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July 30, 2012

Old School: The Bear That Wasn't

It's one of those precious delights of parenthood to share a book we loved as kids ourselves to our own children, and to relive that thrill of discovery through their eyes. But it's a completely different kind of pleasure, and one nearly as great, to discover a classic with your kids, one you somehow missed yourself in your own childhood.

I mainly knew of Frank Tashlin as a famous animator (of Looney Tunes fame) and Hollywood screenwriter and director (of Jerry Lewis movies), and hadn't been aware that he'd dabbled in children's books. Then Dash's grandmother gave him a copy of the author's 1946 The Bear That Wasn't. It's a wonderful allegorical tale of a bear who is awakened from a long sleep by humans who are convinced he is not in fact a bear, but a very hairy man in a fur coat, and that therefore he should get to work on the large factory project that's sprung up around him as he slept.

The bear calmly tries to tell the men otherwise, but is lectured over and over again, as he moves up to the highest levels of the corporate chain, that he must stop being silly and accept that he is not a bear. He heads to the zoo, aiming to get support from his fellow bears for his true identity, but even here he's out of luck: The zoo bears point out that if he were a real bear, he'd be behind bars like they are.

Worn down, he figures that maybe they're all right after all and he's not a bear, and proceeds to live life as a human, working hard in a factory every day. And it's not until circumstances lead him to solve the problem of a cold winter as a bear would that he concludes that he was right and all the bureaucrats were wrong after all, with Tashlin's sublime final sentence: "No indeed, he knew he wasn't a silly man, and he wasn't a silly Bear either."

The message of individuality, of knowing who you are and not letting anyone tell you otherwise, is certainly loud and clear in this tale—as is the criticism of those who insist that anything repeated often enough must be true. But it's Tashlin's tone throughout that really makes the book a classic, mesmerizing to readers of all ages: The bear's quiet sense of puzzlement in the face of a series of humans who are arrogantly confident in their mistakenness is both sympathetic and very funny; you have the sense that the bear is never exactly convinced of his humanity himself, but just decides it's no use arguing anymore. (And there's a lesson there, too, of course.) The humans themselves are an amusing (though not harmless) parody of wrongheadness, becoming angrier and angrier when the bear stubbornly keeps insisting he's ursine.

Dash adores this book (and I can only hope he takes its message to heart as he grows up); it's quickly become one of his enduring favorites. And I'm really glad to have discovered it myself, even at the advanced age of 42!

P.S.: When posting this, I stumbled across an animated version of The Bear That Wasn't. Apparently Tashlin didn't feel it conveyed the message of the book quite as he desired, but it's still worth a look:

[Cover image courtesy of the New York Review Children's Collection]


  1. Thank you so very much for providing such a delightful treasure filled blog! I adore your posts and male point of view on books/other great finds. My 2 boys (4 yrs /1 yrs) found The Bear That Wasn't at our library last week and couldn't stop laughing/gleaming life insights from the story. Grazie mille - your blog/writing is certainly among the very best in the family/child blog genres.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoy the book as much as we do.