At six and eight, I know the days of my two kids wanting a story at bedtime together are close to being numbered. So it is always nice to seize the moment when they show keen, instead of wanting to fall asleep watching some Disney sitcom on the iPad.
Their chosen book the other night was the perennial favourite We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. You know the one, every parent does. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared, etc etc.
I remember reading this to both of them many a time when they were younger and I think I knew it by heart at one point. I even recall a fair few sunny afternoons in the garden acting it out with my toddler daughter as I carried my baby son in my arms. My little girl would be in fits of laughter, especially towards the end as we would hurriedly go through all the sounds and make our way back to the house with a dramatic air of panic as if we were really being chased by an actual bear. Brian Cant would have been proud. Happy days!
Without a doubt Bear Hunt is a classic – a review by the Independent gushes praise on the back, alongside mentions of its Kate Greenaway award (she being a 19th century illustrator, not the current presenter of Daybreak).
For my two kids, I guess, this was going to be a bit of nostalgia – their generation’s equivalent of me watching old episodes of The Littlest Hobo on YouTube (I’ve gotta stop that – more of a time waster than Facebook these days) – and I expected to sail through this latest reading pretty quickly.
Except we hadn’t even got through the swishy swashy grass when my six year old son took issue with the first mention of the famous couplet: ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it…’
‘Why can’t they go around it?’ he asked.
I pointed to the picture and said: ‘They can’t. It’s on a hill. It’d take ages.’
I tried not roll my eyes and tut. Surely this was obvious.
I continued on, pointing out the beauty of the alliteration in ‘swishy swashy’ and the following ‘splash splosh’ through the river. I feel a little bit of critical appreciation at bedtime doesn’t go amiss these days.
Then my son piped up again.
‘Why can’t they go under it?’
‘Well,’ I began.
But before I could think of an answer, my daughter intervened.
‘They’d have to dig a tunnel,’ she said. ‘It’d take ages.’
This was fast turning into an episode of Outnumbered. I should have practically finished the book by now, they should have been on the verge of sleep. And what were they doing? This was a classic. Everyone thought so. The Independent, her off GMTV, it had even got an award from Smarties. Smarties! Not some fly-by-night chocolate bar like peanut Treats. Hadn’t they read the back cover?
The thing is, my daughter had a point. They would have to dig a tunnel.
Next stop was the mud. I emphasised the ‘squerch’ in ‘squelch squerch’ to emphasise its brilliance. But the over and under thing still niggled.
‘Surely they could go around the mud?’ my daughter said.
And suddenly I found myself joining in.
‘It should say ‘jump over it’ really,’ I noted. ‘If they’re going to go over it, they’re going to have to jump over it.’
‘That’d be impossible,’ my son laughed.
‘Really,’ I continued, ‘it should be ‘we can’t jump over it/we can’t go around it…’
‘That wouldn’t scan, Dad,’ my daughter replied. Well, she didn’t actually – but in a couple of years she might, if I keep up the critical appreciation. Anyway, back to the story…
I reasoned that the over/under thing was a minor flaw, an almost unnoticeable liberty taken by way of artistic licence.
That is until other niggles came to light.
Why does a snowstorm suddenly appear after the forest, wondered my daughter. Another good point, I agreed. You could understand a few flakes but a storm? It had been so sunny on that grassy hill.
Then the cave. Yes, they are hunting the bear, but this was one obstacle they could go around. You can clearly see this from the picture.
And once in the cave, what’s ‘tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe’ all about? That’s not a sound, is it? It’s an action. All the other verse denouements are sounds. I wondered whether ‘drip-drop’ might have worked better. ‘You get lots of water dripping in caves,’ I said, somewhat proud of this moment of inspired genius.
Plus on the way back you wouldn’t keep going ‘tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe’ if you were suddenly being chased by a bear.
Instead of the frantic climax to the story of old that I’d always reenact in the garden years ago, now I could barely muster even a hint of enthusiasm as the characters in the book ran into the house, up the stairs then back downstairs to close the door. The last line about not going on a bear hunt again, admittedly, got a laugh from the boy, but overall there was a feeling of disappointment running through all of us and I felt, sadly, that they were probably unlikely to choose Bear Hunt as a bedtime story again.
It was rather like, well, watching an old episode of The Littlest Hobo on YouTube. It’s not quite as magical as it once was. It doesn’t quite stand up to the scruntiny of even a six year old’s enquiring mind.
Then again, it’s not supposed to. Ultimately, it’s a book for the under-fives and beyond that it runs the risk of falling flat on its face. How did Smarties not see this? I don’t think I will ever take an Independent book review seriously again.
Of course, I realise how unreasonable this is. One day when I am old I am sure I won’t remember the night when my two kids and I laid into this perennial favourite with such gusto. Instead I will recall the many happy afternoons where the sound of my little girl’s laughter echoed in the summer breeze as I pretended a grizzly creature was in hot pursuit.
And the Bear Hunt’s classic status shall be restored.