2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for Preschoolers
October 20, 2020 § 5 Comments
Similar to last year (when I picked this and this), I find myself unable to choose between two picture books for my very favorite of 2020. Still, the two I’ve chosen play to slightly different audiences, so I’m using that as an excuse to bring you two picture book posts this week. I’ll begin with my favorite for the littles.
It seems to me that what we should really gift our youngest children this year is what we wish for ourselves: the literary equivalent of a giant bear hug. In a year dominated by disconnection and uncertainty, we have had to work harder to love both one another and ourselves. If we are to fill the void that 2020 has left on our hearts, it will be through care and compassion, including and especially self-compassion. And that’s where The Bear and the Moon delivers beautifully.
Written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Cátia Chien, The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) is a playful, poetic story about a bear and a balloon. But it’s also a visceral meditation on life’s impermanence—and on the forgiveness and self-love required to weather these moments of loneliness and sorrow. I’ve always believed that the best picture books should offer a little something to the adults called upon to read them again and again, and The Bear and the Moon provides comfort and reassurance to both reader and listener alike.
And then, of course, there are the mixed-media illustrations, which are in a class by themselves. Smudgy and sublime, they wash over us with a gorgeous palette of purples and blues, accented by the velvety black of the bear and the clean paper cut-out of the red balloon. And that expressive bear face? A thousand times yes.
A young bear opens his eyes to see a red dot floating down from the sky, “bigger and rounder and redder,” until it “was no longer a dot at all.” The reader quickly recognizes the red circle for what it is, but the bear has never seen a balloon before. He is mesmerized by its color, “red as a berry,” by its round shape, by its long, silvery string. To him, it’s a small red moon, sent down to him by the sky. He is intrigued by its unpredictable movement. It at once floats tantalizingly close and resists capture.
Of course, the balloon is no different than the young bear, as exuberant as he is clumsy, and through the lens of his new friend, the bear discovers things about himself as well. When the bear finally gets eye level with the balloon, he is astonished to feel “light as air.”
After they walk and dance together for a spell, night begins to fall. The bear ties the balloon to a stone and enjoys its companionship while he eats a freshly-caught fish. Later, under the starlit sky, the bear marvels at the way the balloon glows “like moonlight.”
Over the course of the following day, the bear gives the balloon a tour of all his favorite “whereabouts,” from the tree he climbs for honey to the hill he likes to roll down. He even shows him—to the delight of the preschooler—“the spot where I sit on the pot.”
To the bear, the friendship feels increasingly mutual. He fancies the balloon smiling at him and bumping against his cheek like a kiss. In fact, the bear becomes so enraptured with his newfound companion that he hugs it and squeezes it and…inevitable tragedy strikes.
I won’t sugarcoat it: the next few pages hurt. The bear’s devastation is palpable. We want to reach through the story to console him, as he tries to “fix” his friend, to put the balloon’s pieces back together, to make things as they were. The most beautifully heartbreaking line in the book? “He tried closing his eyes and dancing with the string in his hand, just as they had danced before.”
How many times this year have we wanted to go back in time, to put things as they were? Though Burgess wrote this story long before any pandemic, his writing seems particularly astute for where we find ourselves today. For a few pages, he lets us sit with the bear in his grief. At first, our bear feels more than just sadness. He feels confusion. He feels shame. He worries he has done something wrong. “The sky had sent him a gift, a friend, a small red moon, and now it was gone. Bad bear, he thought. Bad, bad bear.”
But just when the bear’s heart can’t get any heavier, he notices the full moon, rising between two mountains and raining moonlight down upon the pool of water where he swims. Even more, the moon “reached down to him and gently stroked his fur.” As the Northern Lights erupt across the sky, the bear hears the moon talking to him, consoling him, assuring him that he is both “good” and “kind.”
The bear rests in the embrace of the moonlight. With his shame set aside, he is free to partake in the joyful memories of his round red friend, to “hold the memory on a silver string.” The two can dance together in their dreams once more, as the bear holds out for the promise of more companionship in his future.
We, too, can hold our little ones tight as they wait for a time when they are once again free to climb trees and hold hands and rub cheeks with other kindred spirits.
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Review copy by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.