Books NYRB

NYRB Reading Week: Frank Tashlin’s The Bear that Wasn’t

NYRB Reading Week: Frank Tashlin’s The Bear that Wasn’t

This is my first NYRB book and now I understand what the fuss is about. I find it difficult to categorize this book since it isn’t strictly a picture book, but it isn’t a full-blown YA lit, either – nor is it a graphic novel or a comic book. It’s just your good-ole classic children’s book with illustrations built within the storyline – the kind of book that I grew up with onceuponatime. I am suddenly reminded of the Janet Evans talk that I attended several weeks back and how all these genre could now be subclassified/subcategorized.

Anyway, the narrative innocuously begins with this Bear just going about his daily routine, sniffing the air, looking at the direction the birds fly, and noting that ahh-it’s-winter-then-i-should-hibernate-mode – all very natural, logical, no-nonsense. Just your average bear walking around, hurting no one, going about his day.

“He knew when the geese flew south and the leaves fell from the trees, that winter would soon be here and snow would cover the forest. It was time to go into a cave and hibernate. And that was just what he did.”

It just so happened that as the Bear was sleeping through the winter, there were men who came in the forest:

“lots of men, with charts and maps and surveying instruments. They charted and mapped and surveyed all over the place… They worked and worked, and worked, and finally they built a great, big, huge, factory right OVER the TOP of the sleeping bear’s cave”

This was the part where I was reminded a little bit of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax what with all the trees unceremoniously chopped, the entire forest flattened to give space to a bustling, busy factory with workers who are paid by the hour by bosses who have bosses who have bosses making up the long chain of command. And so, this simple, easygoing, terribly-uncomplicated Bear wakes up in Spring time to white corridors, rooms filled with gears and machineries, and people milling about telling him that he needs to get to work and to please stop pretending to be a bear.

As the foreman told him: “That’s a fine excuse for a man to keep from doing any work.” And the bear, without guile and with utter simplicity announces “But, I am a bear.” This testament to his Bear-ness continues right up to the highest ranking official in the chain of command (Foreman – General manager – 3rd Vice President – 2nd Vice President – First Vice President). I like how this British Bear (well, he does sound like one with all the propriety and manners built into everything that he says), in his piteous attempts to explain who he really is, very calmly states: “This is a dreadful error, you know, because ever since I can remember, I’ve always been a Bear.”

I was flipping through the pages to see whether there would be any instant when he would just blow his “bloody”-top off and express his displeasure with a resounding ROAR and EAT these people up just to prove that bygollyheisabear! But … I’d leave that up to you to find out.

According to the people around him, he can not possibly be a bear because “Bears are only in a zoo or a circus. They’re never inside a factory and that’s where you are; inside a factory. So how can you be a Bear?” That does sound right, doesn’t it? But is it right? So he is nothing but a silly man who needed to shave and wore a fur coat.

I find it hilarious that the bear actually went to work along with all the men, because (1) he has nowhere else to go (2) I suppose he felt tired constantly trying to explain himself (3) it seemed like the path of least resistance – what else is he to do anyway? However, similar to how industrialism is portrayed in the Lorax, these factories usually fizzle out, leaving in its wake an enormous amount of dirty debris, shards of smoke, and the dying breath of the trees. And then it’s winter time again. So the bear now wonders: is he really a bear? Or is he a silly man in a fur coat who needed a shave?

“He had been told so often, that he was a silly man who needed a shave and wore a fur coat, that he felt it must be true. So he just sat there, because he didn’t know what a silly man who needed a shave and wore a fur coat would do, if he were freezing to death in the snow. The poor Bear was very lonely and very sad. He didn’t know what to think.”

Would you stop being who you were simply because the people around you insisted that you were someone else? I just love this story for so many reasons:

Environmental Concerns. As an educator it just touches on so many core issues that can be talked about in class. The power of the narrative is that unlike the classic Lorax which tends to be outright in its message with “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongue” – this simple Bear is nothing but a casualty of war – or should we say, casualty of unsustainable environment/industrialization and such – and makes no such proclamations on top of a tree stump (though I believe The Lorax is effective in his zeal, fervor and sheer tenacity).

Identity Issues. Yet despite this, the impact of the former theme is keenly felt in the fact that this hapless Bear is stripped of his home, and worse still, stripped of his identity. A bear with existential queries. Reminds me of Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman who refuses to be a bogeyman (he would rather think deep thoughts and read poetry) and the Rats of NIMH who still remain rats-but-not-quite. At its core, the book is witty, funny without even trying, and a very quick read that would capture the attention of even very young readers.

The ‘Other,’ Denial, and Invisibility. The book also evokes a sense of “otherness” in the reader – as keenly felt in this image here.

