CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 27. . . .March 24, 2017
Tim Beiser. Illustrated by Bill Slavin.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2017.
24 pp., hardcover & epub, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-77049-752-8 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-77049-754-2 (hc.).
Preschool-grade 4 / Ages 4-9.
Review by Joanie Proske.
There, There is a picture book collaboration between Governor General Literary Award-nominated writer Tim Beiser and award-winning children’s book artist Bill Slavin. One dreary, rainy summer’s day, a Hare complains bitterly to his roommate Bear about how miserable he is. His nonstop whining and temper tantrums lead Bear to try to teach Hare a lesson about how fortunate he is. Bear takes his grouchy friend outside in the rain and introduces him to how tough life could be by using the example of an earthworm.
When a sudden, heavy rain
Spoiled the lovely summer weather
Two old friends had to remain
In the den they shared together
“Rain is boring,” sighed the hare.
Said the bear, “Poor thing! There, there!”
“Rain goes on and on,” Hare whined,
“It’s been falling now for hours,
And I’m not a bit inclined
To put up with endless showers!”
Once again, replied the bear,
“I am sad for you. There, there!”
Picture book illustrations are intended to support and extend the text, and Bill Slavin’s images on the opening pages certainly get the book off to a rollicking start. It would appear that Bear is doing his best to transform Hare’s mood by offering examples of what one could do when trapped indoors on a boring rainy day - like playing chess or baking. As the pages unfold, Bear breaks eggs, grates carrots, and whips up a batch of carrot muffins. The brightly coloured acrylic illustrations romp across textured gessoed board backgrounds. They showcase the engaging details for which Slavin is well-known: a small bird perches on the spice cupboard, honeybees decorate a flowerpot, and a blue bucket catches an incessant drip of water from the den’s ceiling. Slavin’s interpretation captures an increasingly frustrated Hare contrasted against Bear patiently demonstrating the adage of “when life gives you lemons, made lemonade”. The illustrations suggest an invitation to a tea party - a perfect solution for resetting a grouchy mood on a boring rainy day.
It is the responsibility of the writer to create a storyline that features interesting characters whose problems and actions truly resonate with the reader. However, Beiser’s choice of a slimy earthworm is not the most relatable example of a creature for inspiring empathy (or pity) amongst a younger audience. Bear’s reactions to Hare’s complaining include unsupportive platitudes, which only serve to fan Hare’s growing meltdown, instead of dissuading him from his present state of mind. Any parent can attest to the futility of trying to logically reason with a crabby youngster whose developmental age precludes consideration of anyone’s wishes other than his/her own. Yet, inexplicably, Bear achieves immediate success through simply pointing out to Hare that a worm’s life is much, much worse. Beiser’s short verses and rhyme scheme feel contrived and contain vocabulary words that may require additional explanation for preschoolers, words such as infested, moldy, protested, inclined, ooze, and divinely.
Halfway through the story, both text and illustrations take a predictable turn. Bear finally loses all patience - as any adult might - given the circumstances. Bear is shown, rather unceremoniously, dragging the obnoxious Hare outside in the rain. He yanks a worm out of the ground to demonstrate to his roommate how bad things could be, ridicules the worm by concluding that it doesn’t even recognize its own tail end, and then tosses the worm away. Bear’s condescending remarks about another creature’s existence become the key juncture where this book loses its direction. Children could easily interpret Bear’s actions and unkind remarks as bullying and name-calling. Hare’s resulting observations about the worm read as rude labels: “that poor, blind, wrinkled creature whose brown skin, all slimy-smeared was his most attractive feature”. This unsettling storyline goes totally rogue on the second to last page when the worm is unexpectedly given a sentient voice to express its annoyed reaction to events. The final line echoes the book’s title, probably intended as humourous, but instead provides a perplexing conclusion:
All at once, the rainy day
Turned divinely warm and sunny,
So Bear tossed the worm away
And took home the soggy bunny.
But the worm down in the dirt
Had his feelings kind of hurt.
“How insulting to be used
By that bear in such a fashion.
To be pinched and dripped and bruised
With no kindness or compassion,
How upsetting! How unfair!”
Said his other end, “There, there!”
The publisher’s promotional handout for There, There describes this book as “a lesson in looking on the bright side” and “a great way to teach kids about empathy.” Perhaps this was the intent, but, unfortunately, there are flaws in the execution, flaws which cause the book to swerve toward the realm of a non-example when it comes to treating others with respect.
This plot could have been developed in so many different and more positive directions. Beiser had an opportunity to more fully introduce the theme of empathy by having both Bear and Hare realize that what they each did was not respectful and learn from their mistakes. Non-stop complaints can result in pushing frustrated adults to sometimes act in inconsiderate ways. Genuinely acknowledging the feelings of others and the value of an apology could have been explored as all creatures deserve to be treated with respect. The storyline could also have offered the little earthworm a chance to commiserate with Hare about the boredom of rainy days, or perhaps educate the reader about his important contribution to nature. At the very least, the worm should have been gently placed on the dirt and thanked for its assistance.
This collaboration between award-winning author and a masterful children’s book illustrator began with great possibilities. No doubt a quick first reading might elicit laughs and great delight in the illustrations. However, I cannot imagine reading There, There to very young children as the underlying message it communicates is definitely not one of empathy. In these times when mutual respect, understanding of our fellows, and inclusiveness must remain a continued focus, it would be recommended that this book only be used as an example of how our actions, however well-intended, affect others and hold consequence. With school-aged children, it could serve as a book discussion involving several careful rereadings and the use of open-ended questions designed to encourage greater insight.
Note: The flyleaf introduces the character as Rabbit, but, throughout the book, the text uses the word Hare which better matches Slavin’s depictions.
Joanie Proske is a teacher-librarian in the Langley School District, Langley, BC.
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