A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing What She Knew

This year I've been preparing for Alaska Book Week by reacquainting myself with the works of Elsa Pedersen, an Alaska writer, now passed on, who still inspires me when I begin to think this whole writing business is just too hard and I ought to spend my time on something more productive, like Facebook.

Long before the phrase "young adult literature" materialized, Elsa Pedersen was writing for young people. Her career began in 1948 with a magazine article for “Alaska Life.” She soon moved into writing stories for youth, and eventually books. Victory at  Bear Cove was the first of eleven historical and contemporary novels, all but one set in Alaska. Several sold quite well nationally. Fisherman's Choice and House Upon a Rock were Junior Literary Guild selections, and the New York Times listed Cook Inlet Decision among its best 100 books for young people in 1963. She also wrote nonfiction: a book about Alaska for school children, dozens of articles for adults, a memoir, and co-authored two local histories.

Elsa Pedersen's first novel for young adults,
published in 1958, was followed
by ten more over the next decade.
Her writing focused, per the old adage, on what she knew: homesteading and fishing on Kachemak Bay. When she wasn't writing, she was working at homesteading chores, such as helping her first husband, Ted, to clear acres of old-growth spruce by hand with cross-cut saws and axes at their stake in Bear Cove, and later, hiring on as a bookkeeper at canneries in Seldovia in an often desperate attempt to stay afloat financially. When working for the canneries, she arose at 4:30 or 5 to get in two hours of writing before her work day. (Ouch! So what's my excuse?)

As someone who has been writing since before the Internet, I can fully imagine the solitary commitment to her craft that writing from her homestead at Bear Cove required. All correspondence with editors and other writers took place by snail mail, of course — in this case, very snail, as mail arrived by boat or plane only sporadically at best. Manuscripts were produced without the benefit of spell-check or cut-and-paste. Critique group? Forget it. There was no one to critique with even if she’d wanted to. (She didn’t.)

Published in 1969, Petticoat Fisherman
features a young woman coming of age
as she navigates a fishing boat on Kachemak 
as well as social expectations of the time.
Pedersen’s approach to writing sounds distinctly old-school today. She makes it clear in her memoir that she was opposed to discussing her work-in-progress, stating “Writing is an extremely personal affair and as far as I’m concerned is not a debatable subject.” She did not believe in writing workshops and critique groups, which she characterizes as “the blind leading the blind” and warns may foster “a subtle atmosphere of ‘You praise my work, I’ll praise yours’” or even “jealousy and malice.” Point taken!

Written after the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964,
House Upon a Rock tells the story of a young man,
his family, and community dealing with the event
and its aftermath in a fictional coastal village.

Finding balance between the focused solitude of writing and participation in society (face-to-face or virtual) seems to be part of every writer’s journey over time. Although writing was clearly not a social activity for Pedersen, she eventually left the isolation of Bear Cove for the relative civilization of a rural community on the road system. If she were alive today, I can't help wondering if she'd embrace the connectivity of the Internet, with all its access to the world, or if the onslaught of blogging, tweeting, blurbing, and “liking" might drive her to reconsider the merits of isolation.

My take-away from a brief look at Elsa Pedersen’s life and career is perseverance: she wrote to publish and she wrote because she was driven to write. Sometimes, with luck, the two coincided.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alaska's Dog Heroes

Who doesn’t love a good dog story – especially when it’s true? Alaska’s Dog Heroes: True Stories of Remarkable Canines, a new picture book by Shelley Gill, gives readers glimpses into the lives of nineteen memorable dogs from Alaska.

Each of the fourteen brief profiles, beautifully illustrated by Robin James, shows the featured dog (or dogs) on one full page, with a facing page of text. With just one exception the scenes are snowscapes; all but five of the heroes are sled dogs. Both art and text convey the important role dogs have played in Alaska’s history as a means of transportation and the role they continue to play in winter recreation, the sport of sled dog racing, and search and rescue.

As the book notes, Shelley Gill was one of the first women to complete the Iditarod sled dog race. She’s also written many books for children about a wide variety of topics. Her subjects here range in time from 1880 to contemporary working dogs, although the stories are not arranged chronologically. Rescue dogs, as well as a pair of “dog detectives” being trained to sniff out oil spills beneath the sea ice, make it clear that dog heroes are still among us.
Portrait of Tekla.
Readers will likely be attracted to the book first for its illustrations and then drawn into the stories to learn more about the dogs they see. The concise text packs a lot of information into compact entries. It may be shared as a read-aloud for children as young as five or six, but adult explanation will be needed. The book is best suited for seven to ten-year-olds. A Teacher’s Guide in the back includes activities aligned with Common Core Standards for Second and Third Grade, although the reading level appears to be considerably higher than that. Some adult participation may be needed to help kids navigate through vocabulary challenges and unfamiliar references.

While the focus is always on the dogs, references to Alaska’s history, environment, and people will pique readers' interest for more information. Most of the dogs featured have been written about at greater length elsewhere, and in primary sources. A list of references for further reading would be a welcome addition for teachers, librarians, and curious readers.
Dugan in action.
Additional clarification of some terms and phrases would also be helpful. For instance, “native paddlers” in the story about Stikeen and "fastest musher in Alaska" in the entry about Togo would be better understood by the book’s intended audience with a few more details explaining the cultural and historical contexts. 

