I love children’s literature, and young-adult literature, and I also love picture books. Because I love them so much, although we gave away three giant boxes to my sister Elizabeth’s son Jack when he was young, I still have many shelves of my favorites.
The other day, out of the blue, I found myself reflecting on an incident that, even when I read the book as a young child, struck me as profound and paradoxical. It happens in one of the four short stories in the wonderful 1957 book Little Bear (Amazon, Bookshop) by Else Holmelund Minarik with pictures by Maurice Sendak. (Little Bear, by the way, was the very first book in the famous “I Can Read” series.)
In the first story “What Will Little Bear Wear?” it’s a snowy day, and Little Bear tells Mother Bear that he’s cold, and asks for something to put on. So Mother Bear makes him a hat. Little Bear puts it on, goes out to play, returns to tell Mother Bear that he’s cold, and asks for something to put on. So she makes him a coat. He goes out, he gets cold, Mother Bear makes him snow pants. And he returns and once again, tells Mother Bear that he’s cold.
She asks, “My little bear, you have a hat, you have a coat, you have snow pants. Do you want a fur coat, too?” Little Bear says, “Yes, I want a fur coat, too.” And the story concludes:
Mother Bear took the hat, the coat, and the snow pants.
“See,” said Mother Bear, “there is the fur coat.”
“Hurray!” said Little Bear. “Here is my fur coat. Now I will not be cold.”
Even as a child, Mother Bear’s response—of taking back the hat, the coat, and the snow pants—puzzled me, yet it also seemed extremely satisfying.
What is the meaning of this story?
- That we get so distracted by asking for things that we forget to notice what we already have?
- That parents, by trying to help children cope with outside challenges, may cause their children to overlook the inner resources they already possess?
- That vocabulary and attention matter, and being told that you have a fur coat is enough to keep you warm?
- I could keep going!
Like all the best stories, this story, although it is so simple, holds many meanings.
If you want to hear a “Little Happier” episode about another one of the stories in that book, about the story “Little Bear’s Wish,” when Little Bear says to Mother Bear, “Tell me about me. Tell me about the things I once did,” it’s here.