A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

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.

In six short chapters the book introduces readers to the bond between a Tlingit 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.

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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bristol Bay Summer

Maybe I was waiting for summer, when the mind naturally turns to salmon, to read Annie Boochever’s middle grade novel, Bristol Bay Summer. Salmon do indeed figure prominently in the story — but I needn’t have waited. Bristol Bay Summer is a well-told coming-of-age story worth reading anytime.

Boochever balances the various elements of the story adeptly, ranging from teen angst to surviving wilderness challenges to the uncertainties of budding romance.  Fifteen-year-old Zoey’s inner turmoil over her parents’ divorce is compounded by the shock of moving from her familiar life in Colorado to Anchorage. Then, even worse, she and her younger brother Eliot are carted off to a tent on the shores of Bristol Bay for a summer of hauling salmon with Mom, and Mom’s new boyfriend, Patrick, in his rickety second-hand plane. Zoey wants nothing to do with this new life being foisted upon her by adults except get out of it. Surely, if she could just get back to Colorado, she could find Dad and they’d work things out. Except Dad never writes back…

Alaska Northwest Books, 2014.
Zoey’s relationships with her family and the new friends she makes on Bristol Bay evolve from initial self-absorption to gradual acceptance and appreciation, not just for the  bounty of bush Alaska, but for a broader understanding of family and friendship. As her heart opens to this new landscape and its people, she gradually releases the past to accept the present and envision a realistic future.

This story has a lot of heart. But it also delivers plenty of adventure with numerous “firsts.” Remember your first ride in a single-engine plane? The first time you saw a bear in the wild? That first time you stood in freezing-cold water for hours on end harvesting salmon? Small boats, small planes, big bears, rough weather, illness and accident — any of these can prove disastrous in a remote location like fish camp. They can also prove cliche if written about in a superficial way. Thankfully, Boochever gives us the real deal with authentic details, plausible plot and very likable characters.

Speaking of which, did I mention there’s this boy? Turns out a very nice young man, competent and quiet, with his own wounds to heal, lives not too far down the beach. He and his family, their partners in the fish business, become genuine friends — and in Zoey and Thomas’s case, perhaps a bit more.

Boochever, who was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, spent her own summer on Bristol Bay. (Check out her website to learn more.) As a writer, she weaves the realities of life in Alaska into her story without letting them overwhelm for dramatic effect. Boats, planes and bears carry inherent dangers but in Bristol Bay Summer — thankfully — they keep to their proper places as part of the fabric of life.

Bristol Bay Summer is an honest story for younger to mid-teens, authentically told and well-crafted. I say, read it soon — the salmon are running!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wild About Wild Things!

What -- other than fame and fortune -- do Chelsea Clinton, Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna and Peyton Manning have in common? If you’ve read Wild Things!, my latest favorite book about children’s literature, you know the answer: they are four of the numerous celebrities who have penned children’s books.

The authors of Wild Things!, Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta, devote an entire chapter to “The Celebrity Children’s Book Craze,” a fact which endears them to me even without the other six chapters (more on those later). No longer must I fume alone!

Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature
by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta
Why the fuming? Allow me to digress and count the ways:
  • Non-famous writers for children spend years, decades, lifetimes at their craft with no assurance of publication and, usually, little financial reward. Celebrity authors get to by-pass all the pain and go straight to the gain (big time) in a field they generally know nothing about.
  • This would be tolerable, sort of, if the books were good. To the contrary. Most celebrity books (with a few exceptions) are insipid, poorly written, preachy, and/or of little interest to their supposed audience (children).
  • Children forced to read bad books often come to the logical conclusion that reading is boring. This not only hurts kids, it negates the efforts of writers for children, librarians, and teachers to supply vibrant, engaging books for kids.
  • The phenomenon of celebrity children’s books reinforces the common view that anyone can write a book for kids. They’re short and have pictures so it must be easy, right? This false and patronizing attitude leads to more bad books (see #3 above). It also implies that children don't deserve the best literature we are capable of creating.
  • The trees. Think of all the trees, sacrificed to big print runs on the altars of celebrity ego and profit!
Fortunately for readers, the authors of Wild Things! rise above fuming like mine to treat the celebrity issue (and others) with thoughtfulness, finesse and panache.

