We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen/Helen Oxenbury

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is one of my favourite picture books. And yet it scores really low, which is a bit sad. Because it really is quite great.

But there is no dialogue, so it can’t pass Bechdel, and the family in the book are very white and very status quo. Mom, Dad, three strapping kids – boy, girl, and baby. It’s about as typical a ‘nuclear family’ as you could ask for. There’s nothing particular revolutionary happening here.

Having said that, we read it a lot. C can almost recite the whole thing from memory. The book works via a very nifty repetitive format which is structured around onomatopoeic coloured double spreads as the family goes on an adventure – a bear hunt – through grass (swishy, swashy), water (splish, splosh), etc. The sound effect bits are great fun, and the refrain is memorable and charming. When they eventually find the bear it chases them all the way home, and they run upstairs, having locked the bear out, and dive into bed in a big cuddly pile of familial affection. It’s charming as hell, there’s no denying it.

And on the very last page after all the words are finished, is my favourite part. The bear heads home, alone and looking dejected, along a deserted beach, back to his cave. It’s the one moment of real subversion in the book – the suggestion that the “villain” of the piece is perhaps not a villain, is perhaps just a lonely bear. That maybe there’s something else going on here. That last image is the reason the book gets the one discretionary point – because it calls the very simple morality of the book’s story into question.

The family are very happily engrossed in their own version of the world, and as they pile laughing and frightened into a big bed together, for just a moment we see the world from the other side – the side of the bear itself. And it is a lonely, dejected world.

We don’t often get to see the “villain’s” side of the tale in these sorts of books. The greying of those lines is, well, kind of awesome. And raises a bunch of interesting questions to be talked through with your kids. (I always found it cool that C’s response was “aww poor bear” right from the start.)

Not a high scorer, but definitely recommended. A joy to read.

What do you think? Do you, like me, feel empathy for the bear? What other onomatopoeic books do you love?

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