bookish posts

“Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik

little bear's friendsWhen I was little, I fell in love with the classic early readers. Frog and Toad, Frances, and Little Bear. Little Bear, unlike the other two, is not illustrated by the author. The books were written by Else Holmelund Minarik and the original five were illustrated by Maurice Sendak. They’re gentle, funny books, and as a wee thing, I loved the world and the magic that Holmelund Minarik and Sendak created between them.

Of course, at the time I was completely unaware of the history of the books. I didn’t know that Little Bear started the category of early readers (something that gets stamped all over the current editions). I didn’t know that Holmelund Minarik, a former journalist and teacher, wrote them for her own daughter because she wasn’t satisfied with the books that were being published for young children. I didn’t know that she refused one publisher who wanted to change the bears to people because “all children of all colours would be reading the stories” and she wanted them to not be excluded.

The first Little Bear book was published in 1957, six years before Where the Wild Things Are and thirteen years before In the Night Kitchen. Sendak was not yet a household name. But by the time the mid-1990s rolled around and Little Bear was turned into a TV show, that had changed. Else Holmelund Minarik might have written Little Bear, but it was Maurice Sendak who illustrated it and Maurice Sendak whose name was attached to the TV show and to some editions of the books published after the TV show aired.

Not Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear, even though she was the one who wrote the books, and even though I have heard that Sendak disliked Little Bear. (My source didn’t have a source for this–if you do, I would love to see it! EDIT: Apparently, Sendak at least thought fondly of Minarik! Yay!) No, it’s “Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear,” on games, DVDs, and this book and this one and this one.

And I get it. I really do. Sendak is one of the most beloved figures in 20th century children’s literature. When Holmelund Minarik died, there were some nice obituaries of her. When Sendak died, there was an enormous outpouring of remembrance, of grief. As a marketing decision, choosing to call the TV show “Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” makes sense.

But the problem is, this is quite literally an erasure of Else Holmelund Minarik, in favor of a better-known, more powerful man. And that should be ringing all kinds of alarm bells. It doesn’t matter how awesome Sendak was, or how beloved. Yes, his contribution to the books is important. I love his illustrations for the Little Bear Stories, regardless of his feelings about the project. But the decision to deny Holmelund Minarik credit for the books that SHE, not Sendak, created is not a neutral one, nor is it only a marketing one. This kind of thing matters. It sends a message that woman creators can be cut out entirely, removed from the record, so to speak. I’m not okay with that, under any circumstances, and certainly not under these ones.

Links about Else Holmelund Minarik:
brief profile
Guardian obituary
NYT obituary

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

22 replies on ““Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik”

great post. Little Bear was my own first crush (at two I had a cereal box space helmet like his and was known to remark, when served a meal, “This looks like a good lunch for a little bear!”) Little Bear was the first book my son Mark was actually able to read *himself* and I remember the moment of sheer and absolute DELIGHT, and WONDER, when he looked up from the first page and exclaimed, “I CAN READ!” (and then we turned to the cover and laughed at the “I can read” logo). Thanks for collecting all the links.

Oh, what a lovely story! The first books you read yourself are so important. At least, I know they’ve all stuck with me in a really deep way.

Thank you for this post. I had never heard of Else Homelund Minarik until now, and I’m very glad to have made her acquaintance. What a shame she’s been so sidelined by history.

How interesting! I think many Americans would recognize Little Bear, if not Homelund Minarik’s name, so I wonder if it’s a difference in cultural backgrounds.

I LOVE Little Bear, I still have fond memories of reading it as a child. Since I’m a reviewer and a children’s lit nut, I always think of it as Minarik’s Little Bear, so I truly appreciate your pointing out her exclusion. This is sad and frightening. I’ll definitely be spreading the word (and harassing the publishers). Thank you!!

Thanks for the comment! Yes, I think within the kidlit world, it’s very firmly Minarik’s Little Bear, but outside of that, it’s much different.

