Thursday, December 21, 2006

seems like the right time of year...

for picture books that remind me of my childhood in Alaska (somehow it’s so nice to sit cozily inside and read cold books and nostaligize)

Now there are so many reasons why i love The Polar Bear Son: an Inuit Tale retold and illustrated by Lydia Dabcovich (who would have thought polar bears would make for such a nice little tale about adoption for an adopted child like moi?) It tells the tale of an old woman living alone on the edge of an Inuit village with no family who finds an abandoned polar bear cub who she takes home and raises it as her son. The young bear plays with the children of the village, then grows into a hunter and fisher who provides for the woman who then shares with the other villagers. The men of the village grow jealous of the bears prowess and threaten to kill him so the woman must send him away but when she grows lonely she goes out on the ice and calls to him and they visit. This book is based on an old Inuit legend called Kunikdjuaq and it is beautifully illustrated. I love these old legends not only because i am a lover of folklore but also because i had an Eskimo foster sister who lived with us during the school year (she was deaf and needed to attend a special school in Anchorage) and then return to her village the rest of the year. Through Nina, i feel a connection to these native peoples.

Up on Denali: Alaska’s Wild Mountain by Shelley Gill tells us about a mountain:

"a mountain in the heart of Alaska...that rises so high it creates its own weather. It is one of the coldest mountains on planet earth. This mountain has many names: McKinley, Denali, the Big One, the High One, and simply, the Mountain...This is a wild mountain: one face a paradise, the other face lifeless, locked in deadly ice."

This is the mountain of my childhood. This book evokes my childhood. I remember it was always there, so was the sleeping lady, the zig~zag trail, the miners field where we would look for gold, where thousands had looked before us. As i read now about the Athabascan Indians creation story of Raven Trickster Man; about prehistoric animals; berries and poppies; lynx and moose; all on an ever-growing moment i relive what, to me, was beautiful. This book has much to teach; for me it has much to hold. "Above the wings of the raven the only view is heaven."

"The night Sky held its breath. Only a few flakes of snow tumbled through the darkness."" Thus begins North Country Christmas (Last Wilderness Adventure) by Shelley Gill (illustrated by Shannon Cartwright). Sam and Ellie are left home with the race dogs while their Aunt Susan is stuck in town. An old Man named Nick comes to the door needing the help of the dog sled team as his herd of reindeer is to tired to pull his sleigh. Ellie and Sam, left responsible for the dog team insist on going along for the ride to Kikuyat to deliver food for the body as well as the spirit (beautiful glass crystals hung from silk called saviguks after a word meaning 'ice crystals floating in the air'). Nicely done.

The Alaska Mother Goose and other country nursery rhymes (Last Wilderness Adventure) by Shelley Gill uses the animals, flora, and fauna of Alaska in the place of the familiar nursery rhymes in an attempt to introduce them to children. Some of these attempts are more successful than others, the illustrations by Shannon Cartwright are an added bonus. I did find some of the rhymes nice and i do read it to my niece and nephews, it is refreshing but not the best.

I'm sure that you would never guess that Alaska’s Three Bears (Last Wilderness Adventure) by Shelley Gill is a twist on the story of Goldilocks and the three bears; but that familiar setting makes an absolutely beautiful wrapper for the introduction of the three North American species of bear: the big white bear (polar bear); medium sized brown bear (grizzly); and the small black bear. Gill skillfully blends the familiar language of the fairy tale with the nature of the bears to tell children about their habits and and habitats (there is further information included in banners across the bottom of the pages.) Shannon Cartwright's illustrations are entirely appropriate (often including native woodcut styles or totem pole borders), a teacher resource guide is included.

