Wandering through Grief Towards Reassurance with Bear Island
Written and Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Published by Fiewel and Friends 2021
“It’s not fair…,” thought Louise… “when the things we love must end.” In Bear Island, Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Matthew Cordell affirms for children that they can find resilience and hope in the midst of grief. With deep respect for the child as a reader, Cordell gently invites readers in the opening pages to infer that Louise’s beloved dog, Charlie, has passed away. In the pages that follow, Louise ventures out to an island thinking about Charlie. There, we witness the range of emotions Louise experiences as she processes her grief. She thwacks a tree and declares “I’m leaving”. She stares in wonder at a kaleidoscope of butterflies and delights in the sudden appearance of deer. Just when she is feeling “something new and good was happening” both on the island and within her, comes a disgruntled bear who confronts Louise with a raging ROAR only to be roared at even more ferociously by Louise. With the bear defeated and dejected, Louise ventures away only to look back at the bear to notice “a familiar feeling, a familiar sadness”. From that moment of shared recognition, the bear and Louise forge a bond in their journey towards healing. Cordell’s loose pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations complement and extend the print inviting children to lean into the emotional tone of each page. Full of possibilities for deep and meaningful literacy engagements, Bear Island opens the door for children to talk about loss and sadness through a soulful narrative that offers a model for emotional recovery by connecting with nature and through the simple passage of time. With rare subtlety and without a trace of didaticism, Cordell’s Bear Island is a gift for this moment–both timely and timeless.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classrooms
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!
The Loss of a Loved One. Bear Island gently introduces young readers to the realities that beloved pets, and by extension, family members, sometimes pass away. We recommend reading aloud Bear Island without forcing conversation about loss or trauma on children. Rather, the story itself may invite students to share connections about losing someone special in their own lives. Prior to initiating a conversation about grief and loss, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (2015) encourages adults to develop their own awareness about such topics. NIH recommends demonstrating an openness that invites children to communicate, to show acceptance toward children’s feelings, to offer honest information, to answer questions in understandable and age-appropriate language, and, to reflect on your own feelings and beliefs in order to talk with children. If you have students that seem comforted by Bear Island or curious about other stories that help address grief and loss, we recommend books such as The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (dog), Blue by Laura Vacarro Seeger (dog), Rosie and Crayon (dog), Ocean Meets Sky by Terry and Eric Fan (grandparent), Grandmother’s Visit by Betty Quan (grandparent), The Remember Balloons by Jesse Oliveros (grandparent), One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole (grandparent), French Toast Sundays by Gloria Spielman (grandparent), Always Remember by Cece Meng, The Dandelion’s Tale by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham, The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr, The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, Ida, Always by Caron Levis, and Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper. We also recommend reading Maeve Visser Knoth’s article “What Ails Bibliotherapy” from The Horn Book Magazine to consider the role of “advance bibliotherapy” to help prepare children for emotional experiences before they occur. In this way, books such as Bear Island play an essential role to inoculate children rather than treat the symptoms of emotional trauma when they occur.
Complex Characters Invite Us to Become More Human. Cordell’s honest portrayal of a child’s grief after losing a pet reminds readers that being human can be hard. Engage in character analysis of Louise by inviting students to describe her strengths and her struggles. Consider creating a lifesize cutout or collaborative graphic organizer of Louise for students to identify what’s in her head and what’s in her heart as a way to extend their thinking. Invite students to identify other characters that help us to think about the complexities of being human and the gift of our existence. Create a class chart of these characters that serves as an interactive writing invitation all year long.
The Power of Craft Techniques. With only a few sentences on each page, Bear Island is an ideal text for students to notice and name craft techniques. Support students to notice the use of repetition, punctuation for effect, transitional words and phrases, a variety of sentence types and lengths, fragments for effect, dialogue, and sound words in bold. Encourage students to identify the craft techniques they want to incorporate into their own writing. Once techniques are identified, place Bear Island in an accessible book area with pages marked with sticky notes to let students know where these craft techniques appear, so they can refer to them when they need a mentor text for their own writing. You may also want to photocopy pages that contain particular craft techniques as part of a conferring toolkit to support individual writers.
A Touch of Magical Realism. While we know that animals and humans can connect in profound ways, they can’t quite engage in the ways that Louise and the bear do in Bear Island. Invite students to consider the touch of magical realism that Matthew Cordell gives to the book and how it enhances our experiences as readers. On what pages and in what ways does Cordell play with our imaginations through the connection between the bear and Louise? What can humans and bears do and not do? How would the story have been different without this touch of magical realism? Invite students to play with touches of magical realism in their own storytelling and story creating.
