One of the most charming books I've ever encountered. Just flip through it and try not to smile at the author's whimsical illustrations. (For ages 8 to 12) —Recommended by Jeff, City Lights Books
"To an adult reader, the title A Boy and a Bear in a Boat instantly brings to mind Yann Martel's Life of Pi, with its boy in a boat with a tiger, and Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats, with a Jewish refugee in a boat with a jaguar. (What is it with a single male cast adrift with a wild animal?) One of the big differences in Dave Shelton's illustrated children's novel, though, is that it's the animal that does the rowing.
The lovingly designed jacket and hardback cover, with its slightly mottled paper and "worn" spine, evokes memories of Mervyn Peake's Letters from a Lost Uncle or Reif Larsen's more recent The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. But despite the fact that Shelton is currently best known as a comic book illustrator, A Boy and a Bear is less highly illustrated than either of these. We are, however, embarking on a journey with literary precedence.
This is a voyage requiring two maps, both of which are made up of grids of clear blue sea (except for a rock and a coffee ring). The "complimentary on-board entertainment" is I-Spy, limited to what's outside the boat (which is usually "something beginning with s"). As for the food, that's soon reduced to The Last Sandwich (which is slightly glowing, but comes in very handy).
When the boy goes so far as to suggest that they are lost in the middle of nowhere, the captain – the bear in his captain's hat – becomes very indignant. "You see, we're here … And the middle of nowhere is here … We passed through it at about noon yesterday."
This is a bear who doesn't like to make plans. ("No point having a plan when you're a sea captain … You have to deal with each situation as it arises.") These situations include a sea monster, thick mist and a Mary Celeste-type ship. The bear seems to surprise even himself when he suddenly has a bright idea.
He may drink tea from a cup with a saucer, but he's a real bear who can use his claws like a pair of pliers, who licks his wounds and growls. He can smell danger – or is it marmalade? – and he can certainly stare. They do a lot of staring at each other, the boy and the bear in a boat.
But what of the boy? He's a boy. He has the occasional bright idea, too. He gets irritable when hungry and wants to name the rock after himself "unless it's horrible … Then we can name it after you." It is, however, the bear's ever-practical approach – if sometimes impractical in execution – that usually keeps their spirits, if not their vessel, afloat. "The sea's over there if you'd prefer it," he says on one occasion. "It's roomier, but it's not so dry." In the end, though, their roles change and the boy must take the metaphorical helm.
I suspect some readers of this review may be wondering where, exactly, the bear and boy in a boat are heading, and whether they get there. Well, keep wondering. I ain't going to tell you.
As for any niggles? Just one. The illustrations of the bear. Nothing can beat the image of the bear Shelton paints with his words. That's the picture I shall take away with me from this very special book." —Dave Shelton, The Guardian