I love it when reading books with kids yields unexpected results. Children are somehow able to surprise you and make you laugh, all at the same time, and I’ve found, on more than one occasion, that it’s impossible to expect a child to provide the expected, proper answers to those immortal questions like “What did the author want to say?” and “What is this book about?”.
One day, six-year-old Kasya handed me We’re Going on a Bear Hunt Published in English by Walker Books. and asked me to read it. This picture book by Michael Rosen had been her favorite about two years ago. She was well-acquainted with the playful plot about a group of siblings of all ages setting out excitedly on a bear hunt and then, to their horror, unexpectedly coming upon an actual bear. There was a time she knew the whole book by heart and, to be completely honest, I did too.
It was the author, Michael Rosen, that inspired me to read the book with a particular rhythm. Some time ago, I found a video online, where the British author enthusiastically performs his way through the book in a sort of sing-song. For many years now, his encounters with readers invariably feature his rendition of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and his years of practice have not been in vain—there’s much an adult can learn here about reading aloud.
This time I had to strain my memory a bit to recall the familiar cadences. But soon enough I had gotten into the swing of it and the book’s children were off on a bear hunt on a beautiful day, and they were not at all scared. Swishy Swashy! went the tall grass as they came through it. Hoooo woooo! howled the snowstorm. Kasya leapt about, thrilled. She remembered how she and her older sister used to put on mini-performances about the bear hunt: squelching through the swamp, splashing water, crossing the river, and all the rest, exactly according to the book, which so desperately invites its readers to take part in the story.
Now we were approaching the deep cave, where the owner of the “shiny, wet nose,” “two big furry ears,” and “two big googly eyes” awaited. In an instant, the carefree adventure transforms into a speedy retreat and the pace immediately quickens. The characters, fleeing, barely notice the scenery flying by. Kasya’s eyes shine with the thrill of the chase (I’ll reconsider later, what exactly excites this thrill.) The pursuit ends in the house, in the bed, under the covers—in the safest place. I’m a little out of breath. After all, we followed the kids as they ran for their lives up the stairs, only to remember that they hadn’t shut the door, then sped back down and slammed it before the very nose of the furry predator—there was plenty to worry about.
The last phrase—“We’re not going on a bear hunt again.”—comes as an exhalation of relief, but also simultaneous euphoria at having lived through this adventure. Under the thick pink down comforter, all fears lose their edge. Children and adults alike can take a breath.
Kasya and I turn the page and, as we’ve done so many times before, see the sad little bear wandering at the edge of the sea, no longer the terrifying beast we were running from. It’s here, as I get sentimental, thinking of how many times I’ve turned the last page of this well-worn and well-read book, that I hear an unexpected conclusion.
With some sadness, Kasya admits she feels bad for the bear. And, she has a point—the image of him wandering off, defeated, into the sunset can play such a trick: suddenly the plot flips and the villain becomes a hero, misunderstood and lonely. I readily support Kasya here and begin to suspect things aren’t so simple in that bear’s life. Look at those four kids, living in the big house together, all while he has no one to play with, no one to trust him.
“No,” says my daughter, who’s read her fair share of nature books, “I feel bad for him because he hasn’t eaten. You do know how much he has to eat and how much energy he used up on chasing the kids.” With some difficulty, I stop mid-way through my tirade about the duality of the villain and try to understand what she’s talking about. Yes, it turns out she earnestly sympathized with the bear as an animal, setting the fairytale plot and fictional reality to one side. Her ability to switch between different registers in understanding the text is so straightforward that I decide not to ask if she’d actually hoped the predator had made a square meal of one of the human characters.
The only thing I understood for sure after this reading was this—if I’m to tell someone what We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is about, I won’t be able to quite rid myself of the thought that not only is the story about an unsuccessful hunt of the bear by the children, but also the other way around.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover picture: walker.co.uk
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