Children's Book Review: The Ice Bear

Morris' book features intriguing watercolour illustrations

Opening the cover of Jackie Morris’ The Ice Bear lands you smack dab in the middle of a polar bear den. On the coldest of nights, a mother bear has just given birth to two cubs; you see her snuggle them protectively in her icy blue cave.

The cozy scene is shattered, though, when Raven snatches away one of the polar bear cubs. Ever the trickster, Raven deposits the bundle in the path of a human hunter. When the fur peels away to reveal an infant, the overjoyed hunter takes him home and raises him as his firstborn son. As the mythical tale unfolds, the boy one day comes face-to-face with his double identity, both human and bear.

With real-life springtime close at hand, it takes a skilled author to whisk you away to a place where you hear the soft padding of bear footsteps on snow, see the frozen sky light up with stars. But Jackie Morris does this in The Ice Bear, and does it beautifully.

In the timeless arctic setting of this book, dialogue is mostly irrelevant. Characters communicate through their comings and goings, through the way they breathe. Morris’ language sparkles with metaphors both spare and effective: The hunter’s heart “cracked like summer ice.” The storm “snapped its teeth at his heels”.

Morris is also responsible for the book’s intriguing watercolour illustrations. Her purple-grey expanses of snow and her butter-and-cream-coloured polar bears beg the reader to linger over every page.

To an adult’s appraising eye, then: Yes, The Ice Bear is a gem of a book. But what about through the eyes of a child?

I suspect this is the kind of book that parents would really like their kids to like, even though most kids - including the ones I read it to - would way rather hear a story about crazy characters standing on their heads. There isn’t much intrinsic to the book that will immediately hook a child - no wacky family members, no scaredy animals or talking toys. But seeing as the book is Mozart quality in a world of Justin Biebers, maybe it’s worth the persistence in order to get a child interested.

So grown-ups, break out a reference to the Coca-Cola-swilling polar bear or to televised dogsled racing - whatever helps a child put out a fingerling of appreciation toward this lovely book will certainly pay off.

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