Long Live the Polar Bear
January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment
If there was ever a time to turn our children sympathetic to the plight of the endangered polar bear, it is on the heels of this recent Snowpocalypse, which dumped more than two feet of the white stuff on us (snow novices) here in Northern Virginia. As my kids and I gazed wide-eyed out our window, the snow fell for two days, swirling and collecting and mounting into perfect waves of whiteness, occasionally drifting into piles almost as high as the stop sign at the end of our block (the stop sign being my son’s unofficial measuring tool of a blizzard, ever since we read John Rocco’s Blizzard last winter). Long before the sun came out and the wind died down, my children were out shoveling trenches down the middle of the street and crawling into hand-dug snow tunnels.
But after just a few days, the sledding hills became slushy. The snow banks started to recede from the edges of our sidewalks, betraying the brownish-green grass beneath. Our once crisp white snow in the backyard has overnight become freckled with twigs and dirt and those (abhorrent) spiky balls from our sweet gum trees. The other morning at breakfast, JP buried his head in his hands and pronounced, “I can’t look. I just wanted it to stay the way it was.”
In Jeanette Winter’s sublime new picture book, the brilliant, uncluttered snowscapes of the Arctic Circle—crisp, clear, chill-inducing scenes of unblemished white against a shifting palette of teals and deep blues—will undoubtedly keep their beauty forever. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Winter’s subject: the polar bear. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the polar bear is the first vertebrate to be listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened by extinction due to global warming—specifically to melting ice caps and rising sea levels.
In short, uncomplicated sentences beneath stunning visuals, Nanuk: The Ice Bear (Ages 4-8) not only introduces young children to the life cycle of the polar bear, but it extracts their deepest sympathies for the challenges that shrinking habitats and reduced access to prey present to this fierce, playful, and irresistibly adorable animal.
Author-illustrator Winter is a master of non-fiction for the young child, especially of picture book biographies (my favorites are listed at the end of this post). She can take the most complicated, even controversial subject, and distill it down to the most universal of emotions, in order to connect with the young child. Even her paintings have a seductive simplicity: as in Nanuk’s case, many are done as if seen through a keyhole or window. This is incredibly refreshing for a genre most commonly characterized by pages of compressed facts in tiny black print, broken up by dizzying photography. My eight year old, spurred by a self-chosen project on polar bears for his school two years ago, has no shortage of these fact-filled tomes lying around our house. My five-year-old daughter, however, has never picked up a one. Not until Nanuk, which has utterly captivated and stayed with her in the weeks since we first read it.
The story is simple yet powerful, the vocabulary is familiar yet evocative, the message is personal yet representative.
Winter begins her story “at the top of the world,” where snow falls around our (fictionalized) polar bear atop a mountain. Winter describes for her young reader the formation of the ice bear’s habitat, her “quiet white world.” Layers of snow freeze into icy glaciers that cover the bare mountains and slowly slide down to the sea. The top of the sea freezes too. The scenery looks vast, and the reader can see for herself how easily the polar bear can navigate her terrain, including hunting for fish and seals through small breathing holes in the ice.
In just a few pages, we watch as “great chunks of the glaciers break away,” leaving the polar bear hungry and stranded among disparate icebergs floating out to sea. Still, as Winter optimistically reminds us with the subsequent pink and purple-tinged frames, the survival instinct is strong, and Nanuk swims to find another bear with whom to mate and share hunting responsibilities. POLAR BEAR SNUGGLES!
Followed by: BABIES! As always, Winter communicates as much with her pictures as she does with her matter-of-fact sentences. The observant child will notice that Nanuk’s mate walks away just as she burrows deep down into the snow to birth her babies as a single mother.
My daughter was fascinated, not just by the babies being born in a snow cave, but also by the stark darkness of the Arctic winter—which the mother and her cubs must wait out. (Can you think of a better book to read while the snow swirls and the sky darkens outside our window, while we curl up with our little ones snug under a blanket?)
Once winter passes and sunlight returns, Nanuk occupies herself with teaching her cubs to survive in the relentless climate. “Cutey pies,” Emily remarks every time we get to these pages, in the same cooing voice that she reserves for carrying her baby dolls around the house.
And then (is that water in my son’s eyes?), Nanuk is once again left alone. After two or three summers have passed, the cubs are ready to go off on their own. Nanuk watches them leave. For the first time, we get a straight-on shot of Nanuk’s somber face. But, of course, this is run-of-the-mill stuff for polar bears, as well as for much of the animal world (we humans have to remind ourselves that it’s a blessing having our kiddos hang around as long as they do).
What’s not normal is what happens in the next few pages. The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Soon there will be no place to hunt.
The words “global warming” or “climate change” are never used. Neither are the words “endangered” or “extinct.” There are no whys or criticisms or judgments. There doesn’t have to be.
For now, for the young child, the story serves to plant a seed of more science to come. For now, all my five year old needs to understand is what a polar bear requires for survival—solid footing for exploring, companionship and mating, fishing holes—and how, increasingly, these things are slipping away. All my daughter needs for now is a feeling of awe, tinged with a touch of sadness, concern, and hope. All she needs is to look at the final pictures of Nanuk, who is left to ”dream” of new snow that will fall and freeze and slide down the sea as before, and know that this is the hope, this is what needs to happen for Nanuk and her babies to live on.
This doesn’t mean that my son wasn’t quick to educate my daughter and I about “what’s really going on here.” (Lest you forget about this gem of a picture book, which goes into scientific detail for the elementary child about the correlation between burning fossil fuels and global warming). “You know, Mommy,” JP said about Nanuk, “this reads like a story, but everything in it is actually TRUE.” And then he stared thoughtfully out the window for a moment.
It is also true that melting snow means that our children will finally—after six consecutive school closures—return to their regular routines and us to ours. We as parents look back at last week’s blizzard, smile at the memories, stare at the mounting piles of laundry, and then quickly look ahead to spring. For our children, it’s not quite as easy. Their love affair with the snow is coming to an end too quickly. There was still so much fun to be had in that soft, billowy whiteness.
Perhaps our children can carry their love of snow days into their future work as environmentalists or zoologists or scientists. And make sure that the ones who depend on this very snow and ice for survival get to keep it.
Other Favorite Non-Fiction Picture Books by Jeanette Winter:
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps (Ages 5-8)
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (Ages 5-8)
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (Ages 7-10)
Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia (Ages 5-8)
Henri’s Scissors (Ages 5-8)
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Wow, that looks like a great one! I’ll have to add it to my list. I can totally relate to your son’s comment about wishing the snow would stay the way it was — it’s hard to see such beauty become so slushy and strange. If you’re interested, I have a list here of some of our favorite picture books about snow.