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Review: Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson

Baby Bear
By Kadir Nelson

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)

ISBN: 9780062241726
Grades PreK-1
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Schuler Books | Your Library

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.

Click here to browse inside Baby Bear

Watch the Baby Bear book trailer:

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I’m convinced Kadir is actually a cyborg. No mere mortal should be able to paint like this.

  2. Well, I’ve only seen the ARC, so I’m not sure either – I don’t know enough about picture books to know whether the paper quality in the ARC is comparable to the paper quality in the finished book. So I’ll order a copy from my Library. But in terms of the text, I really don’t think it’s that bad; not enough to detract, as far as I’m concerned. I think Kadir has gotten dinged at times for his text being “only” good, which really does pale in comparison to his paintings, which are almost always stunning. That’s what we may be seeing here.

  3. I may be on my own here, but I think the bear’s eyes look creepy…maybe it looks different in the actual copy though. I’m waiting for another library to get it to check out before I buy it.

    • Travis Jonker says

      It’s funny you mention the eyes – I was going to mention them in my review, but decided not to. I agree that some may see the black, pupil-less eyes as creepy, but they don’t bother me. Personal taste, I suppose.

  4. The eyes do creep me out. If the eyes had been different, I might have liked his illustrations. I normally love Kadir Nelson’s work, but this book makes me think he should stick to painting people.