A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

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.