By Maureen Tai, 6 May 2018
“One morning, Bear was crying. His best friend, a little bird, was dead.”
With that opening line, there is no doubt about it. This picture book is about death.
The Bear and the Wildcat was originally a Japanese picture book, written in 2008. I recently had the good fortune of finding it in a Tokyo bookstore. The English version captures with precision the mood and nuance of the original.
When we meet Bear, he is in deep mourning over the death of his best friend, a little bird. The loss is recent, its pain searing. Bear makes a tiny coffin for the dead bird and lays the bird inside the beautifully made box. Unable to move on, Bear carries the coffin with him wherever he goes, as if hoping for some miracle of resurrection. Bear’s friends shake their heads, and counsel Bear to forget the bird. But Bear cannot. He retreats to his home and waits alone in the darkness for the crushing grief to pass.
And the grief does pass, as it must. Bear awakens from his self-imposed stupor, and opens the window to a bright sunny day, the air redolent with the smell of grass. He stumbles outside, with the bird’s coffin in his paws, and comes across a Wildcat, sleeping on the riverbank with a oddly shaped case beside him. Bear’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he asks to see what is inside the case. The Wildcat obliges, and plays an ode to the Bear and the little bird on his violin. The tune makes Bear remember all the good times he spent with his best friend, and that remembering allows him to finally bring himself to bury the box. Not because the bird is now in his past, dead and gone, but because the bird will always be there, in Bear’s memories, for as long as Bear’s heart beats. The Bear heals because he remembers, not because he forgets.
The illustrations are in charcoal, with hints of colour, and beautifully complement the melancholy mood of the story. But Bear’s story doesn’t end there. His meeting with Wildcat marks the start of a new adventure, and a new beginning.
Gecko Press is an independent book publisher in New Zealand that makes it their business to publish “curiously good books from around the world.” Another book reviewed on this site, Duck, Death and the Tulip, was also published by the same house. That too, is about death, but rest assured, Gecko’s book list is not all doom and gloom and for picture book aficionados, it well worth checking out. The Bear and the Wildcat is a curiously good book that is not easily forgotten.
For ages 8 and up.