Qaariaq, qaariaq, qaariaq. That darn bee.
Qaariaq, qaariaq, qaariaq!
I started crying, “Qaariaq, qaariaq, qaariaq.”(p.13)
While playing alone on a set of monkey bars, Apita hears a bee approaching and runs away in fear. The bee chases them for several days, through Igloolik and Rankin Inlet, calling to the child (“Apita, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz”), who eventually realizes the bee means no harm. Apita calls to the bee, and they play together happily as the sun goes down.
The author’s bio says that The Bee is based on Becky Han’s award-winning song in Inuktitut, Qaariaq, and, for better or worse, it really shows in the picture book version. There is a fun repetition and exaggeration in the way Apita reacts to the bee: going down on their knees and praying for help, then running first for three and then five days straight until they reach a whole different community. The action begs to be acted out with gestures or even puppets. There is a bouncy rhythm to the refrain of “qaariaq, qaariaq, qaariaq!” even if we don’t know what it means until we reach the glossary at the end of the book, which is where readers, like myself, will also realize that Apita is the name of the child. Without knowledge of Inuktitut, I can’t say if the name is gendered; Apita has long hair tied low and wears a red-and white jacket, blue trousers, and lavender sneakers. Their depiction is not overtly gendered, and, as the narrative is in the first person, we can’t tell from the author’s use of pronouns, and so I am referring to the child protagonist as “they”.
Reading the book makes you want to hear the song, and I recommend that any reader who wants to use this book in a class or storytime to go and look up the song as sung by the author. An easy internet search (for “Qaariaq Becky Han”) should yield a Youtube video of Han playing a guitar and singing the song with pictures from the book and English subtitles for the Inuktitut lyrics. Han has a warm, funny singing voice and beautiful presentation. This is where the “for worse” part kicks in, though, because The Bee is so much better an experience when heard as a song sung by Han. Once you’ve heard it sung, the reading of the book by itself pales in comparison. The words seem bland and lifeless without the humor and buoyancy of the melody, so much so that I feared my review would become biased. To make it clear, having heard the song, I can’t unhear it now, and it plays in my head when I look at the book. I am aware that a reader coming to the book without having heard the song may have a different experience.
Even for a picture book, The Bee is a very short and simple experience. There are only 27 sentences in total, several of which are repetitions, such as “that darn bee” or “qaariaq (don’t come near me)”. The plot is straightforward without much dramatic buildup. And yet, the folksong quality of the repeating structure and comic exaggeration are charming, and Tindur Peturs’ illustrations are breathtaking in the quietest of ways. There is a sense of expanse, of wide open spaces and a long distance to run, in a landscape entirely without trees and mostly without grass. The irregular greys and browns never get boring, even when there is not much decorative ‘stuff’ in the pictures. The few man-made features we see, such as the jungle gym where Apita first meets the bee, a school building (perhaps?) with other children playing in front of it, and an inuksuk, seem to have heightened significance. The bee is endearingly fuzzy, and the attention to details, such as the pink flowers that momentarily distract it from the chase, gas cans/plastic jugs lying around a house with a tractor (or other type of vehicle?), and ladders going all the way up the roofs of houses (Are they for scraping off snow in the winter? For spreading fish to dry on the sunny side of the house?) both invites curiosity and, I assume, reassures with authenticity.
I think The Bee would make a lovely puppet story, with the song playing in the background if the puppet master finds it difficult to learn all the words. It would also make a good bedtime story as the tone leans more towards peaceful than rambunctious.
Saeyong Kim is a librarian who lives and works in British Columbia.