Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
In 1957, two authors, independently, set out to write a book that could help young children learn to read. Else Holmelund Minarik, a first grade teacher on Long Island, was prompted by the dearth of interesting books for early readers, her young daughter among them. Dr. Seuss was given a list of 348 words by his publisher and challenged to do something with them. The results were Little Bear and The Cat in the Hat, each written with a vocabulary of fewer than 250 mostly monosyllabic words. It is remarkable that such a limited palette could be transformed into two such divergent reading experiences. Dr. Seuss concocted a frenetic rhyming wonder about the Cat in the Hat and his kite-flying sidekicks, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who create havoc while the mother is away. Else Minarik invented Little Bear, a lovable creature who enjoys the pleasures that come from the imagination, friendship (with Hen, Duck, and Cat), and a loving mother. Both books have retained their popularity for more than half a century and children should be forever grateful that their publication spared future generations the robot-like tedium of the Dick and Jane primers in which nothing ever happened (“See Spot. See Spot run.”)
Minarik’s gift was the creation of character with an economy of words, especially memorable in the figure of Mother Bear who is wryly humorous, playful, and reassuring. When Little Bear makes himself a space helmet and declares his plan to fly to the moon like a bird, she responds with tolerant skepticism.
“And maybe,” said Mother Bear, “you are a little fat bear cub with no wings and no feathers.
“Maybe if you jump up you will come down very fast, with a big plop.”
“Maybe,” said Little Bear. “But I’m going now. Just look for me up in the sky.”
“Be back for lunch,” said Mother.
When Little Bear wanders back, pretending in his mind that he is having a lunar experience, his mother greets him, “But who is this? Are you a bear from Earth?” And they enjoy the shared pretense until Little Bear decides it is time to resume his true persona so he can envelop himself in the arms of his real mother.
Else Minarik’s writing was paired with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Little Bear. Both were immigrants, of sorts. She came from Denmark at the age of four and imbued her books with her memories of an idyllic childhood in the old country. He, the son of Polish immigrants, had a miserable growing-up in Brooklyn, steeped in tragic stories of shtetl persecution. Sendak may have given vent to his personal demons in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but for Little Bear he got the tone just right for Minarik’s childhood eden. The costumes are late 19th century with pinafores, bonnets, sweeping dresses, capes, and top hats – for everyone but Little Bear himself, who wears his own fur coat. For the space helmet, Sendak devised an upended cardboard box with ear flaps and sprung coil antennae. Sendak illustrated the first five in the Little Bear series (Little Bear, Father Bear Comes Home, Little Bear’s Friend, Little Bear’s Visit, and A Kiss for Little Bear) and it is best to stick with these. Note in the last of them, Little Bear paints a picture of a Wild Thing as a gift for his grandmother.