Beds are somehow a theme with Vanessa Bayer. The SNL player became doubly famous for her historically lazy Sunday Routine published in the New York Times in 2016 ("I order food from my couch and I don’t leave my couch again until it comes. I’ll order a bagel. I’ll get really mad because they will forget to toast it. It didn’t happen when I lived further east, near NYU. Those people were really on it.") and is in the Bustle offices remembering a story she and her brother Jonah loved in childhood, about "a kid who would get in bed and like travel around the world in his bed." She also loves books about food. Both leitmotifs appear in her debut children's book How Do You Care For A Very Sick Bear? out today from Macmillan.
Illustrated by Rosie Butcher, the cover depicts two bears lazing on an armchair under a blanket — essentially an illustrated version of Bayer's Sunday Routine photoshoot, with one big difference.
"You and your friend Bear are an excellent pair," the story begins, as we see two bears doing all their favorite things together.
"But if your friend gets sick and can't do all the things that you two love to do...
"You may wonder —
How do you care for a very sick bear?"
Bayer dedicated the book to the friends she had as a teenager when undergoing treatment for leukemia. Somewhat atypically, her friends stuck by her through the scary moments, spending time at her house, bringing crafts to her, and generally keeping her spirits up. That isn't how we humans often respond to confronting situations, Bayer says.
"I've noticed a lot of people, when they have a friend who is sick or going through a hard time, their instinct is I'm going to leave them alone, I'm going to give them space, and that's not for the friend who is sick, thats really for the person who is scared and doesn't know what to do," Bayer says.
If you have a friend who is going through a hard time, reach out to them. And if they're not up for playing, then let them tell you that.
There is a spread of the two bears running through a field pulling their carts that in another context would be a perfect encapsulation of "me running away from my emotions." Which I have indeed in the past. Here, though, there's something magical about the idea of being in that space with a sick friend, finding joy there together.
"My friends did not [run away] for the most part, and a lot of them are my friends to this day," says Bayer. "It's amazing kids — at any age — have this strength."
In that sense it is the latest example of a children's book dealing with something profound, but doing it in a gentle, intelligent, age-appropriate way. Like Duck, Death, & The Tulip, Dear Millie, and The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, it allows the big scary (death) to be as abstract, childlike, or even cuddly as the reader wants.
"Liz, the editor, was always saying to me, 'We need to find bears that you love.'" She looked at different portfolio websites and came across the work of Rosie Butcher, a UK illustrator whose style reminded Bayer of the books she loved as a kid.
"She puts so much emotion into the bear's faces."
As a comedian who has had featured roles in movies like Trainwreck and was a long-running castmember on SNL, she believes that laughing really is a balm, from when she was sick on to her early days doing comedy during college.
"My family was always joking about [the leukemia], my friends and I were always joking about it, and I think joking about it made it easier," Bayer recalls. "When you're laughing you can't be that sad."
"It made me feel better because everything didn't have to be so serious, I think when I first started pursuing comedy — in college — I thought I was doing it just cause I loved comedy, but now I realize that it is because I went through this experience with leukemia and comedy was such a healing thing."
Similarly, though her book alludes to Bear's illness — Bear has to stay inside, and sometimes doesn't want to get out of bed. "Bear might have less hair," we learn —the gentle prose lets the reader know how they can help, and always returns them to the safe, happy place in which "You and your friend Bear are a marvelous pair."
It's a book with a lesson, that isn't too lesson-y, let's say.
You're supposed to be like, Oh no! but it always made me hungry because I love books about food.
Which is good, because Bayer doesn't always take to the prescriptive side of children's books. She recalls one of her favorite books from childhood, Strega Nona, about a never-ending pasta pot.
"The lesson you're supposed to learn is, I don't know, don't touch other people's stuff, and but at the end this pot makes too much pasta and you're supposed to be like, Oh no! but it always made me hungry because I love books about food."
And in fact food was one of the motivating factors behind her early love of reading. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Bayer participated in the Book It program that teamed up children with their local library.
"If you read a certain amount of books, and got a certain amount of stickers, you got like a pizza party for your class over the summer, and you got stickers and these holographic pins that had a book opening. Nothing made books cooler." (Bayer acknowledges that holographs are back in a big way.)
(But then so are books.)
She says her book is for all ages, because more adults than children ("and maybe it's because I talk to more adults because I'm a woman in my 30s, and I don't have kids") need to hear the lesson in the book to simply reach out.
"If you have a friend who is going through a hard time, reach out to them. And if they're not up for playing, then let them tell you that, you don't need to assume that about them."
"They're still your same friend who you love." 🛏️
How Do You Care For A Very Sick Bear? by Vanessa Bayer is out today from Macmillan.