Greg Foley’s Thank You Bear unpacks a big idea: true compassion and friendship mean imagining the needs of another person. Thank You Bear was Foley’s first picture book, and what a way to begin, winning the 2008 Charlotte Zolotow Award for children’s book writing. The board book edition is one of my favorite books to read with my child.
Bear finds a box on the ground and knows immediately that its contents are perfect for his friend, Mouse. But as Bear searches for his friend, he bumps into other animals who find fault with Bear’s gift. They shake Bear’s confidence in his own judgment and capacity to tend the needs of his friend.
But Bear was right. Mouse loves the gift and thanks Bear for thinking of him, an affirmation of Bear’s good care that gives the book its title.
The writing is wonderful. No extraneous words burden the prose, and a clear parallel structure bridges each of Bear’s interactions with other animals. The text lends a patient, ritual cadence that keeps my child engaged with the story.
But for me, the story’s emotional core comes through most powerfully in Bear’s facial expressions. A few spare lines evoke the shape of Bear’s mouth, nose, eyes, and brow. These are all Foley needs to show Bear’s growing crisis of confidence, his uncertainty when he finally shows the box to Mouse, and his joy and relief at Mouse’s response.
My child loves the depictions of the various animals. We point to them and name them. But as my child gets older, I’ve no doubt that Bear’s emotional life and concern for his friend will become the key topics of discussion for us.
When that happens, Thank You Bear will be as much a lesson in friendship and empathy for me as for my child.
The first book that took wing between my child and I was Loren Long’s Otis, a beautiful story about the loyalty that binds a red tractor (Otis) and a young calf. Long has written and illustrated several Otis volumes, and illustrated many other children’s books besides.
We started reading the board book edition of Otis when my child was about 6 months old. I can’t say for sure why this book captured my child’s imagination as it did at that age. But I think the story’s emotional range had a lot to do with it.
We meet Otis, a red tractor who works and plays hard, and the young calf who becomes his dearest companion. The mood is generally upbeat as Long introduces the characters and the farm. But other emotions are at stake, too, as when the calf arrives on the farm afraid and disoriented, but finds comfort in Otis’s mechanical snore.
When the farmer buys a new tractor, Otis is forgotten by all but the calf. These few pages are incredibly powerful. I can’t read them aloud without a sad downturn of voice and respectful hush. Otis’s detached expression, and the debris that gathers on him over time, underscore his grief at becoming obsolete. The calf’s sadness is palpable as she sits loyally by her unmoving friend.
When the calf falls into mortal danger, the farmer’s efforts to help only make things worse. A vulture waits patiently in a nearby tree — a small detail that will give the story deeper meaning as my child gets older. All seems lost until Otis, moved to action by love and loyalty, draws the calf out of harm’s way. In doing so, Otis affirms his importance to the farm.
The range of feeling my child intuits (I think) in Long’s evocative paintings, and in the shifting mood of my voice, may yet spur important conversations about friendship and loyalty as my child gets older. I especially appreciate Long’s willingness to explore a full range of emotions, from joy to grief, and even the possibility of death. Hopefully these qualities will make Otis a continuing resource as my child’s emotional world unfolds.