It’s normal for a young polar bear’s mother to abandon him—that’s how the bears learn to fend for themselves. Unfortunately for Waluk, when his mother leaves he’s faced with slimmer pickings than polar bears past. The Arctic is losing ice, which makes it hard for polar bears to catch seals, their primary prey. Food is scarce and Waluk doesn’t know how to hunt for it.
Enter Manitok, an old bear with a giving nature. Manitok may be missing some teeth and have a poor sense of smell, but he knows how things work in the Arctic. He teaches Waluk about everything from hunting seals and dealing with scavenger foxes to stories of the Great Bear Nanook. He also introduces Waluk to other polar bears.
Manitok has experience with the human invaders of the Arctic. He knows how to get food from humans, whether it’s taking handouts from tourists or raiding a dump. But that knowledge doesn’t keep Manitok from getting caught in a trap. Now it’s up to Waluk to save his friend and come into his own as a polar bear.
This book is packed with facts about polar bears and other animals, climate change, and human activity in the Arctic. A lot of this information is conveyed through the story, as when Manitok teaches Waluk to hunt seals by waiting next to their breathing holes in the ice. More information appears in an author’s note at the end of the book. The educational aspect of Waluk isn’t subtle, but it doesn’t bog the story down. It isn’t always totally clear whether a given event in the story reflects fact or artistic license. For example, polar bears certainly do wait beside seal holes to catch seals, but reports are conflicting on whether they really cover their black noses to help them hide in the white Arctic landscape (many sources report that this is apocryphal). Much of the factual information in the story, though, is confirmed in the author’s note.
Despite being a book about white bears in the snow, Waluk defies any expectations of colorlessness. Some pages are splashed with color, as when the hungry Waluk gorges on duck eggs at a nesting ground, or the beautiful appearance of the northern lights. In other places, unnatural hues subtly highlight the appearance of humans and their flotsam in the Arctic world. Even when things are at their most monochromatic, the artist brings enormous variation to shadows on the snow, reflections on ice, and exposed rock. The watercolor-type style lends itself well to the snowy setting, while strong black lines keep characters and features of the landscape easily readable.
Other polar bears and humans have speaking roles, but Waluk and Manitok are the only named characters (besides the Great Bear Nanook), and most of the story follows just the two of them. This is a smart call visually, since the polar bears tend to look rather similar. Waluk and Manitok are easily differentiated, even at a distance, by size. It also adds to the sense of a vast, lonely frozen landscape that we spend most of the story with just one or two characters wandering around.
This is a book I would happily hand to young readers who are interested in the Arctic and its animals or who are curious about climate change. The author’s note provides a brief, child-friendly explanation of the science involved and the story itself is positive and enjoyable. It’s a kind of polar bear coming-of-age tale.