Close Reading: Illustrations that Reveal Feelings Change. How we process grief is personal, yet one thing we may have in common is a range of feelings that we experience including anger, despair, and acceptance. Support students to discuss how Cordell uses illustration techniques to convey the emotions that Louise feels over the course of the story. How does the use of sepia and soft colors convey the past as well as deep sadness? At what moment in the story do the colors start to change? What might that reveal about Louise? What are other ways Cordell expresses emotion through his illustrations such as through the facial expressions and body language of characters? After exploring the illustrations, have students create their own illustrations using ink and watercolor to portray a scene from their own lives where they experienced strong emotions.
Bookmaking. Bear Island offers a mentor text for students to create their own books using a variety of illustration techniques. Each page of Bear Island is worthy of close investigation and offers replicable techniques for students to illustrate their own stories with a focus on: the use of white space, double-page spreads, color for effect, paneling, wordless pages, and Cordell’s signature binocular-effect layout. Students may want to draw from Cordell’s techniques to illustrate stories they have already written, or your students may want to take inspiration from the story itself to make books about times when they experienced strong emotions or lost a loved one.
Duet Model: Wolf in the Snow and Bear Island. Pair a reading of Bear Island with Matthew Cordell’s Caldecott-winning Wolf in the Snow. Invite students to engage in text comparisons of the two books including illustration techniques, a reverence for animals, human-animal connections, a touch of magical realism, strong family ties, winter settings, and the circular nature of both stories. Create an anchor chart or graphic organizer that supports students to find similarities and differences between the two books noticing and naming what they see and what the stories make them think.
Change and Constancy Text Set. Gather books that explore change and constancy, such as Brenden Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still and Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened to help your students understand that while change is a constant in our lives (both rapid change and slow change), there are elements of beauty in life that endure. Also support students to consider how characters process unexpected challenges in life through the help of others, by spending time in nature, or by simply allowing time to heal. Encourage students to consider how they can help support others in the future who have experienced sudden change in life by asking questions like “What do you need?” and by simply demonstrating compassion through listening and being present for those we love.
Beloved Animals as Deuteragonist Characters. Pets and beloved animals make wonderful deuteragonists, or characters that are second-in-command to the protagonist. The bear serves as a significant character in Bear Island as the wolf pup does in Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow. Students may be familiar with deuteragonist characters from Disney stories including Dory in Finding Nemo, Nala in The Lion King, or Miss Piggy in The Muppets. Introduce the concept of deuteragonist characters to students and invite them to create their own narratives with a human protagonist and animal deuteragonist or two animal characters where one is the lead and the other is a nearly equal partner in the narrative.
Author Study. Matthew Cordell’s books are beloved by readers of all ages for their gentle pacing and reassuring narratives. Invite students to engage in an author study by noticing and naming comparisons across the books he has written and/or illustrated. How would they describe his illustration style? What seems important to him based on the characters and themes of his stories? What do they notice about the books he illustrates but doesn’t write? What can they learn about his life and influences from online research? Follow his Twitter (@cordellmatthew) or Instagram (@cordell_matthew) account as a class for updates on his work.
Matthew Cordell’s Instagram
Interview with Matthew Cordell about Bear Island
Horn Book: What Ails Bibliotherapy?
Sesame Workshop: Helping Kids Grieve
Scholastic Website: About Children and Grief
Written or Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Arnold, M.D. (2015). Lost. Found. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.
Cordell, M. (2020). Hello, neighbor: The kind and caring world of Mr. Rogers. New York, NY: Neal Porter Books.
Cordell, M. (2017). Dream (Wish). New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.
Cordell, M. (2015). Wish. New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.
Dotlich, R.K. (2016). The knowing book. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Levine, G.C. (2012). Forgive me, I meant to do it. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Picturebooks to Support Children with Grief and Loss
Cole, H. (2020). One little bag: An amazing journey. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Cooper, E. (2017). Big cat, little cat. New York, NY: MacMillan.
Fan, T. & Fan, E. (2018). When ocean meets sky. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Higginbotham, A. (2016). Death is stupid. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.
Jeffers, O. (2010). The heart and the bottle. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Levis, C. (2016). Ida, always. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Lies, B. (2018). The rough patch. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.
Marcero, D. (2017). Rosie and crayon. White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press.
Meng, C. (2016). Always remember. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Oliveros, J. (2018). The remember balloons. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Parr, T. (2015). The goodbye book. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Quan, B. (2018). Grandmother’s visit. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood Books.
Seeger, L.V. (2018). Blue. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.
Sheehan, K. & Dunlavey, (2014). The dandelion’s tale. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade.
Spielman, G. (2018). French toast Sundays. Springfield, NJ: Apples and Honey Press.
Varley, S. (1992). Badger’s parting gifts. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Other Recommended Resources
Dávila, D. Melilli, A., Canady, F., Dunham, H., Alexander, K., Li, K. (2019). Picturebooks and the cycle of grief. Journal of Children’s Literature, 45(2), 88–96.
National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. (2015). Talking to children about death. Bethesda, MD: Author.
About Katie Cunningham
Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.
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