Reviews /

Finding Bear

Authored by Hannah Gold
Illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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If you have already read Hannah Gold’s The Last Bear you will not need prompting to pick up this sequel. If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest that you probably want to go back and read that book before you get stuck into this one. Both books are very enjoyable romps with characters that young readers will find relatable, an exciting setting and enough of a conservation message to make them feel purposeful without being preachy. Levi Pinfold’s illustrations are a huge asset to both books, capturing the other worldly beauty of the arctic, capturing character expertly and breaking up the text sufficiently to give confidence to a reader relatively new to longer chapter books.

There is something pleasingly old fashioned, in a good way, about both The Last Bear and Finding Bear. They are set in the present day with emails, satellite phones and so forth but, once you are out in the wilds of the arctic riding a dog sled through the snow, the modern world falls away and echoes of classic children’s literature shine through.

It’s impossible not to see April as another version of Lyra Belacqua and Bear as a brother to Iorek Byrnison for a start but many more links are there to be spotted and discussed by eager readers. 

As an intelligently written follow-up to a very successful precedent, Finding Bear is careful to retain the features of the first which made it work so well and to expand the frame sufficiently to retain interest. In the first book the protagonist, April Woods, an awkward schoolgirl with self-cut hair and a permanent whiff of the foxes she has learned to befriend, comes into herself on Bear Island – a scrap of land midway between the top of Norway and the Island of Svalbard. She meets and makes friends with a lone bear who has been trapped there as the winter ice has retreated. She must help the bear to safety.

In Finding Bear, April is back in England and back at school, she yearns to return to the Arctic and when she hears a bear has been shot on Svalbard, she is quite sure it is her friend and that she must go to his aid. Svalbard is much, much bigger than Bear Island and the level of jeopardy is raised – April isn’t just helping out her friend Bear – she needs to find a mother for a starving bear cub. Both stories have a pivotal watery moment where ‘it all… went … black …’ Young readers will enjoy spotting parallels and expansions. 

In addition to the bigger landscape and the greater challenge, April herself seems to have grown a little in this book. She is a bit more obstinate and a bit more aware of herself. Her absent mother didn’t seem to be a big factor in the first book – she had died when April was four but perhaps this was a convenient device to get her out of the way as in so many children’s stories. In the second book this becomes a motivating plot point – one reason April cares so much about the cub it that, like her, it has lost its mother.

April’s relationship with her father is complicated by the introduction of a love interest for him. April’s conflicted feelings about allowing a mother replacement into her life is briefly but tenderly sketched and may chime with some children’s experiences without being heavy handed. She wants her dad to be happy and doesn’t dislike Maria, his new girlfriend. However, deep down, she knows that she is jealous of Maria and wants to keep her dad more for herself.

Beneath the arctic setting and the adventures with dog sleds, polar bears and thin ice, these books are really about love. Hannah Gold writes movingly about April’s relationship with Bear in words which, in another context, might well speak about the love between humans. How loving someone deeply and entirely completes us – not because we require another person to make us whole but because it frees us to be a better version of our authentic selves.

Readers who aren’t emotionally ready for this aspect of the books will probably skate over it, but it is really rather well done. In a world where children are exposed to a lot of very unhealthy images of relationships, the bond between Bear and April is surprisingly affecting model of what a bond between two people can be.

Hannah Gold works hard to keep Bear as much of a wild animal as she possibly can while also letting him be friends with a human child who, in the real world, would barely be a snack to him. I think that a child reader would be pretty convinced – we would all love April’s almost magical ability to make friends with animals – if she can strike up a relationship with a fox or a seagull then why not a Polar Bear?

Other than the unlikely friendship with the human child, polar bears in both books are very definitely wild beasts and treated as unsentimentally as possible. The scene where April discovers the dead body of the cub’s mother is rightly chilling and tense. Nature is about as red in tooth and claw as a middle grade title can get away with. 

Children who read for character and adventure will find plenty to satisfy them in this book. Children who are passionate about nature and the environment will also find a good deal. The impact of climate change on the arctic and the creatures that live in it is explored through the action of the story itself and through succinct explanations put into the mouths of the scientists and others who live in the arctic. Adult readers might wince occasionally at the placing of expository dialogue but I really don’t think child readers will mind and it does give the book some thematic heft.

The Last Bear did very well indeed finding lots of readers and winning the Waterstones and Blue Peter book prizes. To me, this follow-up deserves to do at least as well with young readers. I also think that many teachers will adopt the books as class readers to enjoy alongside climate change curriculum units. I would be very happy to share this book from Year Four upwards.

Longlisted for The Wainwright Prize 2024