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Between the Lines

Interview with Dennis Haseley and Jim LaMarche
A Story for Bear
Dennis Haseley
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche


A marvelous picture book which shares the wonder of the Arctic from the cold, cold of winter to the twenty-four hour days of summer—Hello, birds—Hello, flowers—Hello, whales—to the shortening of days and approaching winter. Good—bye, birds—Hello, Arctic!
Biography
Dennis Haseley has written many fine books for children, including Kite Flier, illustrated by David Wiesner, which was an ABA's Pick of the Lists, and The Old Banjo, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, which was called "uncommonly moving and heartening" by Publishers Weekly. Mr. Haseley has also written several novels for older readers, including Shadows, Dr. Gravity, and, most recently, The Amazing Thinking Machine. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Jim Lamarche is the illustrator of Albert by Donna Jo Napoli, that Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called, "a magical marriage of art and text," and which was named an ABA's Pick of the Lists. Among his other books for children are The Carousel by Liz Rosenberg, a Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year, and The Raft, hailed as "an artistic triumph" by School Library Journal. Mr. LaMarche lives with his family in Santa Cruz, California.
Interview with Dennis Haseley—Author of A Story for Bear
Q: In A Story for Bear, a curious bear finds comfort in books, and in the woman who reads them as a mother reads to her child. How did your own childhood experiences influence the creation of this story?
A: My mother loved books. She read to me many stories when I was very little, I don't remember much of those experiences (although I do have a fragment of a memory of her reading this wonderful poem Wynken, Blynken, and Nod when I was three or four). More vividly, I remember this: When I was about eight (and my brother was eleven), and for several years after, my mother read us novels. These weren't novels for children; as I clearly recall, they were adult novels. (I particularly remember her reading Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel and J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.) As she would be reading, she would sometimes say, "I'm going to skip over this part." She was obviously choosing not to read certain passages she thought might be upsetting or too confusing or too "adult." Even so, some of what she read to us I understood, but a great deal of it I did not. I was simply very content to sit on the couch in our living room, alongside her, with my brother on the other side, through the various seasons that we witnessed passing by out the large picture window behind us, and just listen to her read. We were happy to have this uninterrupted, shared time with her; and more than that, she must have indicated her love for what she was reading, as well as her love for us, through her voice.

When I wrote A Story for Bear, I was not consciously thinking of this memory. I was more wondering about the movement of the story, and practical things, such as how the bear would approach the woman by her summer house. It wasn't until sometime after I finished writing the story that it struck me: Ah, this story touches on my own experiences with my mother reading to us.

Thinking about all this has also made me wonder: Perhaps for some of us who love books, there is in our pleasure in reading a hidden memory of being read to by someone who was very special to us, once upon a time.

Q: A Story for Bear makes readers feel nostalgic—but never lonely, even though the human mother and bear child go separate ways in the end. Is this story not only about trust and companionship but also about growth and independence?
A: Absolutely. The idea at the end is not just that they go separate ways but that there is a separation before another reunion. In that absence-in the story it would be over several months, but for a child it might be overnight, or over the course of a day—the bear "child" finds a sense of comfort in the memory of the special relationship he's shared with the woman. (We see this, of course, in children who have objects that are infused with memory and feelings of comfort—bits of blanket or cloth or . . . bears). I'm also trying to heighten an additional aspect of that in the story: The bear "child" has a memory that he is loved. What better foundation for growth and independence is there than the sense of being loved, of being able to explore outward from that secure base? I feel there's another way the story is about growth and independence. The woman in the story is introducing the bear to a new world: a world of feelings and, in that sense, of other worlds beyond the one he's in. This is what parents can do, what teachers can do, and what books can do as well.

Q: How do you feel Jim LaMarche interpreted your pre-adult bear character in his illustrations?
A: I've been an admirer of Jim's work since I saw an early book of his, The Rainbabies, and I was delighted when I found out, some time ago, that he would be the illustrator of this book. Jim has the ability—an ability for which he has been recognized, and which he demonstrates again with this book—to create a seamless link between word and art.

In terms of the specific bear character, Jim has managed to give the bear an innocence and vulnerability while maintaining him as a real, natural-looking grizzly bear. He's also set him in situations in which his behaviors are reminiscent of the way a child would act, but in a subtle way. For instance, in one scene the bear plays a kind of peekaboo through some of the wash hanging on the line; when he's left with the woman's books, it's as if he's sitting on a child's rug or in a crib.

Interestingly, when I wrote the story I imagined the bear as a black bear, more of an East Coast bear, the type I've seen when I've camped in the woods in New England. Jim, being from California, made him a grizzly, in what appears to be a western redwood forest.

