Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Of Ice And The Sea

From November 6, 2022 to November 18, 2022, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, more widely known as COP27, was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.  In a November 7, 2022 article, Reuters includes statements found in a report by 

the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative research network.

One of the report authors, Robbie Mallett, states with respect to Arctic sea ice 

We're starting to see something we cannot save.

In other words, within thirty years, there will be no more Arctic sea ice.  (The full report can be downloaded at the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research website.)  This is catastrophic for the land and its inhabitants.

Knowing this, prompted pauses several times during the reading of the newest collaboration by author Candace Fleming and artist Eric Rohmann titled Polar Bear (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, December 6, 2022).  (Their prior two books focusing on a specific creature are Giant Squid (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, September 27, 2016) and Honeybee: The Busy Life Of Apis Mellifera (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, February 4, 2020).  With utmost clarity in words and images, we become a part of the world of a mother polar bear and her two cubs.  We experience their struggles for survival and their triumphs at succeeding in a realm changing much too fast.

April in the Arctic.
Snow clouds still scuttle across the sky.
Temperatures barely nudge above freezing.
But every now and again,
the clouds part,
the sun shines,
and the frozen world stretches awake.

The black nose of a mother polar bear breaks through the snow.  She sees the outside world for the first time in five months.  During those five months she birthed the polar bear cubs and nursed and protected them, sustaining all three with her stored body fat.  The cubs now weigh more than twenty pounds and their mother is much thinner.  She needs to eat.  She needs to get to the sea ice.

The cubs, one male and one female, are not in favor of leaving the comfy den, but each day their mother makes them go outside.  On day seven, they start their journey.  With the cubs, the trek is slower.  There are starts, rests, and stops.  Wolves are quickly chased away when Mother polar bear stands to her full height.

It takes six days for the trio to reach home.  The mother is ready to hunt and the cubs watch her change in behavior as they walk on the frozen water.  Her first attempt at grabbing a seal is unsuccessful, but in the following days she and her cubs eat as much as possible.  By June, the family is living far from the shore on the sea ice.  The sea ice is melting faster this year.  Will the mother and cubs eat enough before they need to return to land for the summer months?

One last attempt at one last meal leads to disaster.  The trio are stranded on a patch of ice in open water.  They need to make it to shore, but the cubs cannot swim for sixty miles without stopping as their parent can.  (At this point in the reading, I stopped, recalling the story of a mother bear and her cubs swimming in Lake Michigan.  It is a pourquoi tale of the formation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands.)  Hours go by with the cubs struggling to swim in the icy water of the Arctic.

On this day, for this mother and her cubs, it is a win for survival.  Between July and September, again the mother polar sustains life for all of them until they again move north.  When they reach the shore half way through October, other polar bears wait for the water to freeze.  All are gravely hungry.  The weeks stretch into December.  Hudson Bay is frozen at last.  

With those introductory seven lines, author Candace Fleming takes readers into the Arctic early spring.  Her specific descriptions of place and weather have you shivering.  Short, sometimes two word, phrases follow, supplying us with essential details about the mother polar bear and her cubs.  Another section leads us to the title page and the beginning of the main narrative.  We can sense the urgency of the Mother polar bear to eat and return to the sea ice.  

With each page turn, the research of Candace Fleming is apparent.  The actions and activities of the trio are fully and meticulously presented in day by day depictions.  We are not observers, we are there as they travel home, arrive, hunt, survive in the summer on land and return to the frozen sea again.  A gentle tension follows them; it is one of necessity.  Here is another passage.

But Mother takes no chances.  She keeps the babies moving.
Following her nose.
Following her instincts.
For forty miles.
And still she has not eaten.  . . .

The image shown on the front, right side, of the open and matching dust jacket and book case is an exact pictorial representation of what you believe Mother and her cubs are doing when they first step outside their winter den.  She is basking in a sun which she has not seen in five months.  Her cubs, never knowing any place but the den, stay as close to her as possible.  Behind them the Arctic sky proclaims a new day and a new stage in all their lives.  The sky and snowy landscape extend over the spine and to the far left edge on the back.  On the back are glowing words written by professional publications for the previous title, Honeybee.  There is also a list of awards for that book.  The title text on the front of the dust jacket is embossed in royal purple.

The opening and closing endpapers are a deep, almost black, navy blue.  It is how the winter must be in the Arctic, cold and relentless.  Before the formal title page, we see gorgeous portrayals of Arctic views, close-up portraits of the mother and cubs, and the mother standing tall and fierce as she scans the area outside the den.  On the title page, it is as if the trio we see on the jacket and case have stood up and decided to move.  They all face us, alert and waiting.


using oil paint on paper

these illustrations by Eric Rohmann are breathtaking.  The vastness of the region signifies the daunting task set before the bears in seeking the sea ice, finding enough food before the ice breaks up and freezes again the following winter.  As large as the bears are, you wonder if their surroundings will support them or crush them.

When appropriate, Eric Rohmann takes us close to the action.  Make no mistake, the wolves are no match for Mother polar bear with her open mouth full of teeth and her clawed paws raised in defense.  In the visual where the first hunt is a failure, we see a large paw breaking through the ice as seals swim away under water.  The perspective when the cubs and their mother are adrift on the open water is a bird's eye view.  We feel the desperation and uncertainty.  The following four-page gatefold is certain to deeply affect many readers.

One of my many favorite illustrations is the first interior image of the mother polar bear and her babies.  It is a close-up of the trio.  They are all still inside the den which the parent dug in the snow.  Snow is along the bottom of the page.  Most of the two pages in this picture are covered with the body of Mother polar bear.  On the right side her head is lifted as her nose pokes through a hole she made.  Outside we catch a glimpse of the sky in the right-hand corner.  Along the bottom of the right side, the twins are curled against each other and their mother as they sleep.  There is calm in this visual, but also a sense of change coming.

Every time you read Polar Bear written by Candace Fleming with artwork by Eric Rohmann, you will feel an intense connection with this trio and their efforts to survive in the Arctic and its changing climate.  At the close of the book are two pages dedicated to increasing our knowledge about the physical characteristics of a polar bear.  There are seven labeled paragraphs identifying those traits.  On the next two pages are two different sections, It's All About The Ice and A Few Cool Facts.  On the final page are online resources, a selected bibliography, and acknowledgements.  This title has my highest recommendation for placement in your personal and professional collections.  You could pair it with Lily Williams' If Polar Bears Disappeared

To learn more about Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites.  Candace Fleming has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  The cover reveal with interviews for this title is found at A Fuse#8 Production hosted by Betsy Bird.  At the publisher's website is an educator's guide.  At Penguin Random House, you get a peek at some of the interior.

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