Ruth Craft: The Winter Bear
Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
Collins Picture Lions 1976 (1974)
This is one of the most delightful of picture books for this time of year. A perfect blend of poetry and watercolour & ink illustrations, The Winter Bear tells the story of three children who set off for a brief brisk walk in the countryside as dusk and snow approach and discover something lodged, tatty and unloved, in some branches.
Retrieving it with difficulty they return home to render it presentable and something to be loved. As a mini-saga, a journey with a beginning, middle and end, it’s as beautiful a miniature to look at as well as to read aloud.
It opens with preparations for the expedition:
You’d think it was a shipwreck,
But as you know,
When you walk in the winter,
Wherever you go,
You must put something on!
And so they set out across the fields, away from the farmhouse and outbuildings, as the sun sinks lower in the sky.
They walk on walls, jump across streams, count birds, make a posy (“In winter? You’re crazy!”) with seeds, dried weeds, bryony vine and old man’s beard, stroke a cow’s back: “Even a cow wears a sensible coat just now.”
And then, as it starts to snow, they spot something caught high up in a hedge. It’s
A brown knitted bear,
Knitted with care.
A bit damp, a bit leafy,
In need of repair,
But still, an excellent bear.
As the snowflakes thicken the three rush home to where their Mum is waiting, crying out “Here’s a bear | In the winter with nothing to wear, | He must have something on!” And so it is that he is dried and dolls clothes put on him, and he is ensconced in the best arm chair: “A warm friendly place | For a cold winter bear.”
This complementary combination of images and words unites delight and compassion. We don’t need to know the backstories, we just need the comforting rhythm of the words and rhymes, the magic of the snow falling and the chimney smoke rising into the cold air and the rescued bear safe and snug and warm.
Blegvad’s sensitive wash of watercolours absolutely capture the details as well as the feel of a crisp winter’s late afternoon, while Craft’s words echo the lilt of childhood phrases and nursery rhymes. For young minds, and not a few older ones, this seasonal story must surely offer a modicum of comfort and joy.
You know my politics. I’m not feeling much comfort and joy this morning, Friday the 13th, in Tory Brexit Britain. Please be gentle, people