It’s a rare and delightful thing as an adult to be taken back to those carefree wonderful times as a child when you would read a book and be totally and completely immersed in the world created within.
Those were rare and special times when the simplicity and beauty of a book’s premise, the likability and sweetness of its characters and the meaningfulness of its message beguiled you to such an extent that you wished you could stay within that bubble forever.
That’s exactly how I felt reading Cranky Bear Wakes Up by brothers Shawn (words) and Todd StJean (pictures), a delightful story-sketchbook that engagingly, and rather poetically, tells the tale of a bear who wakes up one day, not very gracefully mind you, and finds himself in all kinds of trouble that extend far beyond his need to quell the rumbles in his stomach.
In search of a meal to break his hibernation fast, Bear steps out of his cosy cave, more than a little reluctantly I imagine because he is at heart an introvert, first meets Fish then Bee and then Robin, all of whom manage to dissuade Bear from adding them to his menu and seem eager to get back to their own problems.
“In the Springtime, when the snows melt and the sun and the rain cooperate to bring out the leaves of the plants, and the rivers run fast and the insects buzz—this was the time, too, for Bear to emerge from his long winter nap. Not an unfriendly bear, not at all. In fact, he had a good nature, once you got to know him.” (P. 5)
It’s only when Bear finds himself pursued by hunters, with only very old Snail for company, that these once dismissive creatures of the forest, too busy to show the bear any kindness – to be fair he was contemplating eating them but in his defense, he didn’t – help him get to safety.
Told with a delightfully rhythmic flourish and a sense of magical realism that imbues the story with the kind of pace that draws you on and on eager to see how Bear will escape the tenacious hunters, the book gives you that rare chance to linger longer in this world of Bear with pages devoted to an invitation to “draw Cranky bear and his friends in more adventures of their own!”
If I was any kind of artist, I would be more than happy to take Bear, Snail and their friends on all kinds of extra adventures into the unknown; as a writer first and foremost though, I am more than to let Todd’s enchanting images take centre stage.
The illustrations are an absolute delight.
Through Todd’s immersively beautiful drawings, we get to properly meet Bear, Fish, Snail, Robin and Bee and to get a real sense of the world they inhabit in all its glory.
It doesn’t matter that the pictures aren’t coloured; there’s a beguiling simplicity to each and every drawing that portrays the story more memorably than even than coloured-in drawings would.
Together with Shawn’s transportive prose, which possesses the kind of playful but heartfelt cadence that only the best stories are privy to, Cranky Bear Wakes Up is fully capable of summoning you back to those childhood idylls where it was just you, a book and the world it conjured up.
Even though there is real tension and angst threading through the story – hunters are, after all, hot on Bear’s tail (quite literally, in fact!) and his escape, even with the help of his newly-roused to action friends is by no means assured – there is a magic to the book, thanks primarily to the rich, instant vivacity of the characters, sparkling dialogue and drawings which complement key scenes in a way that doesn’t stymie but enhances and augments the kinds of flights of imagination that all good books should take you on.
“‘I never knew how important friends were before, Snail. I guess everyone has problems too big for them, sometimes.'” (P. 17)
There is a lesson to be learned certainly, but it’s not heavy-handed by any measure, organically woven into a story that never loses focus or drive, teaching us that while our problems are real and not easily dismissable – one aside; the way each of the creature Bear meets project their issues onto him is funny and telling all at once – that we are stronger together than apart, and indeed, our very survival depends on not being insular or selfish but lending a helping hand to others, no matter the circumstance.
It’s a very of-the-moment message for an age where kindness, despite entreaties from the likes of Ellen and Oprah and a host of smaller but no less important voices, is constantly cast aside in favour of selfishly attending to our own concerns (ironic in the era of social media where we are supposedly closer and more able to care for each other than ever) to greater or lesser extents.
Above all though, Cranky Bear Wakes Up is just pure delight – rich, warm, heartfelt but muscular storytelling, characters you will adore and care about and beautiful artworks that complements the text perfectly.
Want to return to the carefree, halcyon days of childhood, even just for a little while? Cranky Bear Wakes Up is your ticket to that sweetly magical but deeply meaningful place and trust me, you’ll be glad you chose to go on this particular journey.