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*The Great Bear* by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Armin Greder
The Great Bear
by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Armin Greder
Ages 8-12 40 pages Candlewick July 2011 Hardcover    

First published in Australia in 1999, The Great Bear is a collaborative effort from the beginning between the author and illustrator, based on a dream of the author.

This magnificently illustrated picture book is set in medieval times. It begins as the story of an obedient dancing bear which performs day after day, night after night to the crowds who come to see the traveling circus.

At the story’s climax, the bear is surrounded by a crowd in the village square; the people demand that she dance. The music rises to a frenzied pitch, the people poke the bear, stones strike her, and the bear transforms. She is no longer the submissive performer but rather a ferocious, natural bear.

ROARING at the crowd, she scares everyone into their homes. The text ends at this point; the bear slowly begins to climb a high pole in the center of the village. High above civilization she takes off flying to become part of the sky. The story concludes with notes from the author and illustrator.

Armin Greder’s powerful oil pastel and charcoal pencil illustrations demand that the reader pay close attention to what is happening with this bear. If read on a literal level, the dark pages, frightening emotions and theme of abuse will disturb some readers. You can see the fear and anger in the people’s eyes and feel the pain of the bear as she is forced to perform.

On a deeper level, the story is an allegory reflecting the consequences of obedience and the innate human need for freedom. It is an excellent impetus for a class discussion, whether studying medieval times, the morality of humans using and abusing animals for entertainment, or shifting to the discussion of how people can sometimes be abused like animals.

The beauty of the book comes in the illustrations of the sky, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with the breathtaking swirls of color that grow more prominent as the bear moves closer to freedom.

The Great Bear is not a picture book for young readers but rather for an older, more thoughtful audience. It is a wonderful choice for reflection and discussion on the inherent value of self-determination.

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  Kristine Wildner/2011 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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