Irene Luxbacher’s new picture book considers nature’s way of connecting us to ourselves and to others. The young narrator, a fuzzy brown cub, recollects a time when he felt completely at ease: “Once I lived in a forest of tall trees.” Able to follow his own circadian rhythms of “rest and play, day after day,” he enjoyed a sweet summer routine. Roaming freely and without fear, from one “tumbling round and thumping down” adventure to another, the lush green space always offered a gentle place to land.
After a dreamy journey on the back of an aurora borealis, shaped like a giant bird, and swept along by the seasonal changes in the air, the narrator (now shown with the body of a little boy and the soulful face of a bear) awakens inside the “earthly den” of a blanket fort in a living room. Elements of the vibrant world-in-motion he used to know converge in small, constrained background details, like a toy bunny on the floor and a drawing of a fish taped to the wall. Butterflies now flutter only inside his stomach, as he anxiously gets ready for school.
Transitions, transformations, and distinctive perspectives are elegantly evoked in Luxbacher’s signature watercolour, acrylic, and collage illustrations. The text poetically expresses feelings of dislocation, vulnerability, and strength. In the narrator’s “new kind of wilderness,” time is marked not by the “bright circle in the sky,” but by a clock on the wall, ticking down structured hours. Instead of harmony, there’s a confused barrage of sensory experiences to navigate, from sudden loud sounds and harsh lights to the stares of unfamiliar children.
The cub-child’s painting of the mountains he’s climbed strikes a chord with the wild auras of his classmates’ kindred spirits – a fox-child in purple patterned tights and a deer-child in a striped sweater. Comfortably ready to “shed my fur,” a happy little boy joins his new circle of friends in outdoor play. Inspired by Luxbacher’s son, who is on the autism spectrum, Once I Was a Bear tenderly asks the deeply personal yet universal question, “Would others understand me?”