Minarik wrote the books, but did the TV show follow the books exactly, or were there additional writers and non-Minarik authored storylines? (I haven’t seen the show, so I have no idea). This may be why her name was dropped, and perhaps the credits say something like “based on the books by Else Homelund Minarik.” (?)

Also interesting that Minarik stuck with a bear as the character so that all children could relate. I suspect that many author/illustrators use animals for this reason – projecting diversity without specific racial distinction.

Little Bear is still beloved among our children here in southern California.

You know, I’ve seen the TV show but not for a long time. My vague memory is that they did follow the books at first but then added more stories on. I’ll have to do some digging and take a look at that. Regardless, I do understand why they made the decision, I just don’t think it was a good one! 🙂

Yes, I thought Minarik’s quote in particular was an interesting one–I know that some POC very strongly object to being equated with animals in any way. I don’t think (I hope!) that Minarik’s choice has the effect she intended, rather than that one.

This is a sad story – trust the TV series to cause Minarik’s deletion! Incidentally Russel Hoban didn’t illustrate the Frances books himself. His then-wife Lillian illustrated them. The first one was illustrated by Garth Williams (“Bedtime for Frances”then she took them over. I’m not sure they were written for the I Can Read series, either. i think the ones published in that series are simplified. Russel Hoban was a poet, and it is unmistakable in the original picture books. Virginia Lowe

Oh, thank you for the information! I wonder why I was so convinced Russell Hoban did his own illustrations? I think I may have first encountered Frances in the early reader editions and then gone back and read the picture books, although I’m not positive. Somehow she’s definitely slotted in the “learning how to read” era in my memory. Regardless, she’s one of my very favorites.

Maybe you were confused because they were illustrated by a Hoban, too. I suspect she re-illustrated all the I Can Read versions – but i can’t say for sure. The only one we had in I Can Read was A Bargain for Frances. The others were the picture books. i did have a vague feeling that we had one in the I Can Read series, and compared it to the picture book, but i can’t find any record of it in my index to the Reading Diary. (I kept a record of everything we read to our two children, fully indexed. My book about it is Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell, pub Routledge 2007.)

What’s your source on Sendak’s dislike? He spoke fondly of Else Minarik. I wasn’t aware that he disliked the books. He could, though, be grumpy and critical of his own work. (For instance, he once told me he disliked his art for Ruth Krauss’s Open House for Butterflies because it was just “A Hole Is to Dig 2.” He didn’t like to repeat himself.)

It was someone who had read an interview (she believes) where he said he disliked them, or his art in them. She couldn’t find it again, though, which is why I asked if anyone had more information. I’m glad to hear he was fond of Minarik, as she sounds like a lovely person!

Yes, from what I recall, they kept in touch, too. He considered her a dear old friend. During one of our conversations, I seem to remember him saying that he had spoken with her recently. OK, I’ve just looked up my June 2001 interview with him, and here’s what he said: “I’d had great luck working with Else Minarik and Little Bear. Else is still alive and we work together and see each other and we talk endlessly. She’s very old and ill and I will lose her soon.”

Finally, lest I convey the wrong impression, Sendak and I spoke occasionally, over the phone, regarding Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. But the conversation could be wide-ranging. And I don’t mean to give the impression that our chats were frequent. They weren’t.

Further excerpts from that June conversation are here:

A very troubling marketing and publishing decision – thank you for bringing attention to it with your post. I love the simple integrity of Minarik’s stance on the bears!

Thank you for making sure that Else Minarik’s voice is heard loud and clear. I found my way to your post after reading about the passing of Minarik’s co-author for “What If”, Margaret Bloy Graham. Their simple question as a title connects to the work of the Right Question Institute, teaching students to ask their own questions and helping all people find their voice in our democracy. It’s inspiring to read about people like Minarik.

Thank you for writing this. I have searched the internet looking for more information about Else, but so little is available. My 20 month old son adores Little Bear. We have all five books and they are in constant rotation at bedtime. I have seen it mentioned that she wrote more titles aside from the Little Bear books but haven’t seen a comprehensive bibliography.

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