Secrets of ‘The Ice Bear’ – an insight from Jackie Morris

posted in: Jackie Morris | 8

Jackie at a recent book signing.
Jackie at a recent book signing.
Last month Jackie Morris‘ haunting book The Ice Bear was released in a new paperback edition. To celebrate this I asked Jackie to share a little of the background to this bewitching story, to share some the book’s secrets.

If you’ve already got a copy of the book you might want to have it to hand whilst you read what she reveals, so you can go back and look at the images with fresh eyes. And if you haven’t already found a place in your home for this piece of art between two covers, … well perhaps this post ought to come with a warning notice. There’s magic in and on the pages of The Ice Bear. Prepare to be charmed and enchanted.

The Ice Bear began with an image in my mind’s eye. It was an image of a child, kneeling. Around the child there were bears, so that the child looked like the centre of a daisy and the bears were the petals. My job was to work out how to get the child there, and probably more important, how to get him out again. This is what books are about for me, asking and answering questions, and in the process discovering more questions.


The Ice Bear began with a friend, pregnant with her first child. Something went wrong. The baby stopped moving, at full term. He died. She had to deliver a stillborn child. A tragedy for her and the child and her husband. The way people reacted to this was a shock to me. Quick, rush over it, brush over it, hide it under business, do anything but face the pain. (Not Sophie and Jon. They couldn’t rush over it, hide it, they had to face it.) I wanted to do a book about a lost child, about loosing a child. This was a thread that wove into the book. Though few would know if I didn’t say and the book is dedicated to Rhoderic, and Sophie and Jon and also to Katie and Thomas who were born by the time the book came out.

Some of Jackie's first sketches for The Ice Bear
Some of Jackie’s first sketches for The Ice Bear

The Ice Bear began with a wish to do a book about polar bears, and to weave into it transformation and a legend, of the trickster and the shaman.

The Ice Bear began when the flight of a raven began to stitch together ideas with its patterned flight in the Pembrokeshire sky, because all books are like rivers, fed by streams of ideas, coming together.

The book is part of a series of books I have written about animals, each with a cover that is a portrait of the animal, staring out from the book. The covers are strong, almost iconic, and the books are often given shelf space so that the whole cover is seen, rather than being placed spine out on a shelf. I am told by bookshops who put the in the window that they work like a charm to bring people in to the shop, and one shop in Edinburgh said that people often missed their bus as they crossed the road to get a better look at the Snow Leopard when that was in the window. There’s something about eyes looking straight at you that still holds a primitive magic over the wild parts of the human consciousness. When I paint an animal in this way I am not searching for the humanity in the animal. I am searching for the soul, the spirit of the creature.

Some of Jackie's covers, including her forthcoming 'Something About a Bear'
Some of Jackie’s covers, including her forthcoming ‘Something About a Bear’

Having ‘begun’ with an image the story then builds into a balance of words and images. Picture books are meant to be read aloud. The language needs to taste good in the ear, to look right where it sits on the page. A picture book is like a theatre, each page a stage set for that part of the story and in designing each page I often include parts of the stories that are only in the pictures. Once open I try to keep the words inside the pictures. I want the book to become a world where the pictures and the words tell the story. The composition is thought out right to the corners and often the corners and edges are where the main focus of the story is. (You can see this best in the picture where the child finds his mother bear. The image dominated the page but in the top right hand corner there is the figure of the father, charging in).


I paint on smooth paper, arches hot pressed, beginning with pale washes and then building and building with layers and then smaller details. The paints that I use are Winsor and Newton Artist Quality watercolours, usually tubes, and I use ceramic palettes. I know these colours quite well now after 25 years of working with them. I know when to run wet into wet and how much water to use. Now I use sable brushes. They carry the paint so well and a brush like a series 7, no. 4 will allow a wide wash but also can pull the finest line when handled right. And in the same way that writing is like finding the answers to a series of questions, so too is painting. I am constantly asking myself questions, about composition and colour and line and finding the answers is what makes the book.


