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Arts The Enthusiast: Ways of seeing in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Baby books are, I’m discovering as a long-time critic now a first-time father, often quite bad.

I could go on at length and in detail about this, but we haven’t even got around to sending out thank-you cards for the ones we received as shower gifts yet. And I don’t want my mother to become anymore stressed out about this fact than she already is.

So, let me tell you then instead about a book that I’ve come to absolutely adore reading aloud to Dash, my son. One that’s been eye-opening for me, too.

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It is called Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? – and it is a children’s classic originally published in 1967 that somehow eluded me until now.

The words are by Bill Martin Jr. and the pictures are by legendary artist Eric Carle.

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If you’re unfamiliar with the book, as I was until 19 weeks ago (when time began to pass in weeks), each set of facing pages has a different animal of a different colour on it illustrated by a colourful Carle collage.

Each animal is asked a personalized variation of the title question, i.e. “Red Bird, Red Bird, what do you see?” Then it responds by telling us that it sees another animal looking at it. Red Bird, for instance, says: “I see a yellow duck looking at me.”

This is foreshadowing: When you turn the page, lo and behold, there is Yellow Duck.

There is a surprise near the end. A goldfish answers the narrator’s question with the answer: “I see a teacher looking at me.”

Suddenly, we have shifted to the human world. The teacher on the following page sees children, and the children on the following page see dead people.

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Just kidding. But there is something uncanny about these children’s sense of sight. They are somehow able to see the entirety of what the reader has seen so far in the book.

“We see a brown bear, a red bird, a yellow duck, a blue horse, a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep, a goldfish and a teacher looking at us,” they say on a page accompanied by smaller versions of all the pictures we’ve seen up to this point. “That’s what we see.”

What a twist! Has the teacher been reading the book to the children as I have been reading it to Dash?

On repeated readings, I have never really tired of mulling over just how metafictional the ending is, while Dash still appears to have his mind blown simply by the reappearance of all the animals he’s previously looked at, all together at once.

It’s the baby-book equivalent of a Charlie Kaufman film crossed, I suppose, with The Avengers: Endgame.

On one level, Brown Bear has been a vision test that I’ve administered near daily to Dash. I didn’t always interpret the results properly at first, mind you: His favourite page early on was clearly the red bird – which sent me, eager to please, out to buy a bird feeder.

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I only learned afterward that red is the first primary colour babies see.

What I realized recently is that I’m administering a kind of vision test to myself as well. How I “see" the book has been evolving too, the more I’ve repeated those words, over and over: “What do you see?”

During the first months of reading the book, I would wonder: When will the day come when Dash will “see” that the horse is blue and ask me why? He does not know horses are not blue at the moment; in fact, he’s never seen a horse of a different colour.

But it was I who started to “see” the blue horse in a new way first. The horse’s blueness became normalized with repetition; I stopped thinking about its difference.

Something about this inspired me to go dig out an old favourite picture book of mine, one for adults: English art critic John Berger’s 1972 series of illustrated essays, Ways of Seeing. It begins with the line, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

Berger’s book has a reproduction of one of René Magritte’s The Key to Dreams series in its first chapter. This painting is divided into four quadrants: One shows a horse captioned with the words “the door,” the next a clock with the words “the wind,” the next a pitcher with the words “the bird” and the final one a valise with the words “the valise.”

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Berger describes the surrealistic painting as a comment on “the always-present gap between words and seeing.” His book is about understanding the assumptions that widen that gap and influence how we see (and often have difficulty truly seeing) art and the world.

Rereading Ways of Seeing was a good reminder to consider my role in now creating the ways the next generation will see. Although I think Brown Bear was already nudging me in that direction.

This may be crazy, but I also think I understood Brown Bear on a deeper level after revisiting Berger. He writes: “Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”

Brown Bear can be seen to dramatize the journey to that early epiphany of consciousness – the children at the end being the only ones to fully appreciate and articulate what Berger calls “the reciprocal nature of vision.”

"The reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue,” he writes. "And often dialogue is an attempt to verbalize this – an attempt to explain how, either metaphorically or literally, ‘you see things,’ and an attempt to discover how ‘he sees things.’”

What do you see, Dash? At the very least, Brown Bear is helping me, as a parent, practise asking a crucial question.

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