Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Story Of Fourteen Bears

Writing this at 2:23 a.m. because now that the kid is finally sleeping nights I have had a relapse of insomnia. Oy. I'll take the trade any day, but this is not so much fun.

Anyway, that's not really what I meant to write. I meant to write to tell you about this really strange thing that centered around my favorite book from when I was a little child. The book was titled "The Story Of Fourteen Bears," and when I was a toddler and pre-schooler I loved this book to death, and made my mom read it to me again, again and again.

A plot synopsis: A momma and papa bear live in the forest, with their 12 cubs. Each cub, and indeed momma and papa, lived in a different hollow tree. Each hollow tree is decorated in a cool and sophisticated way. One cub's home is what "modern" looked like in 1969 when the book came out (I loved this one as a kid), one looks like a castle, one looks like a boudoir, and so on. The bears wear some clothes. One has glasses and likes books, two bear cub twins wear tutus, the baby cub, Little Theodore has a cap. (I identified with him, and later thought of myself as the Baby Bear, and my mom as the Momma Bear. Okay, you cynics, stop laughing. I was four years old.) Anyway, the bears go swimming, but they don't hurt the fish so the fish like them. And, again, each bear wears different stuff when they swim. Some have floaters, some have life jackets, etc.

Moving on from there the bears then lay out in the sun until their fur is warm and glistening, then they get some honey that one of the cubs has, except the honey is flavored and looks a lot like delicious ice cream, especially to my young mind. There were flavors like chocolate, vanilla and coconut, which was special.

After that the bears, paw in paw, all go home, back to their hollow trees for the night. As before you see each bear in their individual beds, some bears say prayers (which rhymes!) and Little Theodore sleeps in a crib at the foot of mommy and daddy's bed. Again, as a little child this seemed completely excellent to me, and I wished I could sleep peacefully each night in the same room as my parents at the foot of their bed. They had other ideas, no matter how much I appealed, and they were not swayed by the this early, illustrated example of co-sleeping.

And that's pretty much the entire book. Suffice to say as a kid I devoured this world. Why? After all, the story's basic. I think the art had a lot to do with it. The bears just looked so nice. They each had this amazingly sweet and friendly look and the artist really illustrated the familial love they all shared. They lived deep in the woods, and I was so intrigued by all the architectural layouts in the hollowed-out trees. When they would walk through the woods the artist made so much detail; little animals, birds, rabbits, all there for a child to seek out. I simply identified with these bears, and wanted to be one of them.

So that was the book, that I loved way, way back when. But by the time I was older and could actually, you know READ, I had outgrown the fourteen bears. I put it aside and moved onto other things, like comic books, and all the rest. The bears were forever special to me, but I didn't revisit them often.

Then three years ago we moved out of the home that I grew up in, and I lost track of what happened to the book. I hadn't really thought about it in ages anyway.

So, about four days ago I am thinking that, you know what? I would love to one day read Stella "The Story of Fourteen Bears." I figured our copy from when I was a kid is likely gone, it was in bad shape and I didn't save it. My mom is notorious for throwing away almost everything so I doubted she kept it. But, I figured, I could just go on, and pick up a cheap, beat up old copy of the book.

I logged on. After a bit of searching I got just about the biggest shock I'd received since being laid off. They had the book, alright, as they have virtually all books ever printed, but not at the price I had expected. I thought I might pay $5 or $10 for the book. But when I looked it up I found, to my dismay, that the CHEAPEST copy to be found anywhere on Amazon was $85!

"Collectible" editions started at $200.

I was thunderstruck. What the HELL was going on in this world that could ever justify that a throwaway, albeit lovely, childrens' book could be worth that much? And what was I going to do? Even if I could afford to buy it, and I couldn't, what would be the point? I wouldn't enjoy the book like I had because it cost so much, and as for reading it to Stella, forget about it. Kids books are not meant to be preserved and left alone, they are meant to be read. Reading it to her would mean that it would get worn out, pages ripped, all that. Because this is what I did to my copy of the book way back when, so I should know.

