Bear Came Along

In her illustrator's note for the rollicking Bear Came Along, LeUyen Pham writes, "This book is truly special to me. It was one of those rare stories that, the moment I read it, I knew exactly how it would look." Her vibrant illustrations, done in watercolor, ink, and gouache, reflect her enthusiasm for the story. Each page bursts with energy and excitement, sweeping the reader from one incident to the next. Pham takes Richard T. Morris's action-packed yet reflective text and runs with it, adding visual details that thrill and engage. Bear Came Along is ultimately a story about connection — showing a group of woodland characters, who otherwise would not have met, experiencing a turbulent trip down a river and becoming friends as a result. Pham masterfully depicts this accidental odyssey in her dynamic illustrations.

The tale revolves around a curious bear falling into a river and grabbing onto a floating log. As the river carries our ursine hero along, other animals join the bear on the increasingly overcrowded log. They clutch each other tight with fear as they swerve through the river's many twists and turns and then go over a huge waterfall. And they express shared jubilation when they survive the plunge, enjoying the bond they now share.

So many aesthetically pleasing elements add to the book's success as a picture book — and as a serious Caldecott contender.

The first thing of note is Pham's inventive use of color. The book begins, before the title page, with an overhead shot of the forest. The blue of the river catches the eye. Everything else looks faded and muted, conveying a kind of melancholy loneliness. The animals about to appear can be spotted (in a Where's Waldo? type of effect) living their separate lives. When bear appears on the title page, we see a trace of brown fur and some hints of emerging colors. As the bear falls into the river, and the other characters enter, Pham adds more greens, yellows, and pinks. This incremental use of color adds urgency to the action, but also warmth, comfort, and a kind of frantic beauty. When the animals gleefully celebrate their climactic waterfall adventure and their newfound friendship, brightly colorful spreads ensue. Pham returns us to the overhead shot of the forest on the endpapers — but now the formerly muted landscape crackles with vibrant color.

Pham also excels at body language and facial expressions. Notice how the bear's curious expression turns to one of utter dismay after falling into the river. Giggle at the hopeful, affectionate look the lonely friend-seeking frog gives bear after landing on his head (and that little froggy hug). The personalities of the anxious turtles, supremely confident beaver, rather overexcited raccoons, and blissful duck pop off the page. The way they interact with one another is amusing. This is especially effective when they start approaching the waterfall.

Ah, the waterfall sequence. Pham delivers one of 2019's great showstopping picture-book moments with a series of double-page spreads that captures the waterfall action. First she shows the imminent danger from the animals' point of view. Readers experience a you-are-there perspective that is gasp-inducing. The next page places the reader in front of the shocked-looking critters (even the beaver and raccoons look concerned). Pham surrounds them with yellow and light blue flashes for a neat cartoon effect. After the next page flip, Pham pans way out for a faraway view of the entire scene: the forest, the animals on the log, the waterfall. In a glorious touch, the next page-turn requires readers to turn the book vertically as the animals soar through the air, clutching each other (but starting to smile) during their descent. Another page-turn returns to a horizontal orientation as they all plop into the water. They look liberated and joyous, with limbs, wings, and flippers extended with pure, unadulterated happiness. Even the once-nervous turtles are laughing. The book ends with them contentedly playing together, with other animals watching, perhaps hoping to join the party.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Bear Came Along.]

Other elements add to the title's success. The book's wider-than-tall layout fits the epic adventure like a glove: Pham and her design team use all the available space, and yet nothing feels cluttered. Morris's cause-and-effect text, with its repeated use of the word "until" to set up the next event, requires the illustrator to convey constant motion. Pham takes the reader up and over the characters at some moments, presenting aerial views. At other times, she puts readers into the direct path of animals, breaking down the spread into strips that show them coming closer and closer and closer. It's to Pham's credit that the manic story is very easy to follow.

Finally, let's not forget the cover and the hidden surprise under the dust jacket. Note that the dust jacket does not have the author's or illustrator's name on it. Giant green hand-painted letters announce the book's title. The bear peeks at the reader. On the left hand side of the cover, readers see glimpses of the supporting cast. On the book's spine, the bear and others are seen falling down the waterfall. Lift the dust jacket and aqua blues dominate an overhead view as the characters swim in the water. The title appears to be submerged. Journey complete.

For these many reasons, Bear Came Along is a unique visual experience for young readers, and should definitely receive Caldecott consideration.

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson
Brian E. Wilson works as a children’s librarian at the Evanston Public Library in Evanston, IL. He served on the 2015 Odyssey Committee and the 2017 Caldecott Committee. He blogs at Mr. Brian’s Picture Book Picks at mrbrianspicturebookpicks.wordpress.com.

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