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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Pinkwater, Daniel. Bad Bears in the Big City: An Irving and Muktuk Story; illus. by Jill Pinkwater.
Houghton, 2004 [32p]
ISBN0-618-25208-8 $16.00
Reviewed fom galleys
Gr. 2-4

Audiences may recall that polar bears Irving and Muktuk (from Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears, BCCB 11/01) had been expelled from Yellowtooth for stealing muffins, with a variety of clever ruses, and had been sentenced to be sent to a zoo in Bayonne, New Jersey. After confounding the Head Zookeeper’s expectations by traveling with the passengers (they emerge from the cabin sporting handcuffs, bad attitudes, and a note from Yellowtooth’s Officer Bunny saying, “Remember, they are not to be trusted!”), they’re taken to the zoo and introduced to their new workmate, fellow polar bear Roy. Since Roy’s a trusty, allowed to return every night to his luxurious apartment (“I have a freezer. I have four air conditioners. I have two electric fans”), the outlaw ursine pair are on their own after work, which leaves them with plenty of time to hatch plans to raid the muffin factory next door. They pull off a successful muffin larceny by infiltrating a class touring the factory: “At the end of the tour the children and their teacher and Irving and Muktuk are invited to eat all the muffins they want. It is at this point that Irving and Muktuk are discovered to be bears.” Upon their apprehension, the weeping bruins are devastated to find they’re in trouble; fortunately, Roy intercedes for the pitiful pair, negotiating a bit more license for them (“After a while, if they have not eaten any people, the zoo can give them more freedom”).

Short of a slightly anticlimactic ending, this is Pinkwater at his best: the grave ridiculousness of the present-tense narrative and the completely childlike responses of the “bad bears” recall the mid-century modernism of writers such as Margaret Wise Brown. The studied formality of the prose (“That building is a muffin factory, is it not?” Muktuk cunningly inquires about the zoo’s neighbor) heightens its absurdity, especially in contrast with the deliberately mundane specifics (“We became warm and tired,” Irving and Muktuk say when Roy finds them in the supermarket after their muffin caper. “We are lying on frozen peas. Is your apartment nearby?”) and in consort with the deliberate and silly repetitions (those frozen peas recur, as does the touchy question of eating people).

Jill Pinkwater’s illustrations give the bear boys a satisfying playspace: soft-edged sweeps of vibrant color make Bayonne the liveliest habitat a bear could imagine, while her spikily hatched lines crisply set off the vast white expanses of her main characters. Witty strategic details enliven the visual scenes as they do the text, with Roy’s apartment a combination of frat-boy bare and ice-cube-laden polar bear’s dream. It’s the bears’ mien and comportment that really put the bite in the comedy, though. The bad boys shamble and loll about with an adolescent’sstudied indifference, and audiences will particularly giggle at Irving and Muktuk’s narrow-eyed expressions of transparent villainy and pathetic droopy-headed postures of shame. The bears’ brushes with clothing are deliciously preposterous, whether it be Roy’s pretentious cape and floppy hat or Irving and Muktuk’s diabolical and dorky disguise of pillows over their heads and blankets over their shoulders, which of course makes them perfectly plausible among a tour group of schoolkids.

Subtle similarities to kids’ misdemeanors at camp and elsewhere may add particular resonance for some viewers, but the gleeful folly of the bears’ adventures doesn’t need relevance to be supremely entertaining. The sophisticated flair of the kid-appealing wryness will please the most jaded reading youngsters, while the kidlike troublemaking and sheer silliness will suit readaloud audiences to the last muffin crumb.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Jill Pinkwater from Bad Bears in the Big City: An Irving and Muktuk Story ©2004. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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This page was last updated on March 1, 2004.