What we’re reading: We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

These sweltering summer days seem endless and exhausting at the moment. But when I was little, they felt endless with possibility.

The kids in my street would chase around our estate and the farmer’s field beside it, making up games and exploring. The physical boundaries to our expeditions were a river and a wood, but in our imaginations, we could go anywhere.

I think it’s this childhood spirit of adventure and exploration that makes We’re Going On A Bear Hunt the magical modern classic that it is.

The book has sold nine million copies and counting since it was published in 1989 and has never been out of print. It was also the very first children’s book we were given upon Baby Bookworm’s arrival – and one of the first we read to him at bedtime.

The story of a group of children heading out to ‘hunt bears’, encountering a variety of obstacles along the way, is simple but exciting and just made for acting out.

There’s also an element of personal interpretation to it, thanks to the openness of Michael Rosen’s words and Helen Oxenbury’s artwork.

Is this a real adventure or an imagined one? And is the bear friend or foe…?

Apparently Michael Rosen got the famous chant “We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one” from an American folk song, changing the original prey of lion to bear to use in his live poetry shows.

This catchy repetitive refrain, which alternates with onomatopoeic romps through swishy swashy long grass and thick mud that goes squelch squerch, make it brilliant for reading aloud together.

And Michael’s wonderful words marry beautifully with Helen’s timeless watercolour illustrations.

She was given free reign by Walker Books to interpret the text, which is really very general rather than specific, with no involvement from Rosen himself. He only saw them once finished – and said they were a world away from what he had in his own head.

Michael had visualised a king, queen and jester setting off to hunt bears.

But Helen chose to draw five children and their dog on the expedition, based on her own offspring. The much older character is in fact her eldest son, not a father as commonly thought.

If you look closely, there are many subtle touches of her own that add to the narrative, like the children wringing out wet socks and them taking turns to carry the baby.

The locations were all places Helen knew and loved around England and Wales, giving it that quintessentially British look that has appealed to readers the world over.

I love how she alternates between black and white drawings for the chorus where they reach each challenging obstacle and full colour for the onomatopeia as the conquer it. It gives the book the structure of a song I think.

Eventually, the explorers and the readers reach their target – a dark, gloomy cave – and hidden within is the creature they both hoped for and dreaded…

There follows a breathless, frantic retreat back the way they came, big brown bear in hot pursuit.

As you rush through the words, with the illustrations equally rushed together to convey that sense of running away from a predator, you can feel the panic of the children.

Safe and sound back at home, the weary band exclaim: “We’re not going on a bear hunt again!”

Except that you know that they will. It’s impossible to resist.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, £6.99 (paperback), Walker Books. Buy from Amazon

Watch Michael Rosen read We’re Going On A Bear Hunt

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