A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Meanwhile, on Bear Island

Characters in young adult novels are always trying to survive, it seems — everything from bullying to dystopian government to bad romance or a dysfunctional family. Surviving Bear Island, a debut novel by Alaskan Paul Greci, distills that drive to survive down to the “bare” (so sorry!) essentials: a teenage boy struggling to stay alive, all alone, in a harsh and wild environment.

Alaska’s Prince William Sound affords a perfect setting for Greci’s gripping middle-grade tale of teen against the wilderness. While sea kayaking with his father, Tom Parker is stranded on Bear Island after their kayaks overturn in rough water. With only a small emergency kit in his pocket, Tom must rely on himself to survive. The story advances through numerous hardships and challenges — bears and other wild animals, the constant search for food, cold weather, fashioning spears for fishing and building shelters — paced by flashbacks that fill in details of how the accident occurred. 

Surviving Bear Island by Paul Greci
Illustrations by Paul Madden

The story keeps the reader wondering throughout, Could I do that? The cold answer is, Maybe — or not. Tom’s quest for physical survival is difficult at best. Yet often his struggle is inward, as well — to think clearly, to not give up, to keep fear and despair at bay. While the momentum of the plot is always about trying to stay alive and find his dad, much of the emotional development comes through Tom’s thoughts as he spends weeks alone. Though sadness over the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent lapse into grief and depression sometimes overtake him, Tom ultimately draws strength from their nurture and love.

Greci’s website explains that the author spends a lot of time outdoors and is a veteran sea kayaker, as well as a teacher. These experiences bring a richness of detail about kayaking and wilderness conditions to the story, as well as a first-person narrative voice that rings true.

Surviving Bear Island was chosen as a Junior Literary Guild offering for 2015 in the category of High Interest for grades 5-8. The publisher, Move Books, specializes in middle-grade books for boys. I confess that when I first picked up Surviving Bear Island, I thought “Great boy book.” But don’t be fooled! 

My 11-year-old friend Olivia was riveted by the story, which she read avidly while on a family camping trip. Girls (including me) like adventure and survival stories, too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Seacrow Island

I admit, I am totally biased when it comes to books by Astrid Lindgren. I have yet to read one I didn’t like and many of them — The Tomten and the Fox, Emil in the Soup Tureen, The Children of Noisy Village, and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, for four — I adore. So I was excited to read “A New Trip to Lindgren Land” by April Bernard in the New York Times Review of Books a few months ago. Not only did I discover a Lindgren book I’d never read, I learned about the New York Review Children’s Collection, which has been re-issuing vintage classics (some familiar, some I've never heard of, and a few decidedly quirky) in attractive, well-crafted new editions.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas so I ordered both Lindren’s Seacrow Island and Mio, My Son, which I was familiar with. And I’m here to report, biased but nonetheless reliably, that Seacrow Island is a delightful read. (If you don’t believe me, read Ms. Bernard. She agrees.)

On the surface, Seacrow Island is a simple story about the adventures of a family at their summer cabin on one of the archipelago islands that dot Sweden’s eastern coast. It belongs to the minor genre of “happy family” literature, as Ms. Bernard calls it, which has fallen somewhat out of vogue in recent decades in favor of more gritty realism.

Lindgren’s writing elevates the story beyond any tendency toward triteness; her “happy family” is never boring. Her ability to portray the emotional lives of a variety of characters gives the story great heart. Even minor characters are alive with distinct personalities, worries, fears, and dreams. We begin with the scatterbrained but loving father, Melker, his sons, Johan, Niklas, and Pelle, and nineteen-year-old Malin, his beautiful daughter, who has run the household since the death of the children’s mother at Pelle’s birth. But the characters don’t stop there. As soon as the Melkers arrive on Seacrow Island, they become part of this small, vigorous community, with adventures involving children being lost at sea in the fog, a variety of pets (including an orphaned seal), a string of suitors interested in Malin (and generally abhorred and tormented by her younger brothers), several small housing disasters inadvertently initiated by Melker, disagreements with a disagreeable neighbor, and the machinations of Tjorven, a six-year-old force of nature with a Saint Bernard. Throughout it all, the intricacies of relationships between friends, family, and the natural world are at play.

One of the most interesting and effective aspects of the book is the skill with which Lindgren moves between viewpoints of the main characters. The shifts are so smooth as to be barely perceptible. One minute Malin is daydreaming about life and love and summer; the next moment, Melker is planning a party and the Saint Bernard is eating cream cake. So it goes on Seacrow Island. The seamlessness between characters creates the illusion of being right there among them, perhaps even as a member of the family. The dialogue is often humorous and surprising. As one unexpected event leads to another, Lindgren’s affection for her characters is constant. When the ending arrived, neat and tidy, I didn’t want it to be over. The company was just so enjoyable.

