Gentleman Bear by William Pene du Bois
“Bears build character.” How’s that for a positive message? The main character of Gentleman Bear is one Billy Browne-Browne who goes through life with his stuffed bear Bayard by his side. This does not render him emotionally crippled, emasculated or perpetually adolescent. Instead, Bayard provides Billy with much needed support and in fact, helps Billy to become a better boy and eventually a better man. With Bayard by his side, Billy competes in the Olympics, faces Hitler and performs heroically on the battlefront.
The vocabulary and tone skew a bit high for a book about a boy and his bear, but as a read aloud, it might do well with second and third graders who were interested in the subject. Especially children who are yearning to cling to their childhood a bit longer and looking for some outside permission to do so. This also appears to be a picture book from the exterior, but is in fact a chapter book.
Sex, Nudity, Dating –The story starts before the birth of the main character, Billy Browne-Browne. We learn how his parents meet. His father kissed his mother. They agree to marry. Lady Betty is kissed by her father-in-law. Billy is born (the phrasing used is “a son was born to…” Billy says “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on” to a female diver (he means as opposed to a swimsuit, not that he’s seen her naked). Avis kisses Bayard. There is another wedding. Friends keep the bear from going on honeymoon with the couple. There’s a sort of odd passage where an old man convinces a group of friends to be pilots but says that he speaks “romantically” of flying and refers to the “seduction” of the men. During a costume party a young boy swats girls backsides with a cutlass.
Profanity – “shut up,”
Death, Violence and Gore – The “horrible war” ended when Billy was two. World War II happens. Billy and his friends are pilots. They come under German fire. There is an illustration of planes going down and a parachuting bear who has been hit by the bullets. He’s been strafed by bullets, losing an ear and having a chunk taken out of his arm. Billy is told that the daily business of Scotland Yard involves sadistic murder and political assassinations.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – They stop at an inn that smells of beer. When he is twenty, Billy drinks champagne, wine, vodka and aquavit. Given the era and the setting (Europe) he was likely of age to drink. He seems intoxicated although there’s no actual statement to that effect. Upon losing his bear, Billy downs glass after glass of champagne. Billy is told that Scotland Yard handles drug smuggling. An illustration of the bear is labeled keep the whiskies coming.
Frightening or Intense Things – Two men burst into tears at having survived the war. Hitler is first mentioned in the context of the Olympics of 1936 and is largely beloved by the German people.