translator (English): Dr. Kristy Koth
translator (Spanish) Beatriz Bernabé
NorthSouth Books, 2020; ages 8-up
This first book in the classic “Little Polar Bear” series by Hans de Beer was published in Switzerland in 1987 under the title, Kleiner Elsbär—Wohin Fährst du, Lars? In 2020, NorthSouth Books, in association with Edition bi:libri, co-published this story in ten bilingual editions. The bilingual (English-Spanish) version is reviewed here.
After learning from his father the things that a young polar bear needs to know, young Lars and his dad build their snow piles and settle down to sleep. But when Lars wakes up, his dad is gone and he is all alone with his little snow pile, stranded on an ice floe in the middle of the ocean.
Lost and frantic, Lars encounters a friendly hippo, who takes him across the river; a helpful eagle, who escorts him to the bay; and a generous whale, who navigates him home to his family.
The Spanish translation is excellent. When Lars meets the hippo, for instance, “a huge animal emerges in front of him,” and Lars runs away. “Wait, wait! I’m just teasing you!” yells the big animal. The idiomatic Spanish—“¡Espera, espera!¡Sólo te estaba tomando el pelo!”—translates literally as “Wait! Wait! I’m just taking your hair!”
The author’s beautiful illustrations—in what appear to be pen-and-ink and mostly pastel-hued watercolors—complement this warm story of a bear cub in a cold environment.
Unfortunately, in centering the little bear’s whiteness—making whiteness thematic—the story dives into precarious waters. While, of course, it’s appropriate to describe a polar bear as white, and ice as white, there is this:
- The hippo asks him: Why are you so white?
- And he answers: Where I come from, everything is white!
- When Lars and his eagle-friend stray into Africa (a racially and ethnically mixed continent) the eagle appears to signify: Well, well, a polar bear in Africa! You’re a long way from home…
- When Lars arrives home and tells his father about his adventures, his father asks, And no one there was white? Not anyone?
Used with caution, and possibly as an instrument for discussion with older readers, Little Polar Bear / El Osito Polar is recommended.