Friday, October 15, 2010


Bears haunted my dreams as a child, and once in a while a big black bear will still pop up in my adult nightmares. I'm not positive how they became such a powerful animal to me, but I have a suspicion: Honey Bear, by Dixie Willson. My mom used to read it to my brother and I before bed, and maybe - just maybe -  the scary voice my mother used somehow filtered through my subconscious. Maybe it was the scary illustrations. Maybe it was the fact that the story is about a bear that steals a sweet baby. Whatever.

The tattered old book currently resides at our family cabin in the bear-infested Adirondacks where it has been used as nighttime reading for my son when he was young (sweet dreeeams, Chandler!). I have tried to dig up info on the book's history and have found very little.  I did, however, find a gem of an article by Tom Wolfe in the Yale Alumni Magazine. He has published books such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, and his description of this book pretty much nails it:

Honey Bear is a narrative poem about a baby kidnapped from a bassinet by a black bear. Maginel Wright Barney drew and painted in the japanais Vienna Secession style. To me, her pictures were pure magic. But Honey Bear's main attraction was Dixie Willson's rollicking and rolling rhythm: anapestic quadrameter with spondees at regular intervals. One has to read it out loud in order to be there:
Once upon a summer in the hills by the river
Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew.
There were caves as dark as midnight—there were tangled trees and thickets
And a thousand little places where the sky looked through.
...Dixie Willson was the sister of Meredith Willson of The Music Man fame and that Maginel Wright Barney was the sister of Frank Lloyd Wright. As luck and nonfiction would have it, they never laid eyes on each other. 

Wolfe explains that it was this book that inspired him to become a writer. Hmmmm ... so I'm not the only one affected by this book.

My mom vehemently defends her reading of this book to us. Her grandmother read it to her and no nightmares resulted. Besides, she says, in the end the parents find the baby having a honey party with the bear, and that is why mommies call their babies "Honey". 'Sounds logical, but maybe my great grandmother didn't use a scary voice? Anyway, the illustrations are burned into my brain, and I found some (poorly scanned) images online to share:

creeeeepy bear

umm ... does this look like a nice bear to you???

yikes ...

just look at those beady eyes!

yes, it's a poem

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