The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Blurb On The Back:

They call me Yanka the bear.  Not because of where I was found – only a few people know about that.

Found abandoned in a bear cave as a baby, Yanka has always wondered where she is from.  She tries to ignore the strange whispers and looks from the villagers, wishing she was as strong inside as she is on the outside.  When Yanka has to flee her house, looking for answers about who she really is, a journey far beyond anything she ever imagined begins – from icy rivers to smouldering mountains, meeting an ever-growing herd of extraordinary friends along the way. 

You can buy THE GIRL WHO SPEAKS BEAR by Sophie Anderson from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

12-year-old Yanka lives in a village on the southern edge of The Snow Forest with her Mamochka, the village’s healer who found her in a bear cave when she was just a toddler.  The only other person who knows Yanka’s origins is her best friend, 10-year-old Sasha.  The villagers all call her ‘Yanka the Bear’ because she’s so big and strong compared with everyone else in the village – even the adults – and while it’s mostly meant affectionately, it makes her feel more like an outsider. Still, Yanka enjoys village life, particularly the visits from Anatoly, a hunter who lives alone in the forest but who brings gifts and more importantly, stories of the Forest and of the Bear Tsar and Bear Tsarina who live there and of Princess Nastasya who battled Smey the fire dragon.  

When Yanka is chosen to carry the Winter doll at a festival celebrating the coming of spring, she’s really proud.  But the festival doesn’t go as planned and leaves her feeling more self-conscious and alienated from the villagers than ever.  Things get worse when she is knocked unconscious in an accident and wakes up to discover that she has bear legs and can understand what animals such as her house weasel, Mousetrap, are saying.  Mamochka wants her to go to hospital for treatment, but Yanka is sure that the answer to her condition lies in the Forest and, urged on by the bullfinches who live there, she runs away to try and find answers to who she is and how she can fix her condition …

Sophie Anderson’s Russian-folklore inspired fantasy for children aged 9+ is a beautifully written affair about feeling different, being true to yourself and accepting help from friends.  Kathrin Honesta’s deceptively simple illustrations really complement the sense of melancholy and regret that runs through the book.  The pacing slightly sags in the final quarter so some characters get lost but it’s a satisfying read that’s definitely worth a look.

This book is set in the same world as Anderson’s debut fantasy novel, THE HOUSE WITH CHICKEN LEGS (which I had heard good things about on release but not checked out – a mistake that I will definitely be rectifying).  Anderson takes inspiration from Russian folklore and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she weaves this into the book, from the Baba Yagas and their chicken legged house (a really gorgeous depiction where Anderson manages to give the house a fully formed personality) to the stories that Anatoly and others share of the Forest and its inhabitants.  Anderson’s particularly clever with these stories because of the way they offer backstory to Yanka’s predicament and suggest how she can get the answers she needs while also leaving room for some twists that I had not been expecting but which are nonetheless neatly seeded.

Yanka herself is a really well drawn character.  I totally believed in her self-consciousness and feeling of alienation and with her yearning for answers about where she came from and how she ended up in a bear cave.  I also enjoyed her friendship with the bubbly Sasha and would have liked to have seen more of this because after a strong start he does get lost a bit in the subsequent events of the book, becoming more of a plot device than a supporting character.  The same concern also applies to some of the friends Yanka makes in the Forest, notably Elena who lives with the Baba Yaga, Yuri the elk, Ivan the wolf and Blakiston the owl.  In contrast, there’s more of an emotional core to Yanka’s relationship with her Mamochka, which I found very touching and also well handled is her encounter with the Bear Tsarina.  The best relationship though is with Moustrap the proud, belligerent and very confident weasel, who was probably my favourite character in the book and who is Yanka’s fiercest ally and strongest defender.

Mention should be made of Kathrin Honesta’s illustrations.  They’re all in black and white and, on the face of them, seem deceptively simple but the way she places her figures and backgrounds really add to the sense of sadness and regret and the struggles that Yanka and her friends must overcome.  I thought they were gorgeously done, very evocative and really add to the text.

I did think that the pacing sagged slightly in the final quarter of the book. This is partly because I think the foreshadowing was slightly too heavy-handed but also because I think there were also too many characters for what needed to happen, with the result that (as I said above) some of the side characters don’t actually have a lot to do.  That said, I never lost interest in what was happening to Yanka and Anderson does a good job of drawing all the strands together to form a satisfying conclusion.

My quibbles aside, I did enjoy this book and have added THE HOUSE WITH CHICKEN LEGS to my To Buy List and will definitely be checking out what Anderson writes next.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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