We are delighted to welcome Dai Yun to the blog with a Q&A that shares some brilliant insights into the story and how schools may choose to use it.
Can you tell us a bit about your new book?
Where Can We Go? follows the home-searching journey of a polar bear family: Papa, Mama, Masha and Misha. It begins with a familiar problem: the living conditions in the Arctic are getting dire and the bears are starving. The story takes a turn from there as the bears decide to embark on a quest for a new home. Drawn to a human town by the scent of discarded food in a landfill, they settle down in someone’s apartment. Oblivious to the upheaval they cause, the bears spend some good days living a quasi-human life before they start to miss friends and the taste of seals again. So, they turn to books and TV, and have a discussion about where to go next. The story has an open ending. The bears set off again with a perfect destination in mind, but we don’t know how the journey ends.
Where did you get the inspiration for this story?
I was inspired by the true ‘mass invasion’ of over 50 polar bears into an Arctic town in February 2019. They feasted in the landfill, walked into residential buildings and supermarkets, and even had some fun on a school playground.
Your stories often include themes of the environment and protecting the natural world – is this deliberate; something you feel deeply about?
It was never deliberate. I am a storyteller. When I consider whether to pursue a story idea, my foremost and, in many cases, only concern is whether it is a good story for children. It is only when I look back at the stories I’ve written that I recognize a consistent pull toward issues related to the environment and wildlife. So, this creative process is also a process of self-discovery for me. I do feel deeply about the environment, but I also write stories that are not related to the environment as long as I find them compelling.
What did you think when you first saw the illustrations for the book?
Oh, it took my breath away! So much better than I expected even though I had very high expectations. Igor is a master. He brought so much into this book. Also, I felt the exhilaration of being instantly understood by someone I had never met. This is not a traditional narrative of the polar bear predicament, both in terms of its plot and style. Igor immediately grasped the irony and humour, and elevated it to another level.
There is a kind of reverse-Goldilocks thread running through the story where we see the bears squeezing into chairs, making a mess etc. Igor captures this brilliantly in his illustrations – was it something you discussed / planned together?
The manuscript I gave to Igor included illustration notes that explained the narrative’s visual aspects—those elements that I wished to convey through images rather than words. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing for picture books is that you can harness the interplay between the words and images to deliver the story – sometimes in contrast, other times in synergy. Remarkably, Igor not only captured these dynamics brilliantly, but also enhanced it with his own amazing creative touch. In fact, he hid a Goldilocks in the story. Can you spot her?
I think the book can be read on many levels – perhaps only older children and adults will pick up on some of the more subtle messages, like when the bears find ‘delicious’ new food in the dump. Did you find it difficult to balance these messages / the dark humour and not make the story too heavy?
Yes, that was a challenge. I suppose if you want to write about environmental issues, it is difficult to avoid ‘heavy’ stories. However, there are still many things a writer can do to make them relatable and approachable to children, like using empathy and humour. Also, I always read my stories aloud every time I complete a draft. I would imagine that I’m reading to a child or a group of children sitting beside me. If something feels too heavy in that scenario, I will make changes accordingly.
I like to write stories that have multiple layers, and I don’t expect children to get every level immediately. What really matters is whether they enjoy the story and get something meaningful out of it, no matter which ‘level’ they are at. I think it’s wonderful that each time you open the book, you might discover something new, and it’s cool that as you grow older, this book grows richer in flavour and means more to you.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s fun for readers to interpret the book in their own ways. While I initially wrote the story with an environmental perspective in mind, many people now view it as a story about immigration. This happens all the time – how books resonate with people largely depends on the readers’ personal experiences. However, I believe that most of the messages that readers take away from the book revolve around a common theme – the concept of HOME, which I hope this book can inspire readers to explore, whether it’s home for wildlife or human beings.
How do you hope schools might use the book?
This book is great for classroom discussions, and some teachers have even adapted it into a mini play.
I hope teachers can guide children to explore the gold mine of visual elements in the book because a big part of the story is told through the images. For instance:
· How do the polar bears’ appearances change over time, and why?
· Pay attention to Masha’s toy. What is it? What happens to it?
· Can you find the Goldilocks?
· On the last page, a new name pops up. Who is Aisha? Where is she on the page? And where does she come from?
There are still many more, so let the children have fun exploring the wonderful images that are rich in references, humour and symbolic meanings.
This book also opens the doors to in-depth yet child-friendly discussions that might be challenging to have in our everyday lives. This is especially true for the latter part of the story when the bears discuss where to find their next home. Every single option they consider presents an opportunity for informative, interesting, and thought-provoking discussions on history, ecology and the concept of home:
· The Zoo: What is this place? Is it a good home for the bears since it offers food and safety? Why do people create zoos, and are they a good idea?
· The Ice Age: What is this animal? What is ice age? What happened to the earth’s climate during that time? What is happening to the climate now? How does this affect the polar bears?
· The Moon: Who or what is this big, white “animal” that the bears think could become their friend? Why do people want to go to the moon? Could the moon be a good home for humans?
· The Antarctic: Where is this perfect home the polar bears think they have discovered, and is it truly perfect? Will they be able to reach it, and if not, where can they go? What can we do to help them in finding a perfect home?
The breadth and depth of these discussions can be adjusted based on the children’s age, and I believe that children of various age groups can get something out of such conversations.
What are your top tips for budding young writers?
Writing does not happen on its own. We cannot write well on things that are not in our minds or hearts. So go about your life with a widely open mind and a widely open heart. Fill them with up with questions and thoughts, with happiness and sorrows, with observations and dreams. When they’re brimming and ready to spill over, you can start writing.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes, I’m presently working with illustrators and editors on several books. One of them also carries an environmental theme and is also being illustrated by a picture book maestro who, like Igor, is a recipient of the prestigious Christian Andersen Award. It’s a tale on “rewilding” and is inspired by a true story from India. I travelled to India earlier this year and visited a tiger reserve for research on this story. It was thrilling to see tigers walking about only a few meters away in the wilderness. This new book has a more proactive spirit and a stronger sense of hope.
Where Can We Go? by Dai Yun, illustrated by Igor Oleynikov, adapted by Helen Mixter, is published by Greystone Kids, hardback. Out now. www.greystonebooks.com