For the Youngest Polar Bear Lovers
January 14, 2021 § 4 Comments
My children are as different as siblings can be, but one thing they have always shared is a love of polar bears. In his first grade Montessori classroom, my son spent months researching polar bears for a year-end presentation with a classmate, an endeavor that had us adding numerous non-fiction picture books (gorgeous ones, like this, this, and this) to our permanent collection. Years later, my daughter would do the same. In fact, her adoration of polar bears is now so legendary that on her last birthday, nearly every email, card, or voicemail mentioned polar bears. She even has a polar bear jacket. Two, actually.
I think we can assume, if for no other reason than their prevalence in kid lit, that polar bears have a special residence in the hearts of many children. Who can blame them? Polar bears are undeniably adorable (that black nose! those big paws!). They inhabit an Arctic wonderland that rivals any snow day. And their endangerment has only lent them more mystique.
There’s also something in the polar bear’s personality that invites a certain kinship with the young. Despite being some of the animal kingdom’s most ferocious predators, despite facing down harsh temperatures and bleak landscapes, polar bears are surprisingly playful. They tumble in the snow, they somersault in the water, and they fall asleep right where they are when they can’t keep their eyes open. They are kindred spirits.
It might seem rather mean of me to wait until after the holidays to tell you about one of my favorite picture books of 2020, but if there is a month to talk polar bears, it’s January (even if, here in Virginia, the weather forecast is disappointingly lacking in white stuff). In A Polar Bear in the Snow (Ages 2-6), beloved picture book creator Mac Barnett teams up with paper artist Shawn Harris to spark the imagination of the youngest polar bear lovers. The language is clever, wry, repetitive, and—as Barnett is fond of doing—asks direct questions of its reader. But it’s Harris’ stunning cut-paper collages, invoking countless shades of white alongside a piercing, crystalline blue, that make this a stand-out title, lending its subject matter the very awe it deserves.
The story opens on a polar bear—only he’s obscured by a blanket of freshly fallen snow. The text tells us, “There is a polar bear in the snow,” but we see no sign of him. Immediately, we’re intrigued, and the suspense builds from there. In the next page, we get the tiniest of reveals: a black nose poking through the snow, sniffing.
Finally, after another page turn, “he awakens.”
Throughout the story, Barnett and Harris make masterful use of page turns to surprise and delight their reader. The illustrations also play with perspective, so that while they begin zoomed in on the polar bear’s facial features, they quickly pull back to a profile of his body. The body spills off the page, so enormous is its span.
We’re then introduced to what will become the central question of the story, repeated at different times and in different forms: where is the polar bear going?
Proceeding with curiosity, we get a brief tour of the Arctic surroundings the polar bear calls home, including some of the animals who share it. One by one, different possibilities for the polar bear’s destination are ruled out. “Is he going to visit the seals? [Page turn.] No. He’s not hungry.”
“Is he going to hunker in a cave? [Page turn.] No. His fur protects him from the storm.” Here’s a brilliant example of the way Harris has layered paper to cast light and shadow in his illustrations. Did you ever think a spread made up entirely of white and grey paper could give the illusion of such dimension? Could evoke such depth of feeling?
It wouldn’t be a Mac Barnett picture book without a touch of dark humor. When a question is posed about whether the polar bear might be “going to meet a man,” we get a resounding “NO!” and a visual reminder that the polar bear is not as sweet and innocent as his tiny eyes and wet black nose suggest.
Eventually, the polar bear’s destination is revealed. He is “going to the sea!” After all, there is no better place to play. In a series of delightful spreads–the introduction of color is as visually exciting for us readers as the physical sensation must be for our furry friend–he dives, somersaults, twists, and turns.
One particularly breathtaking spread captures the weightlessness of the polar bear’s massive body suspended in water—a weightlessness contrasted by the next page, where he heaves himself out of the water and collapses exhausted on the snowy bank.
Then, just like that, the polar bear sets off again. The story is over–although not really, since it ends as open-ended as it began. “[W]here will he go then?” The reader is left to imagine what’s next in the life of this majestic creature, larger than life, yet as playful as a small child. (With a pretty cute bottom to boot.)
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Review copy by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.