The Polar Bear: An Empathic Illustrated Invitation into the World of One of Our Planet’s Most Vulnerable Creatures
By Maria Popova
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?
That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.
The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.
As in Desmond’s previous book, the protagonist moves through the story wearing a crown reminiscent of Max’s in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are — whether conscious or not, a delightfully apt allusion.
Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency as we witness the nightmarish absurdity of a new president who is vowing to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” beginning by appointing a science-denier as its chief administrator — an agency built on the wings of Rachel Carson’s tireless advocacy, nurtured for generations, and responsible for whatever environmental consciousness America does have. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.
Desmond writes in the prefatory author’s note:
Until well into the 20th century, polar bears were hunted for sport, food, clothing, and traditional crafts. By the 1950s, unregulated hunting for sport and furs was threatening their very survival.
This ended in 1973, with the signing of “The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears,” which banned sport and commercial hunting, finally giving legal protection to these bears and their environments.
Today the biggest threat to their survival is climate change. This is because polar bears depend on sea ice to hunt for food, but as the world’s temperatures rise, Arctic ice has begun to melt earlier in the summer and freeze later in the autumn. This means that polar bears now have less available food during the summer months. Should a bear already be underweight, the length of time it now has to wait for the ice and its food to return may just be too long.
Polar bears are intelligent, playful, and curious creatures. Along with caring for the rest of the natural world, we need to care for these bears and their environments. Only with our commitment to protecting our planet will polar bears be able to truly flourish and multiply in their Arctic homes.
Polar bears are similar to dogs in having access to a rich universe of smell inaccessible to us. Desmond writes:
A bear can small seals from several miles away and relies on scent to find a mate, detect danger, and locate its cubs. When polar bears stand up on their hind legs, it’s so they can smell the air even better.
Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet in the air or lie down on their stomach. On cold, stormy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.
Most bears sleep a lot when there isn’t much food or during bad weather. In areas where the ice melts completely in the summer, a polar bear may spend nearly half its time asleep. Since it’s hard to find food without sea ice, it makes sense to save energy and rest.
Just like polar bears, people also curl up in cozy places, perhaps to fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…
Complement The Polar Bear, which received the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book accolade, with Desmond’s The Blue Whale, both of which come from Brooklyn-based idealist children’s book publisher Enchanted Lion Books.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Published November 15, 2016