Today’s review is of Sophie Anderson’s new novel The Girl Who Speaks Bear – published by Usborne and illustrated by Kathrin Honesta.
Earlier this year I discovered the amazing novel The House With Chicken Legs and was so blown away by it that I recommended it to everyone and even dressed up as Baba Yaga for World Book Day! (I actually wanted to go as the house but thought that it might be a logistical nightmare moving around the school.) In Sophie Anderson, I recognised an author whose narrative style was strongly linked to traditional storytelling and I couldn’t wait to see if her new book would be equally mesmerising. I can happily tell you that it is!
In The Girl Who Speaks Bear we meet Yanka, who is tall, strong and rather shy. For this reason, she always feels she stands out in the village where she lives – having been found abandoned in a bear cave as a baby. One day, something mysterious and (in her eyes) awful happens, forcing her to flee her home for the forest in search of answers. Once on her quest, Yanka must conquer icy rivers and fiery mountains to discover the truth behind her identity. The question is – will she ever find her place in the world?
As is the case with her first book, Sophie Anderson features a strong and determined heroine as her main protagonist – yet underneath the physical strength and courage lies a soul whose sense of being is incredibly delicate. Yanka desperately wants to fit in to her world but knows that she will never be like everyone else. Similarly, in The House With Chicken Legs, Marinka is a restless soul, who wants to have a normal life but is destined to always be different. Anderson has a talent for writing about these characters and their struggle with their own identity and purpose in life. Written with a folk-tale world as a backdrop, her stories provide a similar function as the tales on which they are based: they allow children the opportunity to experience self-doubt and unease in a safe environment in which to work through these emotions.
I love a good fairy tale or folk tale and the novel not only is structured like one but it also contains wonderful vignettes of stories interwoven within it, which also serve the purpose of explaining Yanka’s mysterious background. I attended an event in Oxford’s Blackwell’s Westgate bookshop, where Sophie Anderson was in conversation with Candy Gourlay, another storytelling master, and we were treated to a ‘Myth-Off’ between the two – each retelling a folk tale they had either used in their writing or had come across in their research. Some of the stories from The Girl Who Speaks Bear featured in this and were richly evocative of the Russian roots of this novel.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear is another masterpiece. The tale it weaves is full of peril, wonder and – most importantly – hope. Because we all need hope to carry on, don’t we? Even when times seem impossible, if there is something positive that we can gain from the experience, it is all worthwhile. The illustrations, stunning and beautiful in their lyricism, complement the book well. This is a story to read and treasure happily ever after.