A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rocky's Wilderness

Fourteen years ago I discovered the wonderful book Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by the artist Rockwell Kent. In 1918 Kent and his nine-year-old son, Rocky, spent seven months living in a trapper’s cabin on Fox Island near Seward, Alaska. I remember the book for its evocative writing and illustrations, which seemed to perfectly capture the experience of living in isolation, surrounded by wild nature, with an attitude of both realism and appreciation for the magnificence of the landscape. The book, published in 1920, helped establish Kent’s reputation as a significant American artist.

95 years later, author-illustrator Claudia McGehee has created a beautiful companion and homage to Wilderness with her picture book My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure. Based on Kent’s memoir and other historical sources, McGehee imagines the story of their time on Fox Island from Rocky’s point of view. It’s a brilliant approach to a fascinating story, all the more fitting for the scratchboard illustrations that echo Kent’s drawings. Though different in format, medium, and execution, both illustrators convey the energy and grandeur of the environment, as well as humor and attention to details of daily life.

My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure by Claudia McGehee
Sasquatch Books, 2015
McGehee’s text is as evocative as her art: walking in the forest with “the soft bed of leaves and pine needles velveting my steps” or tasting the "first steely snowflakes” of winter. Readers will identify with the juxtaposition of Rocky’s imagination while exploring the island (“Was it a grizzly bear?”) with the realities of the environment (“No, it was a porcupine!”) and respond to McGehee’s effective use of page turns to build and release tension.

"I was a little lonely."

Delightful details, such as snow baths and an odd pair of hiking boots, ground the story in a child’s point of view. Emotional truths, such as loneliness or the somber exhaustion that follows a close call at sea, balance Rocky’s exuberance.

"A terrible storm arose."

An Author’s Note provides historical information about Rocky and his famous father, including several photos. A brief teacher’s guide ends the book. McGehee writes about her inspiration for the work, gives additional information about resources, and dishes up a few staple recipes from the Kents' wilderness menu at her website.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bristol Bay Summer

Maybe I was waiting for summer, when the mind naturally turns to salmon, to read Annie Boochever’s middle grade novel, Bristol Bay Summer. Salmon do indeed figure prominently in the story — but I needn’t have waited. Bristol Bay Summer is a well-told coming-of-age story worth reading anytime.

Boochever balances the various elements of the story adeptly, ranging from teen angst to surviving wilderness challenges to the uncertainties of budding romance.  Fifteen-year-old Zoey’s inner turmoil over her parents’ divorce is compounded by the shock of moving from her familiar life in Colorado to Anchorage. Then, even worse, she and her younger brother Eliot are carted off to a tent on the shores of Bristol Bay for a summer of hauling salmon with Mom, and Mom’s new boyfriend, Patrick, in his rickety second-hand plane. Zoey wants nothing to do with this new life being foisted upon her by adults except get out of it. Surely, if she could just get back to Colorado, she could find Dad and they’d work things out. Except Dad never writes back…

Alaska Northwest Books, 2014.
Zoey’s relationships with her family and the new friends she makes on Bristol Bay evolve from initial self-absorption to gradual acceptance and appreciation, not just for the  bounty of bush Alaska, but for a broader understanding of family and friendship. As her heart opens to this new landscape and its people, she gradually releases the past to accept the present and envision a realistic future.

This story has a lot of heart. But it also delivers plenty of adventure with numerous “firsts.” Remember your first ride in a single-engine plane? The first time you saw a bear in the wild? That first time you stood in freezing-cold water for hours on end harvesting salmon? Small boats, small planes, big bears, rough weather, illness and accident — any of these can prove disastrous in a remote location like fish camp. They can also prove cliche if written about in a superficial way. Thankfully, Boochever gives us the real deal with authentic details, plausible plot and very likable characters.

Speaking of which, did I mention there’s this boy? Turns out a very nice young man, competent and quiet, with his own wounds to heal, lives not too far down the beach. He and his family, their partners in the fish business, become genuine friends — and in Zoey and Thomas’s case, perhaps a bit more.

Boochever, who was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, spent her own summer on Bristol Bay. (Check out her website to learn more.) As a writer, she weaves the realities of life in Alaska into her story without letting them overwhelm for dramatic effect. Boats, planes and bears carry inherent dangers but in Bristol Bay Summer — thankfully — they keep to their proper places as part of the fabric of life.

Bristol Bay Summer is an honest story for younger to mid-teens, authentically told and well-crafted. I say, read it soon — the salmon are running!