These suggestions aside, Alaska’s Dog Heroes is a beautifully illustrated introduction to some of Alaska’s best canine friends.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Aesop in the Arctic

One of the things I love about folktales, legends, and fables is how adaptable they are. In Arctic Aesop’s Fables: Twelve Retold Tales, Juneau writer Susi Gregg Fowler and her husband, artist Jim Fowler, have transformed a dozen traditional Aesop’s tales into a beautifully rendered picture book of fables set in Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes.

A few, such as “The Arctic Fox and the Raven,” require only minor substitutions to replace their classic counterparts. “The Fox and the Crow” -- a story I’ve told at least a hundred times to children using puppets and an intriguing piece of mystery cheese -- in Susi Fowler’s retelling fittingly exchanges Arctic cousins for the traditional critters and a bit of fish (grayling, to be precise) for the cheese.

Similarly, “The Wolf and the Reflection” doesn’t wander far from Aesop’s “The Dog and the Shadow” -- except for the setting, which describes “grassy tussocks” on the tundra and mentions a bear. Jim Fowler’s illustration of the wolf looking at itself in the river sets this story apart. This canine is wilder and more powerful than any dog I’ve seen depicted in the classic tale.

Other stories are more surprising. Guess who stars in the Arctic version of “The Tortoise and the Hare”? A snowshoe hare and a porcupine! Anyone who has ever watched a porcupine waddle across a trail will smile reading this version of the familiar fable.

Some stories, such as “The Bear, the Wolves, and the Musk Oxen,” are adapted from lesser-known Aesop’s fables -– here, “The Lion and the Three Bulls” -– to good effect. Musk oxen protecting their young are a perfect, and unusual, choice to illustrate the moral “United we stand.” Again, Fowler’s illustrations complement the story and visually strengthen understanding of the moral.

Another creative adaptation I particularly enjoy is “The Mosquito and the White-Fronted Goose.” The moral is straight out of “The Lion and the Mouse” but the story that takes you there is original, and uniquely Arctic.

With so much to talk about and explore visually, this book is made for sharing, either one-on-one or with groups of children in a story time or teaching setting. Northern children will recognize familiar animals and landscapes. Children from other environments will be intrigued and interested to learn more about Arctic wildlife. The succinct morals provide an opportunity to discuss values and the consequences of various behaviors. A table of contents links the stories to their source fables, which is not only good scholarship but a perfect invitation for inquiring minds to look up the Aesop versions for comparison. From there it’s a simple segue into telling or writing their own animal fables.

Fables are an ancient and amazingly durable form of teaching story. It’s a pleasure to see them reworked so imaginatively and yet set accurately within the natural world. Nicely done, Fowlers!

Published by Sasquatch Books, 2013. Ages 4-8.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Why It All Matters

Allow me to stray slightly off-topic -- though of course, it's all connected -- to why writing and reading matter.

Though the reasons seem obvious, articulating them off the top of one's head can lead to mental stuttering. Why else does the question arise perennially? Think of all those writers trying to justify spending so many hours of their lives playing with words that may -- or may never -- be read, never mind generate any income. Or for that matter, readers explaining to their partner, parent, or maybe even boss, why they wasted an entire afternoon reading a novel when they could have been doing something productive. On an institutional level, librarians are routinely asked to clarify why taxpayers should support and even encourage consumption of all that writing. Information is okay, but that made-up stuff -- who needs it?

Turns out, we all do.

Those of us who love to read and write already know this instinctively. But two recent articles provide scientific evidence that reading is measurably good for us. And not just informational reading, but fiction.

An article in the Science section of The Guardian reports that a study at Emory University found "reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory." These neurological changes persisted, as measured by brain scans taken for five days after students finished reading a page-turner novel. Not only does reading an engaging piece of fiction transport us imaginatively, but it improves our brain functioning!

I can't tell you how much I love this.

In October Science published an article titled "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," which they define as "understanding others' mental states" and identify as "a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies." In other words, reading literary fiction develops empathy. Anyone think the world could use more of that?

Then I came across the poem "Hospital Writing Workshop" by Rafael Campo (thanks to Poem-A-Day on Because both my daughters work directly in the trenches of the medical system, and because of the incursion of cancer into my household this past year, this poem hit home more than many. Campo, a practicing physician, writes in his note about the poem, "I have witnessed first hand the power of writing poetry in abetting healing -- poetry is able to name when the diagnosis eludes us, it calls us into community when symptoms makes (sic) us feel isolated or alone or even silenced, it engenders empathy when the doctor would distance himself -- it even allows us to transcend our mortality by creating something that endures on the page long after we're gone."

Healing, empathy (again), community, transcendence -- all resulting from words put together in writing and reading.

So the next time someone brings up the subject of why reading and writing matter, consider forgoing the usual arguments about literacy as an essential foundation for successful democracy and economic prosperity; or success in school; or even improved reading scores. Explain that reading and writing are necessary for brain development, empathy, healing, community, and transcendence. In short, for living -- and dying -- well.