The Bear Makers

One family's story of survival in postwar Hungary, 1948. In Budapest after the war, when Kata’s family first returns from hiding, they are glad to be alive and hopeful that life will improve. But the secret police is questioning everyone about their loyalty to the Hungarian Workers Party, and conditions seem to be worsening. The eleven-year-old doesn’t understand why her brother Bela is acting so differently or why he hasn’t come home from his recent excursion. Her father used to own the factory, but now, as an employee, his wages continue to fall. She helps her mother sew the bears they will sell on the black market, but when Kata learns that Bela has escaped the country, she grows angry and sad. In time, she hopes that Bela will make it to America and will send for his family.

I put my pajamas on quickly and get under my covers, but I cannot sleep. My right hand is throbbing from writing so much. If Bela were home, he would massage it for me. He would tell me how lucky I am that I have beautiful handwriting and a talent for drawing. But who knows where my brother is now.
Author perspective

was helping my mother clean out her cluttered sewing room when I came upon a pattern traced on brittle paper along with instructions for sewing a bear. As I searched on the dusty shelf, I also found a box of glass eyes and metal pieces. My mother told me the story of my grandmother’s bear and handbag business. During the early Communist era, it was illegal to have a business and especially to hire employees, but my grandfather could not earn enough to keep food on the table. In her usual purposeful way, my grandmother found a way to support her family. This is the “seed” of The Bear Makers.

On top of my bookcase is an old bear that my grandmother made before I was born. His photo is on the cover and title page of The Bear Makers, and pictures of the pattern are on the chapter headings. As I was working on the manuscript, I often looked at the bear with his sagging head, and he inspired me as I wrote.


Kata Steiner lives with her parents and older brother in Budapest following World War II. They have survived the Holocaust but now find themselves suffering under the grip of the Hungarian Workers Party. Kata's father has lost the factory that he built and is now a laborer there, and Kata's mother creates stuffed bears to sell on the black market. Kata tells her family's story in dual narratives, alternating between her contemporary story and flashbacks, indicated in italics, to the family's time spent in hiding from the Nazis. She faces hardship with a wavering combination of selfish disappointment and honorable strength, honestly reflecting her genuinely childlike struggle with her circumstances and with herself. Mining her own family's history, Cheng has crafted a cast of characters and palpable setting that are vivid and compelling, and she offers a glimpse into history that many children will find easy to relate to and powerfully affecting. — Thom Barthelmess

School Library Journal
Grade 5–8—Eleven-year-old Kata is still too much a child to understand the political tensions swirling around her in post-World War II Hungary where her once-successful father has become depressed, her mother illegally sells stuffed animals, and her older brother flees to the West. Kata's clear, first-person voice never loses the child's point of view. Even as her older neighbor changes enough to rebel against her parents' demands that she become a Young Pioneer leader, Kata only sees that Eva has again become her friend. Thoughtful readers, however, will see between the lines and find enough detail to understand something of the political background and the family's precarious situation even if they have not previously studied the history of Soviet satellite countries. As she did in Marika (Boyds Mills, 1998), Cheng has based her story on her Hungarian family history; each chapter begins with a photograph of a piece of the instructions for the bears her grandmother made. This book reads like a memoir, and it is a thoroughly convincing recollection of a vanished world.—Kathleen Isaacs, Towson University, MD
Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Front Street
Publication date: 
Nov 2008
Interest level: 
A Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, Nov 2008
Bank Street College Best Books of the Year, Nov 2008