Maughn Rollins Gregory
Review of Bear Outside by Jane Yolen (New York: Neal Porter Books, 2021).
One of the meditations Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote for children includes the lines, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. / Breathing out, I feel fresh. / Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid” (1992:11). He teaches that it’s important “to keep our ‘flowerness’ alive and present,” and that by breathing in ‘mountain’ and breathing out solid’, “you will see that you are stronger than you thought” (1992:12,16).
Jane Yolen’s 400th book for children begins with the unnamed narrator, a girl perhaps nine years old, confiding that “Some folks have a lion inside, / or a tiger. / Not me. / I wear my bear on the outside.” In simple but compelling gouache images by Jen Corace, we see the girl walking on a street, sitting in her school classroom, hanging on a grocery shopping cart, and riding a bicycle; but in each image, the figure of the girl is surrounded by that of a giant, tawny bear.
In their first image, the girl/bear walk past other children who leer, laugh, and stick a tongue out at her. She narrates: “I wear my bear on the outside. / It’s like wearing a suit of armor. / It keeps out the howls, / the growls. / She keeps me safe.” Nowhere in the book is the bear depicted as menacing or even angry. She typically wears a half-smile, reflecting the girl’s own expression. The girl is kept safe from the bullies, not by putting on a ferocious countenance, but by summoning the kind of self-understanding and self-trust that makes their taunts ineffectual. When do I need to show up as Bear? As Flower?
In other images the girl/bear laugh openly, as when “I’m in charge / riding my bike / to the stop sign. / Or if I like, / roller-skating. / Or bouncing / on the trampoline.” If I wore a bear outside today, what would I do differently? What risks might I be willing to take? In a contrasting image, the girl/bear sit in a school classroom where the teacher is asking a question, and though the girl looks down at her desk, the bear lifts her head and raises her paw to respond. Can part of me be confident at the same time that another part of me is self-doubting—about the same thing? In another image the girl reaches to the bear from a swimming pool but the bear crouches in fear. “Only not at swimming lessons. / That can be dangerous / for both of us.” If I know I am capable of bear energy, are there times it’s better to let that energy sleep?
Halfway through the book “my bear” becomes “Bear,” whom the girl understands, not as something she wears outside but a being outside herself. (Some readers follow the girl’s mother in taking Bear to be an imaginary friend.) In one image girl and Bear sit side by side under a canopy of blankets, each absorbed in reading a different book. In another, the girl/Bear sit at the dinner table where “we share a plate. / I like chicken, / Bear likes salad. / We don’t always agree, / Bear and me.” Even young children experience disagreement among their inner selves, which is one of many metaphors for the idea that what we think of as individuality is actually complex: we can recognize distinct parts of ourselves with different, sometimes conflicting tendencies, needs, genders, skills. Sometimes these parts do seem to come from outside ourselves. How can I choose between the deep desires of different parts of me that I value equally?
Then again, not all of our inner selves are good company. People of every age have ‘demons’ – inner selves driven by fear, anger, loneliness, and pride. The notion of inner conflict and a ‘divided self’ was a prominent theme in ancient philosophy. Surely, part of what it means to “Know thyself” is to be aware when these selves begin to manifest and to know how to take care of them. (Nhất Hạnh recommends holding an angry, lonely, or otherwise troubled inner self like a crying baby and reassuring it, ‘It’s OK that you are here, I will take care of you’.)
“I take care / of Bear, / and Bear / takes care of me.” These lines and the image of the girl and Bear bowing toward each other and touching noses, remind us that those parts of ourselves we trust and value have to be nurtured, cultivated. Nhất Hạnh reminds us, “sometimes our flowerness is tired and needs to be revived” (1992:12). If I recognize parts of me—or of family members or friends—that are dear, that I rely on, how do I take good care of them?
Bear Outside is a philosophical fable that, like all good fables, raises intriguing questions that can be doorways to wisdom.
Nhất Hạnh, Thích (1992) Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, pp. 10-20. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.