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Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free

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Bear Boy is a true-life coming-of-age story of two bears who inspire one boy to stand up for animals, question authority and discover the power of activism. Justin is a typical teenager, dodging school bullies and waging an endless war with his parents. But when he discovers Ursula and Brutus-two sibling black bears being kept in horrific conditions at a nearby zoo-his life Bear Boy is a true-life coming-of-age story of two bears who inspire one boy to stand up for animals, question authority and discover the power of activism. Justin is a typical teenager, dodging school bullies and waging an endless war with his parents. But when he discovers Ursula and Brutus-two sibling black bears being kept in horrific conditions at a nearby zoo-his life begins to change. He finds a cause that ignites his passion and an animal sanctuary willing to take the bears. But there's a catch: he'll have to cover the quarter-million-dollar cost. Undaunted, Justin takes his seemingly insurmountable quest to an international audience, gaining media attention and support from celebrities. With television cameras rolling, Justin fights to free the bears, and it turns out himself. Justin Barker's surprising and moving YA memoir offers the optimism of the 1990s while exploring timely issues of activism, animal rights, and LGBTQ identity with tenderness, unblinking honesty, and heart.


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Bear Boy is a true-life coming-of-age story of two bears who inspire one boy to stand up for animals, question authority and discover the power of activism. Justin is a typical teenager, dodging school bullies and waging an endless war with his parents. But when he discovers Ursula and Brutus-two sibling black bears being kept in horrific conditions at a nearby zoo-his life Bear Boy is a true-life coming-of-age story of two bears who inspire one boy to stand up for animals, question authority and discover the power of activism. Justin is a typical teenager, dodging school bullies and waging an endless war with his parents. But when he discovers Ursula and Brutus-two sibling black bears being kept in horrific conditions at a nearby zoo-his life begins to change. He finds a cause that ignites his passion and an animal sanctuary willing to take the bears. But there's a catch: he'll have to cover the quarter-million-dollar cost. Undaunted, Justin takes his seemingly insurmountable quest to an international audience, gaining media attention and support from celebrities. With television cameras rolling, Justin fights to free the bears, and it turns out himself. Justin Barker's surprising and moving YA memoir offers the optimism of the 1990s while exploring timely issues of activism, animal rights, and LGBTQ identity with tenderness, unblinking honesty, and heart.

41 review for Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jenni

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This book includes a beautiful foreword from Jane Goodall, best known for her research of wild chimpanzees. In the beginning, the author, Justin, is an awkward middle schooler who is the perfect target for bullies: the kid who cried on the school field trip to the zoo, who has no friends, and doesn't know any popular music. Justin is sheltered. I thought he was kidding when he said that he was shocked to find out that his favorite meal, turkey and mashed potatoes, was made from an animal. He scr This book includes a beautiful foreword from Jane Goodall, best known for her research of wild chimpanzees. In the beginning, the author, Justin, is an awkward middle schooler who is the perfect target for bullies: the kid who cried on the school field trip to the zoo, who has no friends, and doesn't know any popular music. Justin is sheltered. I thought he was kidding when he said that he was shocked to find out that his favorite meal, turkey and mashed potatoes, was made from an animal. He screams at his father about this, but really, at 13 years old, wouldn't he know this already? Still, at 13, Justin changes to a vegetarian diet and decides to fight for animal rights. He learns of two bears who are held in captivity near his home and sets out on a mission to have them moved to a better facility. This book definitey shows how one person can make a difference.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Colin

