Lars, also known as Hans de Beer’s ever-friendly Little Polar Bear, returns next month in his ninth adventure, Little Polar Bear and the Whales. This character’s popularity and the new book’s timely environmental warning—chunks of ice from a melting glacier block a pod of whales’ passage from the bay to the sea—inspired the publisher to name 2009 “The Year of the Little Polar Bear.” And North-South Books has some celebratory plans in place.

At the heart of the campaign is an event kit featuring a poster, activities and a discussion guide, which will be available through the publisher’s Web site and at trade conventions. Also included in the kit is contact information for environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Jane Goodall Institution’s Roots & Shoots, and suggestions for ways that retailers and young readers can work with these groups.

Booksellers interested in organizing a Little Polar Bear event that entails a partnership with or benefit for an environmental organization can e-mail their plans to the publisher by January 12. Five stores will be selected to receive an event kit, sample copies of Little Polar Bear and the Whales and advance copies of Little Polar Bear Finds a Friend (a board book due in June); they will also have the publisher’s brand-new Little Bear costume delivered to their doors. All submitted event ideas will be posted on North-South’s Web site.

The house first introduced American readers to Lars with 1987’s Little Polar Bear, originally published in Switzerland by NordSüd Verlag.

. This debut book and its sequels have since been released in 18 languages in 27 countries and have sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone.

The Little Polar Bear costume, making an appearance at the Southern Festival of Books.

Heather Lennon, North-South’s sales and marketing manager, believes the success of the Little Polar Bear books is rooted in de Beer’s engaging art, as well as in the protagonist’s personality. “Lars is kind and makes friends wherever he goes,” she says. “I think children like the fact that Lars is a little Polar bear. He’s not big, but he still has adventures and makes a difference. The books really stress how important it is to be a helper—in every situation.”

In his newest escapade, Lars protects the whales from hunters and finds an inventive way to ensure that the stranded creatures reach the sea. The author had been mulling over this plot for a while before he created the book. “For this particular story, I was ‘helped’ by a meeting with a school class in France some years ago,” de Beer explains. “The youngsters and I made a little picture story with Lars and a whale family which had been trapped. It was a totally different story from the one in the book, but it showed me the potential of little Lars with the big whales.”

Hans de Beer.

De Beer is hoping that his latest book will spark conversations about environmental concerns. “Of course talking about whales and polar bears, one just has to touch on environmental themes, like whale hunting and global warming,” he says. “The book offers a great opportunity for parents to explain and discuss these things with their children.”

The timing of this proclamation is fitting, says Lennon, noting that polar bears have been increasingly in the news since the U.S. Department of the Interior announced this year that the polar bear would be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. “Little Polar Bear and the Whales has a very gentle environmental theme and we thought this was the perfect time to create more classroom materials, posters and information about both the Little Polar Bear series and real polar bears,” she says.

What’s next up for de Beer’s Arctic ursine? For the moment, the author has no new Little Polar Bear adventures planned, but “this is quite normal,” he says. “The series was never planned as a series and every adventure is, in theory, the last one. In practice, every new idea can lead to another Little Polar Bear story.”

Little Polar Bear and the Whales by Hans de Beer. North-South, $16.95 ISBN 978-0-7358-2209-2