Q: How do you, as a writer, work with the illustrator on the creation of books? Do you work in separate creative caves? Closely collaborate? A little of both?
A: We work almost entirely separately. The only link I had with Jim was through my editor, who not only had her own thoughtful and sensitive insights into the story but also conveyed to me ideas Jim had about parts of the narrative he thought needed clarifying. My editor and I also talked about areas of the text that Jim's art would sufficiently show, which would make certain words or phrases in the text redundant, and thus require me to rewrite or delete some parts of the story.

Having this kind of back-and-forth conferring with an illustrator-in this case through my editor—I think, makes the finished collaboration a much stronger piece. It's also a unique experience to see Jim's work—which seems to capture so intuitively what I intended—even though I've never spoken to or met him.

Q: How does this story contrast or compare with your other books?
A: It's similar to my other books in that in all of what I write I like to present a narrative that works on its most obvious level, but that also allows other meanings or themes to show through. In some of my books I also think I've done that quite successfully; in a few, perhaps not as well as I intended. From what I can tell, adults and children, bookstore owners and teachers seem to be responding to this book. I think that in the combination of text and art, the surface story of the woman reading to the bear works in a touching and meaningful way. At the same time, it's a book that will be read to a child, and at the same time speaks to the relationship between the mother (or father) and the child engaged in the act of reading-and all the profound chords that are sounded both on the surface and just beneath the surface of that shared activity. Perhaps what I'm saying, then, is that through this book I feel I've accomplished what I often intend: an accessible work that sounds deeper themes.

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Interview with Jim LaMarche—Illustrator of A Story for Bear
Q: What's your childhood bear story, Jim?
A: Spending my summers in northern Wisconsin, I have a number of bear stories. I remember my grandma singing and banging on pots to make sure the bears knew we were coming to pick raspberries and wild blueberries. I remember my dad piling my brothers and sisters into the Rambler station wagon for a trip to the dump. Dad would park and shut off the engine and lights, smoke his pipe, and we would wait for the sound of the bears. We were seldom disappointed. I think I was always a little embarrassed for the bears, caught in such a humiliating situation

Q: The eyes of Bear are not detailed—essentially they are two black dots—and yet each picture clearly shows expression: curiosity, attentiveness, happiness. How did you manage to create so much character without using eye detail?
A: How does a teddy bear with button eyes manage to convey a gentle soul? How does my big black poodle with the blackest of black eyes show such an array of emotion? He's sitting at my feet right now; I can barely see his eyes and yet I can easily read peaceful contentment in his face. I think when we see the eyes, we are really seeing the whole. I can accidentally change an emotion in a face when transferring a rough drawing to the final art. Sometimes I can't quite tell how I captured the emotion-how it happened. And sometimes the rough can be true to form and the final not quite where it should be. I felt Dennis Haseley's sweet and beautiful story was essentially about a parent reading to a child. It doesn't matter that the child is a 250 pound bear; the bear's expressions and body language had to be dependably safe, and had to reflect this human-bear relationship as an oasis in a big woods. A shorter answer might be that I use intuition, trial and error, to achieve the emotion in my characters.

Q: The colors you use for A Story for Bear are rich, vibrant, and warm. How did you choose these for the illustrations? Did you consciously choose the colors to match the season, autumn, during which time the story takes place?
A: While working on this book I went on a family backpacking trip in the Sierras. The light in the mountains is clean, clear, and blue. Very little atmosphere. It feels open, forever, like standing on the edge of the universe. I wanted the trees and mountains of the Sierras for this story, but I needed the close intimacy of a warm and hazy light-a Southern light. I could hear the woman reading in a soft Southern accent. I wasn't as concerned with using autumn colors as I was with using comforting color.

Q: The original pictures for the book were done in acrylic and colored pencil. What is your process for mixing these mediums to create such beautiful and softly textured illustrations?
A: I lay down some washes-large blocks of color-on Arches 300 lb. watercolor paper. When the paper is bone dry, I use the colored pencils on top for detail. The pencil adds a rich texture but not intense color. I'm attracted to muted natural colors with just small jewels of richer color.

Q: How does it feel not working directly with the author?
A: It must be difficult for an author to let go of a story and put it into the hands of someone else. I'm sure Dennis had a face in mind for the woman in this story. Perhaps his own mother, or maybe a former school teacher. He also "saw" a place, a time, the cottage , the type of woods and of course the bear. That's the illustrator's dilemma—trying to understand the heart and soul of a story without getting bogged down in the author's personal images. It' wonderful to have an editor who understands this and gives the illustrator room to work. Our editor is like a matchmaker, she knows which authors and illustrators work together. In the long process she is the objective third eye, knowing what works and what doesn't, what stays in or goes out. I spend many months on creating illustrations for books and feel very fortunate to have worked on Dennis's beautiful story.


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Dennis Haseley

Dennis Haseley
photo credit:
Claudia Lament

Jim LaMarche

Jim LaMarche

A Story for Bear

A Story for Bear