FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – THE GREAT BEAR by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder

In our second Friday Book Feature we are looking at a new edition of an old favourite – The Great Bear, written by Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Armin Greder.

The circus bear spends her days in her cage and her nights performing for a crowd. The crowd taunts her as she dances – poking her with sticks or throwing stones. Can she ever break free?

I was first fascinated by the story of The Great Bear when I heard Libby Gleeson talk about it at a writer’s conference.

As a writer I was intrigued with the journey to publication and the fact that both author and illustrator collaborated on this book right from the start.

This is an unusual process for a picture book to go through as often the illustrator is selected after the text has been completed.

The story began with a dream of Libby Gleeson’s in which a bear escaped from taunting villagers by climbing a flagpole. It ended up being so much more.

Libby says, “The creating of this story was a genuine collaboration”. Armin urged her to become more focussed on the myth and poetry in the writing and she suggested he create the sky as a character.

There are so many compelling things about this book. It is a story of many layers allowing readers the space to interpret it in their own way.

The simple narrative of a bear escaping cruelty is just the first layer. Beneath it are themes of empowerment and freedom, about our right to live with dignity.

In the collaboration process, Armin suggested that the text in the last half of the book be removed because he felt that words and illustrations were repeating each other rather than blending together and complimenting each other.

Dropping the words allows the pictures to carry the story and avoid repetition. It also allows the reader to be set free.

It’s a simply told story with compelling illustrations and complex themes of empowerment and finding out who we really are.

The Great Bear was first published by Scholastic in 1999. A new edition has just been released by Walker Books Australia ISBN 9781921529696.

It is part of the Walker Classic series – new editions of Australian and New Zealand picture books. The series features new designs and additional notes from the author and illustrator and comments from an authority on children’s books.

The Great Bear is a picture book for children aged 5-8.