In 1958, Michael Bond published A Bear Called Paddington. In 1996, I used Bond’s bear as the theme for our firstborn son’s room. Paddington wasn’t exactly a hot item — he wouldn’t get his own movie until 2014. But I knew I had the right bear when I saw the Paddington Bear Baby Book with these words inscribed on the cover: “Please Look After This Baby. Thank You.” So much like the label Paddington wears, “Please Look After This Bear. Thank you.”
Bond purchased the original bear at Selfridges department store. Once he started writing, he pictured the bear with his blue duffle coat and red hat and brown suitcase looking like the London children who were evacuated during the Blitz. Paddington arrives at Paddington Station from “Darkest Peru,” sent by his Aunt Lucy, who can no longer care for him because she has to go into a home for retired bears.
“I hope I’ve done the right thing,” she said when she arrived back at the home. “It feels as though I’ve lost a part of myself.” (from Love from Paddington)
In “A Bear Called Paddington,” the Brown family discovers the bear at the train station while picking up their daughter for summer holidays. Bond wrote many more Paddington books, the latest of which, Paddington’s Finest Hour, was published in April.
Guess what? Even though Paddington was my nursery theme, I never read a single one of Bond’s books to my son. I read him plenty of other children’s books by British authors. I read A.A. Milne. I read Beatrix Potter. I read Kenneth Grahame. Why not Paddington?
Because I doubted myself. Was a refugee bear really the best choice for a baby? Was I even fit to be a mother anyway?
The day the news broke about the death of Michael Bond was my son’s birthday. I got out the Paddington baby book and reread the whole thing. Then I read Bond’s obituary and several tribute articles. This sentence caught my eye: “Paddington is eternally optimistic and always comes back for more, no matter how many times his hopes are dashed.”
There still was hope for me and my relationship with this bear. I headed to the library.
Our library is a bit like a garage sale — you never know what you’ll find. I arrived during the summer storytime. A man was doing a demonstration with a live python. Mr. Bond, you died too soon. You could have written “Paddington Meets a Python.” Pity.
I grabbed every Paddington book off the shelf and sat in a high-backed chair to read and take notes. The first was Paddington Bear and the Christmas Surprise. My son would have been 1 year old when it was published. In the story Paddington surprises his adopted family with a trip to see Santa and ride a winter wonderland ride at a department store called Barkridges. Disappointments ensue, but Paddington saves the day because, as he says, “Bears are good at mending things.”
The other four Paddington books were learning books: a counting book, an alphabet book, a book to teach colors, and one to teach opposites. As I read them, I had a surprise: I owned these books. My son and I read them together.
Suddenly I remembered. Someone gave us the set, probably a neighbor friend who was a retired teacher. I don’t remember if those four books came with a label, but if they had, it should have read, “Please Look After These Books. Thank you.”
As I reread them it all came back. Seventeen jam tarts. An open suitcase filled with jars of marmalade contrasted with a closed suitcase. The color book uses pictures to illustrate how red and white combine to make pink — when Paddington uses the washing machine. And in the alphabet book L stands for “label.” Of course it does.
So my son must have thought that Paddington was a bear who taught concepts like numbers and letters. Which is not untrue. But by skipping the stories I failed to show him that Paddington is also a bear who teaches about optimism, politeness, and generosity.
Despite bragging that I don’t throw out children’s books, I no longer own those four. At some point I must have given them away, probably to the annual book sale put on by the Friends of the Waco-McLennan County Library. But here were those same four books, in a library 180 miles away, on my son’s birthday, the day after Michael Bond passed away. How does that happen?
Well, when you cast a bear on an ocean liner, in a lifeboat, with a note from a loved one, somehow he finds his way to a safe place, even if that place is very, very far away.
“But what are you going to do now?” said Mr. Brown. “You can’t just sit in Paddington Station, waiting for something to happen.”
“Oh, I shall be all right . . . I expect.” The bear bent down to do up its case again. As he did so, Mrs. Brown caught a glimpse of the writing on the label. It said simply, “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR, THANK YOU.”
(from A Bear Called Paddington)