I am trying to ignore my anxiety about the election by carrying on with reviewing some of the many books I’m reading. If you are eligible to vote in the US and haven’t yet voted, please do so before reading this post! If you have already voted, please let me know in the comments!
Here are two more Cybils nominees, both involving bears. Water Bears, with a Latinx author and main character, continues with the Latinx theme of the past week, while The Girl who Speaks Bear takes us to fantasy Russia. Whether you’re looking for a contemporary book with a hint of possible magic, or full-on folk tale-inspired historical fantasy, there’s a book here for you.
Water Bears by Kim Baker. Wendy Lamb, 2020. ISBN 978-1984852205. Read from library copy.
Newt Gomez was really hoping for a new bike for his 13th birthday, something really new and all his own on an island full of quirky collectively owned second-hand bikes. Something that would help him stretch the leg muscles that are still regaining flexibility after he was mauled by a bear nearly a year ago.
Instead, he gets an old taco truck with a big rooster on its side that won’t even reverse. For a kid who’s tired of the attention the bear attack got him, this is pretty much the opposite of what he wanted. And even though he’s only 13, his parents insist on him driving it.
Newt doesn’t believe in the lake monster his father claims to have sighted, and he’s equally skeptical when his best friend Ethan claims to have a wish he made on the barnacle-covered bear statue they find on the beach come true. But as more and more people start wishing on the bear – now in the back of the taco truck – all of them want Newt to question his position on magic.
Newt is also trying to decide where to go to school the next year – with his friends in the quirky local school, with classes geared towards artistic island life, or on the mainland, with a shiny modern curriculum and equipment. But for school this year, he’s researching the water bear or tardigrade, a tiny but ubiquitous and extremely resilient creature. Though the report itself is a tiny part of the story, the tardigrades are symbolic for Newt and his mental and physical recovery.
As in Mañanaland, there is more a sense of the possibility of magic than actual magic, though Newt rather than an adult is the skeptic. The real magic may be the power of family, community, and reflection to work through trauma to recovery.
This is blurbed by Kelly Jones of the Unusual Chickens books, and does contain a similar lone Latinx family in a quirky community with lots of humor vibe, though of course there are no unusual chickens here. I also remembered Stef Soto, Taco Queen.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson. Scholastic. 2020. ISBN 978-1338580839. Read from library copy.
No one but her Mamochka and family friend Anatoly know that Yanka was raised by a bear. She’s just called Yanka the Bear in the village because of her size and strength. Still, as much as Mamochka tells her the stories are just stories, Yanka believes there’s truth to Anatoly’s stories of the Bear Tsarina, the Lime Tree at the center of the forest, and the House with Chicken Legs. Every time he visits, he has new stories to tell her, and updates to the map he carries with him that she faithfully copies to her own map.
So when she wakes up one morning after a fall with bear legs, she runs away to the forest without even telling her best friend Sasha, rather than go to the city to be examined by doctors as Mamochka wants. Are the bulfinches who keep telling her to go to the forest right? Is the forest her true home?
Yanka may have left Sasha and Mamochka behind, but her fierce pet weasel Moustrap has come along, and she soon makes more friends in the forest, including Elena, the daughter of the local Yaga, and several forest animals. Are Yanka bear legs part of a family curse? And can she learn enough in the forest to break it?
As in Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon books, the main storyline is interspersed with stories that the characters tell each other, though it is much more immediately obvious here that the stories are about this forest and its inhabitants. And while both Newt in The Water Bears and Yanka make some deep discoveries about home and family, readers who prefer more action (wolves! dragons! forest fires!) and/or more magic (bear legs! houses with chicken legs! dragons!) will be more drawn to The Girl Who Speaks Bear, while readers looking for more realism will prefer The Water Bears. I myself fall decidedly in the preferring more magic camp, and look forward to more books from Sophie Anderson and appearances by houses with chicken legs.
In addition to The House with Chicken Legs, fans of Russian-inspired middle grade fantasy could also try Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack and Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll. The only other bear-related middle grade I can recall is Edith Pattou’s East – can anyone else think of any?
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