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Authored by Mariajo Ilustrajo
Illustrated by Mariajo Ilustrajo
Published by Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd

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Another beautifully illustrated story from Mariajo Ilustrajo, about a polar bear who finds himself lost in a big city, out of his own natural environment, with everyone around him too busy to help until a little girl helps him to find his way home.

Lost is the second picture book, from Mariajo Ilustrajo; Flooded was her first: an original story of animals who live in a city that is ever so slowly flooding and how the animals come together with teamwork and community spirit to overcome this. In Lost, there is a similar setting – the London underground – but the difference in this story is there is just one animal surrounded by lots of people rushing around to help. Some are looking at their phones, some at newspapers, some with headphones and all are not aware of what is going on around them. When he asks for help at the helpdesk, the person doesn’t even look at him and just thrusts towards him an underground map.

While the polar bear rides on the tube trying to make sense of the map to take him back to the North Pole a little girl with red hair and a toy bunny notices him and says, ‘Hello, Bear’.  The little girl takes him home, dresses him, feeds him, bathes him and reads to him and while he is there, only the little girl sees the polar bear, her parents are oblivious to his presence. There is a lovely gentle humour here too, as the polar bear is slightly bemused by everything that is happening: ‘the sea is very small around here’ he thinks while he’s in a bath full of bubbles! When they are looking at books – there is a lovely nod to Flooded here in that Mariajo Ilustrajo as included it on the bookshelf – the polar bear finds a book about the North Pole. This is the breakthrough point for him to return home as he shows the little girl what his home looks like, where he swims, what he eats and what his family look like. And I’m sure you have guessed; the story ends with the little girl helping him to reunite with his family.

This is a charming story with minimal text, written from the thoughts and ‘voice’ of the polar bear, with illustrations full of details to capture the journey of the polar bear from being lost to finding his way home. The opening image perfectly sets the scene of how lost and out of context he feels with just his nose pointing upwards at the bottom of the page and the rest of the page full of the angular grey lines of the skyscrapers above him. Small in the City by Sydney Smith came to mind here as this too opens with a little boy feeling small in a city with skyscrapers accentuating this moment at the beginning too. Colour also leads us to the little girl who helps him as it is her bright red hair that stands out amongst the other muted colours of the busy underground. This reminded me of Richard Jones’ Perdu, about the little dog lost and alone in the city and it is the little girl with the bright red bobble hat who finds him, befriends him and takes him home. These contrasting colours cleverly convey the unwelcome feeling with greyness and friendliness in the bright colours.

I also love how Mariajo Ilustrajo has used panels and squares of different images to emphasise different parts of the story. For example, when the polar bear is lost in the underground the double spread has three landscape panels across the double page to give the reader a feeling of the carriages on the underground. Ilustrajo has a very skilful way of doing this in her artwork. Even the endpapers start and end the story perfectly with a lone polar bear and an underground tube map at the beginning and a colourful gallery of pictures of him having fun with the little girl at the end.

The part of the story where the polar bear finds the book about the north pole and the little girl researches to find out about it could be a good stimulus and starting point for a theme/topic about the north pole with young children in reception and KS1 – mirroring this activity in their own reading corner or bookshelf at home. I had a reminder at this point of another picture book I love: Dear Greenpeace by Simon James, where a little girl finds  and looks after a whale in her garden pond and writes to Greenpeace for information about him.

I love Lost. It is a heartwarming story for homes, classrooms and libraries to share with early years and KS1 about exploring how we can all feel lost at times, the power friendship and helping others.

Mariajo Ilustrajo joined Nikki Gamble to talk about her journey to children’s book illustration and how her picturebooks were conceived. You can listen to the podcast here:

Shortlisted for The Yoto Carnegie Medal for Illustration 2024