[Reviewed from Copy Courtesy of Little, Brown Young Readers]
No matter who you are, now is a fantastic and important time to read Chee-Kee: A Panda in Bearland. It is a wonderful, disarming, and charming book for everyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong and an even better book for those who have never moved, never felt on the outside, and do not often (or ever) interact with those who have. Those who have felt or still feel like an outsider will feel understood upon seeing their fears and insecurities reflected back to them. They will also feel genuinely comforted by the uplifting ending.
Through the sweet and kind-looking bears and gentle cartoon illustrations, those who have little exposure to new people or have never been outsiders themselves will gain perspective, see the importance of being inclusive and welcoming, and begin to get an idea of how hard it is to be new and to want to fit in.
Chee-Kee: A Panda in Bearland introduces us to Bearland: a country with special citizens, where they work hard and play hard, and it is a land that is welcome to all. When panda bears Mr. and Mrs. Loo immigrate to Bearland from Coney Island with their son, Chee-Kee Loo, readers get a personal perspective of how the world looks to someone trying to feel at home in a new place.
Chee-Kee feels like he may never truly be at home in Bearland. The bears of Bearland are curious: “Wow, are those spots? Where did they come from?” They are welcoming but not exactly embracive and at times even insensitive and offensive. (“You look funny!” one of the young bear cubs points to the Loos and says.) Chee-Kee tries to fit in but can’t shake how different he feels. He asks the Bearlanders many questions and is met with answers that have an air of dismissiveness to them. “It’s just a fork.” “Oh this? It’s just a skateboard. “Oh this? It’s just a pair of sunglasses.” It doesn’t appear that the bears invite Chee-Kee to try the fork, skateboard, or sunglasses nor do they inquire about what he is using. Rim smartly uses the word “just” as a loaded word that gives the impression that Chee-Kee ought to know what these things are. It may appear as a minor and unintended infraction on the part of the Bearlanders, but it significantly adds to Chee-Kee’s insecurity and feelings of otherness. This is a perfect example of how the little things we do can alienate others.
Chee-Kee tries hard to become less noticeable — he literally paints himself green — but finds that it won’t work. So he ends up spending a lot of time alone. One day when he’s watching other bears play a soccer game, genuinely distressed about his differences, he finds that he is able to save the day by using a bamboo pole to pole vault and get a stuck ball out of a tree. Everyone cheers for Chee-Kee and on the last page you see him and his family fully integrated into Bearland with the statement, “Bearland is a great country with very special bears indeed.”
Chee-Kee is ultimately an uplifting and encouraging story that asks its readers to be sensitive and understanding. It asks everyone to try on what it is like to feel like an outsider when all you want to do is belong. It also asks readers of all kinds not to discount themselves for their differences and gently encourages and reminds everyone that which makes us unique can also be a strength.
Chee-Kee: A Panda in Bearland, with its cheerful, friendly, and disarmingly adorable illustrated bears, tackles a very timely and politically charged topic and breaks it down into a personal and relatable experience that evokes empathy, understanding, and a desire to be a little kinder to everyone.
There are natural, comfortable pauses at the end of each spread that invite children and adults to take a moment to ask questions and point out observations. This is a book to take your time reading and experiencing.
Rim’s color pencil, watercolor, and use of collage in her illustrations are excellent. The contrast of the black and white pandas with the bright fall yellows, greens, and the solid colored bears against and light blue and white backgrounds makes the pandas significantly stick out and further evokes a sense of how different they must feel.
The faces of the Bearlanders and the pandas are a stark contrast with each other with special attention paid to the eyes. The Bearlander bears have small, solid eyes whereas the pandas have huge dark circles around their eyes drawing the readers immediately into them. Almost all of Chee-Kee’s expressions are relayed to us through the use of his expressive eyes. Chee-Kee literally doesn’t have a mouth until the very end when he smiles faintly which adeptly underlines and reminds adults how children can feel like they don’t have a voice and may not feel comfortable speaking up for themselves.
The author’s note at the end is a personal account of a bit of her experience growing up as an American born in Brooklyn to parents originally from South Korea. She is very proud of her parents’ strength and took their lives as the inspiration for creating this book. Chee-Kee: A Panda in Bearland is a lovely picture book that everyone from all walks of life can appreciate, identify with, and grow from.
Recommended Ages 4 to 7. Little, Brown Young Readers. February 2017. 40 pages. ISBN: 978-0316407441. Fiction.
Where to Get it:
Where Obtained: I received a review copy from the publisher. No other compensation was received. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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