23 Nov / Moon Bear by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Alessandro Gottardo
I’m warning you right up front: get the tissues ready. A tweenage boy forced to live away from his family just after his father’s death, a baby bear who has lost his mother, evil-doers bent on suffering and destruction, complicit everyday people made desperate by circumstances – yes, Moon Bear has all the ingredients necessary for a heart-crunching, defense-shredding, cry-inducing whopper of a resonating story.
Tam once lived in a faraway mountain village in Laos with his extended family. But so-called progress comes in the form of a highway that wipes out their homes and scatters the entire community to an unfamiliar new location with empty promises of wealth, education, and convenience. Tam is just 12 when his father is killed by a leftover bomb while working in the fields, and he’s sent alone to the city to a very different sort of farm in order to support his mother and younger siblings.
The conditions on the “moon bear farm” are horrific and inhumane. Giant bears are cramped in tiny, filthy cages that Tam must clean out. The bears are treated with fear, relentlessly abused, and kept alive only to be “milked” for their bile which is believed to be a magical cure-all. When the owner buys a sickly baby bear, Tam recognizes the tiny cub from its distinctive crescent marking. The bear, too, is an orphan from Tam’s mountains, and Tam promises the seemingly impossible – that he will do anything and everything to get the cub back home to safety.
As British author Gill Lewis – who also happens to be a veterinarian – explains in her opening “Acknowledgements,” bear bile farming is indeed a terrifyingly real, highly lucrative industry. Thankfully, dedicated organizations like AnimalsAsia continue their work to end bear bile farming (as well as far too many other human abuses against helpless animals – leaving no doubt as to which is the worst species on our planet!). But there’s (always) hope: In addition to being a superbly written, universally resonating story about family and community, Moon Bear is also an excellent tool for sparking inspiration and providing education toward affecting international change. With texts like this, young readers today will surely make powerful advocates tomorrow.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult