Waluk: The Great Journey

Waluk: The Great JourneyIn this book’s opening, the titular Waluk, a young polar bear orphaned as a cub, happens upon an older bear named Manitou. The two form a beneficial partnership in which Manitou shares his wisdom with the young Waluk, and Waluk helps Manitou (who’s missing a few teeth) hunt for food. The story moves through a series of episodes in which the two polar bears interact with other bears, humans, a snowy owl, and a team of sled dogs. The events of the story highlight real challenges faced by animals in the Arctic. These include difficulty finding enough food, which leads a mother polar bear to team up with Waluk and Manitou, and the encroachment of shipping lanes into the bears’ habitat as the ice caps thaw. While portraying realistic conditions, the book also contains fantastical elements such as great animals who appear in the sky to assist in times of trouble, and a giant white dog who comes to the rescue when sled dogs are threatened by their owner. 

The full-color watercolor illustrations present the animals and the Arctic landscape in beautiful detail. The book is laid out with typically four to six panels per page in a landscape style, allowing the art to take center stage, while the text per page is minimal. Characters are clearly defined, with a few brief moments when some of the polar bears can be difficult to tell apart. A clear contrast is shown between the animals with their shades of white, brown, and black, and the humans who introduce colors unnatural to the setting such as red, and yellow.

While episodic, the events of the book tie together as Waluk and Manitou encounter a pair of humans and their team of sled dogs in multiple circumstances. One small episode that stands apart from this continuity is when Waluk is briefly entangled in a research robot of some kind. This event seems out of place, though it does continue the theme of the bears facing off against human intervention. The majority of the humans present in the book cause trouble for the animals, whether intentionally or through ignorance. Nevertheless, while humans might meddle with nature, the story shows the natural world with the power to overcome those challenges. 

While Waluk: The Great Journey contains beautiful artwork and a positive message about conservation, its portrayal of the culture and mythology of indigenous Northern peoples is problematic, and the book has proved controversial. The many animals which appear in the sky at the book’s climax, along with a great dog which helps the animals, seem designed to mimic Native beliefs while not corresponding to the true mythology of any indigenous group. Furthermore, the character of Manitou was named “Eskimo” in advance copies of the book and later changed. Scattered textual errors, probably due to translation problems, make the text awkward in places. It is unfortunate that a book with such beautiful artwork and an important message about protecting the environment is marred by cultural insensitivity. 

Waluk: The Great Journey
By Emilio Ruiz
Art by Ana Miralles
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781951719050

Publisher Age Rating: grades 4-6

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: First Nations or Indigenous,