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The Woman Who Married a Bear
by Elizabeth James
Illustrated by Atanas Matsoureff
AGES: 7 & up
SIZE: 9.5 x 10.75
PRICES: US $16.95, Cdn $19.95
HARDCOVER: 9781927018651



* Teaching and Learning for Peace Foundation, Recommended Book, February 2009

*Years Best 2008 Picture Book, Resource Links

Midwest Book Review 

The Woman Who Married a Bear is a children's picturebook retelling a Native American legend about a prideful young girl who insults bears, and must accept the severe consequences of her misdeed. Angered by her insults, the Bear People decide that she must be punished - but one of them has fallen love with her, and requests permission to make her his wife instead. She lives with the bear and has two children with him; at first she feels bitterness, but she adjusts to her new life. When the opportunity comes to escape with her brothers, she cannot do so without her husband knowing - yet he chooses to sacrifice his life rather than slay any of her brothers and make her sad. She returns to her people with her children, having undergone a tremendous transformation; she spends her life teaching her people about the importance of respecting all animals, and killing them only when necessary. In the end a day comes when she and her children have the opportunity to rejoin the bear people. The serene, panoramic color illustrations reflect the majesty of nature and wild things in this enduring folktale, and an afterword mentions different variations of the legend told among Native American tribes. The Woman Who Married a Bear is truly a classic story in the most profound sense of the word.



An arrogant girl disrespects the animal world and becomes part of it in this traditional First Nations tale, retold by James. After showing her disdain for bears, the unnamed protagonist encounters the nephew of the Chief of the Bear People, a group of human-bear shapeshifters. Forced into marriage with him, she contents herself with her new life, although her brothers' search for her threatens this fragile relationship. Seeking shelter from them in a cave, the young woman gives birth to twins sharing human and animal characteristics. Although her husband has been kind, when she sees her brothers she alerts them, and her husband must sacrifice himself to avert a bloody confrontation. Never fully adapting back to her human surroundings, the woman and her children instead transform into bears, free to roam. Despite a few narrative stumbles, this is a memorable examination of the interdependence between humans and their environment. Atanas's illustrations are strongest when the raw Pacific landscape spreads across the page, celebrating sky, land and sea.


ForeWord Magazine, Fall 08

“Bears! Ugly, filthy bears!” a girl shouts when she steps in bear dung while picking blackberries. Her reaction toward bears changes, however, in this retold folktale of the indigenous people of western Canada and Alaska.

When the girl’s blackberries spill, she stays behind, telling her friends, “I’m not leaving these for the greedy bears to eat.” A man wearing a bear pelt takes her to his village, which consists of Bear People who change between human and bear form. After saying, “You found the one who insults us,” the Chief gives the man permission to marry the girl instead of punishing her. Surprised that her bear husband is considerate, the girl, later designated as “the woman,” thinks about the forced marriage: “He may seem kind, but truly he is selfish.”

Watercolor paintings, many with text superimposed, depict beautiful scenery, such as an illustration showing three teenage, berry-picking girls in a grassy meadow containing colorful flowers. One girl’s dress has American Indian artwork on the back, including a rectangular blue face.

Atanas’ first picture book was The Lost Island. Bulgarian galleries in Sofia, Sevlievo, and Nova Zagora have displayed his work. Private collections also contain his art. James, a writer and translator residing in Vancouver, B.C., retold The Little Black Hen and translated The Queen Bee; both are picture books.

Children ages seven to twelve will learn about American Indians’ respect for animals from this skillful presentation of the girl’s gradual attitude change, including the discovery that she loves her semi-bear children. The background-information page increases understanding of the story. For example, folktales about marriage between humans and animals are common.

When children feel annoyed with animals, remembering the Bear People may help them notice their fellow creatures’ good qualities. (September)


This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of a young Native American woman who curses the bear clan and is subsequently captured and forced to marry the Bear Chief's nephew. Slowly, she becomes accustomed to her strange new life, but she longs for her old life and her brothers, who still search for her. Will they ever find her? And what happens if they do? Retold from a western Native American folktale. Recommended for older picture book readers (ages 6-9) 


Resource Links 

 The Woman who Married a Bear is a retelling of a First Nations folk tale common to several First Nations cultures of Western Canada. The folk tale involves a young woman who learns respect and reverence for the animal kingdom through the experience of living among bears. In this retelling, the young girl makes insulting remarks about bears, as she picks berries in the forest. The girl stays late in the forest to reclaim the berries she has spilt. When it begins to grow dark she is invited to stay the night with members of a nearby village who turn out to be Bear people. When the Chief's nephew request she become his wife, the Mouse woman, another shape-shifter, advises the girl to accept her plight and learn from it. As she lives among the bear people she begins to realize the goodness and strength of the bears. She gives birth to two half-human, half-bear cubs. She eventually returns to her village where she teaches her own people to respect and honour the bears. However, always as outsiders, she and her cubs eventually transform back into bears leaving the village for the wild, never to be seen again. 

