CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 11 . . . . February 3, 2006
In the world of children’s picture book illustration, everything that Gary Blythe touches turns to gold. Blythe is surely amongst the top dozen of the world’s artists illustrating books for children. In 1990, he received the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for his first picture book, the beautifully illustrated, The Whales’ Song.
Three years later, Blythe again provided the illustrations for Dyan Sheldon’s text. The second Sheldon-Blythe collaboration produced another eminent work with Under the Moon, the story of a young girl who finds a Native American arrowhead in her backyard. In 1996, Blythe returned with the illustrations for Joyce Dunbar’s This is the Star. The superb illustrations capture the wonder and awe of the first Christmas.
The Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded in the United Kingdom for “distinguished illustration” in a book for children. It seems that Blythe is incapable of anything less than distinguished illustration. The criteria for The Kate Greenaway Medal state that the work should “provide pleasure from a stimulating and satisfying visual experience”. (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/). This being the case, Blythe should begin to clear a space in his trophy cabinet because another award may soon be on the way.
For his fourth picture book, Gary Blythe has this time teamed up with Nicola Davies for Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear. As the name suggests, this book traces the footsteps—in one illustration, quite literally—of polar bears. Blythe again works with oil on canvas. The pointillist technique he employs elsewhere works even better in this book because the style lends itself well to the snow flurries and dappled light of the polar bears’ northern environment. This effect is especially evident in the eye-catching cover illustration. The camouflaged bear seems about to disappear beneath the cloak of a snow flurry.
Davies’ unenviable task is to provide text worthy of Blythe’s talent. While I believe that is a task few could satisfy, Davies makes a fair fist of her attempt. Her text is understated and suggests the quiet stillness of the Arctic world. The main informational text is presented in an easy-to-read narrative from the point of view of an Inuit narrator. The primary text is complemented elsewhere on the page by smaller text that provides further detail about the life of polar bears.
Davies is a zoologist and shares her knowledge in an interesting and informative manner. Readers learn about the physical and behavioural adaptations that polar bears possess to help them survive—even thrive—in the frozen Arctic. Readers learn also that polar bears can be playful by nature and that female polar bears make gentle mothers who carefully tend to the needs of their tiny newborn offspring (baby polar bears are about the size of a guinea pig!). Having said this, Davies is careful not to anthropomorphize her subject. To her credit, Davies also does not fall for the trap of overemphasizing polar bears’ endearing characteristics at the expense of ignoring the harsh reality that these are powerful, meat-eating hunters. In one passage, the polar bear stalks a seal and then, “a lightening paw strike, a crushing bite, and the seal is gone.” The Blythe illustration that accompanies the above text features a close-up picture of the polar bear’s blood-covered face. There is here no attempt to portray the polar bear as anything other than it is.
While neither the author nor the illustrator is Canadian, the subject matter is certainly of interest to Canadians. Davies expresses her thanks to Michael Kusugak from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, for his input with the book. Kusugak is, himself, a Canadian author of children’s books about the Arctic, and it would seem that he collaborated with Davies in preparing the text.
The book contains a simple index and concludes with a brief note about global warming and the threat that melting sea ice poses to polar bears’ existence. The text and illustrations go hand-in-hand to show and tell much about polar bears that will inform and delight young readers. Ice Bear would make a wonderful classroom or library resource for students making their first forays into research projects.
This book is a delight.
Gregory Bryan is a PhD student working on his thesis from the University of British Columbia. He is a newly appointed member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.