Friday, July 18, 2014
So opens Brother Hugo and the Bear, by Katy Beebe... the rather humorous tale of a young monk whose borrowed book-- the precious letters of St. Augustine-- were devoured by a bear (who found the words of the saint to be far sweeter than honey).
To rectify the loss, Brother Hugo is charged with the rather overwhelming task of traveling to a neighboring monastery, retrieving another copy of the letters, and then making a new manuscript. The process of creating a replacement includes stretching and scraping sheepskin for a cover, gathering and preparing parchment, making a quill and ink, and then painstakingly copying the manuscript by hand, line by line, letter by letter! Luckily, Brother Hugo is aided in his endeavor by other friendly monks. Unluckily, while he works, Brother Hugo can hear the bear, who perpetrated the whole thing, snuffling outside the window... hungry for more!
Although some of the telling holds very modern language ("Your library book is due today"), the book is peppered with enough archaic-sounding phrases, such as " return the book thither" and "he sorely sighed and sorrowed in his heart"and "he walked very quickly indeed", to give it a medieval feel. This impression is further supported by the full-page ink and water-color illustrations, beautifully done by S. D. Schindler. These pictures accompany the text perfectly with rich (yet whimsical) detail and soft earthy hues.
At the end of the tale, the illustrator describes his artistic process and the author provides more information, including the fact that the story is loosely based on an actual historical event! In addition there's one page with historical notes that relay a similar bear encounter by Peter the Venerable. It also contains a one page glossary to help the reader better understand words associated with a monastery, like "cloister". These added bonuses are sure to please young readers whose curiosity is pricked by the amusing adventure.
What I Like: I thought the pictures were delightful. That was one of my favorite aspects of the book. I also appreciated the underlying humor in the story, some of which was almost tongue-and-cheek. The book accurately highlighted the painstaking process of creating a manuscript (who knew so much work went into it?), which I found interesting. The information that followed the story seemed especially enlightening, and was a very welcomed addition.
What I Dislike: I don't dislike the story, but it's not a story that has a lot of Christian take-away value per se. It's amusing and fun, and, I think, meant to be taken as such and little more. However, if a Christian message is a must on your list, astute readers can pick out some good moral ideas if they are so inclined: Cooperation and helping others (as shown by the monks), accepting responsibility (by Brother Hugo), and honest speaking.
Overall Rating: Excellent
Age Appeal: 5-9
Publisher Info: , 2014; ISBN: 9780802854070; Hardback, 34 pgs., $17.00
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