Like contemporary family stories, there are plenty of problems to be dealt with by our characters. But somehow we know that in the world of Seacrow Island, family, community, and good solid sense will prevail.

For more information about Astrid Lindgren and her work, this is a great place to start.

Monday, November 9, 2015


Shortly after I posted my last blog piece, congratulating the creators of the books on the 2015 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list, I discovered the controversy surrounding A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It’s taken me a week to digest all the viewpoints and messages on social media, which are on-going. While the book is not connected to the North (as I consider it for this blog — at least north of the 45th parallel), I feel compelled to comment because I mentioned the book out of my regard for its author and described it as “lovely” — which epitomizes the problem — and because the problem of diversity in literature for children exists everywhere, including the North.

The illustrations are, indeed, lovely in style and artistry. The text is lovely in choice of words, with thought-provoking notes at the end by both author and illustrator. The problem is, one section of the book includes a vignette set on a slave plantation in South Carolina. And slavery is in no way lovely.

I read the book once last summer, when it first arrived at the library where I work, and remember being surprised by the plantation story (one of four brief tales, set over four centuries). It was disturbing, placed as it was amid three other stories set within happy circumstances. But I didn’t think too much about it, other than that it warranted closer examination (clearly an example of “reading while white,” as well as procrastination). My two lasting impressions of the book were that it was artistically “lovely” and also that it would be a book best suited as a resource for discussion, rather than a casual, recreational read.

I reread the book this past week, several times. My first reaction to the criticisms was defensive. As a writer — yes, a white writer — I know how hard it is to conceive, write and publish children’s books. I’ve met Emily Jenkins and found her to be a thoughtful person, fully engaged not just with writing but with evaluating and appreciating literature for children. I can empathize with Jenkins and Blackall. They took a risk by including that section and they appended notes that make it clear the book is intended to be used as a springboard for further discussion.

But the more I thought about it, as a writer, former school librarian, parent, and aunt of multi-racial nieces and a nephew, I agreed with much of the criticism. I can’t fully comprehend the experience of growing up and living as part of a racial minority in the United States, no matter how much I read or discuss or think, because that isn’t my experience. But I can understand why that section of the book upsets or angers some readers.

Opinions on the book are varied and instructive. Some African-American commenters do not object to the book (though the vast majority does). Several commenters have posited that the book isn’t about slavery, it’s about a dessert and the joy of sharing something delicious throughout time -- which it is. But that one section on the plantation is so different in circumstances from the other three that it doesn’t fit the overall “lovely” tone of the rest of the book. So different that two pages of notes — a lot for a picture book — are needed to clarify and explain.

The best children's books are truly works of art. Art is messy, controversial, sometimes risky, and may not be received as the creators intended. Discussion of issues surrounding diversity is often difficult, even painful. If you want to learn about this controversy, I urge you to read the book as well as the opinions in social media. A good place to start is here. I appreciate efforts by bloggers, such as Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature and those at Reading While White, to keep those issues in the forefront. I also appreciate the hard work of the many fine writers and artists who strive to get it right — even if they don’t always succeed.

Friday, October 30, 2015

NYT Best Illustrated 2015

The New York Times just announced its annual list of Best Illustrated Children's Books for 2015 -- and guess which book, so recently reviewed by me, made the list? Congratulations to JonArno Lawson, illustrator Sydney Smith, and Groundwood Books! I'm so pleased to see Sidewalk Flowers receive that recognition.

Congratulations to all the honored creators, of course -- but a special shout-out to one of my favorite writers for youth, Emily Jenkins. Her lovely book A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, illustrated by Sophie Blackall and published by Schwartz & Wade Books, also made the list.

Author Mac Barnett has not one but TWO books on the list! Leo: A Ghost Story is illustrated by Christian Robinson and The Skunk is illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Take a look at the complete list here.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Writing Without Words

One thing I love about picture books is their power to evoke wonder and delight.
Poets, artists, and children are natural allies in capturing such moments. They pay attention to details others pass by.

Now imagine a poet, someone who loves words enough to spend hours honing them down to precise, short-form perfection, writing a book without them! That’s exactly what Toronto poet JonArno Lawson has done in Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith and published by Groundwood Books. The book is a delight in every way: story, art, and design.

Lawson’s wordless story is about a little girl, who while walking big-city streets with her distracted father, notices and gathers sidewalk flowers — those weeds growing out of the cracks and crannies.