Intrigued I started to do some research into the book. It was a "Big Golden" book, I learned. So I looked those up on E-bay. Maybe this brand of book is collectible.

Nope, none of the other "Big Golden" books were worth jack. Lucky me it was JUST the fourteen bears that commanded this premium.

Then I looked into who wrote it. And now it started to make more sense.

I found out that author Evelyn Scott did not exactly crown her literary career with "The Story Of Fourteen Bears," or even with its sequel "Fourteen Bears In Summer And Winter" (a book I didn't even know about until this week! The crime! I would have LOVED me some summer and winter bears way back when!) In fact in her long, interesting and noteworthy literary career her four books for children are but an interesting footnote.

No, she is a reknowned Southern writer and poet, and noted proto-feminist who produced several major, important works in the '20s and '30s.

In addition to her "'Bears" ouvre she also wrote books with titles like "Breathe Upon These Slain" (maybe about someone who got between the bears and their coconut honey?) and "A Calender Of Sin." Heady company these bears were keeping. (In addition, Scott died, I believe in 1963. My book didn't even come out until 1969, so it was a posthumous work.)

Now it all started to make sense. These books were anomalies of sorts, literary oddballs, of worth to scholars, perhaps, although what they would learn from the bears is hard to say. They certainly weren't just your run-of-the-mill kids' books. Add in that they had been out of print for decades and the price started to make more sense.

Fascinating stuff, but I was still screwed in my actual attempt to GET a copy of the book. What should I do?

Of course the next thing I did was call my mom, and tell her this whole crazy story. When she heard the price of these books she emitted a small gasp. This was followed by ...

"Wait, wait," she said, "I think I have it."

I was amazed, my mom, the great cleaner-upper, who can be so pragmatic had KEPT my book, from when I was just a little child, even though I hadn't even asked her to? It couldn't be. But then she said ...

"I am holding it in my hands."

I could have cried with joy. Not because it was worth whatever it might be worth. No, really, I just wanted to look at my bears again, and someday share them with my daughter. And even share them with my wife.

Long story short (too late!) we were at my mom's this weekend and she showed me the book. I opened it, and, again, I almost wept. There they were, in bright, beautiful color. The book held up. Yes, the story was simple but Evelyn Scott included all I needed to know about these bears. And the illustrations, by Virginia Parsons, were as lovely as ever, so rich in detail, so good-natured, so vibrant of color. I read it as soon as I could, then I read it again, again and again.

Then I tried to read it to Stella and she immediately started to rip a page. It was okay, this is what kids do. I wasn't mad. It's a book to be used, not hidden away. I will simply share it with her when she's a little older. And I'll be happy to read it to her again, again and again, too.


Randi Skaggs said...

You just can't get away from Southern feminists, can you? :-)

It is such a sweet book, and it makes me so happy that you'll get to share it with Stella. She was pretty darn excited about all those flavors of honey, and kept "eating" them. I don't know if you saw that.

Sharon said...

I remember this book too from our childhood and remember an enchanting feeling from it. Would love to show and read it to Sophia and Samantha. Can you bring it this Sunday?

Shawna said...

My mom read this book to me all the time when I was young but she could not remember it. I could not remember the name of it but remembered the wonderful illustrations and the feeling I got from the pictures. I wanted to have my own place like the bears did. My mom obviously did not keep the book and I have searched thrift stores and the internet trying to find this book. I remembered how it looked so I was relying on my memory. I just found the book and I am literally in tears. Of course I looked for places I could buy it and I too was shocked to see the prices. I really don't want to spend that kind of money but I really want that link to my past and memories of childhood. You are very lucky.

David Serchuk said...

Hi All,
Shawna, I am so sorry to hear that you've run into a similar problem to mine. It is so strange and frustrating!


Marnie said...

