January 05, 2012


The Polar Bear Scientists. By Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Little Bea and the Snowy Day. By Daniel Roode. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $12.99.

     These days, the poster child, or poster animal, for global warming is the polar bear, whose struggles to survive as Arctic sea ice shrinks and disappears earlier in the year than it used to have been chronicled in many articles and seen in videos, TV shows and elsewhere. The Polar Bear Scientists, the latest book in Houghton Mifflin’s very well-done series about the real, everyday, often unglamorous lives of scientists working in the field and in laboratories, is built around interviews with biologist Steven Amstrup, “the godfather of Alaskan polar bear research for the past thirty years.” Amstrup talks not only about climate change but also about the history of studies of the largest bears in the world, the capture-release-and-recapture program that makes modern scientific study of them possible, the use of radio collars to track bears that move between polar nations, and more. Other scientists and support personnel, such as George Durner and Kristin Simac, discuss the bears as well, and all are seen with bears, with the equipment used to catch and track them, and in the laboratory and office settings where data are entered, assembled and correlated. Peter Lourie’s words and photos clearly depict the difficult conditions under which scientists work with the bears – and the frigid land where the bears thrive, or try to. Some of the photos tell the story in ways that are more immediately dramatic than the text: a female with three cubs trying to scare off the scientists’ helicopter, a bear print that is elevated because Arctic winds have blown away the lighter surrounding snow, a female bear lying in snow as a scientist prepares gear to weigh and measure her, yearling male bears roughhousing, and of course the adorable cubs without which no study of polar bears would be complete. The sorts of decisions the scientists face are clearly explained. A missing collar, for example, needs to be located if at all possible. “Of course it’s expensive to go find a distant collar, with the cost of fuel and time, but it’s equally if not more important to find a collar in order to determine whether a bear has died or has just dropped it.” A photo showing scientists with pickaxes trying to break through ice to dig up a collar gives some idea of what is involved in retrieval. The Polar Bear Scientists tells as much about the people who study these bears as it does about the bears themselves: the humans are concerned, dedicated and meticulous in their work. The global-warming debate may continue, but Amstrup puts it into perspective after Lourie points out that the bears have gone through at least two periods that were warmer than the current one. In those earlier warm periods, says Amstrup, “we didn’t have nearly as many humans out there competing with bears and otherwise affecting their security. …[A]s temperatures rise and habitat is reduced, polar bears are going to be competing with a lot of human uses of their environment.” The scientists’ concern is not political, although that is the typical framework for global-warming discussions. Amstrup and colleagues have first-hand knowledge of how current climate changes are affecting polar bears, and their worry comes through as genuine and as transcending politics.

     A much, much lighter winter-oriented book – created, just for fun, for pre-readers and the youngest readers – Little Bea and the Snowy Day has a bear in it, too, but this is the sort of illustrated bear designed to entertain young children with amusing and pleasant antics. Daniel Roode’s book is a followup to his Little Bea, whose title character really is a bee – a thoroughly adorable one without a stinger who, in the new book, wears a cap and scarf and wants nothing more than to play in the snow with Bear, Rabbit, Beaver, Owl, Deer and Goose. There is really no plot here – the friends simply go outside and do snow-related things, such as making snow angels, sledding, throwing snowballs and building a snowman. All the characters have huge heads and perpetual smiles, and all are cuddly and cute as can be. Scenes in which Roode lines them all up or displays them all at once – going uphill with a sled at one point, ice skating on a pond at another – are especially delightful. So is the hot-chocolate break that everyone takes (no grown-up animals are shown; the steaming cups apparently appear by magic). Little Bea and the Snowy Day is a just-right bit of entertainment for a young child on a winter day that may be a little too cold for outdoor play…or one on which playtime in the snow is over and a little bit of quiet reading, perhaps with some hot chocolate, is just the thing.

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