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Irma Gold and Craig Phillips, Megumi and the bear (Review)

June 1, 2013
Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

Courtesy: Walker Books Australia

Now here’s something different at the Gums! I don’t, as you’d know, make a practice of reviewing children’s literature, though I have done a few cross-over adult-young adult novels. So, when Irma Gold and Craig Phillips’ children’s picture book, Megumi and the bear, landed in my letterbox a week or so ago I was challenged. Not only is it a picture book, but its cover – featuring a child and a bear making snow angels – suggest that it has little to do with Australia. Why should Whispering Gums make an exception for this book?

Well, the reasons are twofold. Firstly, I’ve reviewed two works by Irma Gold before (her short story collection, Two steps forward, and the anthology she edited, The invisible thread) and so was intrigued to read something different again by her. She’s one hard-working, versatile author, which I think you have to be if you want to make writing your career. Secondly, while it’s not set in Australia – usually something has to be Australian for me to make an exception – it is set in Japan. At least, Craig Phillips’ illustrations were inspired by his observing a little girl playing in the snow in Hokkaido. I love Japan – and have been to Hokkaido. Exception made!

Now, with two mid-late twenty-something children, I’ve not read a picture book for a long time but, as I picked this up and read it, a whole pile of memories of loved books came back, but first, the story. Like most picture books, its narrative line is simple – a young girl, Megumi, meets a young bear in a forest and they become good friends, playing together again and again until one day the bear doesn’t appear. Megumi is sad, and goes into the forest every day, to wait … until eventually she starts to forget and goes into the forest with her friends … It’s a lovely story about friendship, loss, time and memory.

Craig Phillips’ water colour illustrations are delightful – clear, uncluttered and colourful within a restrained palette. The bear and Megumi’s feelings are nicely conveyed through their facial expression and movement. Irma Gold’s text is also clear and simple, but not simplistic, with a nice use of repetition, “But the bear doesn’t come”, in the central section. The narrative is well-paced, keeping the story moving while providing time to consider (and feel) what is happening. The text is visually appealing. The topic sentence on each double-page spread is presented as a wavy line using an italicised font, with the following sentences in straight-lined plain text. This adds a lovely touch of whimsy to the presentation – and, I suspect, could help the out-loud reader get into a rhythm.

All this made it an enjoyable read – but what I enjoyed most was how it reminded me of other childhood loves, my own or ones made with my kids. The idea of a child playing with a bear brings to mind, of course, Winnie the Pooh. This is not at all a Christopher Robin and Pooh-like story but it plays into that notion of a friendship between children and bears. Going into the forest to play with a wild creature recalls Sendak’s Where the wild things are. Our bear here is not a wild thing – he’s sweet and small – and Megumi and the bear may not engage in wild rumpus, but they do have fun in the forest away from adults. And, this next probably sounds even less likely, but I was also reminded of the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon“. Again a completely different story and theme – and in fact quite the reverse in that here it’s the animal which goes missing – but both explore a friendship with “other” that is made and then lost. Hmm, now I think about it, these connections are pretty loose, but isn’t this partly what reading is about? Enjoying, remembering, connecting, making our own paths through literature and its meanings for us?

The thing is, whatever you make of it, Megumi and the bear is a gorgeous book that I can imagine loving to share with a grandchild, if I had one!

Irma Gold and Craig Phillips (illus)
Megumi and the bear
Newtown: Walker Books Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9781921977909

(Review copy courtesy Walker Books Australia)

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    June 1, 2013 10:32 am

    Strong connection to Ainu culture – the bear! My pen-friend from over a half century ago – Japanese – her youngest daughter is Megumi. The working of resonance snow angels outwards! “If you go down in the woods to-day…!”

    • June 1, 2013 10:47 am

      Oh thanks Jim for the added connections … why didn’t I think of “If you go down to the woods today”! One of my favourites, and one picked up by my son’s kindergarten teacher who, every year, took her new charges on a teddy bear’s picnic in some nearby woods.

      I’ve seen an old film of the Ainu catching a bear — not a pretty site. I hope Irma and Craig’s Megumi never sees it!

      I had a Japanese penfriend too but she suddenly stopped writing after about 8-10 years (and that was about 40 years ago). I’m still sad about that but I have all her letters pasted in an exercise book.

  2. June 1, 2013 11:23 am

    I’ve got this one at school though I haven’t tried it out with the kids yet. Term 2 is when I do non-fiction with the Preps: we’re doing Wild Animals because they visit the zoo. Of course I do bring in fiction as well, I read them There’s a Hippopotamus on the Roof Eating Cake by Hazel Edwards so that we can contrast features of fiction and non-fiction books LOL.
    Australian picture books IMO are among the best in the world – my supplier also offers ‘the best of’ award-winning books from overseas, but they are usually not as good – not as lively, quirky or imaginative, and sometimes drearily didactic.

    • June 1, 2013 6:30 pm

      Oh, that’s great to hear Lisa … I’m rather out of touch with children’s picture books but I do remember Australian (and I think New Zealand) ones being excellent a couple of decades ago. Glad you start them early with the fiction-nonfiction discussion!

  3. June 1, 2013 2:33 pm

    At first I guessed Canada, with snow and bear and making snow angels. But Japan is even more interesting, since we don’t usually equate these three with Japan. Hokkaido, I haven’t been to but had read books with setting there. This book sounds charming. And, I’ll remember it when I do have a grandchild to read to. 😉

    • June 1, 2013 6:31 pm

      Ah yes, Arti, Canada would have been a good guess … and the book, really, is pretty universal, despite the snowy setting. You expecting a grandchild?

  4. June 3, 2013 4:16 am

    I thought of Puff, the Magic Dragon, too.

    Also, remember Thing and Thingnapped? And, not related thematically, but now I have “A told B, and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree” running through my head!

    • June 3, 2013 8:47 am

      The mind works in mysterious ways. I don’t mind being reminded of that one though … Has such a fun rhythm …

      Still don’t know how I didn’t think of The teddy bears picnic.

  5. June 4, 2013 12:33 am

    This sounds like a delightful book. I’ve a few children’s picture books I’ve put on my shelf through the years, usually because the charm of the story is met and or surpassed by the gorgeous artwork. A rare thing it seems, but then I don’t have kids so maybe there are more out there than I realize.

    • June 4, 2013 1:05 pm

      I think there are quite a few out there, Stefanie, but you have to hunt to find them. I tend to only look these days when a new niece or nephew is born.

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