A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ordinary Dogs, Unusual Stories

Lots of people love dogs. Few of them, however, devote as much time, energy, thought, and affection to their canine friends as does Pam Flowers, author of a new book titled Ordinary Dogs, Extraordinary Friendships: Stories of Loyalty, Courage, and Compassion published by Alaska Northwest Books. This 144-page book for upper-elementary aged children (and dog lovers of any age) contains eleven short stories from Pam’s decades of friendship with numerous pets and working sled dogs. Each story relates the personality and behavior of her dogs to human situations and character traits in a relaxed, first-person voice that is both instructive and interesting.

As a former school librarian, I’ve read countless well-intentioned stories for children, written to teach them valuable lessons about life and how to behave. With few exceptions, they are dull and forgettable. I’m pleased to report that Pam’s tales are neither. Who can forget a true story about a curious polar bear accidentally driving Pam’s dog team? Or details like this: “Over the breeze came the faint smell of corn chips. In the pure Arctic air, untainted by other odors, that’s what my team smells like.”

 From "The Iditarod -- Teamwork Below Zero"

In the story “Good-Bye, My Friend,” Pam admits, “I’ve always been pretty sappy when it comes to dogs…every dog I ever knew easily won a place in my heart.” Pam’s relationships with her dogs are grounded not only in sentiment, but in the realities of their shared challenges and outdoor adventures. These true stories of mutual respect, affection, teamwork, and loyalty are genuinely heartwarming. One of those realities is the death of a canine friend, a subject often glossed over in nonfiction for children because it’s hard to talk about. Pam writes about it here with grace and honesty.

 From "The Bully"

Each chapter is illustrated with a line drawing, as well as spot illustrations, by Jason Baskin. The simple drawings capture the energy of the dogs and emotional essence of their situations. A glossary defines terms used in dog mushing and the Arctic.

Full disclosure: Pam and I co-wrote two books together, Alone Across the Arctic and Big-Enough Anna. Since then Pam has gone on to write several books for children: Ellie’s Long Walk and Douggie: The Playful Pup Who Became a Sled Dog Hero. Pam lives in Talkeetna, Alaska. For more information about Pam Flowers, visit

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Speaking of Hanukkah in Alaska...

Okay, so Hanukkah is over. But I can’t resist mentioning a second, earlier picture book about celebrating Hanukkah in Alaska, Diana Conway’s Northern Lights: A Hanukkah Story. Conway, who lives across Kachemak Bay from me in Halibut Cove, published the story in 1994 with Kar-Ben Publishing, a publisher specializing in Jewish children’s books.

This tale begins in a Yup’ik village on the Bering Sea, where Sara and her physician father have just flown in to see his patients. Grounded by the weather, they spend Hanukkah with a Yup’ik family, exchanging food, stories, and traditions. Sara entertains her hosts with a retelling of the Hanukkah story. Together they improvise a Hanukkah celebration with an “Eskimo menorah,” capped off by a stunning display of northern lights.

A few Yup’ik words are used in the text. These are explained in context and given a pronunciation guide in a front note.

The book is illustrated by Shelly Haas. No notes on the artwork are provided but to my untrained eye the medium appears to be watercolor with some pen and ink lines. Outdoor hues of blues, purples, and pinks, often spattered with white and blue crystals of blowing snow, capture the essence of the winter landscape in a northern village.

Indoor scenes focus on the faces and body language of the characters, with a wider range of color in clothing and home furnishings. The northern lights, described as “quivering bands of color,” are ethereal, evoking in their fluid swirls the movement and changing colors of the aurora borealis.

Unfortunately, the book is now out of print. Thank goodness for libraries! It’s available at many of them throughout Alaska, as well as the Lower 48. If it’s not at your local library and you'd like to read the book, ask about interlibrary loan.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hanukkah in Alaska

How long has it been since one of the big New York houses published a picture book by an Alaskan? (If you know the answer, please share!) A drum roll and congratulations to Barbara Brown, whose Hanukkah in Alaska, illustrated by Stacy Schuett, recently came out with Henry Holt, “publishers since 1866.”

Brown tells the story of a young girl and the neighborhood moose that worries her. You know that critter – hanging out in your yard, chomping your trees, sleeping between you and your car during a deep-snow winter. Unpredictable and possibly ornery. Our young heroine is justifiably worried about the mayhem this moose can cause in her backyard.

Hanukkah in Alaska does a nice job of bringing the child-centered realities of winter in many Alaska towns to a greater audience: hugging trees for moose safety, layers of clothing, northern lights, and streets filled with snow. At times, informative asides aimed at Lower 48 readers, such as a definition of “Outside,” threaten to distract from the story, but are probably necessary for an audience beyond Alaska.

While Alaska and its moose dominate the first half of the book, they eventually lead to a unique “Hanukkah in Alaska” experience that connects the lights of this Jewish festival with that pesky moose, for a surprising and holiday-appropriate ending. A cataloging note mentions that an earlier version appeared as a short story in the anthology A Hanukkah Treasury (Holt, 1998). That may explain the somewhat meandering route this tale takes, which is unusual in these days of very concise, short-form picture books. An Author’s Note at the end discusses both Hanukkah and the aurora borealis.

Schuett’s acrylic and gouache paintings contrast the dark skies of winter with white snow, the purple tones of low light, and brightly colored parkas, streetlights, and interiors. She captures well the tension between the girl and the moose, particularly through interesting juxtaposition of the two in numerous scenes. My only quibble with the artwork is an overly literal interpretation of the text’s description of northern lights as “a rainbow on black velvet.” I’ve never seen the aurora look that horizontal and tidy. Her other aurora paintings, however, are evocative and lovely.

Hanukkah in Alaska is a welcome addition to children’s books about Alaska. And I especially love to see Alaskans writing them!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

With Both Caps On

I’m back! I hope. After an embarrassingly long hiatus, I hope to carve out time for the occasional post to review new (or new to me) Alaska children’s books.

I’ve always worn two hats – my library bun and my writing cap. Sometimes it can be a trifle tricky wearing both at the same time. But I love children’s books and I love Alaska, so I can’t seem to stop myself.

I know first hand the joy and excitement of sharing good books with children, of exploring new ideas with fresh minds, of watching kids make connections with the world at large and the equally vast universe within through literature.

If we want our children to read well, they must want to read, to be internally motivated to read for pleasure and not just externally motivated to pass tests. That love of reading comes primarily from one thing: exposure to a wide variety of good books and intriguing stories.

All children need and deserve well-written books that accurately reflect their own experience, as well as stories that expand their horizons. In the spirit of aspiring to create the best books for children, I’ll do my best to review books about Alaska and by Alaskan authors that I find interesting and worth sharing. Stay tuned for more!