Sea Bear

I typically shy away from books that carry any sort of “message.” The heavy hand of adulthood often lands a little too hard for my taste, replacing narrative and beauty with “You get it now, right?” Not so in Lindsay Moore’s nonfiction picture book Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival. In a rich watercolor palette that largely relies on the full spectrum of blues, Sea Bear tells the story of one polar bear’s annual summer expedition away from home and back again in an environment rapidly losing its main characteristic: ice. It’s a striking book, both visually and emotionally, and one that merits consideration for the medal in question.

First, it’s worth noting the technical skill demonstrated in Sea Bear. Moore’s degree in medical illustration undoubtedly prepared her for the accuracy and care with which she handles animal forms in the text. Each image of the bear — shaking seawater from her coat, squinting through a blizzard — manages to portray an expressive creature that never once loses its authenticity. And, quite honestly, it must take some skill to make a bulky swimming bear look so very graceful. Narwhals, whales, and seals receive the same amount of precision and tenderness as the bear herself. Moore clearly did her research, and the resulting portraits of Arctic life are manifestations of her deep appreciation for this ecosystem.

The art itself is remarkable, but, as we know, for the purposes of Caldecott consideration it’s not enough for a book to simply have lovely illustrations. The pictures must also, well, do some work. I was just as impressed by the way this debut author/illustrator managed the picture-book form itself, taking full advantage of the codex. Before arriving to the story proper, the bird’s-eye view on the endpapers immerses the reader in the Arctic landscape. The title page zooms out even farther, showing the Earth’s curve beneath glowing lights of the Aurora Borealis. Moore prepares her audience to enter the sea bear’s tale with majestic, wonder-inspiring views.

Within the story, we encounter both the glory and the great challenge of that environment. One spread in which the bear describes the difficulties of hunting in the midst of ice melt and seal scarcity is pointedly sliced in half by the gutter: the bear on one side and the seals slipping away through the floes on the other. Yet another compelling moment happens when a series of page-turns brings the reader alongside part of the bear’s (very poetic!) aquatic journey: “I swim with a school of star-skinned narwhals, / and paddle past a weary raft of wary walruses, / and glide over a whale / whose ancient songs / bubble up from darkness / in creaks and groans.” The reader looks at the bear from the side as she moves, on three double-page spreads, across a seemingly continuous stretch of sea. The sequence emphasizes the scope of her trek and propels the reader forward to follow in her wake.

That particular swimming sequence is powerful in its pacing, but also in its perspective. In fact, the reader’s position in relation to the polar bear throughout the book has a strong emotional impact. After being introduced to the story by those sweeping Arctic landscapes, the reader comes face to face with the bear, close enough to see the glimmer of moisture on her nose. The moment establishes a sense of empathy and alliance with the bear before the reader is again swung out to the side view, watching the bear navigate the alternately icy and watery terrain. In moments of challenge or potential danger, the perspective shifts again. Now the reader is nearly at the bear’s shoulder, experiencing events alongside her. We tread water with her as those seals escape, and we paddle with her into the dark billowing clouds of a storm. On a wordless spread, we too hold our breath as the bear tumbles beneath the waves. Each position gives the reader new insight into the bear’s journey, ultimately creating a fuller sense of empathy for her plight. The bear is seen in her towering strength and in her nearly starving weakness. That makes it all the more effective when, on the final spread, the reader again looks a bear in the face — but this time, with one of the polar bear’s cubs. It’s a direct demonstration of the importance of this message for the next generation.

This is a book with a message, delivered potently but with an unobtrusive hand. This is also a book that respects the child audience’s desire and ability to connect to the natural world and to be agents of change within it. It's a powerful notion Moore offers her audience: the idea that the Arctic, and the stunning creatures within it, are things worth admiring and, more importantly, worth protecting. It’s hard to say where this book will land for this year’s Caldecott committee. It could be lost in the stack of all the later 2019 releases that have followed it, and it’s possible that it will suffer the same fate as many other stunning nonfiction books that have come before it. It’s my hope, however, that Sea Bear gets some love. We'll just have to be patient! As the last line of the book says, "We know how to hope and how to wait."

 

Grace McKinney
Grace McKinney

Grace McKinney holds an MA in Children's Literature from Simmons University and reviews for the Horn Book Magazine. She works at a Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri, and writes about children's books and Montessori on the blog Cosmic Bookshelf.

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Sam Juliano

I agree that lovely artwork alone won't stir the Caldecott committee and this particular book is as lovely as any released this past year. Over the past few twelve-month periods we have been treated to some truly sumptuous "blue" books by Jillian Tamaki, Peter Sis, Isabelle Simler, Mortecai Gerstein and in 2019 from Fiona Robinson. As you note in this astounding work of scholarship the book 's message is one of urgency, and one that I have found in classroom readings emotionally enthralls the young readers. That early double page spread of the polar bear establishes the reader bond that will keep one on edge. Sounds like this author-illustrator came to this project with remarkable expertise is a number of connecting fields. A wholly ravishing experience here. I ordered a copy right after initial inspection.

Posted : Sep 26, 2019 07:10


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