The exquisite art by Atanas Matsoureff enriches the narrative by providing a strong visual tone to the story. Place is clearly defined by these visuals, keeping the stories true to the western mountain setting. Additional information at the end of the book about the folk tale and its variants provides added background material for the reader.

This book would be suitable for Social Studies topics or Language Arts curriculum on folk tales. This folk tale is common  to several western First Nations cultures. This book could be used in conjunction with other retellings to give students a better concept of variants or the oral tradition common to these cultures. It would also provide a point for discussion of the connection between these cultures and the natural world. This book would be suitable for both school and public libraries. Excellent. 

Thematic Links: First Nations Folklore; Pacific Northwest Folklore; Bears

- Linda Berezowski



CanLit for Kids

This retelling of an ancient west coast First Nations’ tale chronicles the transformative experiences of a young woman after she encounters a clan of Bear people and learns to respect the natural world. The detailed illustrations convey the spectacular beauty of the Pacific west coast, from seashores draped in mist, to meadows covered in wild flowers, and snow peaked mountains beyond.

CM Magazine - Highly Recommended 

The Woman Who Married a Bear is a retold native legend about an adolescent native girl who goes picking blackberries with her friends. She is quite vocal in being critical of bears, and her friends chastise her for this. They stay a little too long, and on their way home the girl's basket spills. Ignoring her friends' pleas to just leave the berries, she sends them ahead while she remains to gather the fruits of her labour. Dusk falls upon her sooner than expected. She is startled by a young native male who insists she spend the night at his village. Upon arrival, she learns that this is the village of the bear people who have specifically sought her out for belittling the bear and they intend to punish her so that she might learn reverence and respect for the creatures. The Chief's nephew, who had been the one to escort her back to the village, intervenes with a request to marry the girl. The chief hesitantly accepts this proposal. The girl is terrified by this change of plans but finally gives in to the situation. Later in the year, she becomes pregnant and dreads the idea of having bear children. The plot thickens when the girl's brothers track their sister and, to avoid a fatal conflict between the two groups, she must flee with her husband into the caves in the snow covered mountains. While in hiding, she delivers twin offspring with human faces and bear bodies but falls in love with them at first sight. Her brothers have not given up their quest to find her. As they approach the cave, she has a choice to make - join her brothers or stay with her family. Her husband makes the choice for her, resulting in his demise. She and her children may now go back to her village where she recognizes the error in her ways and ultimately teaches her people to revere and respect bears. A surprise conclusion achieves the goal of this legend - to teach the value of living in harmony with nature.

internal art

     I was anxious to delve into this book as I am a fan of Simply Read Books and have purchased several works for my school library. Upon first inspection, I marveled at the talent demonstrated in the watercolour illustrations of Bulgarian born Atanas Matsoureff. They are just as beautiful as those in a previous work I had purchased, The Lost Island by Pauline Johnson. In this publication, he once again fully captures the beauty and serenity of native life in British Columbia in times past. His images align perfectly with the text while the blues, greens and browns add to the magical nature transformations of the legend.

     I hadn't previously read anything by the author Elizabeth James and had difficulty finding information about her other than she lives in Vancouver, loves the sea and is a translator. She has done an excellent job of retelling this native legend and embeds a variety of word pictures through the use of figurative language (simile, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) making the book a valuable instructional tool to use with children.

     The main character has such a sharp tongue that the reader almost cheers when she gets her just rewards. As the story progresses, the reader's sympathy really goes to the young husband as he lives his life being the best he can be. It takes a jolt, but the main character does learn her lesson and continues to build an understanding as well as an appreciation for nature, family, and staying true to one's beliefs.

     When I used this book in the library as a read aloud, my primary students were spellbound and sat on the edge of their seats for the turning of each page. As I read the climax and then progressed to the two page wordless illustration of the mother and offspring's transformation, cheers exploded in the room. The students loved the supernatural aspect as well as the life lessons on appreciating the environment and the consequences for negative words and going with strangers. Several students commented on the growth in compassion of the main character. The older students loved the richness of vocabulary and figures of speech as we had just talked about similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and they were enamored by how they could be blended together to make word pictures as well. Our grade 6 students were just beginning a unit on exploring native legends so The Woman Who Married a Bear fit in beautifully. I shared the book with my intermediate teachers to be used in a watercolour lesson in art class.

     The Woman Who Married a Bear is definitely a highly recommended book for school libraries as it could be used in a variety of ways to support curriculum learning.