Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Not Here But Still Here

Body language and eyes convey the news even if a parent, staff member or student has not already spoken with you.  Sometime between the last time you saw this student and now, they have suffered a loss.  It happens to all of us no matter our ages, usually without warning.  Even if we know it's coming the hole in our hearts is huge.

When love is shared between two, day in and day out during the course of their lives, filled with ordinary and extraordinary events, the absence of one is keenly felt.  Ida, Always (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, February 23 2016) written by Caron Levis with illustrations by Charles Santoso is first a look at the strength of a bond formed by two animals in captivity.  It further cements the belief that all animals can suffer the loneliness of losing the one loved.

Gus lived in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city.  Buildings grew around him and shifted the shape of the sky.

As sure as an alarm on a clock, each morning when the keeper Sonya brings food to Gus and Ida, two polar bears, they each leave the comfort of their respective caves to spend their day together.  They play with Ida's cherished yellow ball, frolic in their pool and rest on their favorite rock.  They have thoughtful conversations.

When Gus wonders, Ida answers.

"You don't have to see it to feel it," said Ida.

She reminds Gus what the noises they can hear mean.  Each day closes in the comfort of this constant cadence of their lives.

Upon waking one morning Gus is puzzled to hear all those city and park sounds without the presence of Ida.  He knows Ida is in her cave; her breathing reaches his ears.  Sonya explains to Gus about Ida being so ill her body will eventually sleep without waking.

Gus immediately runs to Ida angry and afraid.  She responds in kind, angry and afraid.  Eventually they sleep next to each other, quiet in their closeness.  Peace.

Days are brimming with ups and downs, silence and not silence.  Each evening ends the same, a mantra of longing.  Then Gus is alone.  BUT remembered words warm a soul like the sun brings heat to the fur of a polar bear sitting on a favorite rock.

When Caron Levis describes the Central Park Zoo, the habitat of Gus and Ida and the city surrounding them, she does so from personal experience creating a vision for readers.  Her use of short, informative sentences, the repetition of key phrases and a blend of dialogue and narrative supplies an invitation for us.  The sounds of the city are integral to the story.  Single words and near poetic sentences bring them from the page into our respective reading spaces. She compels us to become a part of Gus's and Ida's world.  We follow with pleasure and fall in love with these two magnificent creatures.  Here are two sample passages.

They heard buses groan; trucks rumble;
police whistle; taxis honk; pigeons coo;
people say Hey, Wait Yo, Hello;
and children laugh.

Two bears sniffled, two bear breaths panted, 
two bear hearts echoed each other's beat.

Even if you know absolutely nothing about this story, looking at the illustration on the opened matching dust jacket and book case portrays the affection felt by the two bears in their space within the confines of a city.  Charles Santoso's attention to the sky and skyline in this initial image, in the entire book, is spectacular extending from left to right, back to front.  Of particular notice is the color selected for the opening and closing endpapers; a lighter shade of purple followed by a darker hue.  I have always thought of purple as signifying royalty.  Surely by all accounts this is how these two bears were to all who visited them.

On the initial title page we are gazing at a pale blue sky filled with clouds in the faint shapes of polar bears. (Santoso does use shapes several more times within the body of the book.)  In small text we read the words



centered to the right edge.  The more formal title page, verso and dedication pages are a panoramic view of New York City and Central Park.  

Rendered digitally but looking like finely detailed paintings Santoso brings warmth of emotion to each picture.  Wide-angle views of the park from a bird's perspective and closer encounters with the two bears balance in a pleasing portrayal.  Visual size enhances the pacing; sometimes odd shaped or more traditional panels are used or a circular image framed in a liberal amount of white space.  These ask us to pause.

Santoso skillfully combines an interior look at the bears' homes while including the city in the background.  It is obvious he has studied his subjects conveying them realistically.  Can you see the small animal (s) he places in many pictures?  I see this as a constant and of life moving forward even in sadness.

One of my favorite illustrations, of several, spreads across two pages.  On the left in a circular display as the sun sets is the skyline of New York City with colored clouds and birds gathering for the evening in the trees.  It is framed in vegetation and rocks as if seen from a bear cave.  To the right inside the cave Gus and Ida are together, eyes closed and at rest.

Ida, Always written by Caron Levis with illustrations by Charles Santoso is a truly moving account of an enduring love and the loss of one part of a very special whole.  Thoughtfully written and illustrated, based upon a true story, it sends a beautiful message to everyone about grief.  It helps us to remember that what we cannot see can still be visible in our hearts.  An author's note is included on the last page.

To learn more about Caron Levis and Charles Santoso please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  They both have updated blogs linked at their websites. There is an excerpt from a developing activity guide on Caron Levis' blog. (Update:  April 18, 2016 The guide is now complete.) Charles Santoso has a Tumblr site. There are ten interior images at the publisher's website.  I think you will enjoy this radio interview. 

Here are some links to newspaper articles about Gus and Ida found at The Daily News, The New York Times, Huffpost Green and Gothamist.

Update:  March 17, 2016  I really enjoy when illustrators share portions of their process.  Here is a new tweet sent out by Charles Santoso.


  1. There are very few picture books that have moved me to tears. This is one. Another beautiful, insightful review, Margie!

  2. Oh I do know what you mean Beth. This is one of the best books on loss and grief I have ever read. Basing it on a real relationship makes it even more poignant. Thank you for your kind thoughts about my review.