    Justin is an impassioned 13 year old with a bold mission - to improve the quality of care given to animals at his local zoo. The value proposition explored in this book is in encouraging the reader that they can do big things, at which I think it succeeds, but only if the reader continues through the first half of the book. It took a while to find clarity on what beyond “boy saves bears” the impetus of the story would be. Not much time is devoted to anthropomorphism or the spark behind the revela Justin is an impassioned 13 year old with a bold mission - to improve the quality of care given to animals at his local zoo. The value proposition explored in this book is in encouraging the reader that they can do big things, at which I think it succeeds, but only if the reader continues through the first half of the book. It took a while to find clarity on what beyond “boy saves bears” the impetus of the story would be. Not much time is devoted to anthropomorphism or the spark behind the revelation, so it seemed as though the primary prerogative was “I love animals.” The story comes alive when the author is entirely removed from his known world and thrust into a new one. His demeanor, reflections, and yes, tone, are enhanced through the end of the book and carry it to the end. ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I read this story with YA in mind. I hope those who read it find that it feeds their inspiration to do big things.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    I cannot wait for my oldest kid to read this book! I think she will be inspired by this beautiful true story. In Bear Boy, Justin Barker tells of his teenage years and how he discovered his purpose and himself along the way. No one is too young to make a difference. No voice should be discounted because it belongs to someone young. This book gave me hope that the world can be a better place and that people are able and willing to help, even if it takes a while to find them. Keep your eyes open f I cannot wait for my oldest kid to read this book! I think she will be inspired by this beautiful true story. In Bear Boy, Justin Barker tells of his teenage years and how he discovered his purpose and himself along the way. No one is too young to make a difference. No voice should be discounted because it belongs to someone young. This book gave me hope that the world can be a better place and that people are able and willing to help, even if it takes a while to find them. Keep your eyes open for this YA memoir coming out in June! Thank you @netgalley and @justinbarkertv along with Brutus & Ursula LLC for this free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Paula (lovebookscl)

    Muy lindo e inspiradora la historia. Se respira el cambio y es genial saber cómo las personas pueden hacer grandes cambios. Leer esto me recuerda esta frase: “Ser Joven y no ser revolucionario es una contradicción hasta biológica” o como diría Taylor Swift “only the young can run” jajaja Un libro sobre grandes sueños que se alcanzan con pasos lentos pero seguros, y que el cambio está al alcance siempre y cuando lo queramos, aunque tengas a una multitud en contra.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Christina

    I loved this inspiring true story about a young boy who finds meaning and inspiration in animal activism and ends up making a huge impact on two bears and people all over the world. This is a well written book that you will be able to read quickly - it's hard to put down. I found myself rooting for all of the characters, wanting to learn more about them, and wondering where they all are now. I'm so glad this is a YA book and I hope it inspires many young people to find their passion and make a d I loved this inspiring true story about a young boy who finds meaning and inspiration in animal activism and ends up making a huge impact on two bears and people all over the world. This is a well written book that you will be able to read quickly - it's hard to put down. I found myself rooting for all of the characters, wanting to learn more about them, and wondering where they all are now. I'm so glad this is a YA book and I hope it inspires many young people to find their passion and make a difference in the world. Just as enjoyable for adults as it will be for kids to read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tasmin Bradshaw

    I loved this book. It's a topic I'm passionate about myself. It's such a beautiful story about someone (Justin in this case) fighting for animals rights. Not everything in life is sunshine's and lollipops. I'm so glad this has been written. It will open so many more eyes to the world around us. And the importance of standing up for what you believe in. And standing up for the voiceless. A book like this is needed and a must read. I'm so glad it's YA too. Thank you Netgalley for letting me get m I loved this book. It's a topic I'm passionate about myself. It's such a beautiful story about someone (Justin in this case) fighting for animals rights. Not everything in life is sunshine's and lollipops. I'm so glad this has been written. It will open so many more eyes to the world around us. And the importance of standing up for what you believe in. And standing up for the voiceless. A book like this is needed and a must read. I'm so glad it's YA too. Thank you Netgalley for letting me get my hands on this book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amie

    Bear Boy by Justin Barker is a great addition to any middle grade classroom library. It tackles topics like animal rights activism and coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community with honesty and heart.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Katrina Falcioni

    I was lucky enough to read an early copy of this. This was such a fascinating read. So often when we’re young we find our passions but think there’s nothing we can do to work towards them. This story shows how untrue that is. It’s an inspiring tale of activism, passion, and self discovery. I wish I had this when I was a teen but I’m glad I was able to read it now.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    This is such a fun read - you get attached to the characters and leave wanting to protect animals and help save the world. Definitely going in for a reread soon!

  10. 5 out of 5

    EL

    I don’t tend to review autobiographical stories as I think it’s kind of rude to give your opinion on someone else’s life but I’m making an exception for this book because I want everyone to read it. I knew I was going to enjoy this as the subject is close to my heart, and I finished it in one sitting. Justin Barker spent his teenage years campaigning against animals in captivity. This is his insanely inspiring story. People say kids can’t make a difference and this just goes to show, with some de I don’t tend to review autobiographical stories as I think it’s kind of rude to give your opinion on someone else’s life but I’m making an exception for this book because I want everyone to read it. I knew I was going to enjoy this as the subject is close to my heart, and I finished it in one sitting. Justin Barker spent his teenage years campaigning against animals in captivity. This is his insanely inspiring story. People say kids can’t make a difference and this just goes to show, with some determination and persistence, anything is possible. I’m going to be buying a copy of this to give to my niece when she can read (she’s only 4 so a bit too young right now) but I’d recommend this for anyone who’s in need of some inspiration. Edit: I forgot to add this in the publishers notes = my copy was on my Kindle so it may be different in the hard copy, but I'd love to have seen some photos or newspaper cuttings of related articles! Thank you to Netgalley and Brutus & Ursula for the advance review copy.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Justin Barker

