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Maybe a Bear Ate It!: the review

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If Denver four-year-olds make small talk about literature, surely Maybe a Bear Ate It! would come up. The picture book has been selected as the book in the state's One Book 4 Colorado preschool reading campaign. In theory, every kid in the sandbox will be reading it. 

The story by Robie E. Harris is simple. An unnamed boy or creature -- the drawings by Michael Emberley don't make the protagonist's origins entirely clear -- has lost something. He suspects a bear is responsible. That he lost a book, and is distraught without it, probably contributed to Maybe A Bear Ate It! being selected for the program. 

But what should be the dominant question of the book -- where is this misplaced object? -- is replaced by a hunt for who is at fault for its misplacement. 

At the risk of spoiling the end, a bear did not in fact eat the mislaid book, and the other suspects are equally faultless. Still, there's something both childlike and adult in the hope that a small loss could stem from a larger force. It's also easy to draw parallels between the accused bear in the title and the rash of bear-related fatalities last summer. In both cases, bears take the fall for the consequences of a messy bedroom and feeding wild animals. 

Despite the relatable dread that some power, be it a bear or vengeful God, is controlling our fate and taking our books, Maybe A Bear Ate It! lacks what literary critic James Wood described as "thisness: "[a] detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability." What book is the boy missing? Is the protagonist even a boy? What kind of bear would be hungry for a book? These are the questions Colorado pre-schoolers needs answers to, and ones Robie H. Harris fails to provide.


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