It reminds you of certain moments in your lives when you remain steadfast in claiming that you are someone while the rest of the world laughs at you and says otherwise. It also shows how people can just blindly go about leading their lives, never disrupting the peace, and dismissing away any oddity – because it’s just too unbelievable to be true. And so a viper in your household is nothing but an ornament or the bear just a silly old man in a fur coat who needed a shave.

This book also affirms what I love most about children’s books. They are not just for children. If you tease out the elements in painstaking/excruciating detail – you might even find things that make you discomfited, cautious, and yes make you reflect on moments in your life when you are the person you aren’t.

Apparently, this book has already been made into a full-blown video classic with Frank Tashlin being a master animator, and as customary now, it’s already on Youtube. Here’s the videoclip, enjoy!

Picture of Frank Tashlin from this website:
Youtube clip:
Book cover:
Bear talking to the general manager (in color):
Lorax on top of Unless Tree Stump:
The Lorax Cover Image:
Fungus the Bogeyman thumbnail:
Book borrowed from the community library
Book photos taken by me

The Bear that Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin

Amazon | Book Depository

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

15 comments on “NYRB Reading Week: Frank Tashlin’s The Bear that Wasn’t

  1. What a wonderful review! You’re the first reviewer this week and what a lovely choice. I’ve always wondered what the NYRB Children’s Collection is like and this sounds just lovely. I think my kids would love it.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hello Mrs B, I’m glad you like it. Yes, I read the entire book in one sitting in the library last week and wrote my review right then and there (while waiting for my daughter to finish her piano lessons hahaha – no time wasted indeed, picture of multi-tasking). I am actually fascinated with the fact that it has a video clip! If you’ve seen the snippet, it’s really lorax-like. One can truly smell a classic from a mile away, it just hits you right off the bat. And yes, I’m sure your kids would love the book.


  2. Fantastic review! And this really reminds me of why I wanted to read more NYRB books in the first place–their children’s collection. I haven’t read this, but I think this is the next one I’m buying. Plus, you mention two other children’s books that I love in your review: The Lorax and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.:)

    You’re right: children’s books aren’t just for children. They say a lot to adults, too. Or maybe it’s just that we adults really never grow out of our childhoods at all.:)


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Dearest Honey, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have several more NYRB children’s collection in my stack that I am hoping I could finish reading and writing about by end of week. It’s such a joy being this passionate about books. I am very fortunate that the community library here in SG has an EXTENSIVE collection of NYRB titles (in children’s lit/YA fiction), you wouldn’t believe it. Amazing. The challenge is how to finish everything in a week’s time! You should have made it NYRB Reading MONTH!!! Hahahaha. Maybe next year. =)


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  4. Lovely video that went well with your wonderful, well-thought out, psychoanalyzed book review of The Bear that Wasn’t. I was laughing my head off while reading this in a small corner of the children’s section at Borders. The “sense of otherness” in this book was spot on. I can relate to the Bear’s frustration in trying to explain to people what (or who) he really is. It’s always fascinating when they personify animals in picture books. I think I’d look into more Frank Tashlin books. 🙂


    • myragarcesbacsal

      But I was trying so hard NOT to psychoanalyze it, darn! Major fail? Hahaha. Nice, right? It’s so beautiful trying to capture the essence of a book. Feeds the soul truly.


  5. What a wonderfully constructed review, and I love the connections you make especially to The Lorax and environmental concerns. The NYRB children’s titles are gems, and I think I acquired all for the school library last year as they grew in popularity. Some of the kids knew to look for their signature design when looking for something special, unique.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Thank you Frances! I’m so glad you dropped by. I saw your blogposts and will comment/drop a line very soon – very thorough reviews of NYRB books as well! The community libraries here in SG are amazing, they have a whole stock of NYRB titles (children’s collection), that I have maxed out on the allowable number of loans. Your school library is fortunate to have someone like yourself to choose books for them. =)


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  8. Fantastic! I love, love, love the illustrations. And that video! Will definitely add this to the TBR list.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hello Nathalie, thank you for dropping by. The video IS wonderful, isn’t it?. Yup, you definitely should read this one. =)


  9. I am always so tempted by the children’s selections published by NYRB Classics, but I have so many “adult” ones ahead of me I never seem to get to them. This sounds lovely, though, and exactly the kind of thing I wished I had read (or been read) as a kid. Of course I can still enjoy it (and I’m sure the others) now!


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Good to hear that Nicole, and thank you so much for dropping by. I also have quite a number of adult lit in my TBR pile (I was in the middle of Isabel Allende’s Paula when our Diaries theme and now the NYRB got in the way of finishing the book). Will endeavor to read more adult lit in the next few months as well. =)


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