Journey of the Pale Bear: Review

JOURNEY OF THE PALE BEAR

By SUSAN FLETCHER

Middle Grade / Medieval Historical Fiction

(grades 3-7)

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Date of Publication: October 2, 2018

Paperback: October 1, 2019

Number of Pages: 302

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A runaway boy befriends a polar bear that’s being transported from Norway to London in this lyrical and timeless adventure story about freedom, captivity, and finding a family.

The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.

Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom—perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?

Based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London, this timeless adventure story is also a touching account of the bond between a boy and a bear.

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 ACCOLADES AND PRAISE FOR

JOURNEY OF THE PALE BEAR:

Honor Book, Golden Kite Awards, 2019
Vermont’s 2019-2020 Dorothy Canfield Fisher list
2020 Oklahoma Sequoyah Book Award Children’s Masterlist
School Library Connection highly recommended book
Junior Library Guild Selection
50 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books for Kids, bookriot.com


“…a stupendous coming-of-age-tale stuffed with adventure and laced with deeper questions… A richly satisfying story saturated with color, adventure, and heart.” –Kirkus, starred review

“I simply adore this novel. It has it all: gorgeous prose, fascinating history, riveting adventure. But it’s the unlikely tender friendship between a lonely boy and a polar bear that makes this a story to cherish. A lovely little miracle of a book.” 

–Katherine Applegate, Newbery Medal-winning author of The One and Only Ivan

“I loved every single thing about this large-hearted and riveting medieval adventure.” —William Alexander, National Book Award-winning author of Goblin Secrets

I have a bundle of emotions after reading Journey of the Pale Bear. It stands to reason that we know what end comes for Arthur and the bear. The very first chapter takes place in the future after all.

But how it ends beyond this short moment is more.

Arthur has run away from home and his loving mother to chase a dream. Feeling like a burden and unwanted, a letter from his home country gives him hope for more. However, in the harsh world and after desperate actions, he is employed to accompany a bear to the King of England. The journey and task aren’t tempting to Arthur except for the promise to make it to Wales. Arthur’s motives seem clouded with the memories of his father and the future he could have had. However, the home he chases and the path he goes down to make it there, will change him forever.

I was reminded a bit of Miyazaki’s films. I watched them growing up and as most of them are ‘coming of age’ films, there were similarities between the fantastical and real. There’s a sadness and happiness to all the films and also in this book. They can’t exist without the other, some say. The same can be said for safety and sacrifice. Surviving is to living as safety is to freedom. Arthur’s choices switch between these throughout his journey. Though he is still quite young, his abilities shape not only his fate but that of the crew and many more. Though he may not see it that way.

Beyond the kinship that Arthur develops with our pale bear, there are subtle changes to his relationships with other people as well. The doctor in charge of the bear is shrouded in his own hidden motives and tragedy. As the story develops, Arthur may grow to open his heart and trust to those around him.

This was a stunning fictional take on history that shined with memorable lines and imagery. While the writing could be melancholy, what truly captured my interest was the relationships found and fought for.

Do you ever wish you’d read a book years ago? This book is only a year old but I wonder what young me in middle school or even high school would have thought. How different my reading habits and moods would have been if books like these were assigned instead! It was after reading Journey of the Pale Bear, that I had to truly think through my experiences reading this. Most reviews, I can write within the day. However, here I found myself torn and deleting entire paragraphs so I could do it justice. This book is thoughtful and open to giving its reader many meanings. The writing can shift from a harsh reality to the nuances in old lore and fantasy. Mostly, I just felt so taken with this story of a boy and his bear. Like I was given a gift and already throwing into my mom’s hands for her to read, desperate to discuss her point of view.

I’d like to thank Susan Fletcher and Lone Star Book Tours for the amazing opportunity to read (and reread) this book. It was heartwarming from start to finish.

 Although Susan loves to write about long-ago and faraway places, she can’t bring those worlds to life without grounding them in the details of this one. To that end, she has explored lava tubes and sea caves; spent the night in a lighthouse; traveled along the Silk Road in Iran; ridden in a glider, on a camel, and on a donkey; and cut up (already dead!) baby chicks and mice for a gyrfalcon’s dinner. To research Journey of the Pale Bear, she explored the grounds of the Tower of London and went backstage at the Oregon Zoo, where, standing breathtakingly near, she watched polar bears Tasul and Conrad lip grapes from their keepers’ open palms.

 Journey of the Pale Bear is Susan’s 12th book, including the Dragon Chronicles series, Shadow Spinner, and Alphabet of Dreams. Collectively, her books have been translated into nine languages; accolades include a Golden Kite Honor Book, the American Library Association’s Notable Books and Best Books for Young Adults, BCCB Blue Ribbon Books, and School Library Journal’s Best Books.

Susan has an M.A. in English from the University of Michigan and taught for many years in the M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College. She lives in Bryan, Texas with her husband, historian R.J.Q. Adams, and their dog, Neville.

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