An inquisitive polar bear named Duane befriends an array of animals as he discovers where he belongs in this charming classic-in-the making that’s reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh.
In the Very, Very Far North, past the Cold, Cold Ocean and just below the hill that looks like a baby whale, you’ll find Duane and his friends.
Duane is a sweet and curious young bear who makes friends with everyone he meets—whether they’re bossy, like Major Puff the puffin, or a bit vain, like Handsome the musk ox, or very, very shy, like Boo the caribou. For these arctic friends, every day is a new adventure!
1. DUANE ARRIVES, MAKES A FRIEND, AND FINDS A HOME AS THE STORY GOES, before there was Duane, there was C.C. Ask any of his friends, ask Sun Girl or Squint, and they would tell you the same.
One day, which is to say one Thursday, because all good stories start on a Thursday, Duane lumbered into the Very, Very Far North from somewhere else. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t expected. But it was summertime, so in a drowsy, lackadaisical frame of mind, Duane followed the shoreline of the Cold, Cold Ocean, paying no attention to anything other than the sound of the gentle lapping water. Eventually, he found himself on a beach that slanted at just the right angle to make it ideal for napping. Even better, behind the beach were marshes filled with long, tasty grass, and set farther back were bushes and bushes of delicious wild berries.
Duane prized three activities above all others. Since two of them happened to be napping and eating, he found this place to be more than agreeable. In fact, right then a nap was insisting itself upon Duane, who yawned in complete agreement. But when Duane stretched himself on his back to warm his tummy in the summer sun at just the right angle, his eyes caught sight of something curious off the coast. It was a ship, or rather, it was a shipwreck. Duane was not well-informed enough to know what either a ship or a shipwreck was, but I can tell all of you who do know that the tall wooden ship that had run aground was old. Only one of the three masts remained unbroken, and none still held its sails. The hull listed to one side, and a very large, splintery gash marred the bow.
Duane studied the shipwreck with great interest because Duane was a polar bear in possession of a curious nature. In the right situation, a nap and a snack could sometimes be put off for a little exploring. Exploring was Duane’s other most favorite activity. Toward the Cold, Cold Ocean he went, and with a splash, he was soon paddling to where his curiosity led.
He reached the shipwreck, swimming right through the gap, as the ship did not lack for seawater within, which sloshed back and forth against the thick wooden ribs of its dark belly. Duane swam toward midship, where a set of steep stairs invited him up to a level still inside the ship but above the water’s surface. With a couple of shakes, Duane dried himself off and began his exploring in earnest. Along the corridor were several rooms, some filled with boxes, others containing strange items he couldn’t name, but sadly, none, as far as his nose could tell, had anything to do with food. At the very end of the passageway was a door, slightly ajar with light spilling out. Also spilling out was the sound of a well-spoken voice. The voice was speaking Latin, which you may know, but Duane did not, nor do I, so I’m afraid I cannot translate.
“Cogito, cogitas, cogitat.”
How curious, thought Duane, making his way closer. Written on the door with beautiful flourishes in gold paint was a name, but time had faded most of the letters away so all that remained were two capital Cs. Duane, however, mistook them for two round eyes. When he pushed his snout through a gap, he was able to glimpse who was talking in that mysterious language.
“Ego descite, discis, et discit.”
Perched upon a wide oak table, among more strange items, Duane spied a snowy owl reading from a large open book. I would hasten to add that she was a very serious-looking owl, but I’m not sure if owls come in any other variety.
“Hello,” said Duane.
“Rogo, rogas, rogat—” The owl paused, looked up from the book, and rotated her head toward Duane. “Who might you be?” she inquired.
Here was a question never asked of Duane before. He gave it serious thought because he suspected that this was what the owl would want. “Well, I might be Kevin or Trevor . . . but I’d prefer to be myself, Duane.”
“Duane the polar bear.”
“Am I?” asked Duane.
“Most certainly,” said the owl with a curt nod. “I can show you a drawing of a creature that quite resembles you, and beneath the drawing it states emphatically that you are a polar bear.”
Using her wing, the owl flipped quickly through many pages of the book that sat on the table in front of her until she stopped and pointed with her other wing. Duane ventured closer and looked over the owl’s shoulder. “Huh! So I am.”
“And will you, Duane the polar bear, be staying here?”
“Here?” Duane looked around the room, with its many bookshelves and metal objects and such. Everything looked hard and had sharp edges. Other than the back wall, which consisted of mainly windows that allowed in lots of light, it was not nap-friendly in the least. And besides, wouldn’t it be an imposition? Duane felt he wasn’t anything more than an uninvited guest or a well-intentioned intruder. “Isn’t this your home?”
“It wasn’t at first, but it is now. I’ve grown fond of the library and the scientific instruments.”
“I’m not sure that I’d be comfortable here myself.”
“According to this book, you prefer living in snow caves.”
“According to me, as well,” agreed Duane, who considered himself more and more of an expert on the subject.
