Review - The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

A hidden bear, an intrepid journey and finding out who you want to be...

Yanka was found beside a bear cave as a baby…she was found by her foster mother, Mamochka who bundled her home and raised her as her own. She grew into a fine, strong girl. At twelve and a half years, she is stronger than everyone in the village. But not everyone is kind and accepting about Yankas’ unusual capabilities. Some stare and point when they think she isn’t looking; some whisper and laugh behind her back. Yanka wishes she was as strong on the inside as she is on the outside.

She wishes she knew her real parents; who they were, where they came from. Yanka wishes she knew why and how she can understand the voices of the animals and why the bullfinch keeps calling, “Yanka the Bear! Come back to the forest! You belong here!” While recovering from an accident, Yanka makes a shocking discovery and she flees the only home she has ever known. As she runs through the forest, she embarks on a journey beyond any she has ever imagined. She travels away from the village, across the frozen river and into the snowy mountains…beyond…far beyond to the smouldering volcano home of the most dangerous, destructive creature in the forest; the dragon Smey. It is a journey that leads to a discovery; of Yankas’ story, where she came from, who she is; but most important of all, how to decide who she wants to be.

This book is simply wondrous! The writing simply flows across the page. Throughout the novel, we are treated to marvelous stories from Anatoly, the wandering storyteller who visits Yanka and Mamochka, fascinating her and urging her to think deeply. Each tale he tells is a mirror to the events of her life and pulls us along through the book in a way that allows us to lose the walls around us and enter into Yankas’ world more fully. There is an element of ‘shape-shifting’ in the book, which stands as an excellent metaphor for how Yanka (and all of us) must change and adapt to the environment and moment we find ourselves in, all the while leading on to discoveries and to understanding.

Unusual, quirky characters abound in the story, with hints and echoes of old Eastern European folk tales. There’s even an appearance of the Yaga and her house complete with chicken legs, which adds to the mayhem and adventure. The extraordinary cover and vignette illustrations within the pages are beautiful and evocative, giving us just enough information to paint the scenes fully in the imagination. And there’s a map, just in case we get lost in the book and need to find our way home. All in all, this nuanced, creative story is everything you could want in a book. Compassionate, exciting (nail-biting at times), enchanting and filled with hope, love and belonging.

The Girl Who Speaks Bear has been shortlisted for this years’ CILIP Carnegie Medal.

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