Book Review: Mistaken for a Bear by Philip Ardagh and Jamie Beard

Pop Up Projects‘ brand new series of books entitled 10 Stories to Make a Difference is a collection of beautifully written and illustrated gems that celebrate the organisation’s tenth birthday. Pop Up have spent the last decade working to improve literacy and access to literature through a wide variety of projects and events in the UK. They have now commissioned a richly diverse group of authors and illustrators to tell a wide variety of inclusive stories that bring both experienced and fresh, new voices to young readers. The collection’s historical fiction title, Mistaken For A Bear, is a stunning blend of narration and illustration that evokes a fascinating and dangerous real-life event from Victorian London.

In the early 1800s an Englishman named George Wombwell brought together a menagerie of unusual animals from all around the world. His collection included monkeys, giraffes, lions, llamas, zebras, a rhino, and a kangaroo. He kept many of those animals at Limehouse in East London and took them on travelling shows where people paid to see them and marvel at their strangeness. But these creatures were very far from their natural habitat and there were two instances of Wombwell’s animals escaping from captivity. In 1839 a polar bear escaped and almost killed a member of the public. A few months later a tiger also broke free, and it is this story of a marvellous creature exploring the smoky streets of London that is recounted so elegantly and dramatically in this book.

Author Philip Ardagh reads from Mistaken For A Bear at the 10 Stories To Make a Difference Launch event.

The ever-versatile author Philip Ardagh (we love his picture books in this house) paints a picture of a London which is filled with workers from around the world  who have become a crucial part of the city’s industrial economy. Our lead character is Paddy, an Irish immigrant who unloads coal from the barges at the port of London Docks and witnesses the escaped tiger with fearless fascination. It is through Paddy’s outsider eyes that we see London as a place that is full of people (and animals) from all over the world.

The text is perfectly paired with Jamie Beard’s animated and atmospheric illustrations. Both author and illustrator build a picture of grimy, smoke-filled and coal-stained London. The buildings, the people and even the air are all depicted as colourless and dirty, but it is into this grey and ordinary world that the escaped tiger bursts as a dangerous flash of vivid orange.

Jamie Beard’s stunning illustrations from Mistaken For A Bear

Mistaken For A Bear is a stunning and layered glimpse into Victorian London. Packed with details about ordinary life, industrial innovations, its multicultural population and the startling possibilities that could walk down the street if someone keeps a tiger nearby.

You can see all of the 10 Stories to Make a Difference on the Pop Up Projects website. Each book is a beautifully illustrated hardback that supports the work that this fantastic non-profit organisation does. You can find out more about how to support their work here.

Thanks to Pop Up Projects for my review copy of Mistaken For A Bear.

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