Books, Life

The story of Paddington helped me learn to love myself

A Peruvian bear living in London as a refugee was one of the characters I needed to see growing up.

I was recently reminded by an Atlantic article about a small bear I had grown up with named Paddington who came from “darkest Peru” and liked to eat marmalade sandwiches. In the essay, the author explains how she felt a kinship with Paddington as a Latinx immigrant navigating a completely new culture that can so often be unfriendly to outsiders. Michael Bond, the author of A Bear Called Paddington based Paddington’s origin story on the stories of families displaced by World War II, so I’m sure for many children it gave them a connection to someone who might have been just like this bear.

For those who aren’t acquainted with him, Paddington Bear is a small bear who wears a wide red hat, a blue coat, and a tag around his neck that reads, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” He is discovered by Mr. and Mrs. Brown in the Paddington railway (which is how they give him his name) and they take him to live with them in Windsor Gardens, London.

While I grew up in America, I was introduced to Paddington by my Tibetan grandmother who lived in London. While I simply enjoyed Paddington as a good story, I now wonder whether my grandmother also felt a kinship with this small bear. Having lived a large part of her life in India, my grandmother eventually moved to London where she lived alone, as my grandfather had died at a fairly young age. She was always a semi-mysterious character, short, with hair perfectly styled and a fashionable scarf often wrapped around her head or neck. She would often send packages for birthdays or no reason at all. Each arrived with a special smell that was slightly flowery, but somehow also spoke of her personality. Whenever I think of her I remember this smell and the chocolate digestive cookies she would often bring. I think about her often and wonder if sometimes she felt a bit like a Paddington at times, navigating her way through a busy city, despite having come from a place full of mountains and magic – he from Peru and her from India.

Stories like this are so vital to children and adults alike. We are becoming a society that relies much more on technology to communicate rather than face-to-face contact. Although we can develop online communities, there’s something about human interaction that fulfills the spirit and reminds us we are not alone.

Growing up, I have always loved the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. Not only are its illustrations endearing but the story itself is a reminder of how we are always worthy of love. Just because there are those who will judge and try to break us down doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there who love us for being purely ourselves. Chrysanthemum is a story about a little girl mouse named Chrysanthemum who has loved her name since birth, that is until she goes to school, where all of the girls in her class proceed to make fun of her.

“I’m named after my grandmother,” said Victoria. “You’re named after a flower.”

However, when a new music teacher named Mrs. Twinkle assigns them roles for a school play and gives Chrysanthemum the role of a daisy, the other girls are quick to tease her for not only being named after a flower but literally being a flower. When Mrs. Twinkle asks them what’s so funny, the other girls explain the cause of their derision. But to their astonishment, their pregnant teacher has an equally long name – Delphinium – and absolutely loves the name Chrysanthemum, even suggesting she might give it to her future child. After her announcement, all the bullies ask to go by names of flowers. Chrysanthemum leaps out of school, realizing that she still loves her name and it’s perfect like she always thought.

Looking back on it now, it seems so silly, but bullying or hateful comments mean the world when you’re young. Being different or sticking out means you will be reminded of it every day and told that it makes you unlovable. Having a character that you can read about over and over and feel solidarity with is a warm reminder that we are all lovable and we are all trying to find our way, whether we are a small mouse who is determined to love her extra-long name or a bumbling bear from Peru who loves marmalade sandwiches.