“About My Bear”:
Irene Luxbacher on Once I Was a Bear

h1 October 27th, 2020 by jules

Today, I welcome author-illustrator Irene Luxbacher, who talks about her newest picture book, Once I Was a Bear (Scholastic, September 2020), and how her child with autism inspired it. The book tells a story of transition and transformation—one of a bear in the woods, at one with nature, who wakes up to find himself in a big city and heading to his first day of school. (After all, there’s a boy in that bear.)

It’s a tender story of seeking understanding, rendered in soft-focus but vivid colors. A selection of spreads are included below.

I’ll hand it over to Irene. I thank her for sharing.

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Irene: I always say to friends that having a kid with autism is like what any parent feels when the inevitable joys and struggles associated with growing up or raising a child occur. They’re just really magnified—the anxiety, the worry, the learning blocks or tantrums, and the joy too. All of it. Ttypical feelings—just A-typically intense.

What being on the spectrum means for my beautiful boy is that he’s easily overwhelmed by everyday situations that most of us experience every day (and manage without too many difficulties or frustrations, if any). But transitions or changes of any kind are difficult to manage when the process of filtering lots of sights, sounds, and feelings all at once is interrupted or doesn’t come easily. And so, in my mind, living with autism is comparable to something like trying to focus on finding the solution to a complex algebra problem in the middle of an invisible hurricane.


“Once I lived in a forest of tall tress.”
(Click spread to enlarge)


Like many families with kids on the autism spectrum, we noticed that our Luca didn’t have the same difficulties maintaining a more typical level of focus while in a remote park or on a woodland hike. Feeling connected to nature for him was a tremendous respite from the busy, noisy, sensory overload that comes with living in the city and being in a busy classroom everyday. So, our little boy became “our bear,” a nickname that he accepted gladly and assigned to us (his parents) as well. Referring to Luca as a bear or “being a bear” seemed to signal a reminder of a deeper connection to a more natural, centered state of mind and being. It brought him to a calmer place, mentally and emotionally, and provided an extra layer of protection against the overwhelming sensory input swirling all around him.


(Click spread to enlarge)


Once I Was A Bear is a story about a boy starting school for the first time and, in the “age of COVID,” I think it becomes particularly relevant, since this year the experience of going to school is new and different (and a little scary) for all of us. School in the “age of COVID” can potentially make it easier to relate to kids and families like mine, those who struggle to fit into a world that was not designed to accommodate unique or special needs. At the start of this school year, we’re all trying to find a way to feel comfortable with our unique version of a protective mask. We’re all wondering if staying at home in our cozy den (if we are lucky enough to have such a choice) is a better alternative to facing the scary unknown. And we’re all nervously wondering who or what will transmit the next wave of the invisible hurricane that makes focusing on simple facts and lesson plans seem completely impossible. Will our kids be able to find the calm they need to recover emotionally and to catch up academically?

It seems that a little restorative nature therapy might be in order for all of us these days.


“But maybe I wasn’t alone.”
(Click spread to enlarge)


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ONCE I WAS A BEAR. Copyright © 2020 by Irene Luxbacher. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Scholastic Press, New York.

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