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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 7 months ago

5/27/2001  BENNO'S BEAR by N.F. Zucker, Dutton Children's Books, October 2001


I remember as a four-year-old being driven to a nearby shopping center on Friday nights and being treated to my first real pony rides. Thirty-five years later with four-year-old Rosemary by my side, I got that same exhilarating sensation at Marine World, as towering giraffes wrapped their long tongues around apple slices we held out to them and as we got dragged through a sawdust pit while playing tug-of-war with a massive elephant.


Thus enchanted by close encounters with big animals, I have imagined from time to time what it would be like to stumble upon a crowd on the street watching a dancing bear in the same manner that I come across crowds in Penn Station or Fisherman's Wharf who are watching street entertainers. Certainly my enduring fascination for tame bears was set forever in reading John Irving (HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, SETTING FREE THE BEARS) twenty years ago and further whetted in the '90s by Ben Mikaelsen.


And so, to my good fortune, I felt drawn to read a first novel involving a tame bear. In BENNO'S BEAR, author Naomi Zucker has written in a style which results in a realistic Old World flavor and grayness settling over the story.


Set in Central Europe in the 1870s, we begin the story by slipping into a cell with Benno, a young boy being held for pickpocketing. His father, who plays the concertina, and his bear, whom he has raised from a tiny cub, are his "lookaways" and are also being locked up.


"...Please, I thought, please don't put him in this cell with me. Fear was rising in me like the flooding river. The bear stopped moaning. She knew the sound of Papa's boots. She knew that if she moaned again, he'd take his stick to her. But my keeping silent wouldn't keep Papa's stick from me..."


This is a thought-provoking, personal narrative, in which we learn of Benno's childhood and watch his coming of age. His relationship with Bear is everything I hoped for, and more. Though set in a distant time and place, the themes are relevant today and universal.


While the publisher has targeted this for 9-12, its sophistication and power will certainly captivate older readers.


Richie Partington

Richie's Picks



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