"If you can give children hope and empowerment, it makes them much more inclined to do something,” says Hannah Gold. “Frightening children about climate change just makes them paralysed with fear.” Gold is speaking to me over video call from her home in Lincolnshire about her début children’s book The Last Bear (HarperCollins Children’s Books).
The book follows the unlikely friendship between 11-year-old April and a wild polar bear, set against the dramatic backdrop of a remote Norwegian island. Published by HarperCollins last February with stunning illustrations by Kate Greenaway Medal winner Levi Pinfold, the book has already sold more than 10,000 hardbacks, and comes into paperback in January 2022.
The book is part of a sweeping movement of ecologically themed children’s books inspired, in part, by the climate emergency. Did she specifically set out to write a climate change book, I ask? “I really wanted it to be about the animal friendship,” Gold explains, “but realised that I couldn’t write a story about a polar bear without talking about the climate impact. It was born out of a necessity.”
As she wrote, the media was full of young climate activists and the Friday school strikes, and she began to under- stand just how passionate children and young people were. “I thought, ‘There’s a whole audience out here who want us to listen to them and do something, who want to make change.’” Through her events, Gold has encountered children who have written to their MP, given up meat or “adopted” polar bears through organisations such as the WWF. “You get one or two in each class who are real Aprils... it connects with them.” The environmental angle even extended to her choice of representation: keen to sign with an agent who shared her outlook, she found the perfect match in Claire Wilson at RCW, who was looking for a non-dystopian climate change story with hope.
In The Last Bear April travels to Bear Island with her scientist father. Following the death of April’s mother, her father is a little lost, wrapped up in his research work, and leaves his daughter free to roam while he conducts his research. Gold deliberately made April a quieter sort of heroine. “I wanted her strength to be more about sensitivity, her ability to communicate with animals and be aware of the natural world around her. She is really brave, driven by love and driven by doing the right thing by everybody and the planet.”
Despite the island’s name, there are no polar bears left there... until the endless summer night when April meets one. He is starving, lonely and a long way from home. “Bear is noble and magnificent, and everything a polar bear could be,” Gold tells me, “but also desperately in need of a friend.” The relationship between Bear and April is the beating heart of the novel, but developing Bear’s character and the nature of their communication was a delicate balance. “When I was writing he felt so real to me, he did almost feel like my child,” Gold recalls.
In the first draft, Bear was decidedly more human-like, “almost waggling his ears in response to April”, which was later toned down. The idea of a friendship between a child and a bear does require a certain suspension of disbelief, which caused some agents to turn it down, but Gold conjures exactly the right sort of wonder to pull it off. “I really like those books that play with the shifting of reality. We set it in reality but we subtly blurred the edges so you can make that leap of faith.” In my preview for The Last Bear in The Bookseller, I called April’s journey every bit as magical as Lucy’s tumble through the wardrobe to Narnia. “You don’t have to go to a magical world to experience magic,” Gold agrees. “We have got magic in our world, and if I open children up to what’s available in this life, hopefully it encourages them to look after nature a bit more.” The essence of the book is not only one of hope, but that children’s voices are powerful and can make a difference. “They don’t have to set out to change the whole world, but they can change one part of it.”
Returning to the story
Most authors have a significant emotional attachment to their débuts, but Gold’s story is particularly poignant. She pursued her lifelong dream of becoming a writer for two decades, studying scriptwriting, writing two Young Adult books, often “close to getting somewhere but not quite over the line”. Disillusioned, she put the writing down. By the end of 2018 she was in a low place. She and her husband had been trying for a child for many years. “Nothing was working for me,” Gold remembers. “I couldn’t even become a mum. I was really broken.” A friend urged her to pour that energy into her book dreams. “That’s when Bear was born. All the longing and grief and the love came out in that book.” She wrote the first draft in around three months. “I just wrote it. It felt transcendental. I knew it was the one.”
The whole process, from beginning writing to getting a publishing deal, took a mere 11 months. What was different this time? “Where it came from. And I didn’t look at the market to see what was selling. I just wrote what I wanted to write, the things I was passionate about, fundamentally believing if it was enough for me it would be enough for somebody else.”
Gold has been overwhelmed by the support from bookshops and readers, and has already written her second book, which will be published by HarperCollins in March. The Lost Whale is the story of a boy and a wild grey whale, set in California and illustrated once more by Pinfold. “It’s about the oceans and what we are doing to them,” says Gold. If Bear follows the impact an individual can have, “book two is more about: ‘What can we achieve when we work together?’” On that note, Gold was recently one of more than 100 writers and illustrators to sign a letter urging the publishing industry to reduce their greenhouse emissions in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. “You can’t change the world, but you can try to influence your little corner.”
He stood on his two hind legs, rearing up like a brilliant white stallion into the sky. With his chin extended forward confidently, he didn’t look in pain. In fact, he stood in a way that indicated he knew just how magnificent he was. The combination of powerful muscle and raw brute strength took April’s breath clean away and she clapped her hands over her mouth to stop herself gasping out loud. ‘You’re incredible,’ she whispered and, without even knowing why, a tear trickled down her face.
The feelings swung from awe, to wonder, to joy and then mixed together like a milk- shake so she felt dizzy and light-headed with them. Tör had been wrong, she thought with a smile, and for a brief moment, she wished he were here with her so he could see the bear with his own eyes.
‘I knew I wasn’t imagining things,’ she said, at last finding her voice. ‘I did see you that night. You are real.’
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