Polarity Bear Tours the Zoo: A Central Park Adventure was a gift from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference. Author Sue de Cuevas is a retired Harvard teacher and administrator who is an expert on the Brontë sisters. Illustrator Wendy Rasmussen is an accomplished illustrator and has illustrated numerous children’s books about animals.
The story essentially asks the question, “What would a polar bear do if let loose from the Central Park Zoo?”
We have had the pleasure and luxury of reading many great children’s books around this house. Writing a great children’s story is deceptively challenging. It is so much more than writing a short, imaginative story or having a few great pictures. The stories we enjoy the most tend to have the following characteristics:
- No “dead” pages – Every page is compelling in some way and none are a chore to read.
- Double meaning – The words or concept of the story tend to mean one thing to children and something else entirely to adults, particularly when it comes to emotions. The author is really speaking simultaneously to the person reading the story and the person being read to.
- Excellent wordsmithing – When you only have a few pages to tell your story, the words you use are incredibly important. Great children’s authors are masters of brevity and know things like when to use an invented word, the best imaginative name to give to a character, the right rhythm and pattern of a rhyme for the situation, clever use of onomatopoeia and an innate sense for writing dialogue that children actually say.
- Optics – Not only do children’s books need great words, they need excellent pictures. Pictures in color that have a sense of fun to them are the ones my children are drawn to every time. Often the pictures are as much a part of the story as the words. Also, the layout of the words is often unusual in some way with word spacing, font choice and the number of words per page making a huge difference.
It’s a tall order and I admire anyone who has undertaken the task to write a children’s story.
There are many things that Sue de Cuevas does wonderfully well in her story. The portions of her story where she is writing about situations that are unique to New York are the ones that read the best and have the very best pictures. Even though New York is a real place, New York in children’s stories is always a magical place and is fun to hear about.
Sue de Cuevas also adds a level of challenge in that she uses a fluctuating rhyme scheme, which is very unusual in a children’s story. Usually the words rhyme in pairs at the end of the sentence but sometimes she will rhyme 3 sentences in a row instead of just 2 and sometimes the rhyme comes mid-sentence rather than at the end.
There are some weaknesses to the story, however. The way the polar bear escapes is a little hard to believe and was something my children struggled with. Also, fundamentally, I wasn’t sure I connected with the polar bear’s personality. The stereotypical polar bear is warm, exuberant and adventurous, maybe a little bit silly. This polar bear seems a little cautious, serious, nervous and a homebody. It’s a refreshing change but sometimes it felt like the story was trying to have the polar bear be both personalities at once.
Wendy Rasmussen’s illustrations are the heart of this book, though. The pictures that show Polarity’s emotions and physicality are the best. I am partial to the dancing pictures but the swimming picture, the splat on the ground and the tongue sticking out on the back cover are also favorites. (You can see some of the illustrations and read about the creative process to make them, here.)
Wendy Rasmussen writes of Polarity’s personality:
“I saw Polarity as a bear who sees life as a glass half full… even when sad, she pulls herself out of her funk by creating an adventure.”
–Wendy Rasmussen, The Birth of a Bear and a Book
As a polar bear fan, however, (polar bears were the theme to my children’s nurseries) I am glad to have this book and anyone who loves polar bears or the Central Park Zoo will certainly enjoy it. This could easily become a great series of stories.
What do you look for in a great children’s book? Please share in the comments.
*Disclosure: I was provided a free review copy of this book.