Koolibri 2020, 40 pp
ISBN    9789985043738

Gerda Märtens, one of the most unique and fascinating illustrators in Estonian children’s literature today, recently decided to write her first original manuscript to accompany her art: The Northern Lights is her solo debut.

            The book’s protagonist is a polar bear and photographer named Jon, who lives in the Arctic. In the morning, he wakes up early to capture the sunrise, after which he heads to the town square to take pictures of the tourists who come to revel in the polar beauty. But then, driving rains start to fall on Jon’s homeland, melting the snow away. When the floodwaters are lapping at his front door, the polar bear has no choice but to leave his homeland. The bears abroad are very kind to Jon, but there is still much to get accustomed to, such as the brown bears’ sauna rituals or their fascination with fortune telling.

            Environmental protection serves as Märtens’s main inspiration for the story. The Northern Lights encompasses a broad range of issues and involves a complex tangle of problems that usually isn’t easy to unravel and explain to children. Nevertheless, the author accomplishes this brilliantly, scaling global problems down to an individual dimension that young readers can comprehend. The story resounds with the notion that the problems going on aren’t somewhere far away – their effects will be felt by everyone here on Mother Earth. When the gorgeous, scorching summer never seems to end, it turns out not only the Arctic is in trouble, but the brown bears’ homes as well. Before long, everyone inhabiting the opposite end of the globe will come to know drought, and the famine it can bring.

            One major issue wound into the environmental theme is migration. Even when addressing this hot-button topic, Märtens endeavors to seek compromise and reconciliation. She emphasizes how important it is to journey with an open heart and mind, and to learn from your path – not become stuck in old patterns.

            The Northern Lights is in no way a moralist work. At its surface is a story about someone seeking safety and the warmth of a hearth when his own home is taken away. Märtens places herself in the same boat as the reader and joins in the search for a solution. The book does not arrive at a clear answer to the complex situation or of how to resolve our global crisis. That being said, the author doesn’t wish to leave children stranded, either. Jon the polar bear is helped by a little tin box his grandfather gave him, along with a warning to use it only in seemingly futile situations. Jon scatters the seeds it contains across the ground and before long, he finds himself staring out over a sea of fluffy white blossoms – just like an Arctic snowscape. It is up to each and every one of us to determine what to do if we lack a tin from grandfather.

Jaanika Palm is a researcher at the Estonian Children’s Literature Center.