By Kadir Nelson
Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Man, are there a lot of bedtime books out there. With reading to children being such a pre-sleep ritual, however, this proliferation of books dedicated to sawing logs makes sense. In Baby Bear, Kadir Nelson ventures into the world of bedtime (and depicting animals in their natural habitats) for the first time. I’m glad he decided to join this crowded field. With jaw-dropping artwork and a simple story, we have a stunner on our hands. While some might have a hangup with the text, I say it’s a departure that shines.
Under the bright light of a full moon, Baby Bear is lost. As he makes his way through the forest, searching for home, he encounters animals of all shapes and sizes – each with a bit of advice. After talking to the mountain lion, frog, moose, and more, Baby Bear reaches home with the help of a salmon. All is well.
The knock against this book is that the text pales in comparison to the artwork. Well, I agree with that to a certain extent. There’s a platitude or two lurking. But there’s also some practical advice – “retrace your steps” – and even humor employed effectively. Scales balanced. My true disappointment here is one of production – the paper is too thin. They should have brought out the luxe stuff for this one.
With Baby Bear wandering through the forest asking the same question to every animal he encounters, I couldn’t help but think of it as a very earnest I Want My Hat Back. I Want My Home Back, if you will. But the dry wit present in Klassen’s book is nowhere to be found in Baby Bear, which sports a much more gentle and sincere tone.
The illustrations. Whoa. Nelson uses oil on canvas to put the moon to work, giving everything an ethereal glow (and check out the cover – tell me there aren’t some messianic allusions going on). There are a number of show-stopping spreads, including the final one on the endpaper, showing Baby Bear triumphant.
In the best cases, departures can have the effect of shaking readers by the shoulders and forcing them to see an artist’s talent with fresh eyes. I think that’s what we have here.
While the field is crowded, Baby Bear stands out in the bedtime pack. Can you do much better than to send a kid to dreamland with these images in his or her head? I think not.
Watch the Baby Bear book trailer: