A bear forages for food, climbs into its tree nest, and scales the snow-capped Himalayas in Moon Bear by Brenda Z. Guiberson, featuring cut-paper illustrations by Ed Young. Out this month from Holt, the book spotlights the Asiatic black bear, also known as the moon bear, for the white crescent-shaped marking on its chest. A concluding author’s note addressing the plight of this endangered species is accompanied by photos of moon bears living in a China sanctuary run by the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, which will receive a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Moon Bear. The publisher has also launched an on-line campaign to adopt a moon bear—with readers’ help.
The book came to be after Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, learned via the Internet about the deplorable living conditions of many of Southeast Asia’s moon bears. The practice of harvesting the bile of the moon bear, a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, has resulted in many bears residing in cramped cages, with catheters attached to their gallbladders.
“After reading about these bears, I just couldn’t get them out of my mind,” Godwin recalls. “The more I thought about them, the more troubled I became, and after several weeks I decided to do what I know how to do: a children’s book. I realized that not only are people not aware of the plight of moon bears, most don’t know of their existence. You can’t care about something if you don’t know about it. I decided to do a basic book about how moon bears live in the wild, where they should be living, rather than go deeply into the other issues.”
Finding an author for the book was easy, says Godwin, who has worked with Guiberson on various projects over the past 20 years. “Brenda was the first person I thought of. She’s a wonderful researcher and a caring human being. She is passionate but careful and is not an alarmist writer.”
Guiberson, who had researched polar bears extensively to write Ice Bears, a 2008 Holt release, “jumped at the chance” to write Moon Bear. “I’ve never seen a moon bear, but I knew about them, and the fact that they can build their nests in trees, 60 feet off the ground, fascinated me,” she says. To research the species, the author “got hold of every bear book I could find, and contacted different bear experts and organizations, to make sure I was able to get a feel for these bears.”
At the time she wrote the simple, poetic text of Moon Bear, Guiberson was also working on Earth: Feeling the Heat, which Holt released this spring. “After trying different ways to present the information in that book so it would be understandable to kids, I came up with a question-and-answer format,” she notes. When it came to writing Moon Bear, she used a similar narrative style. “The way to write this book fell into place quite quickly, since the question-and-answer rhythm was already in my head.”
Like Guiberson, Ed Young did not hesitate at all to sign on to the Moon Bear project. In fact, Godwin, who had worked with Young for many years, recalls that when she approached the artist at a conference to ask of his interest in illustrating the book, “he immediately said, ‘Count me in,’ without even seeing a manuscript.” Young notes, “I trust Laura’s judgment and she seemed to have a particular love for this story, so I was happy to take it on.”
Soon after that conversation, and before he’d even signed a contract, Young began working on his illustrations—fittingly while on a plane to China. Armed with research about moon bears, he faced the challenge of creating the cut-paper collages, using a combination of photos, magazines, and paper he made himself. “I knew this wouldn’t be an easy book to make,” he says. “The story doesn’t have many characters except the bear and I knew I had to create pictures that would keep readers excited and eager to move on—that would carry that fire all the way from beginning to end.”
Though Godwin was committed to publishing Moon Bear even before she contacted Animals Asia, she says that partnering with the foundation “was a bonus.” Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group has established Team Moon Bear, an initiative to raise $10,000 to fund the adoption of a bear that Animals Asia will rescue and care for at one of its sanctuaries. The publisher will match the first $5,000 raised through its dedicated Web site. The site includes ideas for fund-raising activities and a video showcasing Young’s illustrations and rescued moon bears at play.
Godwin, who reports that the fundraising campaign is already halfway to its goal, notes that her imprint will shed further light on moon bears in another book, likely coming out in 2012. With a working title of Meet the Moon Bear, this photographic picture book will feature the work of Mark Newman, who is currently in China photographing some of the 270 bears at Animals Asia’s sanctuary there. (The foundation has a second sanctuary in Vietnam.)
Young offers a heartwarming postscript to the story of Moon Bear’s creation. The artist, who grew up in Shanghai, was given a 100-year-old wooden bear while visiting his mother many years ago. “Though I didn’t remember it, she told me I had played with the toy bear when I was a boy, and she’d kept it over the years, through many moves,” he explains. “She said it belonged to me, so I should take it back to the U.S. with me.”
When Young took the toy down from its shelf while working on his collages for Moon Bear, hoping it would help him envision the book character from different angles, he made a discovery. “It was so old that the color had rubbed off, but I could see that, sure enough, this was actually a moon bear,” he says. “My work on this book was meant to be.”
Young took the bear with him one day to a luncheon with Godwin and Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, whom he’d never met. “I gave Jill the bear,” he says. “I told her that I’d done my share about the moon bear, and that this wooden bear was now meant to be with her. That’s where it belongs.”