A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Flumbra and Alfie

   Several months ago I wrote about some of the differences between Scandinavian and American picture books. One of my favorite examples of the openness in Nordic children’s books is a delightful picture book from Iceland, Flumbra: An Icelandic Folktale by Gudrún Helgadóttir. Ari, a little boy in Iceland, worries about giants, who are known to live in the mountains and occasionally steal misbehaving human children. When he asks Pappa for a story about giants, he hears about Flumbra. This giantess of old falls in love with a giant from another mountain. After a raucous romance, she returns home and later is blessed with eight baby giants, whom she loves and cares for like any human mother might. By the end of the tale, Ari is reassured and we, the readers, have a new appreciation for both mountains and giants.

   This is the only American picture book I can think of with a breastfeeding mother depicted (even if she is a giant). Maybe the fact that it was published in 1986 has something to do with it. Was society more liberal then? Perhaps the publisher, Carolrhoda Books, was open to the story because at that time it was a relatively small press, located in Minneapolis, which is known for its Scandinavian roots.

   Here’s another little example of Scandinavian frankness in a photo I took in Stockholm the last time I was there. It’s from a display of well-known Swedish children’s authors in a fabulous museum called Junibacken, which is devoted entirely to the world of children’s books, stories, theater, and music. The character is Alfie Atkins, from the books by Gunilla Bergström, some of which have been published in English (as well as other languages).

   It’s meant to be humorous and not at all in bad taste. A joke – something like “B as in behind” or "B is for bottom" in English. Still, it’s not something you’re likely to see celebrated in a children’s museum display in the U.S!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


     Last week I was fortunate to hear two talented speakers who make beautiful picture books discuss their work. At the Alaska Library Conference in Juneau, editor Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books spoke about picture books she admires and why she likes them. Author/illustrator Marla Frazee explained the artistic process that goes into her work, which includes All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, both Caldecott Honor books. The two women often work together and it was clear that they have the kind of synergistic professional relationship that most writers and illustrators long for.

     What books did Ms. Johnston mention as stellar examples? To mention a few: Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox, for the brilliance of the page turns and the clever use of pattern and repetition. Caldecott Medal winner Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, for its spare, direct text so well integrated with the art. The Carrot Seed, a classic from 1945 by Ruth Krauss, again for its sparse text and simple but evocative illustrations. And of course, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, winner of the 1964 Caldecott.

     Both Ms. Johnston and Ms. Frazee talked about open-endedness, leaving room in the text for the artist to engage and contribute to the story. Notice that all the books mentioned use spare but effective sentences and much of the art makes ample use of white space.

     Their talks were a reminder to me as a writer to sometimes just shut up. Writers are by nature word people, at least on paper. If, like me, you are not an illustrator it can be hard to hand your story over to people you don’t know. I find in myself a tendency to want to make sure “they” are going to “get it,” to understand my story and share my vision for it.

     But the best picture books are not about competently illustrated stories. They are a fusion of words and art that complement each other to make something better than either could be on its own. Something like a happy marriage, one could say. And like a happy marriage, that takes some serious trust.

     My take-away from these talks is to increase my trust level and try harder to find the right words, even if that means fewer of them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lizards in the Sky -- Yikes!

Most kids like books about animals, especially critters that are cute or unusual. For a certain subset of young readers – primarily, but not always, boys – interest in odd animals borders on obsession.

These young enthusiasts know far more about animals than I ever will. Lizards in the Sky: Animals Where You Least Expect Them by Canadian Claire Eamer is perfect for such kids, as well as general-interest readers. Though it has plenty of eye-catching and informative pictures, this is at heart a science book, not fluff. The theme of the book is animals that live in unexpected places and the adaptations they make to survive. With hooks like “A snake, flat as a ribbon, gliding overhead?” and “Bomb-throwing worms” to lure readers into the main text, the book knows its audience. Organized into chapters based on general environment – water, land, desert, air, darkness, and cold – it covers a range of creatures, from microscopic to large, looking at the kinds of adaptations they use to live in various habitats.

One thing I really like about the book is that although the tone is conversational, it doesn’t talk down to kids. An appendix gives the scientific names for each animal discussed, chapter by chapter. A list of books for “Further Reading” is included, as well as a “Selected Bibliography” and a thorough index, details that are much appreciated by librarians and budding scientists.

One aspect of the book I don’t care for is the use of spot illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The intent was probably to enliven the format with a bit of fun and fancy. But to me, the juxtaposition of fanciful with scientific is incongruous. Nonetheless, this is a small quibble and quite possibly a personal preference.

Author Claire Eamer is a science writer who lives in the Yukon. Her previous books include Spiked Scorpions & Walking Whales; Super Crocs & Monster Wings and Traitor’s Gate and Other Doorways to the Past.

I’ll put this book in my school library, knowing full well it will prompt a conversation something like this:

     Future biologist earnestly informs me, “Mrs. Dixon, did you know that naked mole rat queens give birth to more than a thousand babies?”
     I gasp.
     “Not all at once,” he goes on to explain, delighted.
     “Thank goodness!” I reply.

