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The story of Paddington Bear is the story of a refugee

Worlds Greatest Living Illustrators Auction First Editions For Charity
An annotated page from 'A Bear Called Paddington.'
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Tuesday this week, Michael Bond, the author of the beloved Paddington Bear books, died at age 91, his publisher announced.

The news was greeted with the kind of nostalgic articles honoring Paddington’s legacy that you would expect following the death of any iconic children’s author: The 10 Paddington Bear Quotes That Will Always Inspire Joy, Paddington Bear Quotes Reveal He Was A Wise & Loving Children's Icon.

But there’s an unexpected political angle to this news, too. Because Paddington Bear isn’t just any beloved children’s character. He’s an illegal immigrant.

Paddington Bear arrived in London in 1958 with nothing but the clothes on his back, a suitcase full of marmalade, and a sign that said, “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR. Thank you.”

“You’re a very small bear,” says kind-hearted Mrs. Brown when she finds him in Paddington station. “Where are you from?”

Before he replies, Paddington looks carefully around for authority figures. “Darkest Peru. I’m not really supposed to be here at all. I’m a stowaway.”

“You’ll be one of the family,” Mrs. Brown promises him, and she takes him home with her.

Paddington was inspired in part, Michael Bond has said, by his memories of watching evacuee children pass through Reading station from London during the Blitz. “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions,” he told the Guardian in 2014. “So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”

Immigration has been part of Paddington’s story from the beginning, but it became more explicit in 2014, when the movie adaptation of Paddington hit London just as pre-Brexit antipathy toward immigration was ratcheting up. One review was titled, “Why Paddington is anti-Ukip propaganda.” An immigration lawyer reviewed the movie and concluded grimly that “I would … assess Paddington’s prospects of success before an immigration judge as virtually zero.”

Now, in the wake of Brexit and the Trump presidency, Paddington’s plight seems more urgent than ever. In Paddington, Bond “gave us a salutary fable,” Rebecca Mead wrote for the New Yorker’s website, “showing how vital that new arrival’s [the immigrant’s] contribution might be—how it might enrich a culture that extends back before even forgotten Anglo-Saxon chiefs—when good will prevails.”

Bond’s death is being treated not just as the death of an iconic children’s author, but as the death of a particular kind of cosmopolitan and globalist sensibility, in which when a person sees someone with nothing asking for help, regardless of where they might come from, the only decent and sensible thing to do is to help them.

Bond didn’t only give us Paddington, the lovable and morally upright illegal immigrant. He gave us Mrs. Brown, whose first impulse upon seeing Paddington is to make him a member of her own family. And today, with anti-immigration antipathy ever on the rise, Mrs. Browns seem to be more scarce than ever before.