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Bear Needs Help by Sarah Brannen

Skype Magic By Kate Narita

As a teacher, my most memorable, pleasurable moments are when magic happens in the classroom. You know what I’m talking about. Those rare times when everything is in sync, and transcendence occurs in a roomful of people.

Transcendence. That’s what happened when I read Bear Needs Help by Sarah Brannen to my Kids Need Mentors class. You may be thinking, come on, give me a break. But, it’s true. It’s the first time I’ve had that magical feeling while Skyping with a group of people hundreds of miles away.

After showing the book cover and reading the title, Bear Needs Help, I had the opportunity to meet a few of the students one-by-one before we read the book. I asked each one of them what they need help with and how they help others. Here’s what they had to say:

Henry: My mom helps me by doing my laundry. I help my little brothers and sisters make their beds.

Ayla: I need help cleaning my room. I help my friends with math in school.

Upon reflecting, I think giving a few students time to talk about what they needed help with and how they help others immediately upped their investment in the book. Plus, it’s just plain fun to think about a huge animal like a polar bear needing help.

Each one of my twenty-seven mentee students watched the screen in earnest as the book began. The students connected with Bear straight away because his shoe is untied. Although none of them mentioned shoe tying before we read the book as something they needed help with or helped each other with, that’s a typical first grade need.

The students laughed when the seals dove away from Bear. Let’s be honest. Who can’t relate to the feeling of people running away from us? That’s an every day fear on the playground. If I ask to join in will I be warmly welcomed or will the group run away from me as I approach?

Their empathy for Bear continued to increase when the arctic hares and the lemmings scattered, too. Bear looks forlorn on the next spread. But when readers spot the ptarmigans in the background, they wonder if help is on the way.

Help is on the way, but it’s not the help the readers thought Bear needed. The surprise ending satisfied the students. More on that later.

After the book ended, I asked a few of my mentee students if they would recommend that their friends read Bear Needs Help. Here’s what they had to say.

Eduardo: Yes, because Bear needs help tying his shoes. My mom helps me tie my shoes.

Litzy: Yes, people should read the book because Bear needs help. I need help making my bed. I help clean the house, the dishes.

Mia: Yes, because he needs help tying his shoes. I need help fixing my bed, and I help wash the dishes.

While all three of these kids said Bear needed help tying his shoes, hands waved in the background. Brendan said, “Kids should read the book because he doesn’t need help tying his shoes, it has a surprise ending.” Other students chimed in that they were surprised, too.

It’s funny how a book delivers whatever a reader needs. Students who need help tying their shoes, related to Bear at the beginning of the book because it seems as if that’s what he needed. Meanwhile, other students tracked the whole story arc and loved the ending where the readers discover Bear really needs help with a different task.

It turns out author/illustrator Sarah Brannen needs help when she creates books, too. Watch the interview below to find out how Bear came to be and what kind of help Sarah needs.

Interview Transcript Below

Kate: Today we are so lucky to have Sarah Brannon with us the author illustrator of the Fantastic book Bear Needs Help. Hi, Sarah!

Sarah: Hi, Everybody.

Kate: Thanks so much for joining us today.

Sarah: I’m really happy to be here. It’s fun to talk about my work and kind of meet the kids.

Kate: Definitely. We’re so happy you’re here, too. Could you please tell us how you got the story seed for Bear Needs Help?

Sarah: That’s such a great term. I love that. I love the metaphor of story seed. Well in this case ten years ago, I was working on a story about a bear and a wolf. The wolf told jokes to the bear and the bear didn’t get them. I thought it was really funny and I liked it a lot but nobody else liked it. Of the people who didn’t like it, that included my agent and my editor. That kind of meant there was no hope for the book.

So, I set it aside. I felt bad about it, but I worked on other things. Then, one day I was just drawing and I drew a bear wearing red sneakers. It was just a pencil sketch and I had no idea. It was my same old bear I wanted to do. I didn’t know why the bear was wearing sneakers. I noticed that one of them was untied. I had drawn it that way. I just thought well, why is the bear’s show untied? Can the bear tie his own shoes? I don’t know. So, I just started playing around with it. So, it sort of came from nowhere. I guess it was the muse.

Kate: That is so fun!

Sarah: That’s all it is. I don’t have any more explanation about where it came from.

Kate: That’s pretty amazing. It just goes to show to that you never know where your creativity is going to lead. So even if you’re frustrated with one project, it doesn’t mean that it won’t turn into another fantastic one down the line.

Sarah: I hope so.

Kate: Definitely. So, you’re the first author-illustrator I’ve interviewed, and you just talked about this a little bit. But could you tell us what comes first, the pictures or the words or do they come simultaneously?

Sarah: You know, the answer is kind of all of the above. It depends. When I wrote Madame Martine and uncle Bobby’s wedding I wrote the story first. I worked very hard on just the words and I didn’t even start sketching until I really had polished the story.

Kate: Wow!

Sarah: But most of the time with the new books that I’m doing, I do little sketches like I did of the bear. I do these little thumbnails, and I don’t think they’re going to be easy to see because these really weren’t meant for public consumption. These are the very first sketches for Bear Needs Help.

