With the publication of The Very, Very Far North, Dan Bar-el has added to the distinguished company of lovable literary bears: Duane the Polar Bear can hold his white furry head high alongside such notables as Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington, Rupert, and Little Bear.
Duane has come to the Very, Very Far North to live, and he soon finds himself a warm cave, a sloping beach, and a shipwreck inhabited by a prickly, intellectual owl, whom he names C.C. Duane has a talent for coming up with appropriate monikers and, as he settles into this community, he proceeds to affectionately and humorously name all his new friends. The narcissistic muskox, who spends his time gazing at his reflection in a pond, is dubbed Handsome; the manic Arctic fox is Magic; and the sensitive hare becomes Twitch. In between naps, Duane’s life consists of making friends, exploring, and falling into adventures. His good-natured attitude sees him through to happy conclusions and endears him to his new neighbours and the reader.
Although billed as middle-grade fiction, the book is suitable for younger children as a read-aloud chapter book. Duane resembles a happy six-year-old, finding adventure in a walk up a hill or a slide across a frozen river. He is given to bouts of scientific curiosity (will a pocket watch grow into a grandfather clock?) and philosophy (“I think, therefore I am a polar bear”). Duane loves his unusual friends unconditionally, in spite of – or sometimes because of – their foibles; this kindness is part of his appeal.
Bar-el has a cozy, intimate style of writing that immediately pulls the reader into Duane’s world. His account of the length and frequency of Duane’s epic naps will have readers longing to snuggle under a blanket and close their eyes, and his lyrical descriptions of the snow’s whiteness and time standing still are equally satisfying. Kelly Pousette’s black-and-white illustrations appear throughout, sometimes spilling over two pages, portraying both the grandeur of the landscape and the eccentricity of the characters who live there.
The Very, Very Far North is so engaging that coming to the end of it leaves the reader somewhat bereft. Hopefully Duane and his friends will return with more beguiling adventures very soon.