Bear Island

When I was on the 2018 Caldecott committee, we chose Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow. In preparing for our deliberations, we read and re-read the book. Sounds funny to say that, when there are hardly any words in it, and the ones that are there are sound effects: “bark! bark! bark!” and “huff huff” and “whine whine." But you read a wordless — or almost-wordless — picture book even more closely than you might a picture book with an extensive text. Every element is important. And every detail in a good picture book, wordless or not, has been considered carefully and is there for a reason. 

What I appreciate about Wolf in the Snow is present in Cordell’s new book Bear Island, another masterpiece of bookmaking, similar in many ways to Wolf in the Snow — but with significant differences, too. I hope this year’s committee will do what it is supposed to do and treat Bear Island as a new book in its own right, without comparison to Wolf in the Snow. It deserves its own fresh look, and it does deserve careful consideration as a potential winner. It is that special.

Since I said every element is there for a reason, it makes sense with this book to start at the beginning and walk our way through. The illustrations are rendered in pen-and-ink, watercolor, and gouache. A portrait of a bear takes up most of the cover, staring at the reader — not menacing, not anthropomorphized. Cordell has captured an emotion in the bear’s expression. Is it sadness? Worry? Compassion? A young girl (though we don’t know she’s a girl yet) stands atop the image, in the background, almost as if the bear is the island. The colors around the bear and next to the girl are greenish, with only small smudges of brown. That’s important, because as we begin reading the early pages, a brown palette is employed, and as careful readers we must watch carefully as Cordell’s drama unfolds. The drama of the turning page is crucial here.

The endpapers, front and back, are the same green, similar to the greens and lighter palette that appear later in the book. The first illustration depicts a brownish baseball, center stage and alone on an all-white page, save for a brownish shadow. At the page-turn, we see on the left side that the girl throws a ball for her dog; on the opposite page, the girl holds the ball. There is no dog. Uh oh. The page-turn reveals a full-bleed illustration with a brown palette. The same girl packs things into a box — baseball, dog dish, bone. On the facing page, we see a family portrait of sadness — parents with arms around the girl, all with sad expressions; brown palette; the girl holding a box. The caption, the first words, are “Goodbye, Charlie.” A large circle, centered on the page, encloses the family, the circle used to focus the reader’s attention clearly on the family and on the emotion.

Then, the title-page spread.

So ... the story has begun before the title page. In five pages and just two words, we know what has happened and are ready for what’s to come. However, the page-turn presents us with a double-page spread in a pleasing blue, with a full-color monarch butterfly, wings spread, perched on a rock. This perks us up after so much brownness and sadness, but it clearly is an interlude of hope that arrives later in the story — because, after the title page, the story begins in brown again: “On a lake there was a house …. On that lake, there was an island.”

I can’t continue page by page, or you’d be reading a treatise longer than the book itself. But we learn in illustrations and words — plenty of words here, a simple, poetic, great-for-reading-aloud text — what Louise, the girl, does with the grief of losing beloved Charlie. She rows out to the island; spends some time alone; smacks a tree with her stick; and yells, “I’m leaving!” And upon the page-turn, the palette turns lighter, with pale green grass, colorful butterflies, a chipmunk, a deer, and … “CRACK! CHUFF! RROOAARR!!” She meets the bear.

Louise and the bear spend some time together, with scenes developing the narrative in various ways — full-bleed illustrations; a triptych of panels; and, again, circles. Louise recognizes in the bear a "familiar feeling" and a "familiar sadness,” and the circles, again, focus attention: one on the bear’s sadness and the other on Louise’s sadness (with the bear holding her stick, seemingly trying to help). Eventually: “Then some days, and more and more days, both Louise and Bear became better. Together.“ Things were changing at home, too, as seen in panels of family time — father and daughter running through autumn leaves, Louise reading a book in bed with her mother, washing dishes, bundling up for a family walk.

But on the island, the bear goes away, and there is a full-page illustration of a brown tree in winter, Louise’s stick resting against it. All of this is inside a circle, with the caption “Goodbye, Bear.” Louise thinks: “It’s not fair … when the things we love must end.” But page-turns lead the reader to new beginnings for Louise, who returns to the island, this time with her new puppy and a palette full of subtle colors. Together, they search for Bear. He isn’t there. “Had he ever been?” the now-older Louise wonders. The youngest of readers may simply accept the presence of a bear on an island. Older readers, like Louise, will ponder; there’s a layer of meaning there for the taking. This story of the circle of life ends with a circle enclosing a full-color scene of Louise, stick in hand, and a puppy and an island in the background.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Bear Island here.]

There is so much more to the bookmaking than I can address here (and would address were I on the Caldecott committee this coming January) — the use of white space; the silences conveyed; the use of gutters (such as the double-page spread with Louise on one side, the bear on the other, pondering each other in sadness); Cordell’s ability to capture expressions and emotions in simply-drawn eyes. What a rich reading experience a magnificent picture book can be. Cordell’s illustrations and text work beautifully together, with so much of the story and emotion related in the illustrations.

I have learned, from being on several book award committees, how important it is for a book to have an advocate, someone who loves the book and can point out with passion and authoritativeness the strengths of the book. I certainly hope the committee has an advocate for this wonderful book.


Dean Schneider
Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Adrienne Pettinelli

When I first read this book and got to the “Had he ever been?”, it made me go back to the beginning, and I read the book through several times in that one sitting. I love how gentle and straightforward the book is, but there is so much in what is shown and not said. This is another of my favorites from what I’ve seen so far this year.

Posted : Sep 13, 2021 10:22

Sam Juliano

An absolutely fantastic exploration of one of my personal favorites of this year. I share so many of the observations and sentiments expressed in this glowing essay.

Posted : Sep 13, 2021 06:49



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.