Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Ugly Book

I love when I stumble across worn, tattered books at thrift stores.  More often than not I've been delighted at what lies between the covers.  Miss Suzy, one of our most treasured books, I picked up for a quarter at a book sale.  A withdrawn library book, Spartenburg Library stamped on the end papers, wouldn't look like much to the untrained eye.  Which is why it was probably in the sale bin.  But the story.  Oh, my.

Suzy sings like no other book.

I recently came across this old thing at a thrift store.  Pippi asked if the cover had been clawed by a wolf, alluding to a book we'd recently read, Wolves by Emily Gravett.  On the last page, the book that a rabbit had been reading all through the story, lies torn to shreds.  And indeed, our thrift book did look as if it had been ripped by very sharp claws.  But experience has taught me that you never judge a book by it's cover.

Usually, but not always, the uglier the cover, the more beautiful are the pages.  Little Brown Bear did not disappoint me.  Take a look at the first page that caught my eye.  Old world illustrations have always enchanted me.  Taper candles.  Drop-seat footies.  Attic bedrooms.  Root cellars.  And Pippi is so much like me.  She once noticed a little girl in an Eloise Wilkin book wearing white drop-seat pajamas.  A year later, Pippi had amassed a generous collection of books in which a character was clad in similar fashion.  You should see her, sporting her own pair of drop-seat footies, name stitched across the seat.  She looks as if she's stepped out of one of her own books. 

And taper candles.  I found an old-fashioned holder, such as the one Little Brown Bear is holding, and a box of beeswax candles at a thrift store, and Pippi immediately claimed it as her own.  It rests on the shelf beside her bed, and she would like nothing more than for me to allow her to carry it down the stairs - lighted - to her room each night, blowing it out moments before slipping beneath the coverlet.  So this book was an instant favorite with Pippi.  With Tommy as well. 

Little Brown Bear, a character created by Elizabeth Upham and illustrated by Marjorie Hartwell in the 1940's, is a collection of ten stories about Little Brown Bear, his family, and friends. 

The first story moralizes a bit too much for my taste.  I'm not fond of cautionary tales and Little Brown Bear Loses His Clothes sounds very much like the if you don't behave and put your clothes away properly, this may too happen to you sort of story.  Which is ridiculous.  Because the wind will never whip into my childrens' room, steal their clothes away, and hang them on a tree branch outside.  I doubt my kids will ever be influenced by this story to put their clothes away lest the wind snatch them up. 

But the other stories are charming.  I especially like Little Brown Bear is Afraid of the Dark.  Little Brown Bear asks his dear night time friend, Yellow Moon, if he is afraid of the dark.  Yellow Moon beckons Bear to the window, eager to show him the wonders that belong to the night. 

Wise Old Owl hooting from the butternut tree.

To whit, to who! to whit, to whee!
The darkness is my time to see,"
Green Frog croaking in the pond.  Old Black Cricket singing outside his window.  And Yellow Moon himself
bathing his room in soft light.

In Little Brown Bear's Surprise Party, Little Brown Bear is faced with a dilemma.  The story opens with his jaunty song as he runs about the kitchen.  And by the way, don't you just love books where the characters are forever making up little songs and rhymes? 

Cups and saucers, spoons, and plates!
Today I'll buy my roller skates!

he sings while helping his mother set the table for breakfast.  The day is Mother Bear's birthday, a fact which I imagine rolls around like spare change inside Bear's head as he empties his bank and pockets the coins.  "There are just enough to buy my roller skates," he says to himself.

Down the walk and through the gate
Twill be great fun to roller-skate!

On his way to the store, Little Brown Bear stops and sits down on a flat stone to think.  He remembers his mother's birthday.  He must choose.  By a gift for his mother?  Or buy his roller skates.  With money that is rightfully his.

What choice he makes, I'm sure you can guess.  It's that sort of book.

Are you now not enchanted with sweet Little Brown Bear?

If so, I'm afraid I've got a bit of bad news for you.  The Little Brown Bear stories have sadly gone out of print.  But I managed to locate a few moderately priced copies here and there at various independent book collecting sites.  I've added a few links.  But because inventory changes with each book catalogued, each book sold, I've not linked directly to the book, but to the site.

Happy hunting!



  1. I loved this book! My grandma use to read this to me in the late 60's and early 70's. It has beautiful illustrations.

  2. I was looking for info on Marjorie Hartwell and ended up here. I found a beat up copy of a withdrawn school textbook she did for Little, Brown in 1931, "The Outdoor World," at our main Salvation Army store. Hartwell's stuff reminds me stylistically of Milo Winter.