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Virmalised (The Northern Lights) by Gerda Märtens

The aurora borealis. The northern lights; and all that lives and scurries around below it. It’s a cozy and exciting setting for a picture book, with visual elements of the mid-century gouache illustration style that has been popular with children’s illustrators in 2020.

Book cover illustration by Gerda Märtens

In Gerda Märtens’ rendering of this style, she brushes the paint to create warm and glowing scenery for Jon, a polar bear, to share with us.

Jon has left his home near the shore, because the driving rain has moved in. It pours “nagu oavarrest” (“like a beanstalk”)! His town was once a place that would bring a smile to his face, and a glimmer to his camera lens. It drew visiting bears from out-of-town. But the sun that shined brilliantly over his home in the morning has been swallowed up by a sinister sky of grey, for an undetermined amount of time. Rain inundates his town and the snow is washed away. What is most precious to him is gone. The townsfolk dance and party inside at first, until the water floods the streets. Jon becomes physically unwell. For his safety, and to retrieve the beauty he knew before, he decides he must leave. He packs his bag, takes his camera, and travels to the Arctic circle.

Two mysteries accompany him on his way: what will it be like in this new place? And what’s in that box that his vanaisa (grandpa) gave him, with specific instructions to only open it if it was absolutely necessary?

Märtens tastefully depicts the feelings of loss and disruption with this tension of the story arc, but restores hope and light by the very end. It’s a serious and sincere picture book, but one that is always eloquent and natural in its delivery.

This is Märtens’ debut as an author, after illustrating many other children’s books and creating editorial illustrations for publications like Täheke. She has chosen to address the theme of climate change and the challenges faced by animals in the process, which isn’t always easy to articulate while keeping focused on a compelling narrative. Jon is believable. He has dreams. He has dimension. We want to stick by his side as he figures out his next steps.

Virmalised is a picture book ideally suited for kids who have started reading more Estonian by themselves and are building their vocabulary and comprehension. It’s in the reading stage just before taking on an “early reader” book.

Fundamentally, I think it’s positive for kids to read stories that relate obliquely to what they hear their families talk about. When family members discuss something like climate change, it must seem like a vague and troubling subject. A story like this could start to make some sense of it, but it doesn’t go out of it’s way to frighten. It’s brisk and entertaining on its own, but then it teaches us something valuable about being strong when overwhelming changes happen.

The texture of the brushwork and coloured pencil is what stood out first for me, and when you savour the words alongside that, it’s a strong book that you’ll come back to for repeat readings. You can find Virmalised on rahvaraamat.ee .

This article was written by Vincent Teetsov as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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