CM December 1, 
1995. Vol. II, Number 7

image Santa Bear's First Christmas.

Illustrated by Maggie Kneen.
Devised and produced by The Templar Company plc, England.
Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1995. 12pp, board, $17.95.
ISBN 1-895714-83-4.

Subject Headings:
Christmas stories.
Toy and movable books.

Preschool - grade 2 / Ages 3 - 7.
Review by A. Edwardsson.


"It was Christmas time, and the young bear cubs had persuaded Big Bear to dress up as Santa and hand out presents to everyone. He and his animal helpers had been very busy wrapping and carefully labelling all the gifts. But someone else had been busy too. . . Santa Bear picked up the first present, but found that the label was missing. He looked around at the other gifts. What was this? ALL the labels had disappeared!"

 Puzzle and novelty moveable books are universal children's favourites. Combining both those features with a Christmas story should make for a guaranteed winner. Unfortunately, clever 3-D artwork in lift-the-flap format cannot compensate for this books' weak storyline and confusing "mystery."

The opening pages show a large polar bear dressed in a Santa-like red robe, with six small bears clustered around his chair. The edges of this spread have head shots of each cub with their name written above them, and a wrapped gift below. Despite some token differences (for example, one wears a bow tie), they lack individuality and all appear to be the same age. Questions arise: are they supposed to be related? where are their parents? and, what relation is Big Bear?

We follow Santa Bear through the pages as he opens each wrapped gift to find out who it's for: "Next he picked up a pink parcel with a big blue bow. `What can this be?' he wondered." The reader then opens the gift flap. Inside, beside a pop-up doll, the text reads "It was a beautiful ballerina doll. He knew who would like it. Do you know too?" The only way to find out is to flip back to page one. The wrapped package matches the one beside Belinda's mug shot, and, in the chair scene she's the bear wearing a tutu.

Further on . . . "Next was a green parcel with a bright yellow bow. `Splendid,' said Santa. `Just the thing for a certain someone ' [The reader opens the gift flap.] Inside was a large red kite. Which cub do you think would like it?" Back to page one again. The gift matches the one under Dolly. From the group shot we are supposed to be able to deduce she would enjoy the kite because she's the only cub looking out the window. There are easier matches, such as a train for Barney, who's dressed in a conductor's hat and vest, and blowing a whistle.

At last Santa Bear had unwrapped all the parcels, but he was still rather puzzled about the missing labels, so he sent his animal helpers to look for them. . . . When they opened the closet doors, what a big surprise they got. All the skittles fell onto the floor! But there were no labels to be seen.

 Besides the six bowling pins, many other toys appear to fall out.

"Suddenly Santa Bear noticed something very odd on the Christmas Tree. Can you see what it is?" This is a stumper. Of course, we're supposed to solve the mystery of the labels here, but the tree that opens from the centrefold only has one thing on it that might be a label, since it's a rectangular card. (Other "decorations" include some bells and candles with small holes at the top, two bows, a Christmas pudding, some holly leaves, and a few stars.)

When you get to the end of the book, you find two pages of double-sided, inch-long, colour decorations to punch out and use; since they look like the cards on the tree, and are supposed to represent the labels, this should be a pretty good hint about what to look for. But they hardly resemble actual labels. Besides the fact that some are too dark to write on, none of them resemble the familiar TO: FROM: format that readers could recognize. So Santa Bear is going to be way ahead of the audience in solving this mystery.

" `So that's where they are!' said Santa. `but how did they get there?' Can you help him find out? Look carefully at the pictures in this book and you will find the answer!" This part is another stretch. On the edges of most pages are identical borders with parcels and decorations. Our "clue" is a mouse who hangs by his tail from a decorated garland (not a tree) holding a glass ornament.

The answer on the last page claims "They were taken by the little mice who wanted to use them to decorate the Christmas tree!" But since we don't see the tree until the end of the book, the book hasn't played fair by giving a reader a chance to guess where the labels were destined or what they might be for. Also, it's not clear why the tree wasn't decorated in the first place, since the walls and hearth are festooned.

It was hard enough for this adult to work out that the mice had taken the labels; the pages before the mystery is solved are cluttered with unrelated toys and animal helpers who seem to be moving and wrapping (or are they unwrapping?) parcels. Once I'd seen what the labels looked like at the end, I was able to go back and recognize them in the paws of mice in several scenes. For small children however, the mystery is going to be almost impenetrable without a lot of hints from older readers.

Despite its sturdy movable parts, bright primary colours, and the endearing hardworking helpers, this book is too difficult and confusing to "become a Christmas classic" as the back cover predicts.

Not recommended.

A. Edwardsson is in charge of the Children's Department at a branch of the Winnipeg Public Library. She has a Bachelor of Education degree and a Child Care Worker III certification, and is a member of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Authors' Association.

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Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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