kids, ages 4-8, to meet, and two picture books with R.W. Alley illustrations give them the chance to do just that. Alley’s work more plainspoken (or the artistic equivalent) and more forthright than Fortnum’s, his Paddington influenced as much by Walt Disney’s Pooh as by Milne’s. Roly-poly and highly expressive, this Paddington has adventures that seem more typical for those in kids’ books than do the ones illustrated by Fortnum – even when they are the same adventures. A lot has to do with the characterization of the others in the stories: Alley makes them, collectively, rather typical “character types” for young children’s tales, posing them in expected ways and doing anticipated things. Yet this does not diminish Paddington’s charm – it just rearranges it a bit. Parents unsure of how 21st-century children will react to Bond’s bear will want the new edition of Paddington, which was originally published in 1998 and subsequently in 2007. This is simply a pleasant oversize-picture-book version of the very first Paddington story, in which the bear meets the Browns and comes to live with them. If families find it congenial, they can move on to The Paddington Treasury, which is subtitled “Six Classic Bedtime Stories” – even though there is no reason for them to be read only at night. The first Paddington tale is included here as well, so families “moving up” to this book (which was first published in England in 2010 but is only now available in a U.S. edition) will have that story twice – perhaps encouraging them to donate Paddington to another family and, in modern parlance, “pay it forward” by sharing the joy. There is certainly plenty of joy in all the stories here: the “origin” one is followed by Paddington at the Palace, Paddington at the Zoo, Paddington in the Garden, Paddington and the Marmalade Maze, and Paddington the Artist. All are delightful, all are warm, all are as cuddly as the bear himself, and all are filled with minor predicaments and small amusements that are, collectively, more fun than the pratfalls and extreme gags so common in books for children today.
Actually, kids are never too young to delight in Paddington, which is where the new board books – their contents originally dating to 1998 but now available in small, easy-to-handle format – come in. Paddington Bear All Day and Paddington Bear Goes to Market both feature Alley illustrations and simple, amusing, rhymed stories. From the first of these: “Lunch comes next,/ and then it’s tea,/ with marmalade./ Oh, lucky me!” And from the second: “Around the corner, down the street,/ He’s off to get his daily treat.” Officially designated for ages 4-8, these little books are fine for children of any age, from newborns on up – although a top age of 4-6 seems more correct than 4-8. In these short-short stories as in the longer ones that collectively make up the Paddington books, the bear from South America is positively adorable as he fits into everyday London life, or tries to; and the interactions he has with the Brown family, the neighbors, the shopkeepers, the gardeners and all the other area residents are unfailingly pleasant, amusing, and thoroughly endearing. Paddington may be 50-plus years old, but he has long since attained that rarest of fictional-character statuses: he seems always to have existed, and is truly timeless.