review of picture book The Bears We Know

The Bears We Know

by Brenda Silsbe, illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen

Annick Press
(February 2009)
ISBN-10: 1554511666; ISBN-13: 978-1554511662
Ages: 4-8 (and up)

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

We have never seen the bears,
but we know they are there.
And we know what they do.
They sleep late every day. And nobody ever wakes them up or tells them they are sleeping late.
Because, you know, you never wake up or talk back to bears.

The Bears We know by Brenda Silsbe, illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen, p. 4.

Silliness and imaginative play are an important part of being a child–perhaps of being human. It’s important to have fun. The Bears We Know is a great way to add some silly playfulness to your day. An unseen narrater talks about the bears they’ve never seen who live in a house at the end of the street, and all the things the bears do all day. How do they know what the bears are up to? They just KNOW.

Silsbe’s text is funny and playful. The story is like an analogy of people who assume something about others when they don’t actually know anything about them (such as kids and a spooky house at the end of the street).

Silsbe’s playful, over-the-top imaginings of what the bears could be up to are fun, while at the same time they poke gentle fun at people who make assumptions. The things the bears do (according to the unseen narrater) are the kinds of things that kids and adults might love to do while playing hooky, such as sleep in late, jump on couches, eat lots of junk food, watch cartoons and tv shows, etc. The story also encourages childrens’ natural curiosity and imagination, while showing that gossip and speculation is easy to spread.

I love the playful, funny things the unseen narrater imagines the bears are up to–such as bringing home couches from the dump to jump on until the springs are gone. Some of the things the narrater imagines the bears are up to are very silly, like the bears wearing tight bathing suits in the sauna and singing, while others feel more like what a kid or adult might really want to do. Others feel like an attempt to get into the character of what a bear might do (such as dumping sawdust on the floor, or napping before the fire)–those ones didn’t work as well for me.

Silsbe uses specific details, such as making hot buttered toast and hot chocolate, which help bring the reader more into the story. The book isn’t so much a story as an episodic, connected list of things that could happen. The ending has a great punch line that works–the narrater says that people ask them how they know so much about the bears when they’ve never seen them–and the narrater replies: “Well…some thing you just KNOW.” Very funny!

van Kampen’s watercolor illustrations are playful, happy, and gentle, with soft colors and soft, rounded edges. The illustrations really add to the fun of the book, bringing the text alive. (There was a previous version of this book with older illustrations–and these illustrations are far more fun and powerful.) The bears look very happy, fluffy and comfortably plump, and most objects also look comfortably plump. van Kampen makes great use of fun details that show the messiness of the bears in most illustrations, such as open chip bags with spilled chips, take-out containers and pop cans on the floors. These details are combined with many warming details, such as a patchwork quilt, flowered pillows, a wooden bed, a red wagon–all of which work to reassure and comfort the reader, and bring a sense of happiness.

A lot of white space helps give the illustrations a light feeling, and adds to the sense of happiness. Great fun foreground details, along with a lack of background detail and clutter also add to this sense of lightness. The illustrations also move through emotion, from happiness to brief sadness to back to being happy again, finding happiness through singing, making buttered toast, and having a good time together.

The reader never sees the narrater–only the bears and what the bears are supposedly doing. The bears are humanized to some degree in funny, cute ways, with each bear wearing one or more items of clothing (such as one wearing yellow boots, one wearing a red vest, one wearing a green winter hat and a polka dotted purple tie), and by their behavior, such as eating chips, sitting or jumping on couches, and sleeping in bed.

The illustrations add to the playfulness and the story, showing things the text doesn’t, such as the bears catching the toast that pops up by using a net.

This is a fun, silly, playful book. Recommended!

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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