Illustrated by Richard Jones (Whale in a Fishbowl), this book is an instant classic. It's one you'll want to give as gifts for birthdays and holidays. And most importantly, it's the one kids will want to read again and again.
QUESTION: This book is flawless. Can you talk about its journey from idea in your head to copy on the shelf? Did you have it fully formed in your mind? Or did it take years to refine and rework?
ALICE MCGINTY: Small Bear has an interesting backstory, and I’m happy to share.
The idea for Small Bear actually came from a parenting principle. During the past 10 years or so, I’ve been helping a psychologist use what he’s learned from his decades of experience with adolescents and their parents to write a parenting book called Childproofing for Adolescence. One day, he and I got to talking about how some of the principles in the book might play out as stories for young kids. It was a fun thing to think about! One principle we batted around was what he calls “put the conflict in the kid,” which means that the parent doesn’t have to nag their child if they set things up for the child to be motivated (and able) to complete tasks themselves. That plays out well in bedtime rituals, if stories, which are the motivator, come before a set bedtime (say 8 p.m.). The sooner the child completes their bedtime tasks — like brushing teeth, cleaning up, and getting p.j.s on (tasks they often dilly-dally with) — the more time they have for stories before that 8 p.m. bedtime. Gosh I wish I’d known to do that when my kids were young!
Anyhow, thinking about ways to play with that concept, I came up with the idea of bears and hibernation, since that bed time is set by nature and not the more arbitrary timeframe set by parents. Once I figured that out, the story formed really quickly in my mind, and I couldn’t wait to start writing. That said, (ha – it’s never that easy!) it took another couple of years and many, many revisions to refine the story and get the telling, the language, and pacing just right. I also had to work hard (and my editor helped a lot with this) to not make it too teachy, but just let the story play out.
Q: You've written wonderful informative nonfiction picture books. How did you decide to change gears and write such a snuggly, dreamy bedtime story?
AM: In the case of Small Bear, the parenting principles were my bridge into the story, so in that sense it’s got more of a nonfiction bent than you might see on the surface. And I actually had to do some research for Small Bear too – to make sure she was eating the right foods, collecting the right types of boughs for her nest, and even to make sure it was possible that she, as a “toddler,” would be in the den preparing with Mama bear for the winter. As a nonfiction author, I couldn’t “bear” the thought that I might get my bear facts wrong, even though the story was fiction!
Related to that, no matter whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I love narrative arc and story. To me it’s always about finding the arc of the story, whether it’s the story in a life through biography or the story in a parenting principle. I guess I love stories as much as Small Bear!
Q: Were there favorite books that influenced your writing as you contemplated A Story for Small Bear? Did you have favorites that came to mind as you created your own?
AM: This is an interesting question! While I didn’t have any particular books in mind as I pondered and wrote, on a deeper, more subconscious level, I think all my writing is influenced by the cannon of literature I’ve read throughout my life. In the case of Small Bear, I think the influences were the books that evoked feelings of playfulness, love, and security because these were the feelings I wanted to evoke in Small Bear’s story.
Some of these books, ones I grew up with and then read to my sons, were Goodnight Moon, for the secure feelings it brings, Curious George and Blueberries for Sal for their playfulness, The Snowy Day for its earnestness, Are You My Mother for its love and sweetness, and Chicken Soup with Rice and anything Dr. Seuss for their word play and poetry.
I really loved creating a world that rang with these warm, fuzzy feelings. During my many revisions, it was such a great feeling to jump back into the secure, sweet, loving world of Small Bear and Mama Bear. I wish we all could live in that world!