August 15, 2017

Sleepless baby bear awakens global interest

Mur isn't tired. At. All.
Mur isn't tired. At. All.
Illustration: Anne Vasko

A Finnish children’s book about a little bear called Mur is charming both kids and grown-ups in an increasing number of countries.

But I’m not tired!” As bedtime approaches, parents of small children are likely to face occasional objections. Children, not bound by the adult constructs of clocks and alarms, might not feel tired at the same time every single day.

What about baby bears? Are they always up for going to bed when the time for hibernation, or winter sleep, hits?

Anne Vasko and Kaisa Happonen

Anne Vasko and Kaisa Happonen

Milka Alanen

Baby bear Mur most definitely isn’t; the poor little one is always awake or asleep at the wrong time. There just isn’t much room for rebelling in the woods.

“That’s just what bears do in this forest!” is the older bears’ response.

Mur, quite obviously, isn’t an actual animal. The character is the creation of writer Kaisa Happonen and illustrator Anne Vasko, whose book A Bear Called Mur has been winning over hearts across the globe. So far, translation rights have been sold, sometimes even auctioned, for 10 languages, including French, German and Chinese.

“People have told us that in Mur’s story, somehow the images and the story work exceptionally well together,” Happonen says. “The entity is deemed Arctic and fresh.”

Swimming against the (tear) stream

Mur was, in a way, born from a painting of a bear in tears on Vasko’s wall. When it caught Happonen’s attention, Vasko pointed out that the bear didn’t have a story yet. Happonen started to contemplate why the bear was crying.

One day, it suddenly occurred to her: the poor little friend was forced to go to bed for the whole winter, despite not feeling like sleeping and instead, wanting to feel the snow and look at the sky.

Vasko’s Mur doesn’t resemble the original painting. The duo developed a completely new world that exists around the bear.

“In my writing in general, but especially in the case of Mur, I always focus strongly on the narrative,” Happonen explains. “Mur’s story feels like it all came from the same desk, that’s how inseparable the illustrations and the text are.”

Translating Mur’s story into foreign languages brought about a challenge: The original Mur is genderless, as Finnish language uses the word hän for both hes and shes. Without gender-specific pronouns, the author didn’t need to think of Mur as a boy or a girl.

As translators wanted a solution, Happonen decided Mur is a she.

“Especially in some cultures, it’s much less likely for girls to rebel against traditions and rules than it is for boys,” she explains. “I like the idea of her being a power animal for girls around the world.”

This is what Mur has been to Happonen herself, too. She believes Mur’s example makes both children and adults reflect on who they really are.

“Mur has taught me a lot about following my own instincts instead of others’ expectations. Often people just do things out of habit or custom, when listening to what you actually want can be a liberating experience.”

Stepping into the forest through a screen

Being a creature of the 2000s, Mur has its own app, too. Developed by Danish Step In Books, the award-winning tool only works together with the book, letting readers enter the forest and see it from Mur’s perspective.

As the illustrator, Vasko was involved in the making of the app.

“It was really interesting, as I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to walk into my own painting,” she notes.

The app is like a digital path through a Finnish forest.

The app is like a digital path through a Finnish forest.

Step In Books

As a child needs assistance using the app, the screen time is shared. Vasko points out that instead of everyone playing with their own devices, Mur helps the carer and the child spend quality time together.

“It’s magical for both big and small people to see the illustrations come to life, like it’s a digital window to Finnish nature.”

Vasko and Happonen are working on another Mur story together, and considering the predecessor’s growing success, the bear’s story might continue for more and more books.

But what’s with telling a child not to go to bed when the time comes? Happonen admits laughingly that she is aware of what risky business it is to show small children an example of refusing bedtime orders.

“Some reviewers have even said they shouldn’t give the book any stars because of the questionable message,” she says.

However, Mur might also be of support for the sleepy struggles: “For example, my son’s favourite bit is where Mur is trying to fall asleep in different positions, so it’s become a bedtime play for him if he’s not feeling tired.”

Text: Anne Salomäki

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