Author: Michelle Robinson
Illustrator: David Roberts
Planning on going for a walk in bear country?
Well, Michelle Robinson and David Roberts have it covered. And frankly, if I’ve taken one thing from this entrancing Bloomsbury number, it’s that I probably wouldn’t recommend it!
With the guidance of the unseen narrator’s reassuringly authoritative instruction, our silent, somewhat gormless, protagonist is led on his safe and correctly passage through the obstacles of bear country.
Er…or that is until the bears get in the way.
As the sorry little blighter walks further into increasing peril, Robinson’s narrator enthusiastically observes the scenario unfold alongside the reader, instructing accordingly based on the, ever so helpful bear spotting guide.
What’s so charming about the tone of this book for me, is that it somehow seems to harbor a really classic British-ness. Not only is it impossible to read the text in ANYTHING but the most polished of Queen’s English (the narrator, for me, was undoubtedly voiced by Stephen Fry. Maybe Attenborough at a push) but the humorous, narrative voice hints towards that mocking depreciation of authority that is somehow unique to British humor. The subsequent disasters our unprepared hero befalls, at the hand of the useless instructions relayed by an, apparently knowledgeable authority, are somehow utterly delightful.
Let’s face it, us Brits just revel in the shortcomings of others. It’s those cringe-making social failings in Gervais’s The Office; the deepening escalation of Black Adder’s wry truth embellishing, even the incrementally increasing fallout of Mr Bean’s slapstick clumsiness. Bear Spotting’s dry humour is a charming nod to the oh-so-British black comedy. (Or perhaps that’s brown comedy…)
But, as ever, in a picture books the legwork is only in part down to the written content. While Robinson’s text is, frankly, inspired, the true, laugh-out-loud effect is only achieved with its application to Roberts’s exquisite illustrations. Pleasingly sparse pages, and a rich, autumnal colour palette allow our character and those bothersome, suitably menacing, bears are left to speak for themselves against the minimalist environment. Earthy tones and tiny, quirky details all come together in the formation of a weird and wonderful world where oven glove mittens are the obvious choice for an excursion.
Only the simplest components of a human face are visible under our hero’s inspired, vintage-look balaclava, yet the expressive power in accordance with our narrators exclamations are simply divine. Robert’s facial drawings are spot on, ensuring instantaneous recognition as to the feelings of our silent protagonist. Its a delightful excuse for little-uns to strengthen understandings of empathy and for us bigger ones, it’s really just very funny.
As much as the absurdity is pleasing, I think there are a lot of reasons that Bear Spotting is actually a pretty intelligent children’s book. Not only does the silent figure demand a level of emotive analysis, but the format of the book as a whole is pleasingly subversive from the picture book status quo.
Once upon a time, books were words. Then pictures joined the party as the supportive side kick, echoing the text to reinforce the imagining in the readers mind. Then practitioners got clever. Imagery started to work together with the text providing additional details, or even showing a different reality to that of the words. Picture books subsequently became rich with narrative.
Bear Spotting is taking the next leap in the evolution of visual storytelling. Today, an all singing, all dancing new breed of pictorial-textual relationship has been emerging. Robinson and Roberts separate voices neither repeat nor subvert each other; instead they are two sides of the same dialogue. A reactionary book, if you like.
A short time ago, panicked traditionalists foresaw the death of books in place of the, more adaptive, games, films and apps. But seemingly picture books weren’t willing to give up so easily and new structural shifts have allowed for them to compete on the dynamic and reactionary plane. Our written narrator says jump, and our visual lead responds…rarely asking ‘how high’. Both have their own agenda and this interplay is the crux of the humour of this triumphantly absurd and delightful tale.
The simple conversation of the story is executed perfectly, without the book becoming long winded or overdrawn. The design faculty at Bloomsbury have masterfully laid out the pages into a perfectly paced and well balanced number and their exquisite use of typographic play really brings a life and enthusiasm to Robinson’s narrative voice.
In a time when picture books are offering as much ingenuity as the current market suggests, it is no mean feat when I say that Bear Spotting has probably been one of my favourite releases this year. I congratulate every single person who had a hand in this delight, and I look forward to seeing where we end up next on this path through the children’s industry.
But be sure to pack your teddy and a stick of gum, and never rely on Stephen Fry as an authority to guide you through Bear Country.