Book Review: The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

This lyrical debut novel swept me off of my feet. It’s the kind of book that you finish with a big sigh, your heart near to bursting from the sheer magnitude of it.

April Wood does not fit in. Her scientist father doesn’t seem to notice her all that much, she doesn’t have any friends aside from a wild fox in her back yard, and she has only fragments of memories of life before her mother died.

When April’s father gets the opportunity to spend six months in the Arctic on Bear Island, April jumps at the chance to go with him. No school with mean taunts, a wide open space to explore, and the potential for time with her father all culminate in some very high hopes.

Yet despite their being the only two people on Bear Island, April’s father still doesn’t have time for her. She sets out to explore the island, named after the polar bears that used to migrate there. With the melting ice caps, she knows there aren’t any bears. But how does that explain the large shape on the horizon? April sets out to discover if there is a polar bear on Bear Island, and how she can help him get home. Along the way, she just might find her own voice and passion.

This middle grade novel is beautifully written, full of magical realism in a wondrous world. The Arctic is breathtakingly described, but not obtrusively. The unique landscape of Bear Island is a character unto itself, with the terrain proving both useful and troublesome at times.

The characters are exceptionally well developed, without any of the negative stereotypes that can pop up in middle grade books. April is a relatable 11 year old, smart without being a precocious prodigy. She has a way with animals and finds a way to use her loneliness to help a creature. Bear, the wild polar bear, is in fact a polar bear, but is also his own character. Though he doesn’t speak, he and April form a relationship. This friendship is full of lessons delivered in a soft and gentle manner to further the story without slowing it down. The plot is well paced and tugs on your heart in just the right way. It’s the kind of story that fills you up and encourages you to make a difference in your part of the world.

There are many positive messages in this book that leave your heart full. From understanding the complexity of relationships and the power of communication, to learning to use your voice no matter your age or size, to doing the right thing even when the world tells you you’re wrong, to standing up for the environment when you fear no one listens to you- this novel is full of wonderful messages without ever sounding preachy.

The cover art and sporadic artwork throughout is gorgeous. It captures the moment just like it appears in your mind, without interfering with your mental image. It’s a beautiful addition to the lush writing.

This is a story about friendship, love, and finding your voice. I absolutely adored it, from start to finish. Though older readers will enjoy it on their own, I believe the content and writing is accessible enough for my five and seven year old, and I look forward to reading it to them. This is one of those novels our family will always treasure.

I’d like to think HarperCollins Children’s Books and NetGalley for the advanced copy that allowed me to write this review.

The Last Bear releases on February 2, 2021.

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