Wednesday, August 29, 2007


“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?
I see a red bird looking at me.”

With those two short sentences, a literary atrocity was foisted upon the English speaking world. Bill Martin Jr’s 1967 book may be considered a classic, but it’s got plot holes so big you can drive a truck through them.

These flaws may not be apparent on the first few hundred reads, but once you’ve read it 700 or 800 times (and most parents have) the problems can no longer be ignored.

Brown Bear begins with the titular question, and the bear replies that he sees a red bird looking at him. Fair enough. The narrative travels through a series of open doors that ultimately lead nowhere. The red bird sees a yellow duck, who sees a blue horse, who sees a green frog, who sees a purple cat, and so on, and so on, and so on.

But the story really breaks down when the sheep hits the scene. (It seems like sheep are often a source of trouble.) In the book, the sheep is asked what he sees, and he claims a goldfish is looking at him. This, in my opinion, is utter nonsense.

I can accept that a duck would have occasion to see a horse (be it blue or otherwise), and a frog would be in a position to see a cat. But I can’t think of any circumstance where a sheep would be in the same room with a goldfish.

Perhaps, somewhere in the world, there is a kid who has an irrational attachment to his goldfish… who has to carry it with him in a bowl wherever he goes… who just so happens to be visiting a petting zoo. But that would change this supposed children’s book into a psychology text book. If nothing else, the sheep would have at least made mention of this extremely unlikely circumstance:

“Black Sheep, Black Sheep, what do you see?”
“I see a child with a severe mental disorder who needs to be spending more time with a professional therapist and less time at this farm.”

The book continues with the goldfish being looked at by a teacher, who in turn is looking at children acting like various animals. Perfectly reasonable scenarios, but by the time I got there, I had mentally checked out. Once credibility is lost, you really can’t get it back.

Martin seeks to cover up these flaws by writing almost the exact same book again and calling it “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” In this book, various animals claim auditory hallucinations that take the form of peacocks, walruses, zebras, etc. This time, the book is set in a zoo, so I guess that makes it all plausible. Whatever.

But perhaps Martin’s most audacious move was to write the entire “Brown Bear” book a third time. This time it was called “Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do you See?” and, once again, a series of animals sees a series of other animals. The hook this time is that they’re all endangered species, but that only makes all the more unlikely that they’d actually see each other.

“Panda Bear” really jumps the shark when it gets to the macaroni penguin. That animal has no place in this book. First, the syllables don’t fit. “Macaroni Penguin, Macaroni Penguin, what do you see?” Nope, I’m not buying it. But then I did a little research and learned that macaroni penguins (which I previously thought the author had made up for this book) aren’t even endangered. As a matter of fact, the International Penguin Conservation Group (and Wikipedia) says macaroni penguins are the most numerous of all the world’s penguins.

(Fun fact: the macaroni penguin was named after the line in “Yankee Doodle” about the guy putting the feather in his cap.)

So what are we to make of “Brown Bear,” and all the bear’s that have followed him? It is clear the author believes he can make a fool of his reader, and this is unfortunate. These days it’s more important than ever that we… hang on… I’m going to have to finish this later, my kids want me to read the book to them again.

Oh well.

Next in our children’s book series, we take a look at the post-modern classic “The Monster at the End of this Book”

Labels: , ,


At 7:38 am, Blogger imitate said...

Two things: 1. Love the jump the shark reference. Love anyone who gets that reference. 2. Speaking of a child who should be seeing a professional therapist.....



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner