Sharing this post on social media? Use this image description to make it accessible. [Image description: Illustration from ‘Polar Bear Island’ by Lindsay Bonilla & Cinta Villalobos. A polar bear paints the words ‘No Others Allowed’ on the welcome sign to Polar Bear Island.]
Picture Book, Best for using with kiddos ages 5+ to expose the model minority myth
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Turns out it’s a book about xenophobia.
I picked this up thinking it’d be another book about saving the polar bears & environmentalism. Nope. It’s about closed borders. Cool. Okay, I’m game. Let’s do this.
The Mayor of Polar Bear Island is a xenophobic conservative polar bear named ‘Parker.’ Not ‘Mayor Parker,’ just ‘Parker.’ The author never explains why an island has a mayor, nor why he goes by his first name. The lack of explanation leaves me unsatisfied. I like my anthropomorphic bigots to have some back story, y’know?
Anyway – Parker loves his island exactly the way it is, so he leaves up a passive-aggressive welcome sign, “Welcome to Polar Bear Island, No Others Allowed.”
The 6-year-old found the juxtaposition of ‘welcome‘ paired with a direct ban confusing and hilarious. I had to explain to him that he’s saying other polar bears are allowed, just not other species. It’s unclear!
From here, the story could have gotten really interesting. And then it…didn’t.
Here are a few of the messages the author could have unpacked for kids with this setup:
- The deep ties of social conservatism and the myth of racial purity.
- The futility of attempting to freeze society or viewing the past through rose-colored glasses. Living in a community means growing and changing together. Handing power to the next generation to survive, taking responsibility for our impact on others and our shared humanity – plus growing up means things are bound to change. The story takes place in the arctic! Where stuff can literally freeze for thousands of years! Tension! Metaphors! Missed opportunities!
- How immigration & emigration is both a natural and expected byproduct of life and survival on earth. Otherwise our ancestors wouldn’t have ever left Africa. OBVIOUS. I want to use the convenient metaphor that humans aren’t plants because we’re not rooted to the ground but DUDE, even plants migrate!
- A changing climate and the resulting melting ice caps means real estate in the arctic is becoming rare and even more valuable. We’ve always had refugee migration from natural disasters and conflict, but now we also have a climate refugee crisis. What’s our responsibility to care for each other? How are we complicit as fossil-fuel consumers in destroying another’s home?
Yeah… the book doesn’t tackle any of that. So many missed opportunities. It’s more about…tourism?
Anyway – Parker tries to ban visitors and immigrants, and a penguin shows up. Then there’s the slippery slope xenophobes clutch their pears over – because soon after, the penguin’s family follows and the island is practically infested with penguins after that.
Oh right – there’s another missed opportunity. The importance of circular migration! Circular migration is when people go back and forth seasonally or as needed. Which closed borders destroy, and transform into linear migration – where people can’t leave for fear they won’t be allowed back in. And how this drives the influx of immigrants because families belong together.
Banning circular migration means entire communities must live in a climate where humans can survive all year round, instead of just showing up as needed and then returning home when natural resources return, they’re able to rebuild after natural disaster, or the established population no longer needs the extra labor. OBVIOUSLY.
That same old model minority bullshit
This penguin shows up. The family shows up. This island is full of friendly, helpful penguin tourists. I say tourist because the story is clear that this first penguin is a traveler – someone who likes to keep on the move. This is not someone here to stay. This is someone coming to visit for pleasure.
Polar Bear Island was was published in 2018. It’s about a xenophobic leader. So it’s really hard and I dare say, impossible to read this outside the context of the 2016-2020 US administration’s continued efforts to instate and maintain immigrant bans and border walls targeted toward people of color.
So here is where it gets icky – this book becomes a story about the model immigrant. The model minority – a good immigrant who offers their weight in value. An immigrant who contributes. Or in this case, a family of penguins who show up asking for nothing, offering only helpful tricks like cozy slippers and innovative transportation design.
What then, of the climate refugees? The poor, hungry, sick, and tired we’re so proud of claiming?
Oh – those immigrants aren’t mentioned in this book. They muddy up the argument that we should allow open immigration to nations with plentiful resources, because immigrants are helpful to us.
