If you like the trickster tradition of storytelling, stop right now and read this book. Janet Stevens borrows from European folktales and the slave stories of the American South to produce a rollicking story about a bear and a hare. Written for children in kindergarten through third grade, Tops and Bottoms shows how hardship can be overcome by using one’s wits.
Bear is wealthy and has lots of land. Hare and his family are destitute and hungry but Hare has a plan. He talks Bear into providing land while he and his family supply the labor for growing vegetables. They will split the produce and Bear can choose whether he wants the tops or the bottoms. When Bear chooses tops, Hare plants root crops, when Bear chooses bottoms, Hare plants green vegetables, and when Bear demands both tops and bottoms, Hare plants corn and gets “the middle”. In the end everyone benefits; bear wakes up and becomes industrious, Hare sells his vegetables and buys land, and Hare and Bear learn to live happily as neighbors.
The story is lively and cleverly presented. The first thing you notice is that the book opens from the top rather than the side giving a long page for the text and illustrations. Lazy bear usually occupies the whole top or whole bottom of the page while the Hare, dressed in a carrot print shirt, leads the energetic hare family as they plant, weed and harvest. Bear sleeps most of the time and we see him in a different silly position on each page with his loosened tie and untied brown oxfords. The animals are imbued with endearing personalities and you can’t help but love them all, especially the baby hares who romp and play throughout. Robust images of vegetables from beets, radishes and carrots to celery, broccoli, lettuce and corn fill the pages with more color. This is a very fun read as young children notice new things every time they go through the book.