Robyn Reviews: The Last Bear

‘The Last Bear’ is a beautiful and moving children’s book about eleven-year-old April and her summer on Bear Island. It combines gorgeous writing with a wonderful tale about a girl and her connection to nature – and especially to Bear, the only polar bear remaining on an island cut off by the receding polar ice. Woven throughout is a rallying cry about littering and climate change. This is a lovely little book, perfect to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

After April’s mother died suddenly in a car accident when she was four, April was left to be raised by her father, a climate scientist. However, his grief at his wife’s loss led him to throw himself into his work, more or less leaving April to her own devices. When he receives an invitation to spend six months manning the research station on Bear Island, April is ecstatic – finally, her and her father can have their own adventures. Instead, her father once again occupies himself with work. But her isolation leads April to make the most extraordinary friend. There are no bears on Bear Island – but there might be just one.

April is the sort of plucky heroine that children’s fiction thrives on. She’s stubborn, determined, and has an absolutely huge heart – especially for animals of all shapes and sizes. Her connection to nature is absolutely beautiful to read about. In many ways, April is reckless and foolhardy, but it’s impossible not to root for her every step of the way.

At its heart, this is a story about two relationships – the one between April and Bear, and the one between April and her father. Both are wonderfully and intelligently written. April’s relationship with Bear is heartwarming to read about – the way she’s determined to help him right from the start, and the way he always seems to understand when April’s having a bad day. Such a close friendship between a young girl and a polar bear is entirely unrealistic, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so beautifully done. April’s relationship with her father is much sadder but no less moving. In many ways, April lost both her parents when her mother died, and the guilt she feels for thinking that is cleverly rendered. The author simultaneously manages to make April wise beyond her years but also feel exactly like a real eleven-year-old girl, a difficult balance.

Hannah Gold’s prose really makes the story come to life. There are beautiful depictions of the wild landscape of Bear Island, but it’s the way Gold infuses the story with emotion that makes it stand out. The reader feels April’s delight, fear, desperation, and determination right along with her, making the happy moments all the more enjoyable and the sad moments even more moving.

The story is illustrated throughout by Levi Pinfold, and his depictions are fantastic, bringing elements of the story to life. The moments he’s chosen to capture are very powerful – especially the final scene. It’s hard to pick out a favourite image as they’re all excellent, but the emotional value of that moment is undeniable.

Overall, this is a wonderful children’s story recommended for children and grown-up-children alike.

Published by Harper Children’s
Hardback:18th February 2021

Book Review: The Last Bear

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold), is a magical tale about a lonely girl and her unusual friend. Set on Bear Island, an outpost between Norway and Svalbard inhabited only by wildlife and research scientists, it offers a warning about the impact of climate change wrapped around an exhilarating adventure, beautifully told.

The protagonist is April Wood, the eleven year old daughter of an academic still grieving the loss of his beloved wife seven years previously. April is happiest when alone with nature – in her back garden or on visits to her grandmother on the coast. She finds school a trial.

“April didn’t like school, or the girls at school didn’t like her. She didn’t know whether it was because she smelled of fox or the fact she was the smallest girl in her class or even that she cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors. Either way, April didn’t mind too much because she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.”

When April’s father is offered a six month position at a weather station in the Arctic Circle, his daughter is delighted. She imagines the fun they will have spending time together, sledging and exploring. Her father is often so wrapped up in his work he barely seems to notice she exists.

On the journey to Bear Island, April meets Tör, the ship captain’s son, who mentions that there are no longer any bears at her destination. However, three weeks after she arrives at the small cabin she and her father will call home for the arctic summer, she comes face to face with an injured and emaciated polar bear. She calls him Bear and sets about earning his trust.

Contrary to expectations, the important work her father is doing for the Norwegian Government takes up all of his time. April is therefore left to her own devices. She explores the island, slowly forming a bond with Bear. She intuits his backstory from the knowledge she can glean and the affinity she has developed with all wildlife. She determines to help Bear but must work out how.

The author has taken certain liberties with what would be reality to paint the island and April’s adventures there as an enchanting time. Throughout, however, tension builds to the almost unbearable climax. The reader will become invested in Bear’s prospects as April risks everything to try to offer him the chance of a less lonely life.

Such a story couldn’t work without the skill of the author in creating her fully formed characters with the lightest of exposition. April’s attitude, bravery and stoicism will appeal to children and adults alike. The young girl takes her disappointments and turns them into opportunities. Her observations of people and place bring them to life.

The author writes in her note at the end of her passion for the planet.

“how it needs our protection and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can inspire hope and create change”

Although weaving this into her story she succeeds in avoiding polemic. At its heart this is a tale of a lonely girl seeking love, finding it, and choosing to set it free despite the personal cost. It is an adventure crying out to be made into a dialogue free animated film, preferably harnessing the illustrator’s stunning pictures. I adored the story and recommend it to every reader, whatever their age.

The Last Bear is published by Harper Collins.