Monday 8 April 2024

The True Story of the making of the book of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' - please note the legal implications.

 I've done this before but as some people on social media seem bothered about the matter, I'll explain it again. But first, a word or two about folklore and children's books. For at least two hundred years, collectors, writers and editors have put 'traditional', 'anonymous' or 'folk' stories, rhymes and songs into books directed at children. The most famous of these is the one we know as Grimms' Fairy Tales' or some such. They collected stories and adapted them. Another famous collector, adapter and editor was Andrew Lang. If you go to google images and put in, say, Andrew Lang and 'Blue Fairy Book' you can see that on the cover it says simply 'Andrew Lang' but on the title page it says 'Edited by Andrew Lang'.

Some people seem bothered that this format was copied for 'Bear Hunt'. That's to say,  on the cover it says 'Michael Rosen' and 'Helen Oxenbury' but inside it says 'Retold by Michael Rosen'.  Though I didn't have a conversation about this at the time,  the publishers used the Andrew Lang format.

Some people feel that they have discovered some previously unknown link to a source for 'Bear Hunt' ie a 1983 version in the Smithsonian collection in the US. Just to be clear, I didn't ever hear that version when giving my version to the publisher some time in around 1986 or 87. The book came out in 1989. What version or versions had I heard? One was one sung by the Scots folksinger Alison McMorland who produced an album 'Funny Family' in 1977 and who I booked to sing 'Bear Hunt' on a show I wrote for Channel Four in the early 80s ('Everybody Here'). I had also heard versions sung by the Brownies (Girl Guide movement) earlier but their version was a 'Lion Hunt'. *** Alison explained to me that her version was an American version and had been devised in US  summer camps. Some of these included a repeated line about guns which as you will know, I didn't use.

It wasn't my idea to make a book out of the rhyme/song. It was one that I was performing as part of my poetry show from the early 1980s onwards, largely thanks to Alison. The editor of Walker Books saw me perform it and said it would make a great picture book. We discussed who could or should write it down. He insisted that I should. So I set about doing that. However, the first immediate problem was that at each of the 'venues' the children meet an obstacle, I produced noises, not onomatopoeic words. Then, again, in my oral version, I didn't have clear descriptions of each of the venues. And finally, my oral version wasn't long enough for the fixed length of picture books. 

So put these together and I came up with onomatopoeic words for the passage through the obstacles, I came up with words to describe each obstacle and I added two more obstacles (the snowstorm and the forest) . I think I also made some changes that I don't remember now, to the final rush home. I had nothing to do with devising or planning the final picture of the bear walking along the beach. Indeed, I had nothing to do with how the rhyme/song is pictured. Helen Oxenbury did that entirely herself and, as I've always said, what an incredible, beautiful and wonderful job she did. 

So, 'retold' is indeed an accurate description of what I did though you could also say it was 'edited' or 'adapted' or 'extended' by me. It's a job I have done many times with 'traditional' and 'folkloric' material, as with retellings of the German 'Til Eulenspiegel' stories, a Russian story I called 'Clever Cakes' an Indian story about a Rajah's ears, the Jewish Golem of Prague stories, a set of stories called 'How the Animals got Their Colours', an edition of Aesop's Fables. I have also done a book of jokes 'The Laugh Out Loud Joke Book' which is made up largely of  jokes I've collected, a song book of mostly traditional comic songs called 'Sonsense Nongs' and so on. This is part of the work that writers for children do and you can find wonderful work in this field from Michael Morpurgo, Geraldine McCaughrean and many others. 

In legal terms, what we do is create a new copyright version. You can find the same legality operating right the way across the world of folklore whether that be songs, stories, rhymes, jokes or whatever. 'Bear Hunt' belongs in this wider tradition of books in general where folkloric material has been adapted, retold, edited and so on. 

I am very sorry that some people might feel that somehow 'Bear Hunt' is less of a book because I adapted something rather than thought the whole thing up myself.  I always thought that the 'retold by' tag would make the situation clear. I would never want to take more credit for something that I've done than is my right or due. I'll take the credit for the adaptation, invention and editing work I did but not the total concept. Another analogy for this, if you like, is when people adapt stories and novels for the stage or film.  There has never been an attempt by me to hoodwink people about what I did for the book, In fact, I've told this story about the making of the book many times in the press and in media interviews.

Then there's the question of who is identified with the book. In my mind, the book was 'made' by Helen and the editors at Walker Books. What I did was provide them with a text that would 'work' for what they then created. However, I have performed the text of the book on YouTube and on the publisher's website where it's been viewed many millions of times. In addition, since it came out in 1989, I've performed it hundreds, if not thousands of times. Then when Channel Four commissioned an animation of the book, I worked with the animators (Lupus Films) on their version. I'm even on the sound track making the noise of the bear! It follows from this involvement that I've become part of how the book is seen or known. Again, I don't want to make this into something more than it is. It is simply me performing my version of this story but doing it in many places including in several versions online. 

However, some people for their own reasons which I don't want to go into just now, want to describe what I did as taking a pre-existing rhyme and simply or only putting it as I found it, into a book. That is not what I did, anymore than the Brothers Grimm simply or only put Hansel and Gretel, 'as they found it', into a book. They adapted it, revised it, edited it, expanded it. It is neither accurate nor legally correct to say that I simply or only put a pre-existing rhyme or song into a book. If people say this or write this,  in order to somehow damage my reputation, then they should be advised that stating that I put a pre-existing rhyme into a book is not a true statement of fact. I repeat, I did exactly what it says on the title page: I 'retold' the rhyme/song/story in the tradition of the Grimms, Andrew Lang and many others. 

***Following the publication of this blog, I received a note on Facebook today (April 8 2024) from someone (Margaret E. Sandercock) saying this: 

'I was a brownie and girl guide about 70 years ago - in those days, we sat in a circle and did the actions to ‘I’m going on a lion hunt’. I definitely remember how we all screamed ‘a lion’ when we found ‘something soft, something furry’ in the cave and how we scrabbled our way back home, panting as we arrived! ' 

This puts one origin for the song/rhyme as early as 1954.