When it comes to animals in picture books, bears have a long and storied history. Large or small, woodland creature or friendly plush toy, their contributions are undeniable. Jonathan Stutzman and Dan Santat’s Bear Is a Bear more than earns its place among the ranks of Winnie, Corduroy, Paddington, Little Bear and more.
Although this Bear is a teddy toy, Santat depicts him as an actual bear. When the winsome Bear is introduced to his little girl, she is a baby gnawing on a wooden block and he is “hopeful and shy.” He lowers his hulking body down onto the rug, lies on his tummy and smiles his most pleasing smile. The connection between them is instant: The baby attaches herself to Bear’s head like a suction cup (“Bear is a snack.”) before shooting snot directly at his face (“Bear is a tissue.”). Bear is undeterred, and soon he has become a “warm, soft pillow” on which the child drifts off to sleep.
As the girl grows up, Bear plays many parts, always going along with whatever she wants to do. Together, they dress up for tea parties, dig for buried treasure and peer up at the stars through a telescope. Bear is a “brave protector” in a scary thunderstorm and a tissue, again, when the girl reads a tear-jerking novel. When the girl goes off to college, Bear becomes “a scholar” and “a piece of home,” but eventually he is “a memory . . . covered in dust” in a trunk. But Bear is not forgotten, and soon he has a new role to play in the life of someone very important to his little girl.
Throughout the book, Caldecott Medalist Santat (The Adventures of Beekle) portrays Bear as a gentle giant who quickly earns a place in readers’ hearts. Santat’s illustrations are friendly and humorous, sure to remind adults of their own plush childhood friends who may also be tucked away in boxes. Stutzman’s language is gentle and has an appealing rhythm that’s ideal for bedtime. The book’s circular narrative and refrain of “Bear is a bear full of love” make for a satisfying read-aloud that’s charmingly nostalgic with just the right amount of sweetness.