And thank goodness for writers like Claire Eamer, who make exploring the natural world so interesting.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with Debby Dahl Edwardson

A while ago I wrote about Blessing's Bead, a wonderful novel by Barrow resident Debby Dahl Edwardson. Debbie has been kind enough to answer some questions about her writing life. Her next book, My Name is Not Easy, is going to press soon with Marshall Cavendish.

Debby, I know you’ve lived in Barrow for over 30 years. I’m curious about what brought you there in the first place. It is rather out of the way for casual visiting! Would you mind talking about how and why you first came to Alaska; where else in Alaska you spent time; and how/why you got to Barrow?

I came to Alaska for adventure. I had just graduated from college in Colorado. A group of us were living in New Mexico and decided to drive north to Alaska to work on the Pipeline. For me it became a journey of discovery that has yet to end. I ended up in Barrow because my husband is Inupiaq and Barrow is his home. I moved to Barrow sight unseen, in fact, knowing that it would become my permanent home. It was February of 1980—a time of intense cold and blindingly bright sun. A strong, resilient and ultimately joyful people were bringing in sled loads of caribou and piling huge blocks of crystalline ice outside there homes for drinking water. I was enchanted.

You and I share a common denominator in that as young adults we both spent time in Scandinavia before coming to Alaska – you in Norway, I in Sweden. My time in Sweden was a strong influence in turning my interest northward to Alaska. Was that the case for you, too?

I guess that growing up in Minnesota, living in Norway and settling in Alaska have all fed into my identity as a northerner. My family instilled in me a fierce pride in my Norwegian heritage. My husband, who is Inupiaq, is also part Norwegian so for us there is always a sense of strong Norwegian-Alaskan ties.

Do you maintain connections with people in Norway? Snakker du norsk? (I think I just asked if you speak Norwegian.)

Ya, Jeg snakker norsk, men det har vært lenge siden… no, sadly I have pretty much lost connection with most of the people I knew in Norway. And although I have always wanted to go back, seven children and a busy life have sent me in other directions. My oldest daughter, who is a filmmaker, was invited to present her work at a Sámi film festival in Northern Norway several years ago. This daughter was also an exchange student in Sweden and my youngest daughter was an exchange student in Denmark—so in a way we have extended our Scandinavian connections. And I did actually receive a surprise email form a Norwegian classmate, recently.

He said he was waiting for a bus, listening to his ipod, and when the song “Bye, Bye Miss America Pie” came on and he remembered, suddenly, the first time he’d heard the song. It was played for him by an American Girl by the name of Debby Dahl. He had seen my website and remembered me.

The ways in which the internet connects us are truly amazing.

Living anywhere in Alaska – even Anchorage – is different from living in the Lower 48 states. For most people it requires some adjustment and the learning of new skills. It seems to me that living above the Arctic Circle and marrying into the Inupiaq culture would require significant adjustment and learning, including a non-Western language. Was that difficult for you? How long did it take for you to feel that this was home?

I was thinking of this when I was at Disneyworld recently, attending the NCTE/ALAN conference. It seemed like such an alien place to me! The truth is, that at this point in my life I often face culture shock when I travel south.

I think that living in Norway and learning another culture and language prepared me for the Inupiaq cultural immersion experience that has shaped me into the person I am today. And truly, there was a lot about the Inupiaq worldview that just made sense to me. It helped, also, that I had a good teacher, a cultural mentor who taught me to see the world through his eyes. I married this man.

The odd thing about Alaska was that I never intended to make it my permanent home. I’ve always had wanderlust and I used to think I would just keep traveling and experiencing all the wonderful places the world has to offer. Even after I had married into the culture and lived here a long time, part of me was still keenly aware of the fact that I was living far from my home. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day I realized that I was home, in every sense of the word. I actually consider myself to be bicultural at this point. The benefit of this is that I don’t really have to do a lot of research for the books I write—my life itself is the research!

About the book: Where did you get the idea for the bead as a motif to span the generations and unite the two main characters in the novel? Is there a real-life bead that inspired you?

There is a real life bead. In fact the bead on the cover of the book is the real bead that inspired the use of the fictional bead in the story. It was given to my husband and had belonged to an old woman in Point Hope. He was told him it would protect him. I’ve known and been fascinated by trade beads for many years, especially the Russian blues, which were indeed considered very valuable.

Authors usually have little or no control over the covers for their books. Is there a story behind the cover of Blessing’s Bead? I find the photograph of the girl to be evocative, almost haunting. Or was it arranged by editors and art directors? How do you feel about the cover?

Ah, now here’s a story! In fact the girl on the cover of the book is my middle daughter, Susan, whose Inupiaq name is Aaluk (as is one of the book’s main characters.) How did this happen? Well, although it is indeed unusual, my editor, Melanie Kroupa, then at Farrar Straus and Giroux, involved me every step of the way on the cover design. When it became clear that they wanted to do a photo cover—I started sending photos of local Barrow girls (my nieces) who I thought looked the part. None of them had quite the right expression, however. Out of desperation, I staged a photo shoot with my daughter who is an actress and could, I knew, get in character. However, neither she nor I thought she looked “Inupiaq enough.” The full story of the cover—and my thoughts about it, which are actually kind of complex, can be found here.