an unusual first class bear
This has been a VERY difficult secret to keep under my hat, or should I say behind my large white rosette…
Mary Plain, the bear cub and star of Gwynedd Rae’s long-running series of stories, much loved in the 1930’s through to the 1960’s but since largely forgotten, returns next year – illustrated by ME!
To bring Mary back from obscurity has been a literary treasure hunt over many years. With my daughter Leah, fellow Mary fan, we have scoured second-hand bookshops for every old copy and every edition, studied wills and codicils written on faded paper with old-fashioned typewriters, researched long-lost relatives and publishing houses and lawyers. When I discovered that Egmont were searching too and we met somewhere in the middle, suffice to say, many celebratory cream buns were consumed.
But first I need to go right back to the beginning…
I have loved Mary Plain since I was very young, and I’ve longed to illustrate her stories all this time too, ever since I could first properly hold a pencil.
The books were read to me by my mother, whose own mother read them to her, and I in turn have read them to my children. Iconic Mary-isms have entered our family language. We plan ‘svisits’ instead of visits, and we write notes to each other in the style of Mary’s picture writing. When uncertain, sad or homesick, we find Mary’s wobbly words ‘Do you think the twins are happy without me?’ say it better than anything else could.
Gwynedd Rae’s creation is an orphan bear cub from the bear pits of Berne Zoo. Mary is both bear-like and child-like, a perfect combination, an enormous personality all wrapped up in a small, pointy-eared, browny-grey furry package. She can be willful and impossible, with an unsquashable ego and an insatiable appetite. But she is also funny, irrepressibly optimistic and utterly endearing. The limited yet marvelous wardrobe she acquires, too, is worthy of note: what more could one need than a red and white striped bathing costume, a sailor’s hat and a bus conductor’s uniform?
I love the world of the bear pits and the extended family that inhabit it – the grumpy older bears, Mary and her twin cousins Little Wool and Marionetta. They fall out and make up, just like all families. And I love the human world of smart apartments and vintage travel, picnics and tea parties. The seemingly endless supply of meringues, éclairs, sugar lumps and cream buns always appealed to me greatly, and in truth it still does.
Written between 1930 and 1965, the Mary Plain series has an abundance of delightful retro details throughout; but the universal appeal of the escapades and hi-jinks of a small bear cub, at large in the sophisticated world of grown-ups, is timeless.
There has been a Mary-shaped gap in the cast list of classic bears in children’s books for far too long. And, have you noticed, bears are almost always boys – we need a girl bear, urgently!
I’m so proud and happy to see the gloriously inventive, enchanting and entertaining writings of Gwynedd Rae restored, and for Mary to take her rightful place again at last. I hope that those who are fans of Mary already will think me worthy of being her illustrator, and that readers who meet her for the first time will love her as much as I do.
She doesn’t need any help to introduce herself, so, in her own words…
‘I am Mary Plain, an unusual first-class bear with a white rosette and a gold medal with a picture of myself on it.’