There’s a boy, and a bear, and they are on a boat. No, not “on a boat”. Actually, more kind of in a boat. A rowboat. Named Harriet.
Bears are not cuddly. They are ferocious wild animals that really just want to be left alone, to roam through the wild and eat fish and have bear sex. So I’m not quite sure how we went from bears mauling people to teddy bears and anthropomorphic bears who wear boots or hang around with that Christopher Robin kid. I wonder if there is a middle, transition state out there somewhere … a kind of supercharged Pooh Bear on steroids, looking to defend his territory and steal your camp food.
Huh. I just Googled for that last thing, and … I don’t recommend that you do the same. I am now scarred for life.
Literature has a long, rich history of irresponsible parents letting boys get into boats captained by a vicious animal. (Yes, I maintain both that one book constitutes a tradition and that Richard Parker was the captain of that lifeboat. Because he totally was.) My initial reaction was, “Gee, I wonder when this boy will be eaten?” What followed was a long series of suspenseful events in which Dave Shelton expertly manipulated this expectation to the point where I was completely hooked.
First there was the sandwich debacle. The boy wakes up after dozing off only to find it’s the next day, and instead of arriving at their destination, they are lost. Well, he thinks they are lost. Captain Bear insists they are not—but you can’t trust a bear to read a map, because bears can’t read. Everyone knows this. Also, as it turns out, the map is actually just a massive blue rectangle with a grid system overlaid. The bear has several such maps, one of which has a rock marked on it. I can only assume that the bear hired a particularly lazy cartographer. Or perhaps just one who wasn’t very good.
So the boy and the bear are lost, with their boat. They use up their provisions until they are down to the Very Last Sandwich (capitalization not mine). It’s not a very appealing sandwich, so they lock it in a lunchbox, until it escapes. It then becomes Chekov’s Very Last Sandwich, in the sense that it reappears later in the book to wreak further havoc and destruction. Meanwhile, the boy and the bear need to resort to some creative fishing to survive, which lands them in a different sort of trouble. As the hazards mount and their relationship deteriorates, it starts to look like the boy and the bear will never get home.
There is never a dull moment in this book, despite the boy’s protests to the contrary. And accompanying these action-packed paragraphs are pages of beautiful illustrations from Shelton himself. Indeed, though the story itself is a little simplistic, the illustrations definitely augment it. Everything from the boy’s grumpy looks to the bear’s particular sense of detached bumbling comes alive in Shelton’s hand.
Considering its audience, I suppose this is a satisfying book. I think it could overstay its welcome, and Shelton doesn’t always raise the stakes; he merely changes them. The boy and the bear aren’t on an adventure or a quest so much as a series of unforeseen events, and while it’s an entertaining read, at the end there isn’t really much of a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps it’s true that the boy learned something. But we’ll never know, of course, since the bear ate him.
I can only express some disappointment that A Boy and a Bear on a Boat is rather lonely among this year’s Carnegie nominees. I’d like to pitch my tent behind this endearing little tale, but there really are just a few other novels that captured my attention more, if only because they are for the older crowd. This is monumentally unfair, and I expect that Shelton would be entirely justified in dispatching his crack team of aqua-bears to dispose of me. If you’re reading this with someone among the target audience, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And it could make for an interesting conversation starter, especially with the cliffhangers that Shelton often uses to end his chapters. This book isn’t quite in my wheelhouse, but I enjoyed it anyway, and you might be surprised too.