Thursday 30 June 2016

Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso - reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Ida, Always is a lyrical story about the friendship between two polar bears and how they come to terms with one of the animal’s terminal illness. Although this is difficult subject matter, the reader feels in safe, sure hands. We grow to love the bears, then share their grief and, ultimately, learn to heal. 

Gus and Ida, the two characters in the book, are inspired by polar bears who lived in Central Park Zoo in New York. Ida died in 2011, Gus in 2013.  Author Levis observed Gus in the zoo after Ida’s death as part of her research for the project. 

In the story, the two bears do everything together.  We see life through the senses of a zoo animal, sensitive to sound, to routine, to hearing things we cannot see. One day, Gus learns from the zookeeper that Ida is ill and will not get better.  We are reassured that Ida 'wouldn't hurt’, but her body is closing down. Levis is honest but sensitive, and takes the young reader gently through the anguish of preparing for the loss of a friend. The bears growl, whisper, cuddle, need time apart, even laugh… 

The illustrations by Santoso complement the text well. The portrayal of the bears is not overly anthropomorphised, is evocative, gentle, soft.  The landscape and the weather often reflect the mood of the moment on the page. We have a strong sense of the story world through the illustrations, and also of the way Gus perceives life.

And after Ida has gone (I have to confess that when reading the book aloud, my voice catches each time I read a certain poignant section), and as Gus grieves, his heart begins to mend. He slowly realises that a part of his friend will be with him in the memories they share, that she is with him as he sits in their favourite spots. A part of Ida is with him. Always.

I suspect that this book may well become a classic. 


Caron Levis is the author of the picture book Ida, Always (Atheneum) which the New York Times Book Review calls "an example of children's books at their best." Her first picture book, Stuck with the Blooz (HMH) was selected as one of Bankstreet College's Best Children's Books of the Year. Forthcoming titles include May I Have A Word? (FSG/Macmillan, 2017) and Stop That Yawn (Atheneum, 2018). Short stories have been listed in the Best American Nonrequired Reading, published in Fence Magazine, The New Guard Review, and in anthologies by Persea Books and W.W. Norton. Caron is an adjunct professor and the advisor for The New School's Writing for Children/YA MFA program, and an MSW candidate at Hunter College. After many years as an arts educator, Caron now loves using acting and writing to teach social, emotional and literacy skills to students of all ages through her author workshops. Having trained in acting and dabbled in playwriting, Caron enjoys turning theatre techniques into writing tool through her workshop Act-Like-A-Writer. Visit her at Photo credit: Jan Carr


Charles Santoso has illustrated several picture books, including I Don't Like Koala, written by Sean Ferrell, Spy Guy: The Not-So-Secret Agent written by Jessica Young, Peanut Butter & Brains written by Joe McGhee, Ida, Always written by Caron Levis. Find out more about him at


Sarah Hammond is a writer for young people. She has published a picture book, Mine! (Parragon), and a teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head (OUP), which was short-listed for four awards in the UK. She is a Brit abroad, now living happily in Chicago, with strong ties to the UK which regularly pull her back across the Pond. 

You can find her online at: 

Facebook: SarahHammondAuthorPage
Twitter: @SarahHammond9 



Pippa Goodhart said...

That sounds a beautiful and brave book about an important subject that most books for the very young don't dare touch on. Really useful to know about it. Thank you.

Grandpa said...

Our 5-year-old grand-daughter asked me to read this story to me on Mother’s Day, 2019. It was very poignant, and I choked up many times.

My wife died of cancer in the Fall of 2018. This could have been our life story. Before the cancer, we did everything together. Sharing experiences made them richer (“You don’t have to see the city; you can FEEL it.”) During the cancer treatments, there was a lot whispering, cuddling, even laughing. Even the description of grieving is right on.

This is an extremely beautiful book, vey touchingly done. I think even our grand-daughter finds some real-life meaning in it.

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