Brother Hugo and the Bear: Blending fact, fiction and illuminated manuscripts

posted in: Katy Beebe, S. D. Schindler | 9

I have to admit that there have been one or two occasions in my lifetime when I’ve lost a library book.

I’ve never had a reasonable excuse (the overflowing levels of books in my home may be what has swallowed them up, but I cannot use this an acceptable defence). I’ve certainly never been able to claim that any loss was on account of a wild bear hungry for words.

brotherhugoBut a twelfth century Brother Hugo could and did. Or at least he does in the delightful and engaging Brother Hugo and the Bear by Katy Beebe, illustrated by S. D. Schindler .

To make good the loss of a missing manuscript, Brother Hugo is ordered by his Abbot to prepare a fresh copy. Having borrowed the neighbouring monastery’s version of the lost text, we follow Hugo as he carefully recreates the book that has disappeared.

All goes well until his journey to return the loaned copy, when he is stalked by a hungry bear…

A historical note at the end of the book quotes from an extant letter written by Peter the Venerable (c. 1092 – 1156, a real-life abbot who published the first Latin edition of the Koran amongst other things):

And send to us, if it pleases you, the great volume of letters by the holy father Augustine, which contains his letters to Saint Jerome, and Saint Jerome’s to him. For it happens that the greater part of our volume was eaten by a bear.

Beebe has used this historical fact to build a captivating and funny story. We learn a lot about how books were at one time made including where parchment comes from and how some inks were made. But this is no dry non-fiction text.

Historical figures and settings come to life in ways which make them real and relevant; “The dog ate my homework” is an excuse I’ve yet to hear in real life – a bit like seeing someone slip on an actual banana skin – but it’s an excuse we are all familiar with, and which resonates clearly with poor Hugo and his encounter with the bear. Beebe’s text is perfectly peppered with slightly archaic language, giving a lovely flavour seasoned just right for using this book with slightly older children.

brotherhugo

Schindler’s illustration are a delight, drawing heavily on many styles and motifs used in mediaeval manuscripts. Illuminated letters start each paragraph and the finely executed, detailed ink and water colour illustrations contain much humour. As befits a book about hand-created manuscripts, Schindler’s illustrations are completely executed by hand (you can learn more on Schindler’s blog), without computer manipulation, a relatively rare thing these days in picture books.

Text and illustration are both splendid but what truly completes this book is the inclusion not only of a historical note and glossary but also a commentary from both author and illustrator on the inspiration and process of their work. This adds real depth to an already interesting and beautiful book.

Brother Hugo and the Bear has appeared on several “best of 2014” book lists in the US, including 2014 American Booksellers Association Best Books for Children Catalog, Kirkus Best of 2014 and School Library Journal Best Books of 2014 and it is certainly worth ordering a copy of this American import (unfortunately you’re unlikely to find this in a UK library). It would make an ideal book to use as the basis of some activities for World Book Day.

Inspired by Brother Hugo we wanted to make our own illuminated manuscripts. Using some colouring-in pages printed from the web as our inspiration we drew outlines for illuminated letters using pencils before going over them with ink.

manuscriptcreation

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The inked letters were then filled in with watercolour and a little bit of gold guache before being leather bound.

j_manuscript

Completely at their own instigation the girls used a Latin dictionary to find words they liked to write in their manuscripts.

m_manuscript

Whilst making our manuscripts we listened to various 12th century music such as this, this and this.

Other activities which would work well alongside reading Brother Hugo and the Bear include:

  • Watching this hilarious video about the changes from scrolls to codices in the history of the book:
  • Making your own ink. There are lots of different recipes from this using egg yolk, lamp black and honey to this one recycling old felt tips which seem to have run out.
  • Browsing online images from illuminated manuscripts. Both the British Library and the National Library of the Netherlands have fabulous, searchable illuminated manuscript databases
  • Watching the super, award winning, family-friendly feature length animation The Secret of Kells, which as you might guess from its title is about creating an illuminated manuscript.

  • This year sees the 10th anniversary of another of my favourite books about books: Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing a few new book-themed book discoveries – but do let me know your favourite picture books which celebrate books and the joy of reading.

    9 Responses

    1. Katherine

      What a beautiful book, your letters remind me of when my dad went to Lindisfarne and sent me several postcards, I was very taken with the style. And our very dear friends in Belgium met when they worked together on the The Secret of Kells, they have some of the cels up in their house.
      Katherine recently posted..Bagl Reads: Goat Goes to Playgroup

    2. choxbox

      Sounds like a supremely lovely book Zoe! Will try to get a copy!

      Oh and our favourite picture books on books:
      1. Lane Smith’s This is a Book
      2. Nuri Vittachi’s The Day It Rained Letters (sort of, but a lovely book!)
      3. Anthony Browne’s I Like Books

      p.s.: I *have* slipped on a banana peel, and not just once. Thankfully never too bad, just a nuisance.

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