The Bear and the Moon

Sometimes a book comes along that makes me proud to be a part of the world of children’s literature, and The Bear and the Moon, written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Cátia Chien, is one of those books. When I first read it, it felt like an old friend, a new book that ought to become a classic in its time.

I’m happy to hear that some of you are using Robin Smith’s post, “How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition," as a guide for evaluating picture books. She was my wife, and it seems fitting for me to use her guide to look at this book:

1)  “Look at the cover.” A fuzzy black bear plays with a bright red balloon. Fuzzy bear; fuzzy lines; a lot of texture; and bright contrasts of black, red, and white, with touches of purple loosely framing the scene, extending across the back cover.

2) Robin would be delighted to discover that the inside cover adds much to the story. The bear looks to the sky, the moon, the heavens, and he and his story meld with the universe (which makes more sense when finishing this story suffused with the meaning of life).

3) Endpapers: Again, a design element important to the story. Follow that red balloon on the front endpapers throughout the story to the back endpapers with the white balloon/moon to end the story.

4) Title page: Robin took note of dull endpapers and title pages. Nothing dull here. And she would feel the paper and be pleased that this is such sturdy stock that even the bright red balloon doesn’t show through.

5) “Read the book all the way through without reading the words." This book performs well without the words. Readers follow the balloon as it creates the drama of the turning page. And the bear’s expressions, so full of fun and disappointment and puzzlement and despair. The pacing is perfect, as readers follow these emotions. One of my favorite images is the bear with the balloon beholding a cosmos that reminds me of Matisse’s Jazz. And the adventures of the bear with his new balloon-friend, so full of glee, until, “Uh-oh.” And then so full of woe, to have lost a friend, to have done something he doesn’t know how to fix.

6) The words: I share the traditional view that the best picture books have an effective interplay of illustrations and words, and this one is so lovely. Matthew Burgess is a poet. I like picture books that are not text-heavy, and here Burgess’s poetic text is just right, so beautifully written, with carefully chosen action verbs and exuberant adjectives: “What a nice thing! / What a wonderful thing! / What a squishable, huggable thing!” And perfect nouns: “The bear stared at the red tatter / dangling on the silver string.” 

7) Robin’s mind was often in the gutter … of the picture books before her. She was dismayed when a good book was compromised by poor design that left characters split in half by the gutters. When the Caldecott Committee comes down to final decisions, it can be little things like gutters that take an otherwise fine book off the table. No problems with this book. Even on double-page spreads where the bear’s body crosses the gutter, everything lines up.

8) Detractions: If I were on this year’s committee, I would do my best to see that The Bear and the Moon kept moving forward through the selection process. I don’t see anything that detracts from the visual experience of the book, and the text so nicely complements it.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Bear and the Moon here]

As with any great picture book, there’s a voice that speaks to adult readers, too. Young readers will see this as a bear and balloon story, but they may sense something more to it. Adults will surely see another layer of meaning. And older readers who have suffered losses will find themselves teary after the first reading. “The sky had sent him a gift, / a friend, a small red moon, / and now it was gone.”  And yet …  ”He held the memory on a silver string. And in his dreams, they danced again.”

Maybe, come Caldecott announcement time, the little bear on the cover will be tossing a gold medal in its furry little paws instead of a red balloon!

Readers, have you seen this one yet? What more might you say about The Bear and the Moon, using any of Robin’s criteria? 


Dean Schneider
Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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