Which is terribly objectifying, and more than a little disgusting – right? Teaching our kids that immigration is good! (If the immigrants can be put to use).
NO. The movement of humans, of living species, across the planet should be a living right – particularly when living in one particular place becomes life threatening. Particularly if a group of humans living on one chunk of the planet (cough, cough, China, the USA) are using a disproportionate amount of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, leading to the direct devastation of countries with less resources. We are causing natural disasters and creating climate refugees, then banning them from escaping to safer spaces. This is some NIMBY bullshit.
So listen – I am 100% for introducing xenophobia to kiddos so they can see how it’s just pure nonsense. I’m also cool with discussing the messy tensions of culture clash, and even the costs of immigration to the native population. I want to talk about the difference between invasive colonization versus open immigration! I want to talk about the constant struggle to maintain cultural identity in a diaspora against pressure to assimilate! I want to talk about how we bring in brown to keep Black down.
What I do NOT want to talk about, is how immigrants must earn their safety, their value, and their ability to stay based on how many slipper socks they’re willing to sew for the established citizenry and how well they build railroads.
Those who’ve read it caught that, right? The part of the story where the penguins build ice paths for the polar bears like our ancestors built the fuckin’ railroads? But in this story, no Irish or Chinese immigrants were banned, denied citizenship, tortured, murdered, or lit on fire while building infrastructure for white profit.
You might also like: Immigrants Belong Here: Books Helping Kids Advocate For Human Rights
Parenting is Praxis
These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. So – what shall we do with all these big feelings we have about banning immigrants and that damn wall?
Here are some ideas from what we did as a family after reading books about the refugee crisis and family separation:
- Discussed the utter absurdity of using taxpayer money to build a border wall. It took seconds for my 5-year-old to be like “But mom. Airplanes” before collapsing into a pile of disbelieving laughter at the fact that a five year old is more knowledgeable about human migration than our president.
- Collaborate with the Decolonizing Childhood Coalition to raise funds for Immigrant Families Together to end family separation at the US/Mexican border.
- (Pre-covid), hosted a sidewalk lemonade & life coach stand to raise funds for Immigrant Families Together. The 7-year-old poured the lemonade, the 5-year-old provided career advice.
- Created an Immigrant Solidarity Family Action Toolkit to support more families in destigmatizing immigration within their own families and writing advocacy letters and create their own forms of community & family action to raise awareness and funding.
Advocacy work should be normal, and integrated within family life.
Did your family or classroom do something to advocate for immigrant rights & open borders? Share your advocacy work in the comments to motivate more folks!
You might like: Kids Books About Radical Interdependence
This is your go-to book for…
- Introducing the concept (and futility) of closed borders and xenophobia
- Unpacking the model minority myth
- Discussing land ownership, borders, and land rights – is migration a human right?
I’d read this in rotation along with…
This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring this conversation back to kids from multiple angles. Get these from your local library, or your local indie bookstore (Bookshop supports local indie stores if you’re self-isolating during the pandemic).
- The Someone New tackles xenophobia in a more personal, empathetic way
- Carmela Full of Wishes centers the children impacted by family separation
- From Far Away an #OwnVoices story written by a Lebanese Canadian child refugee
- Joseph’s Big Ride, Q’s favorite book at age 7 – a story about a boy, a bike, and a new friend and the main character happens to be a refugee – but a child first.
- Both The Lumberjack’s Beard & The Bear With The Sword are cute, funny, and won’t send kids into a spiral of despair. They both use deforestation and messages of restorative justice to unpack how greed and power force vulnerable people (well, animals) to flee, and our responsibility to provide safe harbor and make amends when that happens.
- Coloring Without Borders is a fantastic activity book whose proceeds go directly to Families Belong Together to reunite families separated at the border.
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Lindsay Bonilla (she/her)
Illustrator: Cinta Villalobos (she/her)
Not in the way we want it to be. This isn’t immigrant #OwnVoices immigrant – more like #OwnVoices tourist.
Bonilla’s author bio says she is a mom in Ohio, and enjoys international travel. I can’t find any info on whether she’s an immigrant, but it seems like that would be worth mentioning in the author bio blurb at the end of the book. Villalobos was born in and lives in Spain. She also enjoys international travel.
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I borrowed a copy of this book from our local library, (which we support with donations).
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