A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

How Did Raven Get That Crooked Nose?

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable is my new favorite Alaskan picture book. To begin with, it’s a Raven tale, complete with tomfoolery, transformation, and tricksterism. That’s a great start but the best news is that it’s wonderfully told by Barbara and Ethan Atwater, skillfully illustrated by Mindy Dwyer, and thoughtfully designed by the team at Alaska Northwest Books.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose -- Cover

Put all together, the book’s creators have accomplished no easy task — a modern retelling of a traditional Dena'ina Athabascan tale that honors the story and makes it accessible to children both within and outside of the culture it comes from.

This is a teaching tale, as well as a story-within-a-story. Scenes with a modern-day Dena’ina Grandmother and Granddaughter working at typical subsistence activities (berry picking, harvesting salmon) alternate with the sukdu, or story, of how Raven’s nose became crooked. Artistic style and color palette help clarify the two. Dwyer’s illustrations skillfully weave back and forth between the Raven tale and the contemporary storytelling setting.

Grandmother and Granddaughter with blueberries

Scenes with Grandmother and Granddaughter are portrayed realistically, with a color palette taken from the natural word and art that bleeds to the edges of the page, while Raven’s world is shown with more stylized representation. Dwyer also employs frames to contain the Raven tale within the larger story and uses graphic novel-style techniques. Panels accelerate the sense of action and occasional first-person speech bubbles break the narrative in the same way an oral storyteller may interject as narrator or speak a character’s part.

Where was his nose?

This synthesis of traditional and modern storytelling techniques works well to preserve the tone of the original oral tale, with its back-and-forth between teller and listener — or in this case, reader — and transformational elements, such as when Raven turns into a man, while speaking to readers of the 21st century.

Additionally, the authors skillfully incorporate Dena’ina words into the text, helpfully and unobtrusively including side notes with pronunciation and very brief definitions. Back matter includes a note with information about Alaskan Dena’ina people, their stories, and culture, as well as a brief glossary of Dena’ina words used in the text and a bibliography for further reading.

Chida finds Raven's nose

The tellers of this story, Barbara Jacko Atwater and her son Ethan Jacko Atwater, have a personal connection to it. Her great uncle Walter Johnson, a respected Dena’ina elder, told them the story, among others, with the instruction to “go and tell this story in your own way.” Readers in Alaska and elsewhere can be glad they’ve taken his direction to heart. As they say in their Dedication (or “edication,” since Raven the trickster has playfully flown off with the “D”!) Chin’an, thank you, for sharing this story.