Justin Barker discovered his love for animals and knack for animal activism as a middle schooler living in the suburbs of Northern California. Despite school bullying, family strife, and an ongoing identity crisis, Barker was motivated to advocate for animals after picking up a copy of Ingrid Newkirk’s Kids Can Save the Animals! 101 Easy Things to Do at a used bookstore. Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free is a young adult work that encapsulates Barker’s coming-of-age as both a queer teen boy and an animal activist. 

Deemed “Bear Boy” by local media, Barker shares the story of how he fought to release two black bears, Brutus and Ursula, from cruel living conditions at a local zoo. Barker is as passionate in his activism as he is in his storytelling. Bear Boy is a thoughtful, honest portrayal of life as a young teen. Barker does not shy away from sharing family disputes, dismissal from adults in his life, or his experience coming out. The accessible, personable nature of Barker’s writing makes his story all the more engaging. 

What makes Bear Boy perhaps most notable is the unapologetic nature of Barker’s perspective. So often vegan writers, understandably, feel the need to evidence their beliefs with facts about climate change, animal cognition, and the economic value of pursuing animal rights. Though there is absolutely value in adding these perspectives, Barker instead focuses on one issue: right versus wrong. Is it right to hold wild animals in captivity? Is it right to force bears to eat food that is not supportive of their dietary needs? Is it right to watch animals suffer and stand idly by? Rather than debate, Barker writes purely from emotion, a tactic that is sure to captivate readers. 

Though written as a memoir for young adults, the story of Justin Barker and his persona “Bear Boy” is one for all ages. There is some relatable aspect of Barker’s story for everyone, both vegan and nonvegan alike. In addition to animal rights, Bear Boy artfully encapsulates themes of social isolation, identity, search for purpose, and parent/child conflict. Barker has a strong narrative voice and a powerful story to share. Ultimately, Bear Boy is a beautifully told, welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Illustrated book cover for Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free.
Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free by Justin Barker

Click here to read our interview with Justin Barker.