“However, we’re currently short of snow, it being summer. If you are willing to adapt, there is a rock cave not far from the beach you were about to take a nap upon. Follow me and I’ll show you.”
The owl took off from the table, flew out of one of the open windows, and then upward out of sight. Two polar-bear blinks later, she returned to find Duane standing exactly where she left him. “I should have mentioned that there is a set of stairs at the far end of the corridor that leads above deck.”
“Ah,” said Duane in understanding.
When they reunited atop the broken ship, Duane had thought up a question. “How did you know I was going to nap on the beach?”
“I used this telescope,” she said, flying over to the ship’s bow and perching upon a long brass tube mounted on a tripod. “Come look through this end.”
Duane did, and sure enough, there was the beach and the delicious grass and berry bushes, as if they were close enough to nibble on. But when the owl tilted the opposite end of the telescope up a bit, Duane could see a rock cave built into a hillside behind a field.
“It’s a very large cave,” explained the owl, “big enough for a polar bear’s needs, and not presently occupied.”
Duane had come from somewhere else, and now he was here. But what was here? Here was an excellent cave, and here was a perfect beach, and here was a place with plenty to eat. More importantly, even to a polar bear that puts napping and eating high on his priority list, here was a snowy owl nearby. She seemed very smart. She seemed very helpful. She seemed as if she could be a friend.
“I’ll take it,” said Duane, resolute. “Thank you, See-See.”
The owl now seemed surprised and puzzled. She flew off the telescope and landed a few feet away upon the unbroken mast. “Why did you call me C.C.?”
“It was on the door of your room. Two big round eyes to see with. I assumed it was your name.” What Duane did not know, but which I will tell you right now, is that before that moment, the owl had never been called See-See or C.C. It is still unclear whether the owl had any name at all prior to the one Duane gave her. Duane would eventually give names to all of his friends except for one, but C.C., as I shall now spell it, was his first. “Is it not your name?”
“It wasn’t, but on consideration, I think it shall be,” replied C.C. with another curt nod. “You’re very good at giving names, Duane the polar bear.”
This made Duane very happy, not just because he discovered a new talent, but also because giving a compliment is what friends do, and C.C. had done just that.
So Duane swam back from the shipwreck to claim his new home. He discovered that inside the cave was a soft feather mattress, somewhat old and musty, but still bliss to lie upon. Duane was enthralled.
Before he tucked in for the night, Duane stood silently at the mouth of his cave to take in the lovely view. In the far distance, he saw the Cold, Cold Ocean and the shipwreck. At a closer distance, the Fabulous Beach, as he would now call it, and closer still, the marshes and the berry bushes. In the field just below him, to his surprise, he spotted a musk ox. The musk ox was standing beside a pond, staring lovingly at his own reflection. Whether that musk ox had a name prior to when Duane came along is also up for debate, but for now, let us end this story with Duane drifting off to sleep on his soft feather mattress, wondering about that musk ox and hoping that they too might eventually become friends.
Dan Bar-el is an award-winning children’s author, educator, and storyteller whose books include Audrey (cow), Not Your Typical Dragon, and The Very, Very Far North. Dan has worked with children ages three to thirteen as a school-age childcare provider, a preschool teacher, a creative drama teacher, and a creative writing teacher. He also teaches with the Creative Writing for Children Society. Dan lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with artist and goldsmith Dominique Bréchault, and Sasha, the most adorable cat in the known universe. Visit him at DanBarel.com.
Kelly Pousette is an illustrator and storyteller, originally from the west coast of British Columbia. She loves to create things, especially pictures. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post Paris, The Brown Paper Bag blog, and Brightness Magazine. She currently resides in northern British Columbia with her husband and very large dog Clovis. The Very, Very Far North is her first book.
* “Wonderfully follows in the tradition of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. . . . Pousette’s soft pencil illustrations work in absolute harmony with the text, accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of making this book even more endearing. Gentle humor, a personable narrative voice, and some elevated vocabulary fortify the simple, character-driven adventures, which will win over young readers in a heartbeat.”
– Booklist, starred review
"Quirky and imaginative—postmodern storytelling at its best."
– Kirkus Reviews
“Duane is kin to Winnie the Pooh, with an affable nature and an endearing cluelessness that leads to moments of sage wisdom. The fourteen episodic chapters following the adventures of Duane and his buddies focus on friendship with a special emphasis on accepting and respecting differences among pals. . . . Direct addresses from the narrator invite youngsters in with gentle humor, and Pousette’s illustrations, black and white spot art appearing with pleasant frequency, give the animal characters an appealing toylike sensibility. This would make a fine companion to Milne’s classic or Lobel’s Frog and Toad, like those serving as a satisfying readaloud as well as a readalone; kiddos whose tastes tend toward the cozy will find warmth and comfort in Duane’s frosty world.”
"A tender early chapter book that will appeal to young readers.”