    Authors probably shouldn't review their own books, but I'll just say after 10 years of writing Bear Boy and after hundreds of drafts --- This book comes straight from my heart and I am proud of it. I hope it inspires people to take action & to stand up for themselves, animals and their fellow humans. Authors probably shouldn't review their own books, but I'll just say after 10 years of writing Bear Boy and after hundreds of drafts --- This book comes straight from my heart and I am proud of it. I hope it inspires people to take action & to stand up for themselves, animals and their fellow humans.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ky James

    4.5/5 This is a book that will encourage young people to follow their dreams, to work hard to achieve a goal no matter how often they are told it is impossible. - Jane Goodall Justin’s autobiographical tale of carving out his place in this world through animal activism, adventure, and the persistence to see through is convictions is truly heartwarming. The story managed to make me truly care for the animals involved, and equally for the many humans involved as helpers, mentors, and friends in Ju 4.5/5 This is a book that will encourage young people to follow their dreams, to work hard to achieve a goal no matter how often they are told it is impossible. - Jane Goodall Justin’s autobiographical tale of carving out his place in this world through animal activism, adventure, and the persistence to see through is convictions is truly heartwarming. The story managed to make me truly care for the animals involved, and equally for the many humans involved as helpers, mentors, and friends in Justin’s life. I was really confused. No one ever told me that the food we ate - meatballs, chicken salads, pork chops, ribs, hamburgers, baloney - didn’t just come from the grocery store. This book also gently introduces the concept that so many young people - and honestly even some older - do not make the connection between what they eat and where it comes from. There seems to be a disconnect between meat products and the living breathing animals that they are harvested from. It was great to see the jarring moment of realisation in Justin described early in this story. In that moment, I saw her differently, too. I realized she was doing her job - helping me understand the world, empowering me to ask for the things I needed, and encouraging me to stand up for the things I felt passionate about. Justin’s rocky relationship with his parents, particularly his mother, is a large part of the story, and it’s really lovely to get a few tender moments between them in the second half of the story. Justin spends so much time caring and fighting for animals and developing his compassion for them, all while seemingly showing very little for his parents, that it’s really meaningful to get the family growth moments along the way as well. They added a lot to the story for me. [The bears] were an important reminder that all animals, like all humans, deserve kindness and to be free. / [They] represented why i started my work in the first place: to give animals a voice, to help them to be seen, to allow their pain to be ours, and to make us pause if only for a moment, to mourn their passing. The above quote succinctly sums up the heart of this story, and it is a message so very worth sharing with students young and old. It was special to share the adventure with Justin and the story unfolded, and to watch him develop from a lost and hurting young boy, into a passionate, caring, and incredibly driven and successful young man. There is a beautiful theme of belonging humming all the way throughout this novel, and its value is just so high for young readers. Finally, I loved in the final few pages learning about how Jane Goodall writes to nearly 500 young people each year, staying in touch, encouraging them, and doing what she can to further their cause, and hers, to spread goodwill for animals. I knew she was incredible, but boy does this make me love her even more! * I received this ARC from Netgalley and Brutus & Ursula LLC in exchange for an honest review.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    ** thank you NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an early copy in exchange for my honest review ** This is a nonfiction book, a memoir, of Justin Barker’s teenage years. It’s about activism, fighting with your parents, feeling misunderstood and figuring out your identity. When I picked up this book I was convinced that this was a book of fiction, that was mostly inspired by a true story. I don’t know how I missed that it, in fact, was nonfiction. So when I began reading this book I felt dis ** thank you NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an early copy in exchange for my honest review ** This is a nonfiction book, a memoir, of Justin Barker’s teenage years. It’s about activism, fighting with your parents, feeling misunderstood and figuring out your identity. When I picked up this book I was convinced that this was a book of fiction, that was mostly inspired by a true story. I don’t know how I missed that it, in fact, was nonfiction. So when I began reading this book I felt disappointed, and I thought about not reading the book at all. Most often, nonfiction books put me in a reading slump. But this book didn’t. And I am so happy I gave it a chance anyway. This “story” is told by Justin Barker (author), from a present day view, about his teenage years during the 90s. He references to the differences in technology in what he did and did not have access to, and why he had to do stuff in that way. He also explains what older technology he references, in case the reader doesn’t know about it. And all these explanations comes in a very easy-to-read way, that feels like a part of the story. Since my expectations on the book comes from a place of misinformation/misunderstanding, I did feel disappointed by the book. But I think, if I had known that this was a memoir or nonfiction, I would have been pleasantly surprised. This book is nothing like my expectations of a nonfiction book, with it being boring and hard to read. This book was easy to read, quick and interesting. I finished it in less than 5 hours, and in one sitting.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. First of all, I just want to say that I absolutely loved this book. It is aimed at younger readers so it does lack some of the finesse that you might expect from a non-fiction, but as long as you go into this book with this in mind it is an excellent read. This book flows beautifully, and I read it in just a few hours. As a Brit, I don't know much about Justin's story, and I'm so glad that this book gave me the opportunity to find out more. At the beginning of the book, the author mentions that First of all, I just want to say that I absolutely loved this book. It is aimed at younger readers so it does lack some of the finesse that you might expect from a non-fiction, but as long as you go into this book with this in mind it is an excellent read. This book flows beautifully, and I read it in just a few hours. As a Brit, I don't know much about Justin's story, and I'm so glad that this book gave me the opportunity to find out more. At the beginning of the book, the author mentions that he became vegetarian after realising that meat came from animals. This really made me smile because I had this exact same exchange with my parents when at the age of 4/5 I found out that chicken meat came from chickens. The story in this book is so uplifting. It's awful to hear about the terrible conditions that Brutus, Ursula and all the animals in Sacramento zoo and all of the other zoos mentioned. But hearing how one young boy was able to make such a large difference is so inspiring, and I can only imagine the reaction this book will get from animal loving young readers. It will really allow them to believe that they can be the change they want to see in the world. I really really loved this book, and I would definitely recommend reading it! Finally, I just want to say a huge thank you to netgalley who granted me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlin

