Bill Martin Jr.'s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
illustrated by Eric Carle
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
I've seen this book work its magic with my own child.
I don't use that word "magic" lightly. In my experience, kids of a certain age can't get enough of this book. As an adult, I've strived to make sense of that, and we'll discuss that in a minute. But first, let me give you a sense of the book.
The first spread features a brown bear in typical Carle style: painted cut-paper collage. The text is a simple call and response. On the first left-hand page, the text reads,
What do you see?
Sure enough, on the right page Brown Bear lets you know exactly what he's seeing.
I see a red bird
looking at me.
Simple enough, right? But here's the magic. You turn the page, and guess what appears?
A red bird. Exactly as promised. And to that really young person sitting in your lap, experiencing a book (and not a freaking device!) for one of the first times, magic seems to be exactly how they perceive delivery of this promise. You said it would be there, and it's there! Martin and Carle have turned YOU into Penn and Teller.
And it doesn't only work the first time. Your child delights again and again and again...sigh...and again...
It's simplicity defined, and I'm sure any number of children's authors in the 44 years (I write this in 2011) since publication have tried to figure out how to duplicate it while still getting that magical effect.
The edition I'm holding in my hands is the (19 year old) 25th anniversary edition. The inside flap tells me that as of that milestone the book had already sold three million copies.
There's no story really, just repetition, and something of a final climax. If you can keep calm, I'll try to walk you through it...
Red bird sees a yellow duck. Yellow duck sees a blue horse. (Yes, a blue horse. Roll with it.) Blue horse sees a green frog. Green frog spots a purple cat. Purple cat spies a white dog. White dog latches onto a black sheep. Black sheep somehow encounters a goldfish.
And here's where it gets...sigh...interesting.
Goldfish sees a teacher. (Yes, this is a preschool/kindergarten favorite as well.) Then teacher sees children. (Someone finally sees more than one of something!) And then children see the whole collection of things that have been previously seen, which all get recited.
The end...until your child demands it again.
Yes, you may have perceived a weary undertone to my description. That's okay. Your child will inevitably delight in certain books that leave you a little understimulated. To my mind, their delight is telling you that this is something they need, that reaches them at their core. In fact, I have a second, complementary theory...
Brown Bear, Brown Bear is a comfort book.
Think about it: a child's security certainly depends on parents who can be counted on to be there again and again. For a child, just going to sleep is an exercise in trust!
According to this theory, the comfort comes not from hearing green frog say that he sees a black sheep, but from turning the page and seeing that black sheep is there - exactly as promised. Just as you'll be there in the morning.
Magic and comfort. How can you deny your child either when Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has made it so easy to give?
Note: Martin and Carle, loathe to let a great concept go to waste, have subsequently come up with these follow-ups, which might also "bear" investigating:
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