Tag Archive | zoos

The Biggest Bear, by Lynd Ward

The Biggest Bear, by Lynd Ward

He illustrated 200 children’s books, and was the illustrator for “Johnny Tremain.” The book’s jacket even describes him as “one of America’s greatest artists.” But in 1952, Lynd Ward started his greatest project. He both wrote and illustrated the story of “The Biggest Bear” – and it won him the Caldecott Medal.

“Johnny Orchard lived on the farm farthest up the valley,” Ward writes, “and closest to the woods.” He draws the boy’s smiling face, and then an illustration of his grandfather’s farm. But the third drawing shows the source of the boy’s humiliation: all the other farmer display a bear skin nailed to the side of their barns. In fact, Mr. Pennell had impressed the boy by shooting three bears once when they’d passed by his field.

If this book is problematic today, it’s only because it shows drawings of the hunters pointing their guns. But Johnny’s grandfather seems less militant, and tells the story of encountering a bear – and then running. “Better a bear in the orchard than an Orchard in the bear,” he jokes. However, Johnny finds this humiliating, and vows he’ll shoot a bear himself if he ever comes across one.

Ward obviously liked the idea of drawing the small boy in the wild woods. But he’s also dreamed up a clever surprise for his story when the boy ventures in with his gun. Johnny discovers a tiny bear cub instead, and gives it a piece of maple sugar. He cradles the bear in his arms, and takes it back to his family. And soon they’re feeding the bear cub on the milk from their cows.

The calves look on angrily, since that milk was meant for them. And the cub also likes the corn mash that was “meant for the chickens.” Each sentence gets a wonderful illustration, as Ward lets the story unfold. The cub “liked the apples in the orchard,” he writes – then shows the upside-down bear climbing a branch for the fruit!

The cub likes pancakes on Sundays, and Johnny’s maple sugar. And “Johnny’s mother got pretty upset when he started looking for things on the kitchen shelves.” One night the bear camps in a neighboring farmer’s corn field. And Mr. Pennell’s smokehouse was soon plundered for its hanging hams. Picture after picture details the havoc that was wreaked by the visiting bear.

He guzzles syrup in a shed, and even the sap tapped from the maple trees. “He was a trial and a tribulation to the whole valley,” the neighbors explain to Johnny’s father. They lead the bear back into the woods – but the bear simply returns to the farm. Ultimately Johnny decides that he has to shoot the bear after all…even though now he doesn’t want to. But fortunately, the book finds a happy ending instead, and the bear is taken off to the zoo.

And whenever Johnny goes to visit him, he always brings maple sugar.

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

“The day begins as many do:
I find myself inside a zoo.”

There’s really two stories in “Just Another Morning,” but they’re both a lot of fun. A little boy wakes up in his bed – surrounded by his favorite stuffed animals – but he imagines that he’s waking up inside a zoo. And then he has to tiptoe past the sleeping giants (his parents), down “a mountain long and steep” (his staircase). His imaginary story is very exciting, filled with lots of dangerous adventures, but the illustrations make sure that everything stays cute. Illustrator Claudio Muñoz uses soft colors and big, round shapes, so the imaginary story looks more like a cartoon drawn with a crayon!

“Behind a door, I find a feast
and share it with a hairy beast.”

The “beast” is the family dog, and the feast comes from the tasty snacks in the refrigerator. There’s a green monster in the closet – the family vacuum cleaner – and then the boy builds a castle out of chairs. Unfortunately, soon the “giants” are awake, appearing angry as they burst through the door into the kitchen. The boy rushes into the garden, where he plays with “a spitting snake”:  the garden hose.

It’s fun to imagine how this book got written. Linda Ashman composed the poem, but presumably she also knew what the illustrator would be drawing. This might be a good book for younger readers, because the pictures and the illustrations always have a real connection. Of course, it might confuse the youngest readers, if they take the text too literally!

“I join a traveling circus troupe,
teach a clown to hula-hoop,
train a monkey, tame a cat,
tumble like an acrobat.”

This is one of the trickiest drawings in the book because now the little boy is lost in his imagination. But the monkey looks like the stuffed monkey he’d imagined at the zoo, and the “clown” is just the family dog again, wearing a party hat. There appears to be a real cat in the drawing, but it’s just staring dubiously at a dangling hoop. And then suddenly the “giant” reappears and scoops up the boy. “I can’t break free,” he says; though, in the illustration, it’s the boy’s father who’s smiling gently. The boy ends up taking a nap in his room, and in a funny twist, the book ends exactly where it begins.

“The hours pass. When I come to,
I find myself inside a zoo…”

Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator is a brightly-painted wooden alligator, posed with a smile on the children’s carousel. “He loved the flashing lights,” writes Randy Cecil in Gator, along with “the sound of the calliope, and the feeling of wind on his face.” Unfortunately, the crowds grow smaller at the amusement park, and eventually the rides stop running, and the lights go dark. “The laughter was gone,” writes Cecil, and the book takes a dramatic turn. One day the wooden alligator “touched the hole in his heart where the pole had been, and looked over the empty park…where he had spent his entire life.

“It was time to leave.”

Randy Cecil also drew the book’s soft oil illustrations, and they give the book a strange grandeur. There’s a few quirky drawing of skinny children with big heads, but the rest of the book is about the carousel alligator, and how he ends up meeting some real animals at a zoo.  They seem just as unreal, thanks to Cecil’s eccentric sketches. The text takes some dramatic turns, but Cecil keeps it light with some funny drawings.

Before he can get to the zoo, the alligator has to wander through a hazy brown forest, and “A cold wind blew through the hole in Gator’s heart.” His best friend on the carousel was a giant wooden duck, so he’s surprised when he crosses an arching stone bridge, and sees real ducks swimming in the stream. He’s attracted to the zoo by the sound of the children laughing, and thinks it must be some kind of amusement park. “But where were the flashing lights?” Gator wonders.

Then he wanders into a pen that’s filled with real alligators, which Cecil describes as “big” and “scary.” He tiptoes away, then sits alone on a park bench, and covers his eyes as he cries. Soon he’s recognized by a child’s father, who remembered riding the carousel as a kid. Soon his son wants to ride the carousel, too, and so do more and more of the children at the zoo.

I thought this was a very original story with some clever touches. Keeping with the book’s merry-go-round theme, the story’s text always appears in ovals that are trimmed with fancy curlicues and golden paint. Together the children and the alligator cross the bridge and travel through the forest. “The calliope began to play, and the lights came back on.”

And “The hole in Gator’s heart was gone.”