Jenni Desmond, The Polar Bear (2016) (12/26/16)
This one sure is. I ran across a reference to it in Maria Popova's list of the best science books of the year (all of which I intend to read). Jenni Desmond is an English picture book author and illustrator, and currently is working on a series about endangered animals (blue whales preceded the polar bear, and elephants are up next). She uses watercolor, acrylic, pencil, crayons, and the printmaking techniques of carborundum and drypoint to make her gorgeous illustrations. In 2016, she was invited to be a Maurice Sendak Fellow, spending a month at the Sendak estate in Upstate New York—and so a little girl who could well have popped out of one of Sendak's own picture books accompanies us here on the natural-history story of the polar bear.
The book begins with a note: "Polar bears are a vulnerable and threatened species. . . . 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 as to wait for the ice and its food to return may just be too long."
This dire reality is not addressed in the story itself, but it weighs as one reads. It must. That said, the occasional photo of a starving polar bear that takes over social media paints only part of the picture, and polar bears, although listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2008, and vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the red list) since 2016, are not all at a critical moment. Of the 25,000 polar bears that exist, in 19 subgroups (by region), some may indeed be on the edge of extinction, but other groups seem to be stable or even growing. Here's an article from a year ago that tells more. However, here's a more recent story that paints a gloomier picture. There is no question that the Arctic sea ice is in trouble, and with it, the polar bear. I would not be surprised if polar bears are extinct in the wild by the time I die, which won't be too long from now.
But back to Desmond: What she takes on is the natural history of these amazing lords of the Arctic, and it's a fascinating life they lead. What really shines, though, is the wit of the story, in which our young protagonist gets lost in a book about polar bears and visits one in her imagination, and the beauty of the illustrations. Here are a few, which are of course much more delectable on the printed page:
If you love a beautiful picture book, and know of a youngster who loves nature, this would be the perfect gift. You can enjoy it together.
And if you care to help in the fight for polar bears' survival, a worthy organization is Polar Bears International.