Bear is Never Alone – Marc Veerkamp and Jeska Verstegen

Bear Is Never Alone by Marc Veerkamp, Jeska Verstegen
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on April 4, 2023
Genres: Children's
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A stirring, thoughtful story about the pressure to perform and the support of a true friend.

When Bear sits down at the piano, he makes beautiful music, and the other animals can’t get enough. “More, more, Pianobear!” they shout. But sometimes Bear just wants to relax. Even when he tries to escape to a quiet tree branch, the voices follow him: “More! More! More!” Finally Bear snaps. No one seems to understand why he’s so upset—except Zebra. Zebra loves Bear’s music, but she doesn’t ask him to start playing again. Instead, she brings over a book…

This moving story is the perfect companion for social-emotional lessons about choosing solitude, respecting boundaries, and building interpersonal awareness. Illustrated in striking shades of black, white, and red, Bear Is Never Alone encourages young readers to notice others’ needs and care for them with kindness.

Bear is Never Alone is the story of a Bear. He is never alone. I think we tend to take that phrase as a positive, given that loneliness and isolation are epidemic in modern society (where, ironically, we are more connected than ever, but I digress). Bear is Never Alone inverts that trope by giving us a Bear who is constantly being needed and used for his talent. Bear plays the piano beautifully.

But the forest wants more than he can give. MORE! MORE! MORE! But Bear only wants to rest. Bear wants to be alone. ROOOOOOOARRR!!!! He scares even himself. Everyone goes away except for one animal. Zebra. Zebra offers to read Bear a story. And the two decide to be alone together.

Bear is Never Alone is an exploration of emotion. Bear has a thing he loves to do, but he doesn’t love other people making him do it. Bear doesn’t mind people. But he does mind the demands people put on him. Bear gives and gives and gives, but is anybody giving back? I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I think this book’s point should be made more obvious. Everyone takes from Bear, using his talent for their enjoyment. Only one person offers to give something back. Only one person stays when Bear stops being “useful.” That’s a deep and poignant theme that goes almost unexpressed.

Bear is Never Alone is a book that will allow children to explore and understand their own emotions. (And maybe help parents—who often place performative demands on their children—understand their children’s emotions as well.) It gives readers a chance to talk about Bear’s emotional outburst when he became overwhelmed. It gives readers the opportunity to discuss how they could be like Zebra (and how Zebra was willing to take ‘no’ for an answer.) It gives readers space to understand how we should treat others. I do wish it made those points a bit more pointedly, but it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking book.