    "This was about justice, standing up for the voiceless, and helping people see that animals were more than food or entertainment." This quote sums up the way Justin feels about his passion for animals in Bear Boy. At times this passion felt very intense for me as a reader, but I kept reading because I wanted to see where this journey would take him (and the bears!). Although parts of the story (the bear focus, the personal journey, etc) felt a bit disjointed to me, it came together beautifully at "This was about justice, standing up for the voiceless, and helping people see that animals were more than food or entertainment." This quote sums up the way Justin feels about his passion for animals in Bear Boy. At times this passion felt very intense for me as a reader, but I kept reading because I wanted to see where this journey would take him (and the bears!). Although parts of the story (the bear focus, the personal journey, etc) felt a bit disjointed to me, it came together beautifully at the end. In the end, this story was about discovering your place in the world, pursuing your passion, and realizing how important it is to be yourself and not give up on your dreams. Readers who are passionate about animal welfare will love this story. Young people who are grappling with their place in the world or their passions would also enjoy this story. (There is some adult language, so heads up). Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Thanks to the publisher for providing an eARC of Bear Boy in exchange for an honest review. You can just tell while reading this that Justin Barker would be really, really, good at leading a school assembly. Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free is an autobiographical account of Barker's journey towards animal activism and it becomes apparent very quickly that while this would be a really good book to read out loud to an elementary schooler you want to get into ac Thanks to the publisher for providing an eARC of Bear Boy in exchange for an honest review. You can just tell while reading this that Justin Barker would be really, really, good at leading a school assembly. Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free is an autobiographical account of Barker's journey towards animal activism and it becomes apparent very quickly that while this would be a really good book to read out loud to an elementary schooler you want to get into activism, this book is only really categorized as YA because Justin's 13 a lot of the story, not because it's actually targeted at a YA audience. I think Barker did a really good job at telling his story in an easy to understand manner, but this is so clearly for younger readers that it didn't really work for me.