She then gently distributes these small tokens of beauty and care to animals and people along the way, including her own family when they reach home. These moments are some of the most tender to be found in picture books, without cloying or striking too-sweet notes. The beauty of the girl’s actions are allowed to speak for themselves, which gives us, as readers, emotional space to feel the love and wonderment behind them.

Smith’s illustrations capture the sensory overload of city life, offering details that both grab our attention and remind us how much we tune out. He utilizes a variety of page lay-outs: full page, various combinations of panels and boxes, several double-page spreads, and even the final end papers.

Color, or the lack of it, and white space play a huge role in the visual storytelling. With a few bright exceptions, the city’s buildings, streets, and inhabitants are gray until the turning point in the story when the girl begins distributing her flowers. The warmth of neighborhood and home contrast wonderfully with the anonymity of the city streets in the first half of the book.

Sidewalk Flowers is a gem of wordless storytelling, reminding us to slow down, pay attention to details, be kind, and at least sometimes, not use our words.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mary's Wild Winter Feast

An on-going challenge in Alaska is finding authentic, place-based, and culturally relevant books for children. Mary’s Wild Winter Feast by Hannah Lindoff, illustrated by Nobu Koch and Clarissa Rizul, fits that bill.

Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press

In six short chapters the book introduces readers to the bond between a family and their Southeast Alaska homeland through the wild foods they gather and preserve. On a rainy winter day, when Mary questions why they live there, her father takes her to the pantry. Jars of food on the shelves — salmon, deer, seaweed, blueberries, and smoked salmon — inspire brief, one-chapter stories about how the food was harvested and preserved the previous summer. Told primarily by Mary’s father, the stories are saved from didacticism by their realistic details, genuine affection between father and daughter, and a conversational style that incorporates Mary’s comments and memories, as well as Dad’s.

The book is unusual in that it is illustrated by two artists, both from Juneau (as is Lindoff). Nobu Koch’s background in 3-D animation renders graphic-novel style illustrations that form the visual backbone for the story. Clarissa Rizul, a Tlingit artist currently living in Colorado, contributed beautiful formline collages, which Koch integrated into her artwork. Rizul’s images add a layer of depth that enrich the illustrations both culturally and artistically.

Though not explicitly stated in the story, readers presume the family is Alaska Native, based on the art and the introduction, which explains that the story reflects the author's family. Lindoff's husband is Tlingit and Haida and the author was adopted into a Tlingit clan.

Mary’s Wild Winter Feast is all about relationships — a people to their homeland, a family to their environment and traditions, a father and daughter to each other. It captures the joy of those relationships and the satisfaction of participating in the web of life through harvesting, preserving, sharing and eating wild foods. Best of all, it does that through authentic stories a child can relate to.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rocky's Wilderness

Fourteen years ago I discovered the wonderful book Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by the artist Rockwell Kent. In 1918 Kent and his nine-year-old son, Rocky, spent seven months living in a trapper’s cabin on Fox Island near Seward, Alaska. I remember the book for its evocative writing and illustrations, which seemed to perfectly capture the experience of living in isolation, surrounded by wild nature, with an attitude of both realism and appreciation for the magnificence of the landscape. The book, published in 1920, helped establish Kent’s reputation as a significant American artist.

95 years later, author-illustrator Claudia McGehee has created a beautiful companion and homage to Wilderness with her picture book My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure. Based on Kent’s memoir and other historical sources, McGehee imagines the story of their time on Fox Island from Rocky’s point of view. It’s a brilliant approach to a fascinating story, all the more fitting for the scratchboard illustrations that echo Kent’s drawings. Though different in format, medium, and execution, both illustrators convey the energy and grandeur of the environment, as well as humor and attention to details of daily life.

My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure by Claudia McGehee
Sasquatch Books, 2015
McGehee’s text is as evocative as her art: walking in the forest with “the soft bed of leaves and pine needles velveting my steps” or tasting the "first steely snowflakes” of winter. Readers will identify with the juxtaposition of Rocky’s imagination while exploring the island (“Was it a grizzly bear?”) with the realities of the environment (“No, it was a porcupine!”) and respond to McGehee’s effective use of page turns to build and release tension.

"I was a little lonely."

Delightful details, such as snow baths and an odd pair of hiking boots, ground the story in a child’s point of view. Emotional truths, such as loneliness or the somber exhaustion that follows a close call at sea, balance Rocky’s exuberance.

"A terrible storm arose."

An Author’s Note provides historical information about Rocky and his famous father, including several photos. A brief teacher’s guide ends the book. McGehee writes about her inspiration for the work, gives additional information about resources, and dishes up a few staple recipes from the Kents' wilderness menu at her website.