I am a Bear, by Jean-François Dumont; Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, $16.00, 34 pages, ages 4-7.

Hawaii is making news this morning for declaring a state of emergency in order to deal with its surging homeless population, and the story brings up an interesting point: What’s the best way to discuss this with young children? Jean-Francois Dumont’s I am Bear tackles the subject with grace and sensitivity. Winner of the 2004 Prix Saint-Exupery, Dumont explores how societies often dehumanize the homeless by setting a bear right in the middle of a big (Parisian-esque) city. The bear doesn’t know how he arrived on the streets, or what circumstances led him to sleeping under in cardboard boxes, but there he is, like so many of the urban homeless who’ve become faceless and invisible. There’s a lot going on here – compassion, empathy, plenitude in the face of poverty – and yet the author manages to avoid being didactic by keeping the text simple and straightforward. Hope materializes in the welcoming smile of a little girl who looks beyond the dirt and tatters and sees a bear that reminds her of her own beloved playthings. Dumont’s illustrations highlight the duality of urban life and the willing refusal to see the suffering of those right on our doorsteps. This is a book that grows with children as their world becomes larger and they begin to notice people and things around them. While the girl’s compassion is encouraging, it’s not a panacea: The bear remains homeless, but through empathy grows the possibility for change.

As the holidays approach, and with them the usual Christmas/Kwanza/Hanukkah fare, consider this book as an unexpected, poignant, and relevant alternative to teaching kindness. 

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