Monday, May 3, 2010

The Invisible Bear: Parental Deceit and Creating the Other in The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry

One of the most popular and widely taught books in Don and Audrey Wood’s vast picture book oeuvre is The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry. The book is widely used to teach preschoolers about friendship and sharing, as well as early fraction concepts (half of a strawberry). Originally published in 1984 when I was only one year old, this book is also one of my own personal favorite early childhood reads. However, since I began reading the book as an adult to my own son, I have been struck by the absence of the Bear from any of the many beautiful illustrations of the story. Since the villain of the book, the Bear, is essentially invisible in the visual narrative, the Bear becomes a possible lie, an adult deception used to manipulate a child-like Mouse into sharing his meal with the Narrator. This omission of the Bear can be a catalyst to a deeper examination of some of the ideological paradigms of the book, particularly those ideologies which are shaped in the book by the Bear’s looming “presence”. In The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry, the Bear becomes a symbol of parental deceit, as well as a tool of social identity construction, the outsider Other to the Mouse and Narrator’s insider duo.

At the surface, The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry is a book about sharing and friendship. The Mouse is convinced, whether it be by trickery or truth, that the Big Hungry Bear is after the strawberry, and in order to save the berry from the Bear, the Mouse comes to trust the Narrator and shares the strawberry. However, it is interesting to note that the trust and friendship which develops between Narrator and Mouse is founded on what seems to be an untruth, or at least, an inflated sense of danger. The Bear is an invisible enemy, never physically appearing on the page in the illustrations. In fact, the only evidence of the Bear’s existence at any point in the book is derived from the Narrator’s own assertions that the Bear is coming, “tromp[ing] through the forest on his big, hungry feet, and [will] SNIFF! SNIFF! SNIFF! Find the strawberry…” Is there a Bear? And does he want the Strawberry? Possibly, but given the Bear’s significant physical absence from the book, it seems that the imminent threat he presents to both berry and Mouse is overstated, and that the actual threat may in fact be the Narrator.

This lie, or exaggeration, about the Bear presents an interesting ideological problem within the book. When viewed as an allegory for the adult/child relationship, the lie of the Bear in the Narrator’s interactions with the Mouse presents a kind of tacit approval of parental deceit. There are no consequences for the Narrator as a result of the “lie,” and in fact, the Narrator is rewarded for the lie, in that the Mouse happily shares the strawberry with them. This relationship represents an implicit ideological supposition that children (represented here by the Mouse) are intrinsically gullible, and further, that it is appropriate for the adults in positions of power over those children to lie to them “for their own good.” Additionally, since the lie in the story seems to be motivated by greed rather than a genuine protective urge, the book can be read even further as an approval of all parental deceit and even adult covetousness, regardless of the short and long term effects the lie may have on the child. In this way, the narrative of The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry can be read as a statement of the proprietary nature of the adult/child relationship, as well as an expression of adult superiority to children. The Mouse in the story is gullible and easily swayed, requiring no real evidence of the Bear’s existence before surrendering half of the strawberry to the Narrator, and the Narrator is clever and wise, all-knowing in the Mouse’s eyes, qualified to direct the Mouse’s actions, and well-deserving of a cut of the strawberry. Ultimately, the Narrator’s covetousness is not only allowed, it is rewarded in the book, as the Mouse is shown happily handing over half of his hard-won berry (which he has struggled to pick, hide, and guard throughout the narrative) while the Narrator proclaims “and we’ll both eat it all up. YUM!” Although this sharing on the Mouse’s part represents an explicit message about sharing and generosity, the implicit message is that the Narrator, or the adults the Narrator represents, has an inherent right to manage the dispersal of children’s property, as well as a right to deceive children for their own ends.

One of the other significant, implied ideological thrusts of The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear and The Red Ripe Strawberry is both the creation of, and the cultivation of fear for, the Other, the Bear. From the third opening on, the Narrator builds a case against the Bear, escalating the Mouse’s fear of the Bear until the Bear has been solidified for the Mouse as a shared enemy, and a threat worthy of thwarting by consuming the berry with the Narrator’s help. This creation of a shared enemy, an “Other,” against which to cast one’s self is a critical element of group identity building. In order to cement a unified social identity, a group singles out an out-group, a set of people which appears or behaves differently, or aggressively, toward the in-group, and comes to define the in-group in relation to the out-group. Essentially, by casting the Bear as aggressor, the Narrator is establishing a commonality between themself and the Mouse. The Narrator knows of and is separate from the Bear, and by telling the Mouse about the Bear, stoking the flame of the Mouse’s fear of the Bear until Mouse is literal sweating and panicked, the Narrator creates a social bond with the Mouse. This us-against-them paradigm bonds the Mouse and Narrator, and allows them not only to establish a friendship, but also enables the Narrator to achieve their ultimate goal, eating the strawberry. The berry becomes a kind of communal property, produce which the Mouse and Narrator have acted together to protect from external aggressors (the Bear), and as such it is shared between the members of the in-group, Mouse and Narrator.

This enacting of social identity building is largely implicit, in that there is no concrete statement of social unity or identity between the Mouse and Narrator, and even the more obvious general theme of friendship is never explicitly addressed in the book. However, if it can be argued that the Mouse and Narrator are friends by book’s end, then it is equally true that they have entered into a social union, as friends, against the Bear, the enemy. Indeed, this process of social identification and “Othering” is largely subconscious, operating on a large social scale and internalized, left unexamined by the lay person, so it is unsurprising that this social construction of the Other should appear as an implicit, unspoken, and possibly unconscious, ideological process in The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and the Red Ripe Strawberry.

The creation of the Other is a form of social control, establishing not only social bonds but also cultural norms, and presents a device for policing deviation from those norms, providing rich ground for pejorative slang and punitive threats; “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, “Limey bastards”, etc. In the case of the book, this drama of the corrective potential of Othering is largely absent, although there is certainly an implied danger that, should the Mouse deviate from the Narrator’s direction, the Bear may get the berry and, by extension, the Mouse. In other words, if the Mouse fails his social group, he may well be left to the tender mercies of the Other, the Bear, which the Mouse’s social conditioning at the Narrator’s hand has given him every reason to fear and distrust. In this way, The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry becomes not only a sweet tale of friendship and sharing, but also an enactment of parental social conditioning and, possibly, the construction of prejudice. The Mouse’s fear of the Bear is, after all, unsupported by evidence in the book, built solely upon hearsay testimony from a trusted adult against an invisible and unknown enemy.

At its core, The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry is as much a book about friends and sharing as it is a book about lies, covetousness, social identity and child-rearing. The narrator creates an unseen enemy, an invisible Bear, to trick the Mouse into sharing his strawberry. This simple story reflects many unspoken ideological standards, both in a larger social context and within the more nuclear parent-child dynamic. It is a story of blind and unquestioned faith in a parental figure, and an unexamined fear of the Other. It is also, at its simplest, a funny story about a scared Mouse possibly getting tricked out of half of his lunch, a slapstick comedy of berries in be-schnozed spectacles, and a preschool thriller about looming unseen hungry Bears.


Work Cited
Wood, Don and Audrey. The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and The Red Ripe Strawberry. Swindon: Child’s Play Ltd., 2000. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I do love the picture of the mustucioed strawberry. Takes me back it does.