Background: Oh my goodness I love A Visitor for Bear! I mean, yes, I expected to like it. I included it in my "reviews that made me want the book" feature last month, after reading about the book at Laura Salas' site, and the author, Bonny Becker, was kind enough to offer me a copy. Bonny and I haven't met, but we've emailed a bit since I reviewed (and highlighted as deserving of more attention) her previous book, Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale. I received A Visitor for Bear from Bonny about a month ago. Since then I've seen tons of positive reviews, though I've been trying hard not to read them in detail, so that I could come at the book objective. I finally found some time to read it yesterday.
Review: A Visitor for Bear is about an antisocial bear befriended against his will by a determined mouse. The book begins:
"No one ever came to Bear's house.
It has always been that way, and Bear
was quite sure he didn't like visitors.
He even had a sign."
Bear's solitary breakfast is interrupted one morning by a tap on the door, and the appearance of a mouse, "small and gray and bright-eyed." Bear sends the mouse packing. But this mouse takes determination to a whole new level. He keeps popping up in Bear's kitchen, as Bear attempts to prepare his meal. He is in the cupboard, and the bread drawer, and the fridge, one after the next. The mouse is unfailingly polite when Bear sends him away, but he also keeps coming back. Eventually, the mouse wears Bear down, and Bear lets him stay. And Bear discovers the joy of having someone to laugh at his jokes, and praise his fire, and just spend time with him. By the end of the book, the two unlikely companions become friends.
Bear's reluctant and gradual thawing should charm even the most jaded of readers. A Visitor for Bear manages to be heart-warming without being even the tiniest bit treacly. I think that there are several keys to this successful balancing act: Bear's grouchiness for the first 2/3 of the book, the lightly humorous voice of the story, and the personality of both characters conveyed in Denton's lovely watercolor and ink illustrations. The mouse is bright-eyed and expressive, and the bear is grouchy, but his eyes are gentle. Bear's home looks warm and comfortable.
Every word in this book is carefully chosen. The text scans well, and there is a sprinkling of advanced vocabulary words, all apt, like "and the mouse whisked out the door" and "Intolerable! Insufferable!". The mouse actually seems faintly British, not least because of his fondness for tea.
At 56 pages, this title is a bit longer than most picture books, but I think that the length is needed to make the story work. Bear's transformation wouldn't be believable if it happened in just a few pages. We need time to appreciate Bear for who he is, and to appreciate the persistence of the mouse (Liz B. called him "a borderline stalker"). And then we need some quiet time with Bear and the mouse sitting together in front of the fire, drinking tea, to accept the substance of their friendship. I would even go so far as to compare the relationship between the mouse and Bear to the relationship between the young Anne Shirley and Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (see some detailed thoughts about Marilla's transformation at Becky Levine's blog). We have the spunky, smaller, bright-eyed creature getting under the skin and into the heart of the larger, grouchier creature - it's perfect.
All of the above are excellent attributes of this book. But what really made me LOVE the book is the tremendous read-aloud potential. By the second page I was reading aloud to myself in an empty house. The use of repetition, the presence of informal asides, and the varying font sizes to indicate emphasis all contribute to what is nothing less than a compulsion to read this book out loud. I frequently read picture books by myself, but this one ... I really wanted to have a child handy to read it to. I already have a voice going, surprised and laughing at the same time, for the repeated refrain "there was the mouse!". I can't read the book without saying that phrase out loud. This is one that I'll be hanging on to, so that I can read it with any young visitors. And it's going on my list of staples for baby/birthday gifts.
In summary, I absolutely love A Visitor for Bear. I am charmed by the mouse. I empathize with the bear. I'm glad that they became friends. As you might imagine, I was thrilled to see on the illustrator's website that a sequel, A Birthday for Bear, is in the works for 2009. This is a must-buy, perfect for read-aloud at home, in school, or at the library.
Publication Date: February 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the author
Links: Liz B. reviewed this the other day at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. Liz seems to have a pretty comprehensive set of links to other reviews (8 of them) at the end of her post, so I will save just send you there for further reviews.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.