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“At the first big party
we sometimes forget
that birthday bear
may end up upset.”
—Stan & Jan Berenstain, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday
One of my mother’s favorite anecdotes of me as a child is the story of my first birthday. I was a finicky, temperamental kid and she was a stressed-out new mom. She forgot I was allergic to eggs. I ate a piece of cake and broke out in hives. One of my fellow party guests thought it would be funny to lock me in the attic, so no one could find me. When freed by an adult, I was so upset I crawled underneath my crib with a jar of pickles, and my one-year old self ate them until I threw up everywhere—the party was awful. Three simple words now fully capture the complexity of the situation for me: TOO MUCH BIRTHDAY.
Fast-forward twenty-seven years, and this phrase is one I tend to use a lot. Whenever I’ve had too much fun, or become too overwhelmed, or altogether cannot handle the enormity of an any given situation, it’s become rather customary for me to whisper to a friend, too much birthday, and quietly exit the scene.
That said, the book responsible for this imparting this phrase, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, by Stan and Jan Berenstain, is chock-full of full-hearted wisdom and hard-learned truths. The book weaves in and out of itself through metaphor; whether it is comparing the annual rings of trees to the annual birthday parties children celebrate, or the ritualistic blowing of birthday candles to the amount of children someone might have, this book is truly an honest look into how age continues to be an important mystery, and the importance of understanding how much growth one can accomplish through the upcoming year.
It’s Sister Bear’s birthday, and she wants a birthday with all the trimmings: streamers, presents, games, even ponies! However, what Sister doesn’t realize yet (and learns as the book dances along) is that even though we can have all the things we think will make the perfect celebration, sometimes these things can, in turn, become overwhelming and unwelcome.
She invites guests who tease her. She wins pin the tail on the donkey, only to give the prize away to someone else to “be polite.” She just feels too much, and the imagery evokes sympathy in all who read poor Sister’s story. Big honkin’ tears stream down the tiny, brown bear’s face. In fact, all Sister wants to do at the end of the party is crawl in her Papa Bear’s lap and cry and cry and cry.
As is always the case, after a big, cathartic crying session, comes clarity. Papa Bear is able to impart wisdom to young Sister:
“Parties are exciting and presents are lovely, but Mama was right—the important thing is that you’re going to be six for a whole year and it’s up to you to make the best of it—to learn, to have fun, to grow in every way.”
This book brilliantly displays the art of understanding one’s own desires and limitations—indeed, an important lesson to learn while we are young. Through Sister’s over-the-top party, the reader is able to glean that more is not always best. And perhaps, if we really sit down to take a look at what we truly desire for ourselves as we grow older, it is the love of family, and another year of inner growth, peace, and understanding which we wish for as we blow out our candles.
Meg Wade was born and raised in the hills of East Tennessee. She recently received her MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona, where she served as a poetry editor on The Sonora Review. Her work can be found in CutBank, and online at The Feminist Wire and Phantom Limb Press. She lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson, Arizona.