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The Idle Bear

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Written and Illustrated by Robert Ingpen
Winner of the 1986 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Illustration

At the sight of a stuffed animal sitting on a shelf, have you ever found yourself wondering what the animal might be thinking, if it could think?  In The Idle Bear, Robert Ingpen answers this question.

            The Idle Bear consists of the musings and questions-and-answers between two aged teddy bears, Ted and Teddy.  Their conversation begins, it appears, at their first meeting:

 

'What kind of a bear are you?' asked Ted.

'I'm an Idle Bear.'

'But don't you have a name like me?'

'Yes, but my name is Teddy.  All bears like us are called Teddy.' . . .

We could be related, thought Ted and Teddy together.

 

Together, the two bears explore their likenesses and their differences:  Where do you come from?  What happened to you there, where you came from? "Have you got a growl?"  "I'm full of straw."  The bears' reminiscences include bits of their life histories - encounters with dogs; their growls; a bandaged paw (because Ted's paw wore out); and compliments received (The bandage gives Ted "a worldly look.). 

One such reminiscence includes a clue to the book's title.  After hearing that Ted's bandage gives him "a worldly look," Teddy repeats, "I'm an Idle Bear."  He asks Ted whether he wants to know what "Idle" is.  Teddy ignores Ted's negative answer and explains:  "My owner is an Idle . . . so I'm an Idle too."

Reviewer Yvonne Frey (1988) reaches the following conclusion in her review of The Idle Bear:

 

Since the text is simply the conversation between two straw bears, it really goes nowhere, and that fact may confuse young readers who miss the humor and try to follow a thread of a story line.  With their worn-out growls and patched paws which leak stuffing, the bears will probably appeal most to adults who can understand and recognize the humorous sophistry and who will enjoy the chance to look at very appealing Teddy bears assuming childlike poses.

 

Frey misses the point completely.  This is not a book about an idle bear; it is a story about an Idle bear.  This is not just a conversation that "goes nowhere."  It is a conversation about examining where we came from, who we are and - most of all - about belonging. 

Consider what would happen if you were to ask a young child things like:  Where do you come from? What do you do there? How did you get that bandage on your arm (or leg or knee)?  Just imagine the creative, factual, and descriptive responses you would receive!

Like the bears, even very young children can remember things that they used to do but now no longer do, or things that they couldn't do but now can do, for example:  They used to sleep in a crib, but now they don't.  They didn't know how to ride a bike, but now they do.  When they learned how to ride the bike, they fell and got a scrape underneath the bandage you see (usually followed by an invitation to remove the bandage so that you can admire the scrape).  Incidents such as these become part of who we are, just as incidents related in The Idle Bear are part of Ted and Teddy's histories.

The people and places described in the bears' conversation are the foundation of the bears' sense of belonging to someone and some place.  While worldly Ted doesn't quite understand, Teddy knows that, because his owner is "an Idle," that makes him "an Idle too."  Being an "Idle Bear" isn't just a play on words about sitting around; it means being a much-loved part of the Idle family.

In 1986, shortly before The Idle Bear was published, Australian Robert Ingpen won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration, for his lifelong contribution to children's literature.  A prolific illustrator and author, Ingpen's works reflect an interest in the supernatural, history and technology (Robert Roger Ingpen 2004).

In The Idle Bear, Ingpen's artistic style adds to the atmosphere of reminiscence.  His fragile-looking bears appear well worn, much played with - and loved.  Ingpen's soft, muted colors - earth tones accented by the red and blue of the bears' clothing - bring out the gentle, look-back-at-the-past flavor of the story.  His illustrations also add to the touch of humor; it is funny to see Ted standing on his head, trying to re-activate his growl.  While Ingpen is an Australian, there is nothing in this picture book (neither language nor photos) to indicate a specific setting or culture.  Indeed, since the characters are teddy bears - loved by children in many cultures - the book is culturally neutral.

If you have an old, much-loved teddy bear, stuffed animal or doll from your childhood, find it before settling down to read this book with the child or children of your choice.  Use your treasured childhood teddy bear, stuffed animal or doll with the book to talk about your history, your child's history, and how - together - you are a family.

 

 

Contemporary Authors Online. 2004. Robert Roger Ingpen. 2004. Thomson Gale.

Frey, Yvonne A. 1988. Review of The Idle Bear by Robert Ingpen. School Library Journal  34 (7):167.

Ingpen, Robert. 1987. The Idle Bear. New York: Peter Bedrick Books; London: Blackie and Son. ISBN 0-87226-159X 

 

 

This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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