There are so few words in the story that there’s absolutely no way to write it and so I have to draw the story. Still, no matter what it’s the story that comes first. In this case I have to figure out what’s going to happen with pictures, not words. But I have to do this kind of sketching over and over and over again just like writing the draft to a written story to try and figure it out and it takes a long time.

It takes a lot longer to write out a story with drawings like this than to write it out with words. But that’s the way I do it. Mostly these days, it’s both together. I just go back and forth.

Kate: I love that you said how the story comes first no matter if you’re doing the pictures or the words.

Sarah: Yeah, I always ask kids what the difference is between art and illustration. They come up with some good answers. Then, I tell them my answer. Illustration is art that tells a story. So you have to have a story. Even if it’s in your mind with things that happen and you’re going to tell the whole thing with pictures, it has to be a story.

Kate: Wow! That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that advice with us.

Sarah: Good luck.

Kate: Thank you. Can you talk about the research you did for Bear needs help and let us know about the animals that are in the book?

Sarah: Yes, I decided early on I think I’ll set this story in Alaska. Even though it’s not a realistic story, I kind of wanted to have all the animals in the story be Alaskan animals. The first thing to do was to look and see if there are polar bears in Alaska, which I wasn’t sure about, and yes there are. So that was good. And then I just I kind of knew some of the animals but I double-checked. I checked online to make sure that they had arctic hares and lemmings and I knew that there there were seals because polar bears eat seals I’m sorry to say. I also thought about arctic foxes and coyotes, but I didn’t end up putting those in.

And then, there was this bird who comes in at a very important part of the story, and this book (Feathers: Not Just for Flying), I did not write, but I illustrated it. There’s a bird in it at the end of the book. I should have used bookmarks…

Kate: This way we get to see all the beautiful artwork as you flip through.

Sarah: There they are. This bird here the willow ptarmigan. I had illustrated this book five years before. And I learned all about this nice bird, and I love the way they look. They have big feathers around their feet like snowshoes. I just thought it would be really fun to put them in the story in some way. I needed an animal to come help Bear, and I decided it would be this bird.

So that was the start of it, and then I did the sketches at that point with out a whole ton of research. Like I said, I didn’t really need the animals to be too realistic.

But when I wanted to look at the light, unfortunately, I could not go to Alaska. I wish I could have. But there are a series of videos called Frozen Planet which are absolutely wonderful for kids of all ages from one to one hundred.

And I watched those videos, just to get a sense of the light. And there was one scene of the sunrise which of course in the Arctic takes several weeks. It’s dark all winter and light all summer. The sunrise is this slow moment in the spring, and it’s just this beautiful image. So, that’s why this scene looks this way.

I also looked for the colors of the snow and the water. Again, I should have used bookmarks. But the water is kind of this really intense aquamarine because it’s all around the ice and everything. So, I learned that from watching these videos.

Kate: That’s really gorgeous.

Sarah: That was most of it. I didn’t research the animals very deeply. You know, animals don’t really wear shoes or talk. So, it didn’t really matter. I think someone who knows about arctic hares could tell that these are arctic hares. Everybody calls them rabbits, but they’re actually arctic hares. But you know, they don’t actually make faces like that. I just did that for fun.

Kate: It is definitely a ton of fun, and it’s gorgeous.

Sarah: Thank you.

Kate: You’re welcome. Bear needs help with his shoelaces. Can you tell us what you sometimes need help with as an author and/or as an illustrator?

Sarah: Well, I need help with both of those things. Often if I’m trying some new technique, I reach out to my illustrator and artist friends. I might ask them about a kind of pen or a kind of paint. I do it all the time. If I have to try something new, yeah, sometimes I’ll just try and experiment. But, also, it makes sense to call up one of my good artist friends, who is really good at something, and say what kind of thing do you use to do this because there are so many different kinds of equipment.

With writing, I go to groups and we sit and read each other’s work. I get such good advice from those people, for instance, someone in this room right now. And I have a couple of friends who aren’t in critique groups, but I can email them my stories. I think we all help each other in that way. I don’t think I could do it without it. You need someone else to see your story. You really do. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that was any good that didn’t have a lot of help from other people.

Kate: Thank you so much for your honesty. Tell us who is coming in July.

Sarah: Well, my next book is called A Perfect Day. It’s not a sequel to Bear Needs Help. It’s about a seagull and a crab, and I’m not going to read the whole thing but just a little sneak preview. The book is set in Maine. This seagull is enjoying the beautiful weather, and she says, “It’s a perfect day.”

Down from the water by her feet, she hears a little voice going, “It’s not perfect.”

She says, “What do you mean it’s not perfect?”

He says, “I see a cloud.” And that’s the way the story goes. It comes out July seventh. I’m really looking forward to everyone having a look at this. I’m really, really happy with how it turned out.

It was really nice to get a chance to talk to all of you today.

Kate: Thank you so much for joining us. Take care, Sarah.

Sarah: You, too.

Kate: Bye! 

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