  17. 5 out of 5

    james ☆

    3.5 ⭐ thank you to netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for an honest review. also, star rating people's life experiences is weird, so my rating is based purely on the objective qualities of this book. this story was so special, and it's one that is bound to inspire, educate, and empower those who read it. from the very beginning, we have a strong sense of who justin is, and what his values are - but we also see his learning process, and his explorations. my biggest critique is th 3.5 ⭐ thank you to netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for an honest review. also, star rating people's life experiences is weird, so my rating is based purely on the objective qualities of this book. this story was so special, and it's one that is bound to inspire, educate, and empower those who read it. from the very beginning, we have a strong sense of who justin is, and what his values are - but we also see his learning process, and his explorations. my biggest critique is that i think it could have been a little more focused. there were times where i found myself wondering "is this really necessary?" and it ultimately dimmed the shine of the sections that did heavily focus on the bear storyline. also, aside from some strong language, this book really could be sold to middle grade readers, who i feel would be the best audience for the message. "they have done nothing wrong, but they've been sentenced to a life in this prison." i loved seeing justin's determination, and was especially drawn to his thought process behind putting so much work into his activism. he was constantly weighing the consequences, and choosing the animals because of the morals he had carefully considered. it made his actions feel real and clever. and though the mistreatment the animals was hard to read at times, i'm so glad this book exists, and i believe it will do for readers what that pink book in a used bookstore did for justin.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Yarbrough

    Wow! Justin Barker did more with his life before graduating high school than I think most of us have done with our entire lives. BEAR BOY is Justin's story which starts when he was inspired by a used book he picked up in a store that taught children how to help animals. Justin took the book's teachings to heart and became a vegetarian. He also spent his summer monitoring the Sacramento Zoo and setting out to improve the conditions for the animals who lived there. Justin didn't just hold a bake s Wow! Justin Barker did more with his life before graduating high school than I think most of us have done with our entire lives. BEAR BOY is Justin's story which starts when he was inspired by a used book he picked up in a store that taught children how to help animals. Justin took the book's teachings to heart and became a vegetarian. He also spent his summer monitoring the Sacramento Zoo and setting out to improve the conditions for the animals who lived there. Justin didn't just hold a bake sale on the corner. He called city officials. He met with zoo directors and keepers. He contacted animal rights groups. He was a dedicated boy who stayed focused on his mission. After accomplishing a lot of work at the zoo, Justin sets up his own animal rights organization and is contacted about 2 bears living in a defunct zoo in deplorable conditions. Suddenly, Justin has a new mission! He wants to save these bears and move them to a better location, but it will take a lot of money to do it. Justin tells his story in a straightforward manner. It's as if you've set down with him over dinner and you are listening to him tell his life story. Not since reading Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo have I enjoyed a story about an activist who is so inspired by their cause. Justin also tells the reader about his high school woes and bullies, and his exploration of his sexuality as he navigates high school and finds friends who accept him. If you have a teenager who might be struggling to find their place in this world, who loves animals, or who might be questioning their sexuality, BEAR BOY is an inspirational story about one boy's love for animals and his dedication to improving the world we live in, find friends like him, and to give focus to his life.

  19. 5 out of 5

    lucía

    *i received and ARCs of this book but it did not affect my opinion* i loved to see justin's growth and maturity, as well as his journey with his identity and sexuality while dealing with activism as a young person, and bullying. the author captured so well what it felt like being a kid with no authority and being continually dismissed even when you raised valid concerns. an informative, quick, emotional read. highly recommend! *i received and ARCs of this book but it did not affect my opinion* i loved to see justin's growth and maturity, as well as his journey with his identity and sexuality while dealing with activism as a young person, and bullying. the author captured so well what it felt like being a kid with no authority and being continually dismissed even when you raised valid concerns. an informative, quick, emotional read. highly recommend!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Gary

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bridget Sumser

  22. 5 out of 5

    Olivia

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kiki Larouge

  24. 5 out of 5

    mad mags

  25. 5 out of 5

    Peacegal

  26. 4 out of 5

    ☆ Todd

  27. 5 out of 5

    tappkalina

  28. 4 out of 5

    Amie's Book Reviews

  29. 4 out of 5

    Madison

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alex Helm

  31. 4 out of 5

    CrimsonFlamez

  32. 5 out of 5

    Eva

  33. 5 out of 5

    Isaiah

  34. 5 out of 5

    vanessa (effiereads)

  35. 5 out of 5

    Caressa Lahaie

  36. 5 out of 5

    Jenni

  37. 5 out of 5

    Leo

  38. 5 out of 5

    Róisin (somethingarosie)

  39. 4 out of 5

    Splendy

  40. 4 out of 5

    Tamara Cardinal

  41. 5 out of 5

    peach :)

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