Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on October 20, 2020
One late winter day, a strange noise startles Bear out of his slumber. Grumpily searching for the source, he finds Duck, trapped in the thicket—but not for long. Bear frees Duck with a few scoops of his big paws, and their friendship begins. The more time the two spend swimming, exploring, and telling stories, the less Bear wants to go back to his lonely old life. As spring turns to summer, and summer turns to fall, what else will change?
Stunning woodcut engravings illustrate this gentle story about kindness, the four seasons, and the joy of an unexpected friend.
A lot of modern children’s books are brightly, flashy, rhyming, and intended to be read over and over and over again to the point of annoyance. Looking back to older children’s books, there seems to have been a deeper quality about the ones that endured. More of a narrative. More artistic illustrations. Deeper themes. The Bear and the Duck follows in his classic tradition, beautifully written and illustrated by May Angeli.
It’s a difficult book to review, because it’s so stylistically different than most of what we’re used to. Either you’ll like it or you won’t. It isn’t my children’s favorite at the moment—they’re three and one—but this is the kind of children’s book meant for an early reader. Ages 6 or 7, but maybe not quite ready for chapter books. It’s a book to learn to read, not just for listening.
Duck is ready to begin his migration, but when he crashes he finds himself too injured to carry on. He’s taken in by Bear, who is just awakening from his hibernation, and an unlikely friendship develops. Bear and Duck spend the summer together, sharing stories, enjoying each other’s company, and becoming good friends. But soon, Duck has healed enough to leave. He takes off into the sky, promising to come back.
Bear is sad. And this is where the book gets hauntingly real. I may never see Duck again. But I guess that’s life, as they say when sad things happen. It may seem inappropriate for a children’s book, but it’s absolutely not. Children are well aware that life can be sad, that sad things happen, and that friends come and go. These are all emotions that deserve to be validated. Bear doesn’t say it’s okay or only look forward to seeing Duck again. He’s sad about the loss of his friend and he lingers on it. It’s especially poignant for schoolchildren whose friendships may get broken up every summer as school lets out.
The book ends with Duck’s return and the restoration of a friendship. Like all good friendships, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away, you can go right back to where you left off. The Bear and the Duck is a heartwarming classic that hits a bit deeper than most children’s books and leaves us a bit uncomfortable. But that is as it should be. May Angeli’s English-language debut is sure to be a classic.