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August 4, 2011

New Books: The Great Bear

I'm starting to be grateful that my kids and I speak the same language Australians do, and can thus easily enjoy the uniquely imaginative creative works natives of that country are creating for children. The Upside Down Show, Martine Murray's Henrietta series, the illustrations of Sophie Blackall and Freya Blackwood—the list goes on and on.

Australian writer Libby Gleeson's Half a World Away (which was illustrated by Blackwood), a lovely, dreamy treatment of the childhood-friend-moves-away trope, is another product of Down Under that's become a family favorite. So we were eager to read her latest, The Great Bear, which features dark, evocative illustrations by Armin Greder, as you can see from the cover.

And that's appropriate, for this is a far darker book than Half a World Away. Set in an ambiguous time and place that feels like Europe before the Industrial Revolution, it's about a circus bear whose existence is not pleasant. The bear is dragged from town to town, then made to dance in front of jeering, often abusive crowds. Until one day, that is, when he decides he's had enough—and lets out a huge roar that frightens the audience away before simply floating up into the sky to join the stars, in a series of wordless pages reminiscent of the art-only sections of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (Though in fact, The Great Bear's use of this technique came first—it first appeared in Australia back in 1999.)

The book's end notes explain that this story is based on a dream Gleeson had (dreams played a significant role in Half a World Away as well), and Greder's illustrations reflect that, going from slightly nightmarish to open reverie as the plot unfolds. The dark setting is a bit eyebrow-raising for a children's picture book, and I can imagine some of the younger set finding it all frightening, but our three-year-old was riveted (in a good way). And the surreal denouement is quite beautiful to watch unfold, for child and parent alike.

Like Gleeson's earlier book, The Great Bear uses words and images to express a combination of consciousness and subconsciousness, in a unique way. I think many kids—and many adults—will be irresistibly drawn to it, as we've been.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

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