Can Bears Ski? The little ursine protagonist of poet and educator Raymond Antrobus’ picture-book debut (Candlewick, Nov. 10) hears that question a lot: from a frustrated Dad Bear, from puzzled friends, from concerned teachers—and from the audiologist Dad Bear takes his cub to one day. After some tests and some time, the audiologist fits the little brown bear with hearing aids, and at last the question is clear: Can you hear me?” The answer is finally yes, in a lovely scene that depicts father and child reading together at bedtime. Antrobus is deaf and draws on his own childhood to pen his sensitive tale, to which illustrator Polly Dunbar brings her own experience with partial deafness. We caught up with them separately via Zoom, Antrobus from an IHOP outside of Oklahoma City, where hes recently relocated from the U.K., and Dunbar from her home in Beccles, England. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Raymond, what led you to writing for children?

Raymond Antrobus: If Im honest, it was an accident. The last poem in my book The Perseverance is Happy Birthday Moon,” which is this story about my dad. A lot of people would ask me about that poem and about that picture book [Frank Aschs Happy Birthday, Moon, which figures in the final scene of Can Bears Ski?]. And then I got approached by [editor] Maria [Tunney], who just said, Hey, have you ever considered trying to write for children?” And I just gave it a go. I really enjoyed writing it, and I feel incredibly privileged to have been given that opportunity, because I love it.

Why bears, and why the syllables can bears ski?

RA: The mishearing of the title was a genuine thing that I remember from being a child. I remember hearing, Can bears ski?” and later on realizing I was being asked, Can you hear me?” It just stayed with me. And I think theres something about bears because of Happy Birthday, Moon, which also has a bear in it. One of the genius aspects of Happy Birthday, Moon is that it has this device of repetition, because of the echo [when Bear calls out to the moon]. So you say everything twice. Its just perfect, like its an accidental deaf poetic.

Im also interested in why theres no Mum Bear.

RA: I think [thats] because the book is essentially a reimagining of what really happened with me. It was my mum who was very active in getting me into a deaf school, getting me hearing aids, getting me speech therapy, all of this stuff. And my dad was kind of absent from that. I dont think my dad ever saw a way into that because of his understanding of deafness. I dont think there was ever any kind of model for him to parent a deaf and hard-of-hearing child. So in a way that relationship between the boy bear and Dad Bear is a kind of imagined, hypothetical, wishful relationship. This is something that I know my mum is going to ask about, like, Hey, I did this.” I know, Mum, dont worry. Ill shout you out in interviews.

Theres [also] no sign language in the book. That was because within my own experience, I didnt start learning sign till I was 11. I just felt like I had to be true to that. There is no singular deaf experience. I hope that this isnt looked at as a kind of universal Deaf Experience—just a deaf experience. What this book is about for me is this experience with language and stories, through being read to as a child.

How did you enjoy the collaboration with Polly?

RA: It was great. I love writing poetry, but it is quite a lonely thing, so I was hungry to find ways to collaborate. I think its important that Polly also was hard of hearing. She comes from a deaf family and a deaf-aware family, and we were able to talk about that. And she was incredibly intuitive in terms of the [characters] facial expressions. When I first saw her drawings, I cried.

Polly, how did you go about depicting what it looks like not to hear?

Polly Dunbar: I think when people arent deaf and they imagine what deafness is like, its different from how it actually feels…the other senses do become more acute. Raymond [evokes] that so well, with the rumbling of things. I was able to show the vibration of Dad Bears footsteps, [with] everything sort of just moving slightly. Theres a really loud scene in the school dining room, and its all so busy and so colorful. So theres not just vibration to show sound—I was able to show the hecticness with the color and the busyness of the page. [The experience of going deaf is] all the noises get muddled together. You miss out little bits of words here and there. You sort of have to stitch the words together.

You put so much expression into these bears’ faces.

PD: I normally draw people, and this is my first book with a bear. So it was different. [It starts with] understanding what the shape of the bear is and where the mouth and nose are. Then I can just concentrate on how does that bear feel? It was so important to get those emotions right. I find once I have that perfect expression, the rest of the picture falls into place. I draw them a lot of times to get to that place, sort of like exercising. I have to limber up with lots of bears until Im ready to go.

Did you consider putting any evidence of Mum Bear into the pictures?

PD: I think I [asked] Raymond, should Mum be present? Even in a picture? And he didnt think that that was needed. And I thought that was right, actually. This is the dads journey as much as the little bears. It's an unusual thing to see the emotional range of the dad—its lovely. I really, really enjoyed creating this character that was very loving but also very real.

Tell me about illustrating the audiologists office.

PD: I went [to the audiologist] every year when I was a child, and I have to go now for my hearing aids. Its been helpful to me knowing what it's like to be in the audiologists room, because there are no windows, and there are things hanging up on the wall, and the machines. Unless youve been there its hard to picture it, isnt it? And I have taken my son, because [the deafness is] hereditary. Thats another good thing about the book: Its a story about emotions, and its poetic, but it is also factual. I read [it] to my son before he went, so he knew what to expect.

It was such a relief to find a book that explored a disability in a way that was creative first and foremost but also helpful. It is hard to do both. And I feel this is what this does.

Vicky Smith is a young readers’ editor.