“Not everyone loves a train,” begins Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley’s Courage Hats. Mae, carrying a small yellow suitcase, and Bear, with an old-fashioned knapsack across his shoulder, are both feeling anxious as they board a high-speed train. They don’t know each other yet, but they will.
Because she will be traveling “deep into bear places,” Mae has made a paper-bag headpiece to help her look more like a bear, with round ears and a brown nose. And because Bear will be venturing “deep into people places,” he has crafted a similar human-esque paper-bag hat. Each headpiece has a large hole that reveals Mae’s and Bear’s true faces, but to themselves and each other, they are utterly transformed.
Wearing their hats, Mae and Bear find seats next to each other on the train. Mae’s suitcase turns out to contain a tea set, while Bear’s polka-dotted knapsack holds sandwiches, crackers and cookies. Together, they enjoy a cozy spread as the train carries them on to a destination revealed on the book’s final page.
Bagley (Before I Leave) creatively extends Hoefler’s narrative, using eye-catching perspectives and presenting a world in which anthropomorphized woodland creatures and humans share spaces. The journey, not the destination, is the point of this rewarding story about finding courage via the gifts of friendship and abundant imagination.
Readers will especially appreciate Hoefler’s poetic and nuanced observations once Mae and Bear’s journey gets underway. There’s “a lot to notice” out the window of a train, Hoefler writes, such as “how a train carries the sky on its back.” Bagley illustrates this by depicting the new friends from behind as they take in the marvelous view of a golden meadow flanked by distant mountains.
There’s gentle humor in Courage Hats as well, rooted in the contradictions between Hoefler’s text and Bagley’s images. When Mae first meets Bear, Hoefler (Real Cowboys) tells us that Mae has “found a big grown-up to sit with,” while Bagley depicts Bear (in his person hat) sitting next to the window of the train’s bench seat, arms crossed in his lap. Similarly, Bear is relieved to have “found a small cub to sit with.” Later, as Mae and Bear find comfort in each other’s presence, they both reflect that, if not for their newfound friendship, they “might have missed what was right next” to them.
Courage Hats is a satisfying story about facing your fears. After all, if you can’t find your courage, “you can wear it on your head at first.”