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.