November 01


The Book A Bear, a Bee, and a Honey Tree Mirrors the Struggle of the Emergent Reader by Daniel Bernstrom

I wrote my book A Bear, a Bee, and a Honey Tree after the kinds of books that taught my son to read.

Teaching Reading is Hard Work

Reading is hard work. Teaching reading is hard work. I remember when my mother tried teaching me how to read. It didn’t go well—for her or me. I just didn’t get reading! Words jumbled in front of me on the page. And there were so many, many rules. And the rules changed sometimes.

Years later, it was my turn to teach my son how to read. It didn’t go well for him or me. He didn’t get reading. He struggled the same way I did.

Teaching reading can be a frustrating experience. I would get frustrated with my son, who would sound out the word p-r-o-b-l-e-m and not know what it meant. I would get frustrated that I, the English teacher and Children’s book author, struggled to teach my son how to read. But after a week or two of quality time and lots and lots of failures, I realized that my son was struggling to break the reading code. So, I went to the library to find books that could help him develop as a reader.

Finding Dr. Seuss in the Library

First, I looked for phonics-based books. The books that helped my son the most were the Dr. Seuss books. Reading Dr. Seuss with my son, I realized that early-reading books could be entertaining and instructional. Dr. Seuss wrote and edited books with an eye toward literacy. To quote Dr. Jeanne Wanzek, professor and Currey-Ingram Chair in Special Education at Vanderbilt Peabody College, “We know that young children need to learn to manipulate sounds in words, learn how oral language maps onto print, and have rich experiences with words and language. No one book can address all of these areas for kids, but the Dr. Seuss books do provide a creative, fun, and interesting way for children to play with sounds and learn about mapping sounds to print.” Dr. Seuss created books that were also funny and easy to read over and over again. How did he do it?

Learning From Dr. Seuss

It was evident in Theodore Seuss Geisel’s books that a book written for an emergent reader did not have to be written in simple phonics; still, it had to be a book that played with the peculiarities of the English language. I discovered that a good “reading book” didn’t seek to eliminate all obstacles in reading, but sought to present the same obstacles many times with the hope that the reader could master the concept. Short books with repeated sounds and sound patterns, such as a greyhound a groundhog by Dr. Emily Jenkins, taught my son how to recognize the secret codes hiding within words. It ultimately led to him deciphering many other books!

With my son in my heart and Seuss and Jenkins in my head, I wrote A Bear, a Bee, and a Honey Tree. It is not a phonetic book. Words cannot be sounded out simply, such as the case with “a cat sat in mud.” But the book was designed with the struggling reader in mind. The book is a poem written in lowercase lettering to aid the child in letter recognition. The letter (A) and (a) look very different to kids, especially kids needing consistent rules to break the reading code. I also repeated different sounds. For example, the long E-sound. Or the long A-sound (as in bEe and bAre). I did all of this for my son: to write the kind of book we both needed when learning how to read.

An Odd Ending to a Funny Book

I want to bring up the book’s odd ending. At the end of the great battle between the bee and the bear, the bear leaves defeated. The reader finds the bear sitting in a cave, hungry and grumbly, not having gotten the honey. I wondered why I wrote that ending. Why I needed the bear to lose in his battle against the bees. Now, I understand why my heart needed that ending. For me, it was perfect. It was perfect because it was true: learning to read requires emerging readers to fail forward.

The Book As a Reading Allegory or Metaphor

I return to what I said at the beginning.

Reading is hard work.

Sometimes after a reading lesson, a child might feel like the bear in the story, left hungry and grumpy after time spent trying to decode words. Or maybe they felt like the victorious bee. How about the reading teacher, the reading specialist, the parent? Was today a bear day or a bee day? Was reading successful today? From personal experience, most days, learning to read can be like trying to steal honey from a hive full of a million angry fuzzy bees. And as the reader sympathizes with the despondent bear, I love the illustrator’s answer to the struggling reader and teachers who likewise wallow in defeat.

“Just turn the page,” Brandon James Scott says. “Flip just one more page and look deep in the weeds, and you’ll find a persistent bear who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.”

I agree with Brandon’s answer.

So, call this book a reading allegory or a reading metaphor. Hmmm, I like how that sounds. I like that very much.

Happy reading!


p.s. My son did learn how to read. He reads all the time now. Hearing him read A Bear, a Bee, and a Honey Tree was one of the happiest moments of my life. The bad news is he messed up on the word “million.” The good news? He now knows how to read the word “million.”


Daniel Bernstrom Headshot by Austin Hyler DayDaniel Bernstrom is an accidental picture book writer. He repeated first grade because he could not read. Today, Daniel writes picture books that have been nominated for several state reading awards (Illinois, Iowa, Arizona), and he teaches as a full-time English instructor (Children’s Literature, College Writing, and developmental English) at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.