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Octopus Hug and Bear Hug

The Story Behind the Books

My own father roughhoused very little with his children, yet to me it seemed a natural and--judging from the kids' response--important way to play with my own five kids, and others. It started with basic dandling and horsey-back rides, and evolved, as the kids grew, into more wild and inventive physical play. Wow, did we have fun!

Parents have to keep the play from getting too rough and from becoming just another way to exercise parental power. (Tickling, for example, may seem like fun but emphasizes the power and control of the tickler.) One important element, I learned, is giving children opportunities to outsmart and overpower the parent. Dumb Dad!

I learned some of this psychological background after years of roughhousing, and after writing the first draft of Octopus Hug. In 1990 Dr. Gwen Brown, director of education at the University of Delaware, said that kids "love the adult to play the victim." Children have to do so many things we say that "you can see why kids like it when they get to roughhouse and push adults around a little." Also, children need to play hard and often don't get enough chances to do so. And roughhousing, Dr. Brown concluded, "helps let out not-so-nice feelings, which children don't have an opportunity to release much of the time."

Perhaps this explains why Jesse and Rebecca especially liked pretending to be robotic "bad-manners dolls," which I could not turn off!

My first version of Octopus Hug was more of a string of roughhousing games than a story, but publisher Kent Brown passed along a suggestion that helped tie things together. Then Kate Salley Palmer's illustrations captured the spirit of what transpired countless times, not just with Jesse and Becky, but with my other children, their half-siblings, Heidi, Jeffrey, and Sean.

Octopus Hug leaves me feeling both joyful and a bit sad. Not many fathers get to celebrate their special roughhousing times in a book. On the other hand, those times are long past. The little kids who played those games are all grown up. For a long time I wondered: where are those grandchildren? At last they are here! Daughter Rebecca has two children: Rosalie, born in 2016, and Jackson, born in 2021. Rosalie often asks to play "animal bridge," in which she guesses at the creatures--mouse, rabbit, ant, snake, elephant?--that my hand creates on the bridge that is the back of her body stretched between a couch and a coffee table. We have played other games from Octopus Hug too, including those in which she can outwit "dumb Dad." I look forward to roughhousing with Jackson.

Through the years I've received some warm, wonderful compliments for Octopus Hug, and have learned how it has been used to foster good connections between dads and their kids. For example, the Minnesota Humanities Center has a program called "Dads and Kids Book Club--Octopus Hug," in which the book can be used as encouragement or inspiration for positive father-child relationships.

I loved Kate Salley Palmer's work on Octopus Hug and so wrote Bear Hug. Several details are based on family camping trips to Upper Sargents Pond in the Adirondack Mountains. We saw those tame frogs, the feisty red squirrels, the bats at night, and heard the haunting calls of barred owls. Again, a very personal book.