Another staple of my daughter’s bedtime reading is The Bumblebear by Nadia Shireen. I was first drawn to it by the intriguing title, and the cheerful picture on the front cover of a smiling bear surrounded by a crowd of awestruck bees, who for some reason all thought standing on the ground around a creature with feet as big as twenty of them put together constituted a sensible life-choice. Surely this must be a cheerful, uplifting tale, I thought, in one of my infrequent moments of naivety. Alas, I was once again mistaken. For between its brightly-coloured covers I found a tale of substance abuse, deception, and idiocy so staggering that it left a palm-shaped indentation in my face that still hasn’t fully healed.

Read on, if you dare. As always, spoilers follow.

It is well-known that bears as a species have notorious substance abuse issues: indeed it is so obvious that I feel as though I am insulting you by even having to mention it. Winnie the Pooh had his lifelong addiction to honey. Paddington his marmalade, Yogi his kleptomaniacal need for picnic baskets, Rupert his Thai hookers. The star of this cautionary tale is a bear called Norman, who also has an addiction to honey.

“I have a rumbly in my tummy, and since you ate all my honey, you should taste very nice.”
“I have a rumbly in my tummy, and since you ate all my honey, you should taste very nice.”

But unlike Winnie the Pooh, who at least had an ADHD tiger, a depressed donkey, a snooty owl and a single-parent kangaroo family as his support network, Norman appears to have nobody. Certainly no mention is made of any friends or family, which, while not excusing Norman’s shameful life-choices, does at least allow the discerning reader to feel some sympathy for him. Not that having friends would necessarily have saved Norman from going down a dark path, as the fate of Winnie the Pooh’s friend Piglet can attest.

The book begins by revealing Norman’s addiction to honey, and how sad he feels when it runs out. Any sympathy I felt was swiftly quashed when Norman went on to attempt to steal honey from a hive, only to be chased off by a swarm of justifiably angry bees. But did this deter our furry junkie? Of course not. Demonstrating the desperate lengths that the truly addicted will go to in order to get their next fix, he came up with “a quite AMAZING and BRILLIANT” idea: to infiltrate Bee School in the hope of stealing more honey to satisfy his cravings.

How the bees did not immediately identify this bee from “GIANT BEE LAND” as being nothing more than a bear in a bee costume that showed his entire face is a mystery to me. I can only put it down to their youth, though the Queen who taught them can have no such excuse. I assume that she hailed from a particularly inbred hive where levels of intelligence and, indeed, basic eyesight, had been adversely affected.

So Norman’s dastardly plot succeeded and he infiltrated the school, manipulating the children to gain their trust in the most contemptible fashion. Only one young bee, Amelia, suspected that something was amiss, and discovered the terrible truth. Yet she was not believed: the other bees’ innocent admiration for their “friend,” or perhaps their inherited idiocy, preventing them from accepting the obvious.

To expose Norman for the liar he was, Amelia took him to the helpfully signposted “SECRET HONEY STORE”— the latter fact demonstrating that intelligence and basic common sense are evidently lacking in this particular facet of beedom. There Norman’s addiction overwhelmed him and, in a gruesome explosion of costume-shedding and honey that I feared would scar my daughter for life, he gave in to his urges and stuffed his face.

Finally the other bees saw the truth and Norman was expelled. He returned to the forest to cry alone, though it was clearly less from remorse at his wicked actions than the fact that he had once again run out of honey. I felt relieved that the story had ended on an appropriately just note, but to my concern immediately realised that there were quite a few pages left. When I suggested to my daughter that we stop for the sake of her fragile well-being, her only answer was a hug and a muffled comment of “Silly daddy.”

Ah, the innocence of youth.

Of course, the tale took a quite literally darker turn. For that very night after Norman had been expelled, another bear attacked the hive looking for the honey. Too big and too bad for the bees to chase away, all looked lost until, from nowhere, Norman appeared. Clad once more in his bee costume, he chased the interloper away, and as a result was feted for his heroism and rewarded with yet more honey by a queen bee that was either ignorant of his addiction or had decided to actively enable it.

Some might see this as a powerful, uplifting ending: an act of redemption by the brave Norman who was seeking to turn his life around. Yet I am not so easily fooled. It struck me as oh-so-convenient that the bear just happened to attack that night, and that Norman just happened to be there, already wearing his costume, in order to chase the other bear away. It is obvious to me that the whole thing was staged by the devious Norman who, it has already been established, would go to any lengths to get his next fix. What he promised the other bear is unclear; perhaps honey, or perhaps just the opportunity to harm others for his own sick pleasure. That no bees were seriously hurt or killed is down to the greatest good fortune, not through any action of that pathetic creature that the bees see as their friend.

And that was the end of the tale, and the message it delivered was powerful indeed: a searing indictment of the nature of substance abuse, and the desperate lengths that addicts will go to in order to obtain their next fix, heedless of the damage they do or the people they hurt.

I explained all of this to my daughter, who considered my words with all the thoughtfulness I have come to expect from her before proclaiming: “I need a pee-pee.”  I hadn’t expected my lesson to provoke such a strong physical reaction, and it is a testament to her courage that she is able to sit next to me and listen to such a harrowing tale every night that I put her to bed. Such a brave girl.

A charming story that keeps my daughter very entertained and has her saying the words along with me. The illustrations are well done and filled with amusing little details. Highly recommended!

About Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is a science-fiction, horror and fantasy author from Bedford, who has been writing since the age of eight. He’s had a number of short stories published with more to come in 2017, and his first novel will be published this year. He is sarcastic on Twitter @WrittenWard