In The Ice Bear the mother and the father each have a totem animal. The mother’s is the Arctic fox, and often when it seems that the child is alone on the ice you can see the fox is there somewhere, watching. The father’s is the owl, a fierce sky hunter. The boy’s is the bear and always will be. And raven, the trickster, a character who is perhaps a force for good, perhaps bad. He steals the bear child, but takes him to the hunter and his wife who have longed for a child. And when it is time he leads him back across the ice and joins the bear people with the human people forever. So is she good, or bad?

During the telling of a tale things can change. When I originally wrote The Ice Bear the raven lured the child out over the ice with small shards of sea glass. But I had wanted the book to be set long before glass was invented. The child becomes the first shaman, a bridge between humanity and the bear people. It was a time when there were no borders and people wondered the land without any border controls. There was no concept of ownership of land. The very idea would have seemed ridiculous. And so I looked for something else, something more timeless and lit upon the idea of amber. Amber is natural, not a manufactured thing. And I have a necklace of amber beads that if taken apart by a mischievous raven would look just like the broken amber heart in the snow.

Jackie's amber necklace
Jackie’s amber necklace

The Ice Bear has been published now in many languages, French, Spanish, Catalan, Danish, Swedish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese. This is one of the things I love about working with books. Words found on a hill top in Wales can travel the world. I also love the democracy of books. Paintings in a gallery are expensive and usually bought to be hung in one home. Books can be bought, translated, and borrowed from libraries. They can be shared.”

My thanks go to Jackie for so generously sharing some of the stories behind The Ice Bear.

The House of the Golden Dreams (an art gallery featuring Jackie’s work):
Jackie on Twitter: @JackieMorrisArt
Jackie’s blog:

8 Responses

  1. ainslie

    What a lovely read for the start of my day! thankyou for bringing such a beautiful interview and a visual delight to my inbox! I also really enjoyed the audio reading.You have made my day!

  2. Tricia

    I went to see Jackie Morris yesterday at a book signing and exhibition and was lucky enough to see the original beautiful paintings for Song of the Golden Hare. Jackie was painting and showed me her sketchbooks, the paints she uses – such glorious colours, the wonderful big hour glass she owns, made from mill bobbins, and an antique magnifying glass she has recently acquired through which she could see her own paintings in new ways. Her work is exquisite and grows out of genuine wonder for the world. A quality which this blog shares. Thank you, Zoe. I always enjoy your posts.

    • Zoe

      Thank you Tricia – what a very kind thing to say about my blog. And how marvellous you got to meet Jackie!

  3. Marjorie

    What a wonderful article – thank you, Jackie and Zoe. I have loved Jackie’s artwork since first discovering her work, reading ‘Jo’s Storm’ with my now 15-year-old son. I reviewed ‘The Snow Leopard’ for PaperTigers back in 2008 ( but of course I didn’t know the background to its creation – it feels like she has shared something very precious… I look forward to ‘Something About a Bear’ – seeing those book covers all together is quite dramatic!

    • Zoe

      Hi Marjorie,
      Yes, aren’t the covers all together quite something – I can’t wait to see bookshelves with them all on – facing forward!

  4. John Ward

    Fascinating piece. Jackie has a real genius for breathing fresh life into old tales (there are echoes of Demeter and Persephone here) and her art work is superb. Her books are things of beauty. It is an added delight to hear the story behind them, and gain some insight into where they come from and how they are made. Thank you for an uplifting post.
    John Ward recently posted..Switching sides: a confession

  5. Karen Lane

    Today while waiting for an event in my local library to start, I randomly picked up a copy of THE ICE BEAR from the stack of Children’s Picture Books. I was amazed at the level of language and quality of pictures. As a Creative Writing teacher I’m always on the lookout for inspiring books to share with my students – thank you Jackie for sharing your magic.

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