I was sent a copy of The Adventures of Baylard Bear by Lucinda Sue Crosby and while the story has its cute moments it has some huge problems. Since I use books to explore life and the questions I have about life, I felt it worthwhile to go ahead and write up a review on this book, even though I do not recommend it.
The story starts off with a baby bear being abandoned at an orphanage. It explains that the bear’s parents lived like other bears hunting, fishing and gathering fruit but because humans have entered the forest their way of life was slipping away and “they knew they weren’t ever going to be able to give their baby all the fine things they deserved.” Later in the book one of the orphanage workers tells the bear how much she admired his parents that they were willing to do such a hard thing.
So right there at the beginning there is a huge problem. This book is promoting the notion that parents in poverty are braver and better if they give their children away than if they try to care for them themselves. Women all around the world are being told this awful lie. They are being told that their children deserve better than them. Their children deserve people who can offer their children more things.
Society could embrace other options rather than encouraging women to give their children up for adoption. We could choose to support government policies that lift people out of poverty, and provide mothers with opportunities to support themselves while caring for their children, either through providing income so a parent could stay home with his or her child or providing childcare so the parent could work outside the home. Preferably we would provide the option of either of those. Of course to do that we would have to recognize the mixed messages we send to people, as so beautifully illustrated in a quote by Ann Richards, a former governor of Texas that: “They blame the low income women for ruining the country because they are staying home with their children and not going out to work. They blame the middle income women for ruining the country because they go out to work and do not stay home to take care of their children.”
We could recognize that children are not a private commodity, a private luxury. There should be no questioning whether or not a woman was right to have a child, or whether she should not be having one because she can’t afford it.
Through tax breaks, the government of the USA subsidizes people adopting children. People will spend $20,000 – $40,000 or more to adopt a child from a poor family overseas, when in many cases a small fraction of that amount would have allowed the child’s original family to raise the child. While individuals here may feel they have no responsibility to subsidize a poor family overseas, there’s no reason governments should subsidize their adoption instead of subsidizing the original families. Of course many people assume that a North American lifestyle is worth so much more, like the bears in the adventure story assume that a human lifestyle is worth more than what they can give.
There’s even this strange recognition in the story that it is humans who have caused the bears’ poverty, and yet the solution they promote isn’t to allow the bears more territory and secure food sources but rather to take the abandoned young and praise the parents for their bravery. What craziness.
So Baylard the bear struggles with feeling abandoned and socially awkward, because a bear is awkward in human settings but one day someone wants to adopt him and the orphanage workers actually give the bear a choice on whether he goes or not.
“Baylard… life is a gamble, a risk. Often, when you get something you really want, you have to give up something else to keep it. In this case, you would have a new mother… a real family. But you would have to give up your home here with us. You see … we would always be able to protect you here … protect you from the cruelties and unkindnesses of the big wide world out there.”
I don’t really know what to say about that other than I find it weird to suggest that a child should have that sort of choice, and to suggest to children that the world is big and cruel. The orphanage worker goes on to say that if the bear chooses to be adopted he’ll learn how hard it is to be different.
So I should stop and say that all the promo material about the book says that the book is about “knowing what it is like to be different.” A worthy goal, to encourage children to talk about what it is like to be different, but can one accomplish this goal by having the “different” character a different species?
I understand that sometimes it is easier for a child to relate to anthropomorphous animals than other humans, but when a story combines aspects of reality with fantasy in order to convey the message, the message can get a little mixed up and confused. If the story was about one bear being different from other bears, I would understand the use of it, but in this case the bear is different because he is not human. Will that help other children to accept their differences? A child is different because of different abilities, heritage, skills, etc, not because the child is any less human.
But of course no one in the story seems to recognize that the bear isn’t human. They talk only about him having “many special needs … shoes, clothes, education, diet…”. Am I the only one who worries that the take away message of the book would be that a special needs child is closer to being not human than to being human?
The bear is given the option of calling his adoptive mother “mommy” but he hesitates and she accepts that, acknowledging that he still misses his other mommy. Then once he gets in trouble (Curious George style trouble) and runs away he thinks that if he had called her mommy maybe she wouldn’t want to send him back to the orphanage. Eventually he is found and assured that they are a family – him, her, and her dog – leaving me to wonder what the relationship between the bear and dog is supposed to be. Siblings? But she treats the dog as a pet. Oh, the problems of anthropomorphizing animals!
The best part of the story is a visit to a restaurant where the adoptive mom ends up explaining that “sometimes humans act grumpy for reasons of their own” and helping Baylard to see that the waitresses grumpiness isn’t a reflection of something wrong with him, but that it was still something he could do something about by smiling and being kind to her. But this one gem of a concept hidden in such a confusing mess makes the book one I won’t be reading aloud to my children.