The rest of the book is summed up in its subtitle: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Mischief, you ask? Good grief, yes! Children’s books have been a battleground for adults' attitudes toward children and childhood from the start. Subversive stories for children pop up regularly in response to cultural norms and issues (think The Story of Ferdinand coming out during World War II). The authors give a tidy history of children’s publishing along with their examples, books ranging from Struwwelpeter in 1858 to Charlotte’s Web, The Stinky Cheese Man and, more recently, I Want My Hat Back

Illustration from Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman
Further chapters discuss GLBT concerns in books for youth, censorship (there’s plenty of it), and the publishing industry itself, with a look at books that critics love but kids don’t, and vice versa. The book concludes with an overview of the current “post-Potter,” digitally-infused children’s book scene.

Besides all the above good stuff, Wild Things! is peppered with fascinating and sometimes naughty tidbits about authors, editors, and famous books. Example: go find an old edition of the classic Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. On the back cover flap you’ll see a photo of the illustrator, Clement Hurd, cheerfully smoking a cigarette. This was, after all, 1947, when smoking was glamorous rather than cancerous. Fast forward to the 2005 revised edition. Through digital magic, Hurd’s fingers are oddly empty. Or this one: In 1974, as the Watergate scandal was disgracing the presidency of the United States, Dr. Seuss modified his popular Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! to read Richard M. Nixon…! Chapter “Interludes” cover subjects like “Sex and Death” with details that will forever alter your images of certain famous authors for children.

The authors are a knowledgable trio of children's book experts. Betsy Bird is a collections specialist for youth materials at the New York Public Library, as well as a writer for children, blogger at A Fuse #8 Production, and contributor to The Horn Book magazine. Julie Danielson critiques books for Kirkus Reviews and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peter D. Sieruta, who passed away during the writing of this book, was a reviewer for The Horn Book, author, and creator of the blog, Collecting Children's Books.

If you love children’s books, you’ll love this book. And if you read the chapter on celebrity authors and their books, you’ll even find recommendations for a few good ones.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

In Praise of Early Chapter Books

Early chapter books are the overlooked middle children of the kid lit world. While picture books get ooohs and aaahs for their beauty and cleverness, and young adult books get attention for their edginess and quirky characters, beginning chapter books sit quietly on the shelf, ignored — until you need them.

And we do need them. Early chapter books give young readers a story long enough to sink their literary teeth into without overwhelming. They build confidence and a feeling of satisfaction at having read an entire book — a real book, with chapters. One that doesn’t say “beginning reader” on its cover.

Because I love watching kids learn to read — and especially, learn to love to read — I have a soft spot for these slim little books, usually illustrated in black-and-white. The best are simple and yet compelling, with memorable characters, an interesting setting, and enough action to hold their readers’ attention.

Series are popular with young readers. They help children identify a new book they can feel confident they’ll like, based on past experience. The characters are familiar and the format consistent, which adds to that important feeling of mastery — I can do this! Series stories also make it easier to slip into an imagined world, like revisiting a place you enjoy and discovering new delights each time.

The Seldovia Sam books by Susan Woodward Springer stand out as Alaska’s best offering in the early chapter book realm. Oddly enough — or maybe not — also illustrated by Amy Meissner!


Published by Alaska Northwest Books.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Saving Sammy

What child hasn’t wanted to bring home an abandoned or injured animal? In my family, it was squirrels and baby birds. In Saving Sammy, an early chapter book by Canadian Eric Walters, illustrated by Alaskan artist Amy Meissner, the young heroine rescues something more unlikely — a baby beaver!

