So this is the story of Wonder Bear (Dial Books), a new children’s picture book by Los Angeles-based artist Tao Nyeu:
These two little kids—one boy and one girl—climb up a hill and, once on top, plant a little garden. Based on the signs they stick in their garden, they’ve planted two rows of watermelon and a single hat plant.
Then it’s nighttime and they go to be in the bed that is suddenly by the garden. And the hat plant grows at a jack and the beanstalk rate, exploding into beautiful giant flowers. Out of one of those flowers crawls something wearing a hat like the one on the sign. It’s a bear! A giant white bear, probably a polar bear, with huge claws! It bows politely, and then holds its giant hat out to the children, and they peer inside (see cover image above). Is he going to eat them?
No, he’s apparently doing a magic trick. But instead of a rabbit, he pulls out fifteen monkeys, which look more like circus peanuts with pipe cleaner arms, legs and tails than actual monkeys. The monkeys form a giant cheerleader pyramid, and the bear shoots the children out of a cannon!
And then he blows some giant bubbles, bubbles in the shape of life-sized lions! These chase the monkeys and eat them, and, upon eating them, turn spherical and float into the sky.
Then the bear—who has grown even larger— eats a pawful of flowers, finally laying to rest this particular reader’s fear that he’s going to kill and eat the children. Oh wait, he’s not eating the flowers, he’s chewing them up and spitting them out, and through the agency of his magical bear saliva, they’ve transformed into magical flying sea creatures, which the kids, bear and monkeys all ride in through the sky.
After flying to the moon and the ocean, they eventually return to the bed by the garden, and the bear and his magical monkey friends tuck in the little children, who have by this point fallen asleep, because that’s what happens to little kids if they try to stay up too late. Then the bear puts all the monkeys back into his hat, then, in defiance of all physics, the bear climbs into his own hat, and then the hat flies away into the night sky.
Obviously, it’s pretty cool.
This is one of those strange children’s books which isn’t a graphic novel (or graphic novella, or graphic short story), but mainly due to its presentation and declaration of itself as a children’s picture book—there’s no reason it couldn’t be a graphic novel (or graphic novella, or graphic short story) if it wanted to.
While there are no panels, there’s no prose, either. In fact, there are no words of any kind. The entire story is told through the pictures, and each page—or two-page spread—functions in the exact same way the panels of a comic book might, one image leading sequentially into the next.
Nyeu’s art is beautiful. I’m perhaps a little prejudiced by the fact that her subject matter includes things that I personally find delightful—a bear, several cephalopods—but the various animal character designs are all pretty darling. Each animal—and the kids—have little pin-point eyes and blank faces that somehow still seem very expressive. Her bear looks at least half teddy-bear, more like a toy bear than a real bear, and, as I mentioned, her monkeys look more like an artist or craft-maker’s mental image of a monkey more so than a representational monkey.
Her overall art design (the patterns she uses to construct the pages and objects within the pages) and color schemes hit a sharp tone of nostalgia, reminding me of nursery wall paper, curtains, doll dress patterns, and the inside covers of books that I encountered when I was a little kid. Someone with a stronger grasp of American design history could name her influences; all I can say is that the orange, blue, green and white art looks a lot like my childhood, and seems more of the ‘60s and ‘70s than the ‘80s, ‘90s or ‘00s.
In a word, Wonder Bear is—are you ready for this obvious play on words which would make for the perfect critic’s blurb on the back of future editions?—wonderful. Ha ha ha!
You can read the book at Nyeu’s homepage, along with several other stories (I particularly liked “Laundry”). Be sure to check out the “Single Images” gallery too. Some of them are cute, and some of them are extremely weird, like image number 7, “The Roundup.” (Man, what is that image all about?)