It can be difficult to find a way to teach children about the sad reality that some animals face. That is why a book like The Deliverance of Dancing Bears can serve as a springboard for discussions on many issues including the use of animals in entertainment, cruelty, ethics and the power to make a difference.
This tale was written for children in second through fourth grades, but has captured the admiration of all ages. Its accolades include the Australian Picture Book of the Century, and the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Award for story and illustration.
Elizabeth Stanley uses pastel pictures and fable-style prose to tell a fictional story of captive dancing bears, based on her research in Eastern Europe. While their plight can elicit feelings of despair, the ultimate theme of the book is evident from the quote Stanley chose for the preface: "Hope is a waking dream."
The book begins with the dreams of a bear forced to perform—dreams of roaming free. Stanley writes, "Halûk (the bear’s keeper) never understood that it was the dreaming ... that kept the bear living, year after year."
One day an elderly man, Yusuf, sees the bear perform in a market and buys her freedom from Halûk. When the bear’s chain is handed to him, Yusuf looks into her eyes, "I’ve dreamed of you wandering in the forests where you belong, and fishing in the mountain streams. I feel too ashamed to have you dancing another day."
Later Yusuf returns to see that Halûk has enslaved another bear. As Yusuf buys freedom for him, the people in the square become outraged at Halûk. Yusuf holds up his hand, "You good people have at last spurned this man for his performing bears. Halûk will pay a high price for his shame. But now, he too has the chance to dream of something different."
The book ends with hope for change and deep compassion for animals. As the author writes in the postscript, "My story is about the power of dreams. That captive bears no longer dance in the streets of Turkey and Greece vindicates this story."