According to the Author’s Note, Saving Sammy is based on a true story about a family who found a stranded young beaver following a flood. The tale is straightforward and uncomplicated, with one main character (Morgan), her parents, two family dogs, and of course, their unexpected guest. The situation — what to do with a lost baby beaver? — is interesting enough on its own to keep reading. But Meissner’s fourteen black-and-white illustrations over eight chapters add elements of richness and momentum to this otherwise quiet story — as well as an irresistible dose of animal cuteness.

Feelings of movement and fluidity permeate her drawings, which focus primarily on interactions between characters. Details give the viewer an impression of moments captured within a context of larger scenes. Each illustration is well-chosen to further the plot and reenforce the overall theme of caring.

Saving Sammy also highlights the work of the Northern Lights Wildlife Society, a real-life animal rescue charity operating in Smithers, British Columbia. The story honors the heart of a child, or any animal lover, determined to save a wounded wild creature. Parental warning: after reading Saving Sammy, your kids may be combing the woods in search of animals in need! But rest assured that the story also drives home the importance of caring for wild creatures in an appropriate setting.

Saving Sammy was published in 2014 by Orca Book Publishers, a Canadian company based in Victoria, British Columbia. It’s the fifth and most recent title to be illustrated by Meissner in their Orca Echoes series of 64-page early chapter books for younger readers.

The book was recently shortlisted for the Green Earth Book Award. Congratulations! It's always a joy to see well-executed books that connect kids with nature in positive and realistic ways.

For an interesting comparison of the artist's earlier and final drawings for the cover of Saving Sammy, visit Amy's blog

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pup & Pokey

Seth Kantner’s new book (and his first for children) is a tender but unsentimental story about the friendship between a wolf and, of all unlikely creatures, a porcupine. Possibly based on an old trapper’s tale — the author isn’t clear on this point, perhaps by design — the story is set in the far-north wilderness Kantner knows so well. With parallels to that ancient Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse, the story plays out as the two main characters grow up, mature, and help one another, each according to their natural abilities.

Illustrated in rich, earth-toned oil paintings by first-time children’s book artist Beth Hill and published by Snowy Owl Books (an imprint of University of Alaska Press), Pup & Pokey reminds me that stories from Alaska don’t always fit neatly into mainstream publishing paradigms. The book is unusual in two ways.

First, 48-page color-illustrated children’s books are seldom produced these days, unless as a beginning reader or a graphic novel. As librarians and teachers know, that leaves a gap in reading material for children who’ve outgrown “baby books” (picture books) and beginning readers but aren’t quite ready for full-fledged chapter books.
Pup & Pokey is told in six chapters, like a beginning reader or early chapter book. But with one to three full-page, color illustrations per chapter, plus an illustrated border for each chapter beginning, it looks and feels like a picture book — albeit one with a lot of words. It’s vocabulary and syntax, while not complex, are not beginning-reader easy. In short, Pup & Pokey doesn’t fit the typical format categories for children’s books these days: picture book, beginning reader, chapter book, graphic novel.

Is this a problem? Only for librarians trying to decide where to shelve the book!

Pup & Pokey is also unusual among contemporary children books because its main characters are wild animals portrayed fictionally but accurately in their natural setting. Do these animals talk? Yes, to other animals. But these are not fantasy animals or stereotyped creatures doing fanciful things. Chewing on a moose hoof, for instance, is not your standard animal-story fare for children.

Illustrated stories about wild animals these days tend to be nonfiction, or for young children, imaginative fiction with little focus on natural history. Pup & Pokey follows in the tradition of realistic wild animal stories by telling the story from the animal characters’ points of view and providing plenty of details about landscape, habitat, and life cycle within the telling of the story.

Children love stories and they enjoy learning about wild animals. So why don’t we have more realistic wild animal stories? I’ll save that discussion for another post. In the meantime, we can be thankful to small presses such as Snowy Owl for publishing interesting Alaska children’s books that — like many Alaskans — aren't afraid to stray from the norm.