A Bear for Bimi

Jane Bre­skin Zal­ben, Yev­ge­nia Nay­berg (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – December 27, 2021

Jane Bre­skin Zalben’s work has always been premised on her abil­i­ty to con­nect with chil­dren, express­ing their feel­ings about the world with respect and com­pas­sion. In A Bear for Bimi, she nar­rates the sto­ry of Bimi, a Mus­lim immi­grant boy and Evie, the Jew­ish girl who, with her par­ents’ sup­port, reach­es out to him in his lone­li­ness. Oth­er mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty, of diverse back­grounds, also help to cre­ate a warm and wel­com­ing envi­ron­ment for a fam­i­ly which has suf­fered loss­es before find­ing a haven in the Unit­ed States. Yev­ge­nia Nayberg’s rich­ly col­ored illus­tra­tions bring depth to this time­ly reminder about the pow­ers of open­ing our doors to strangers.

Much remains unsaid in the book, keep­ing the sto­ry uni­ver­sal and acces­si­ble. Evie’s par­ents announce that a new fam­i­ly, from far away,” will be their neigh­bors; Evie imme­di­ate­ly asso­ciates the Saids with her own grand­par­ents, who also trav­eled to Amer­i­ca long ago. When she rush­es out­side to meet the new­com­ers, she notices a boy singing in a lan­guage which she can­not under­stand. Bimi’s ori­gins are less impor­tant to Evie than the fact that he has been uproot­ed and needs a friend. Evie’s father, who wears a kip­pah, begins to help Bimi’s fam­i­ly, who are dressed in a way which iden­ti­fies them as Mus­lims. There is no edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing about spe­cif­ic reli­gious or eth­nic dif­fer­ences. Instead, the Gold family’s actions, and the Said family’s grat­i­tude, rep­re­sent the way that peo­ple should nat­u­ral­ly inter­act, with­out prej­u­dice or suspicion.

The com­mu­ni­ty in the book is diverse; a Mus­lim woman brings the Saids a wel­come mat, an African Amer­i­can neigh­bor sup­plies them with a lamp, and the artis­tic Lio­n­is present a quilt in the form of an Amer­i­can flag. The Schwartz family’s five daugh­ters, (like Tevye in Sholom Aleichem’s sto­ries) are enthu­si­as­tic bak­ers who sweet­en the Saids’ new home with cher­ry strudel and hon­ey cake. There is one dis­so­nant note, a fear­ful old­er woman named Mrs. Mon­roe, rep­re­sent­ing those Amer­i­cans who reject a plu­ral­is­tic vision of their coun­try. Even Mrs. Mon­roe turns out to be eas­i­ly con­vinced by one good deed that Bimi and his fam­i­ly are not her ene­mies. Zalben’s under­stat­ed and poet­ic text keeps the char­ac­ters from being mere symbols.

Nayberg’s pic­tures are beau­ti­ful­ly com­posed, using geo­met­ric forms and a bright and deep palette. Plac­ing char­ac­ters and objects at dif­fer­ent angles, she gives each scene a sense of qui­et dra­ma. Bimi’s moth­er, wear­ing a bright yel­low dress and red hijab, offers Mrs. Mon­roe tea and cake. A door frames her ele­gant fig­ure. The dif­fi­cult Mrs. Mon­roe stands to the side, her arms fold­ed, enclosed in her own space. In con­trast, when the whole neigh­bor­hood meets to share a meal, the din­ers face one anoth­er, touch­ing, ges­tur­ing, and lis­ten­ing. Many pic­tures play with sym­me­try, such as one where Evie and her moth­er walk togeth­er posed almost iden­ti­cal­ly, each car­ry­ing gifts for the Saids with the same sense of pur­pose. Read­ers will find their eyes drawn to many dif­fer­ent ele­ments, from the assort­ment of foods on a table to the expres­sion on Bimi’s face as he embraces Evie’s gift of a worn stuffed bear. This is a reas­sur­ing sto­ry about fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and both the Jew­ish and Amer­i­can tra­di­tions of wel­com­ing strangers.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry­in­cludes an after­word about help­ing immi­grants, notes on the author and illus­tra­tor, and instruc­tions for mak­ing a stuffed bear.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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