Banned Book Review: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin. Illustrated by Eric Carle.

In February of 2010, the Texas Education Board made one of the more embarrassing blunders in the annuals of book banning. In their eagerness to protect their constituency from an obscure Marxist theorist, they mistakenly banned a children’s picture book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

The popular book, written by Bill Martin (and illustrated by Eric Carle), will be familiar as a staple of bedtime reading to anyone who has young children. The story, which basically has no plot, features a narrator who queries a variety of animals as to what they see. And what each ones sees is the animal who is the next one to be asked the question, and so on. In reading this book to my daughter, I recall that the story suggested the importance of friendship, reciprocity, paying attention, and certainly, eye-contact. And though the same question is asked repeatedly (something young children never seem to tire of), with each new animal that appeared, first as the one looking and then being looked at, there was an engaging range of  responses to the question—at least that’s what I gleaned from Eric Carle’s wonderful illustrations.

Eric Carle has of course illustrated and written scores of his own books for children, including one that was my daughter’s favorite, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. At the time, she had was not yet four, and this was just about the time when we had to seriously ban sweets, because, well, sweets were not good for her. Nevertheless, each time we read the book, we loved the way the very hungry caterpillar ate his way through all manner of foods that were bad for him (though he did like leaves too), and never once did my husband or I worry that the caterpillar’s behavior might compel our daughter to crave foods that were bad for her.

Anyway, back to Bill Martin. In his sixty years as a children’s author, he wrote nearly three-hundred books, including Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you Hear?, The Ghost-Eye Tree, Barn Dance, and Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom. But as it happened, he shared a name with another Bill Martin, author of Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. According the publisher, Open Court Books, this Bill Martin’s book “is a daring attempt to reinvigorate the theoretical program of the radical left, anti-imperialist movement of the twenty-first century.”

These are facts that the Texas Education Board failed to check before announcing its decision. In fact, had the TEB done its research, it might have discovered that in October of 1991, First Lady Barbara Bush gave a reading of Brown Bear, Brown Bear to a class of children as part of the “Parents as Teachers” group at the Greater St. Louis Ferguson-Florissant School District.

According to author Julianna Baggott, who covered the issue back in 2010 for the Huffington Post, one of TEB representative’s, Pat Hardy,

…made the motion to ban Brown Bear, Brown Bear, citing that Bill Martin’s work for adults contains ‘very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.’

Baggott then goes on to pose the logical question:

Why would the political implications of an author’s work for adults be reason to ban his book for children? Was the board afraid that children who enjoyed Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? would decide to then read Bill Martin’s complete oeuvre, moving to Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? — and his other 298 or so books for children — and then quite naturally onto Ethical Marxism?

The blunder of misidentifying aside, Baggott’s reasoning is correct. The Board censored one work of writing (despite its lack of controversy) because it believed the author wrote something else that it disagreed with. This blanket approach to censorship is far more dangerous than failing to do a Google check before hammering out your press release. The suppression harkens back to blacklisting and the Red Scare of the nineteen-fifties.

And as Baggott points out, “when Brown Bear is asked what he sees, he answers, ‘I see a red bird looking at me.’” One can only guess at what the Texas Board made of that.

—Lauren Alwan

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