Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Secrets of Bearhaven, Book One, by K. E. Rocha. Illustrated by Ross Dearsley.
NYC, Scholastic Press, January 2016, hardcover $14.99 (242 [+4] pages), Kindle $9.24.
Here is the first novel in another talking-animal series for 8-to-12s. 11-year-old Spencer Plain has grown up immersed in bears. His parents, Shane and Jane Plain (well, some parents do give their children goofy names), are bear activists; wildlife specialists devoted to bears and founders of Paws for Peace. They know all about bears and have taught Spencer all about them. They give presentations on bears to the public. But Spencer has never lived with bears – not in nature, or in a secret bear civilization in the forest; a high-tech society where the bears have communicators around their necks that translate their growls into English. He has never imagined working with bears to rescue his parents from human villains.
The book begins at a breakneck pace:
Spencer Plain raced through the forest, his heart pounding. He dodged trees and skidded across patches of slick moss, trying desperately not to fall. Now was not the time to fall.
There was a bear behind him.” (p. 1)
“‘What’s going on, Uncle Mark?’ Spencer said, his voice coming out too high and a little shaky. ‘I talked to Mom and Dad this morning, and they were fine.’ It was one o’clock now. How could so much have changed in only seven hours?
‘Same here,’ said Uncle Mark, slowing the car to idle at a red light. ‘But then I got a message from your mom around eleven, and I haven’t been able to get in touch since.’
‘What kind of message?’ Spencer asked. He looked out the window, trying to get his bearings, but they were stopped at an intersection in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the middle of a long stretch of brownstones. None of them offered any clues.
‘Your parents made an important plan a long time ago, Spence. Your mom’s message today was that I should put that plan in motion …’ The light turned green and Uncle Mark shifted into gear, quickly pulling ahead of a garbage truck. ‘So here we are. In motion.’
‘What important plan?’
‘I’m taking you to a safe place,’ Uncle Mark answered.” (pgs. 10-12)
I don’t want to just quote lots of the suspenseful scenes that happen when Uncle Mark tells Spencer to run and keep running without explaining why, but there are over a dozen pages of them. Then there’s Bearhaven, the bears’ secret community filled with super-technology. The translator, glowing green around the bears’ necks, is a BEAR-COM – a Battery-Enabled Animal Reinterpreting and Communication device. (Didn’t we see something very like this with dogs in Pixar’s 2009 animated feature Up?) There’s a hologram looking like empty air masking the entrance to the bears’ home. They travel by TUBE – Transcontinental Underground Bear Expressway. They have human names, like Kate Dora Weaver, a cute little black bear cub who decorates her BEAR-COM with pink heart-shaped crystals; and the huge Fred Crossburger who leads other bears in exercise classes.
After describing the marvels of Bearhaven at length – the juvenile bears have their own video games about catching salmon — the plot gets moving once again. Spencer’s parents often went on long trips throughout the world to investigate reports of bear abuse, and to rescue the bears if necessary. Over the years they found allies, learned how to communicate with the bears, and they and the bears built Bearhaven together as a secret home where rescued bears could recuperate. Some of the bears have made permanent homes there, raised families, and created a bear community. The Plains and Bearhaven’s leaders also gradually realized that many of the incidents of bear abuse were connected. At the same time, those behind the network of bear abusers grew aware of the Plains’ organization as a threat to be eliminated. The bear abuser network is better-organized than the Plains’ group realized, and they made the mistake of underestimating them.
“Mr. Bee [a bear] cleared his throat. ‘To explain,’ he began formally, straightening the blue-and-silver-striped tie around his neck. Definitely a principal. ‘At the top of this ‘network of bear abuse,’ someone is implanting bears with microchips. Once implanted, the bears can be controlled physically, and, we suspect, mentally. Shane and Jane – pardon me, your parents – have made progress toward uncovering exactly who is behind the microchiping. At the time of your father’s capture, they were working to understand the motivation and technology behind the control.’” (p. 93)
When Bearhaven’s Bear Council (including Uncle Mark) won’t let Spencer join their current bear rescue mission (which may also lead to his captured father) because he’s too young and untrained, Kate offers to train him in Bear Stealth and other bear tactics. Spencer’s perseverance gets him onto the mission; an operative, just like a secret agent. They’re supposed to rescue a captured bear from a small Southern carnival that is using her in a bear baying show. But:
“‘I’ve got a bad feeling, Mark. Something’s off. And I mean more off than a bear baying. There’s more there than we realized, I’m sure of it.’” (p. 169)
Spencer’s first specific antagonists are cruel Margo Lalicki and her brutish brother Ivan, but they’re only low-level members of the network. Spencer is instrumental in beating them and making the rescue mission a success; with his next mission coming in Book Two.
This Book One is good light entertainment for older kids and undemanding furry fans. Kristin Rocha uses loaded language, as in this description of a large screen monitor showing Margo Lalicki:
“Goose bumps rose on his [Spencer’s] arms, and the back of his neck prickled. Who is she? Her expression was stony, her muddy brown eyes cold and ringed in dark circles, making her look hollowed out. Her hair hung straggly and thin around her bony face, blond, but greenish, too, as if her own hair was nauseated from having to be attached to such a creepy-looking person.” (pgs. 88-89)
This book is loaded with full-page illustrations by Ross Dearsley in black-&-white that are in full color in Scholastic Press’ 30-second promotional “movie”. There is “bear information”, some real such as the collective term for bears, a sleuth of bears, and the name for a mother bear, a sow bear; and some fictional, like Ragayo, the bears’ language. The book looks shoddy, though, with cheap binding and low-grade paper, implying that most sales are expected to be of the Kindle edition. Ross Dearsley’s cover shows Spencer, Kate, and B.D., the leader of Bearhaven’s Bear Guard.