ILLUSTRATION FEATURE On a Bear Hunt to a Teddy Bear’s Picnic

Paul Morton reports on Bears!, a celebration of bears in picture books, featuring original artwork and manuscripts from the biggest children's book stars of today, currently on tour at Barnsley's Cooper Gallery.

Imagine my wide-eyed surprise when I ‘stumbled upon’ a fantastic children’s book exhibition recently. I’d popped down to my local Gallery in Barnsley to have lunch and catch whatever exhibition happened to be on. Well, it only happened to be a touring exhibition from Seven Stories, featuring Bears in Books! And, it only happened to be jam-packed full of original illustrations from some of the most popular bear books ever published. Wow!!

You can imagine, I was like a child in a sweet shop bedazzled by sketchbooks, working drawings, dummy books and artwork from the likes of Chris Riddell, Petr Horacek, Emily Gravett, Anthony Browne, Jon Klassen, Robert Ingpen, Rebecca Cobb, Catherine Raynor, Joel Stewart, Jim Field, Helen Oxenbury and David Melling to name just a few.

The exhibition was a visual feast as you can see from the photographs of 3D stage sets, props and extras (apologies for the reflections). What added extra interest were the notes accompanying each bear book. Both author and illustrator added a few pertinent and revealing details to enlighten us how this story or that character came to be.

David Melling, for example, explained how Hugless Douglas came to life:

“The idea for Hugless Douglas came about while reading to my son, who was four at the time. It began with a series of silly made up hugs. One particular night we were both yawning our way through story and when we'd finished I said, 'It's time for a Tired Hug'. The next night we had a Lights-Out Hug. It snowballed from there really, with new hugs making an appearance over the next few days. The morning might start with a Breakfast Hug, then a little later a 'Can I have a Snack Hug?' and so on.

"Now during this time I was spending my days at my drawing board trying to come up with a story for a bear. I hadn't written a book with a bear as a main character and I thought it would be a fun thing to draw. (When you know a picture book takes anything from 4-6 months to produce these considerations are important). Once I’d made the connection between the hugs and the bear, the story pretty much wrote itself.”

I was pleasantly surprised too see just how large Jackie Morris’ beautifully observed watercolour illustrations were produced for her book Something About a Bear.

“I always try to work larger than the finished book. I find that reducing the artwork tightens it up somehow. The paintings are my way of honouring these creatures that I love. Whenever I paint an animal I try to catch something of the soul of the creature in paint.” (Jackie Morris)

Those of us who are currently working on dummy books and texts will appreciate seeing Michael Rosen’s typewritten script for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It shows his minimal illustrator notes that Helen Oxenbury so skilfully interpreted.

First published in 1989, We're Going on a Bear Hunt has sold millions of copies. Michael Rosen adapted the story from an American folk song and used it during school visits. One day his publisher witnessed the uproar of excitement and laughter that the performance prompted and asked Michael if he would like to turn it into a book.

Michael insists that it is Helen Oxenbury's illustrations that have made the book such a success.

"Each illustration has its own mini-story, a drama that only the child can see. The older brother gets fed up and slumps on a fence, the younger sister loses her boot in the mud. This allows the child to know more about what is going on in the story than the reader and gives the child control.”(Michael Rosen)

As with any Seven Stories exhibition there were plenty of child friendly activities and hands on events ranging from the Grrrrand opening day, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Illustration talks, Story telling, Bear’s and puppets, dressing up and drawing.

This wonderful exhibition is not just a Teddy Bear’s Picnic, it’s a sumptuous feast for any children’s book creator.

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Bears! is free to visit and runs at the Cooper Gallery Barnsley until the 1st September. Thereafter it's scheduled for Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery February-April 2019, and Beacon Museum, Whitehaven March-June 2020. For more information, contact Seven Stories.


Long time SCBWI member and volunteer Paul Morton runs Hot Frog Graphics illustration and design studio.

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