Book Review: The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold.  Published February 2021
Recommended for grades 3-7.  Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and requires a student request for purchase.
At 288 pages, this book might be a tad long for some third graders, but it's an enormously satisfying read and will carry them into both fantasy and reality at once. This was Hannah Gold's debut novel; she was inspired to write it when, in 2019, she had read that a lone bear had been seen on Bear Island in the Arctic Circle for the first time in eight years. (Bear Island was discovered by Dutch explorers in the summer of 1596.)
 April is an 11-year old girl who lost her mom when she was just four years old. April’s mom had had a special gift, an empathy with animals so comprehensive she could practically have conversations with them. April still feels her mom’s presence and her uncanny affinity for all animals “like rainbows.” And April shares her mom’s gift; she knows how to slow herself down when approaching a wild creature, allowing her breathing to flow silently “like water.” Her father, a climate scientist, has been absorbed in his grief and neglectfully remote ever since her mom’s passing. She's taken on the role of woman of the house, but the house, and her relationship with her dad, seems broken. When he announces he’s accepted a job for them both to live on an island in the Arctic Circle for six months, April is overjoyed. Sleigh rides! Snowball fights! Ice skating! Exploring the island all over, together! This seems a dream that might even come true, since they'll be the only people on the whole island. 

When they get there, however, she sees there are two cabins: one very spare one to live in, and a larger one for work. Her father disappears into the second one and April is left more alone than ever before. Still, the island calls to her. After her dad gives her a compass, with nothing else to do she begins to explore on her own. Each day she ventures a little farther, and then:
 "...[O]n the horizon, silhouetted against the sun, something moved. It was in the blink of an eye. So rapid she almost missed it. Something big and loping and most unexpected. It couldn’t be? She blinked again. Whatever it was had gone. But April could have sworn she’d just seen a polar bear.” But when she asks her dad about the possibility of bears on the island, he delivers bleak news. He tells her that: 1) all the ice caps have already completely melted and 2) no bear could possibly swim the 250 miles from their nearest home in Svalbard. “‘Not even one?’” she asked in a tiny voice, picturing the bear in her mind. “ ‘Not even one.’ ”
 But there IS a bear on Bear Island, and he’s hurt; his paw is bound so tightly in plastic that it’s swollen to twice its normal size. Without all his paws, he cannot hunt. His coat is a dull yellow; his ribs are showing. April realizes the bear is starving. With oat biscuits and LOTS of peanut butter she takes from their storage unit (April and I agree that crunchy is the only kind), and a few cans of sardines here and there, she and Bear get close. So close, she's able to remove the plastic on his paw with her father's Swiss Army knife. And THAT is the beginning of a fantastical summer of "eternal sun."  She and Bear become inseparable for the two months when the sun never sets in the Arctic Circle.

When her father discovers their food supply has been drastically reduced and won’t last their remaining time on the island, he mistakenly accuses April of throwing it all away. He arranges for them to leave Bear Island the very next day. Since he refuses to believe or trust her, April decides she must take matters into her own hands-- with nearly catastrophic results. This brings her dad to shake off his grief and reunite with his daughter, who is so much like his wife she is “rainbows.”
The Last Bear is beautifully written, and April and her dad's characters are well developed. Even third graders will understand that April's friendship with a polar bear is an impossible fantasy. Hopefully, they'll also learn some of what's happening around the world in climate change; at one point, April mentions her outrage at the destruction of the Amazon. She's clearly already a climate activist at 11 years of age! --and that's the focus of the book, once we're past the lovely fantasy.  There is a follow-up, as well, titled Finding Bear, when April returns to Svalbard to look for her friend.
Earth’s polar bear population has plummeted by 40%; scientists project they may become extinct by 2100. Although polar bears are maintaining their numbers on Bear’s home in Svalbard, they have fewer options to breed with outside groups and have lost 10% of their genetic diversity in just 20 years. Since that lone appearance in 2019, no other bears have been sighted on the island named after them; the previous sighting before 2019 had been in 2013. In October, 2023, however, a new species of bird was discovered on Bear Island, which you can read about here:  You can read more about Bear Island (the real one, not the one in “Game of Thrones”!) and see photos of some of the wildlife that live there, at: