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
(Review copy courtesy Walker Books Australia)