Hello from Toronto, Canada. I've just been describing The Story of Fourteen Bears to a friend, and Google led me to your blog post. I'm so glad other people value this book as much as I do! I'm fortunate to still have my childhood copy, in fair condition (guess I wasn't much of a ripper), and I do like to read it once in a while. I had no idea there was a "sequel" either!

For me the book has been a useful reminder that people have different tastes, and it's great that we can have our own homes any way we want them but still come together to walk paw in paw through the forest and enjoy each other's company. As a kid I loved trying to decide which bear I would be and which house I liked best, and of course which flavour of that enticing honey I would choose.

Thanks for the information and the trip down memory lane. All the best to you and your family.

arishia15 said...

I know this is a strange request, but I will get right down to it: I'm wondering if you would be able to copy the book and send it to me? I'd be *happy* to reimburse you your time + expenses, obviously, but this book has become a family joke for about 20-years now b/c my mom *swears* she read it to us every night for at least a year straight and none of the four of us kids remember it (my guess is after a year she got sick of it and sold it at a garage sale). w/ the net all things are possible these days, so I have done some searching and, as you know, it is actually *not* all that possible to get a copy. Even if you would just copy the cover, I would frame that for her to get a laugh. I know you don't know me from Adam, but my email is: Nothing fishy at all- just want to give my mom a laugh this Christmas, but cannot spend the $200 that the book is going for to do so. Perhaps we will be in touch, but, if not, thanks anyway & all the best. At least now I know the book actually did exist!

Mr. Jacobs said...

I read "The 14 Bears in Summer and Winter" to my two sons, now 41 and 34, over and over. We all felt the same as you. We loved the story and the incredible illustrations.

My oldest son is a kindergarten teacher and he has the original copy of our book in his class.
I read it to his class last week - a great pre-Christmas book.
I thought I'd pick up a copy for nieces we intend to visit out of state.
Started to search on Amazon and it was over $300 for a copy!!!
If it is ever available, I want at least 5 copies. But not at $200 on ebay.
I hope they run another printing.
I am so happy to hear other fell the same as we do.
Kenna Richards

teeniebeenie6 said...

I've actually read that the Evelyn Scott you linked to is not the one that wrote 14 bears. In another blog, that had a lot of information about the 2005 reprinting, they say family members said these two women were different people. It is quite a common name, so it is not hard for me to believe! Fourteen bears was love by many in the 60's, as we age I think we become more nostalgic. Many people who grew up with this book want it for their children which makes the price go higher and higher!

Amy R said...

I doubt you probably would even consider this, but it would be AWESOME or even beyond incredibly generous if you would consider making a video for youtube of the reading of this book. This would help those of us with kids be able to share one of our beloved stories. I was the victim of a cleaning out of my things and this book was among them. I can not believe the cheap new version is going for $80+ The one I had was big and orange.

Amy R said...

Would you please please please video a reading of this with the artwork for youtube so we can all share it with our kids? Please?

lae10851 at yahoo com

Sherrita Hall said...

I wanted you to know that I have the book your talking about and made my mom do the same thing! I was looking for a copy for my granddaughter's and saw your blog. I think that this book is the one that inspired me to be an interior decorator. Although not a professional I am always helping my houses and others with that sort of thing. I still have my copy by some miracle it is a second edition published in 1970. It was and still is my favorite children's story by far and away. The only one that even comes somewhat close for me is the Balloon Farm and Tar Baby and Brear Rabbit and the Fox. I would give mine to them but it is falling apart and want it to survive. If you know someone that has just a copy of that story not all of the stories by Evelyn Scott please let me know! Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

Anonymous said...

So glad to have stumbled on this blog post in a google search for the book. I loved it too, and hadn't thought about it for years, but was looking at some photos of waterfalls that made me think of that illustration of the little bears sliding down the waterfall, playing with the fish. Those illustrations were so mesmerizing, so visceral. I remember studying each of the rooms, trying to choose the style I wanted to live in someday. And almost tasting those scoops of honey.

My mom didn't save the book, so my next stop is an ebay search, hoping to find something affordable. Thanks for posting the interesting history of this classic.