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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

Retold by Michael Rosen
Illustrator: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: First published by Walker Books Ltd, 1989, featured edition (with CD) 2007

We're Going on a Bear Hunt is more of a song than a 'story' (in the prose sense of story; song's can tell stories of course). This book is lyrical, rhythmic and catchy. It grafts a place on the memory, inside the imagination. It's quite simply a pioneer of modern read-aloud British Children's Literature. 

The narrative sees a family heading off on a walking adventure, an exploration to track down a bear. 'Bear hunt' as the book opens, seems like a fun sing-song, a beat to walk to on the mild summer's day walk. The family are courageous though, and start battling the elements to venture further afield, waist high grass, a deep river, mudflats, a big dark forest, and the most fearsome element of all, an imposing snowstorm. The sense of trepidation grows as the family venture further forwards, repeating the mantra of 'we can't go over it, we can't go under it, we'll have to go through it' on their stoic way. Through the pictures we see the smaller children are carried by the older ones, hair blowing in the breeze, then flapping in the wind, battling adversity 'stumble trip, stumble trip.' And then, a more frightening idea still, a cave, 'a narrow gloomy cave' at that. As the family tiptoe in, they come face to face with a huge brown bear. The 'teddy bear's picnic' or 'follow-the leader' style game the children seem to have been playing is abandoned, and the 'bear-hunt' is suddenly very dark and foreboding with a 'real' bear involved. To the horror of the reader and any listeners, the bear then chases the children, and the story reverts backwards back through all the elements again (but at a faster speed) (three picture strips per page). Eventually the family reach home, running upstairs, with the shadow of the bear chasing them in the door way. Then, a real nail biting moment, 'we forgot to shut the door', and the whole family work together to slam the door just as the bear arrives on the doorstep. Finding the safest place to be / hide in the house, the children race into bed and pull the cover over their heads. A big pink comfy looking quilt enveloping all the children ends the chase, and the bear is the shown plodding back to his cave (alone). Exhilarating.    

Now what strikes me about writing out the narrative of We're Going on a Bear Hunt is that so much of the book is told by the pictures foremost, the text is almost supporting he illustrations, rather than the other way round (which is the convention in children's books, especially at this time).The illustrations (by Helen Oxenbury) depict movement so beautifully, with all the limbs of the children (and their dog) moving in different places, statures in movement positions, hair flowing. The watercolour illustrations in the book offer insight into the conditions the adventuring family face, and these pages in turn are supported by very simple and repetitive use of onomatopoeia to build this description further, so for example long grass sounds and feels, 'swishy swashy', thick oozy mud is 'squelch squerch'. The book also features these chorus-line pages, in black and white (charcoal drawings I think), in which the family are depicted as contemplating their next move, and next tribulation ahead.    

Childhood, and the freedom to explore and 'let be', seems to be a main theme in the book, with sticks in hand for swashing grass and duvets to hide under. Juxtaposed with that are the very solemn and earnest looks on the faces of the family, when they face a new hurdle to overcome. Their expressions grow graver as the story develops, and they start to huddle together in the snowstorm, the carefree river wade far behind them. Whether this is symbolic of a message about growing up, growing together, working through hard times as a family, I'm not sure, I like to think so, but the message my children relay at this point in the story is more one of battling fear, being afraid and wanting to go back (they often point to the baby/ toddler in the pictures, pulling the older sister back).  We're Going on a Bear Hunt is really interesting like that, being chased, going into a cave, stumbling in a dark forest are all the thing of (childhood) nightmares. I think my children are right, it's about conquering fears, feeling safe (at home), and isn't that such a brilliant message? 

In all, I really love this book. It comes with us on many of our own family adventures, as the text is so rhythmic (I don't know the technical term for the beat the lines play out sadly, but the first two lines of every four echo each other, the third and the fourth are the echoed reply), that when we're trekking across fields or walking (by, rather than in!) rivers with the children, one or two of the children often start reciting this book. Bear Hunt triggers so much in the memory. The vast landscapes in the illustrations feel very nostalgic (the flocking birds for example) and the book seems to smell of summertime (with its depiction of light and long shadows, long grass for example). Yes Bear Hunt does contain moments of nightmare, but then fear really etches in the memory (I have a memory of a teacher reading this very book to me as a child and me feeling out of breath and scared as the bear was 'chasing me'). As such, Bear Hunt also stands as an invitation to imagine, to role play, to dream, to explore.  

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