Pico Iyer, Paddington, and me

I so enjoyed reading Pico Iyer’s “Critic’s Take” column in The New York Times’ Book Review, titled PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.

(Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/books/review/please-look-after-this-bear.html?_r=0)

In it, Mr. Iyer expresses the response to a beloved book that is remarkably congruent with my publishing philosophy. I’ve always said that what I want to publish are books that readers don’t just like, but that are deeply meaningful to them; books that they love so much that they would say, when asked “Oh that was my FAVORITE book as a child” and they would keep those books throughout their lives. In talking about PADDINGTON BEAR, Mr. Iyer says, “On the single shelf for books I have in my two-room apartment in Japan, Paddington sits next to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene.” Exactly!

I too loved PADDINGTON BEAR, laughing appreciatively at what Mr. Iyer describes as Paddington’s attempts to “master the confounding laws of middle-class [English] life.” These weren’t the same laws that confounded ME exactly. But, like all the other children who read and loved Michael Bond’s books, I was making my way through a world controlled by adults, with rules and realities I had yet to master. On another level too, I was a Jewish child, growing up in a primarily Christian world, separated from my peers by that and a host of other intellectual, social, cultural, and even affectional differences. The comedy of Paddington made light of these kinds of gulfs, even as it acknowledged them in a profound (if subliminal) way.

Iyer, whose parents immigrated to Oxford from Bombay, felt a deep kinship with the bear from “Darkest Peru” who found himself in a nearly all-white and homogenous England. I felt that kinship too.

I think this response is important to remember for those of us engaged in the movement to diversify Children’s literature. Books that present the perspective and experience of non-majority characters are not meant to be read and appreciated solely by the specific culture or ethnicity of the main character. Wider representation in our literature as a whole is crucial, but the audience for that diversity is not just a tiny specific slice of a splintered whole. Literature speaks across boundaries. Pico Iyer and I can BOTH read and love the story of Paddington Bear despite the fact that neither of us is Peruvian (I’m not sure if Mr. Iyer would describe himself as British, like Michael Bond, but I’m certainly not that either.)

Thank you, Mr. Bond, for the gift of Paddington. And thank you, Pico Iyer, for articulating so beautifully what a gift it is.


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