“The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”
“If you go out in the woods today. . . .’’ (from the New York Times Book Review)
Back in the 1950’s, when every car had wing windows, my parents loaded us kids into the car and took us to Yellowstone to see the bears. And there they were, those great brown rugs of fur. Father bear lollygagging all over the front bumper. Mother bear mooching picnics at the wing windows of a long line of cars in the woods. Baby bears posing for the cameras. They were families just like us. Watching them from the back seat, I hummed the theme song of my favorite radio program (“The Big John and Sparky Show’’) which began — “If you go out in the woods today. . . .’’ The trip was one of the high spots of my childhood.
So now I’m glad that someone has made the theme song, ‘’The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,’’ into a book. (Good for them. Good for everyone — including bears.) It also comes with a recording of the lyricist Jimmy Kennedy’s song. On one side is Bing Crosby’s famous rendition, on the other a strange and amusing Yiddish-sounding version by the Bearcats. The rhythms of the song dictate Alexandra Day’s illustrations.
Day’s interpretation of the Kennedy song follows a boy and girl who put on teddy bear suits, travel to the picnic and return after shedding them. It is a kind of Goldilocks variation upon Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, in which a little boy, Max, travels to the land of the Wild Things in his wolf suit. But nothing here equals Max’s willfulness, since the mood of the story is set by the song’s conclusion (‘’At six o’clock their mummys and daddys will take them home to bed/ Because they’re tired little Teddy Bears’’). We are permitted dreamy glimpses of the bears’ secret activities on a midsummer eve as some, for example, play boccie in a forest clearing.
Day’s teddies remind readers how difficult a task illustrators face when they have to work under the shadow of Ernest Shepard’s Pooh. When she is tentative, Day’s temperas drift to vagueness. But when she is confident, the pictures seem her own floral version of Chris Van Allsburg’s surreal perspectives (in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi) and Henri Rousseau’s outdoor-sports paintings (where all those men in striped shirts jump after volleyballs in autumn arbors).
Teddy bears are, of course, the new publishing craze, replacing unicorns, the currently reigning totem. Nonetheless, this book is an exception that merits attention.
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