by Hannah Gold
Animals have always been part of my world, ever since the day my mum took me to a garden centre and we came home with the cuddliest of kittens. Aged seven, I was young enough to think I could wear my kitten, Penny, round my neck as a scarf, but also wise enough to know that animals spoke in the most special of languages – the language of the heart.
So, when it came to writing my debut middle-grade novel, The Last Bear, there really was only one subject I was interested in writing about – that mysterious, unspoken and magical bond that exists between children and animals.
As I say in the Author’s Note of The Last Bear, I can’t actually remember the precise moment I set out to write a book about a polar bear. But one day, there he was – looking at me with those dark chocolate eyes, full of desperation. There was a story he had to tell, and I, apparently, was the one to tell it.
In truth, I’m not sure I deliberately set out to write a book about climate change, but once I had chosen a polar bear as the main character (or, once he had chosen me), it was impossible to write about him without talking about the melting ice caps. Not just for the fact that they are melting at an extraordinarily frightening pace, or the effect that the melting ice caps are having on all our Arctic animals, but especially for the polar bears; who rely on the ice caps for hunting.
When looking at where to set the book, I stumbled across a real-life island – Bear Island, named after the polar bears that once lived there. It’s a tiny island, which does in fact have a weather station (but not one staffed by a man and his daughter!), and is situated halfway between the mainland of Norway and an archipelago of islands, much closer to the North Pole, called Svalbard. Not that long ago, polar bears would use the winter sea ice to roam from Svalbard to Bear Island, hunting for seals. But these days, because the winter sea ice has retreated so much, polar bears can no longer reach the island that carries their name.
Once I found this out, there really was only one story to tell. The story of how 11-year-old April rescues a lonely, starving polar bear, stranded a long way from home.
At the time of writing, most of the children’s books that featured climate change were set in a dystopian future, but I deliberately chose to set The Last Bear in the current day. This is the question I get asked the most: why did I make the ending so hopeful? And the answer I give is the same every time – because I wanted to give a message of inspiration to all children. A message that it’s not too late, that we can all do our bit, and that, with a little bit of bear courage in our hearts, we can save the planet.
Climate change is a scary thing, on top of lots of other scary things happening right now. As an author, I feel we have a level of responsibility to our younger readers, and that we need to be mindful of the emotions we are potentially inducing via our words. Fear, in itself, is counter-productive. Fear makes us want to hide away. Fear strips us of power.
I have always been interested in how we can encourage children to feel energized and engaged. To feel hopeful and inspired. To know that their actions, however tiny, could actually save a polar bear.
There is a line in the book that many of the early reviewers have picked up on. It’s when April is defending her actions to someone who is sceptical about the difference that she (who is tiny) can make. In response to this scepticism, April says,
‘But imagine if every single person on the planet just did one thing?’.
My aim has always been to empower children, and my dream is that teachers will use The Last Bear in their classrooms as a conversation point around climate change, in a way that inspires our children to find their own roar.
These days, I am still a cat owner, (although I don’t wear her as a scarf), but it’s not just our pets that need our care. There are a lot of animals out there who so desperately need us right now, and sometimes, the best way to get the message home is through the language of love.