The Great Serum Race: blazing the Iditarod Trail by Debbie S. Miller illustrated by Jon Van Zyle is an historic tale with the taste of adventure. In the the deepest winter of January 1925, a deadly diphtheria epidemic hit Nome, Alaska (Nome always reminds me of the time we were seeing my dad off~or maybe welcoming him home i can never remember~to/From Nome at the airport when some stupid impulse compelled my four year old mind to stick my tongue to that oh-so-refreshing-looking pole~yes i REALLY did~and though i was very young at the time it was one of those indelible memories i will Never, Ever forget). The town desperately needed an antitoxin serum from Anchorage and the only way to get it through the winter snow and ice was by sled team. This beautiful picture book tells that story.

Debbie S. Miller and Jon Van Zyle again team up to tell the the tale of a pregnant polar bear who travels across the shore of the Beaufort Sea to reach a cave to birth her cubs in A Polar Bear Journey . Once the cubs are born they are all fluffy and cute as polar bears are so often portrayed (and i do so love those cute little polar bears~but it does beg the question with wild animals and children's books~are we really doing good by portraying them as such (even the little ones that are fluffy and small and cute that are an important part of the ecosystem and shouldn't really be domesticated???) Anyway...Zyle does do a fair job of presenting the adult bear as predator, hunter, fierce and large (and if you've ever seen that polar bear looming at the Anchorage Airport Cute will be wiped from your mind mighty fast) and this is an education, enlightening, enjoyable read...

Disappearing Lake: Nature's Magic in Denali's National Park is based on Debbie Miller's observations during her family's annual spring visits to Disappearing Lake, one of the many vernal lakes (temporary water systems created by rainwater or by snow melting in the spring) in Denali. This beautiful book begins: "In a wooded valley, the snow begins to melt. Sparkling beads of water trickle together, growing into rivulets, brooks and streams. They speak to you in the language of water." and continues its exploration of this fascinating ecosystem. Although John Van Zyle does remember to include the very lovely forget-me-nots (my very favorite flower for those of you keeping track at home) in his illustration of the meadow Miller neglects to include them in her field notes, other than that, this an extremely worthwhile read.

On the dedication page of River of Life author Debbie S. Miller thanks illustrator Jon Van Zyle for turning simple words into extraordinary pictures, and Van zyle counters by saying that the images that Miller's words create flow easily from his brush. He thanks her for her "Fact Stories" of our natural world. Cute little mutual admiration society they have going there, and though i actually agree with the sentiments expressed this book is my least favorite of their collaborations i've so far seen. It's still a good introduction to the life along one of Alaska's more than 3,000 rivers.

I discovered the gorgeous book Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights while weeding the 500s and it is what got me started on this whole nostalgia trip to begin with, i believe it is probably one of the best examples of what the teaming of Debbie Miller's writing with Jon Van Zyle's painting can really accomplish. Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights takes us through the seasons (based on the average temperage and light in Fairbanks) of the year in Alaska, beginning with the Summer solstice on June 21 with Sunrise at 1:58 a.m. and Sunset at 11:46 p.m (average temperature 52°F-72° F). People often ask me about those "endless" days, questions like, was it hard to sleep, how terrible it must have for it to be dark so long in winter, blah, blah, blah; but i don't really remember it like that. Maybe i remember loving to play in the daylight in the summer, taking forever to crunch through the snow walking home through the cold and the dark (maybe i don't memories can be very suggestive you know). But mostly everything was just the way it was, i was a kid and we had moved from Santa Barbara when i was two so Alaska was really all i knew~it was normality to me~just like when Mom and Dad plugged their cars in at night to keep the engines from freezing i thought they were charging them up so they would go the next day~made sense to me~and didn't Everyone, Everywhere do it that way (did i never notice we didn't do that in the summertime?)

Meanwhile, back in Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights, at Winter solstice (tonight, December 21 as a matter of fact~Sunrise 10:58 a.m, Sunset 2:41p.m average temperature -12°F to 6° F), Miller describes the top of the world as tipping away from the sun. "The nights are long, and the cold runs deep. During the shortest day of the year, a family bundles up and watches nature's holiday celebration. The magical northern lights dance and swirl across the clear,icy sky." She defines words like alpenglow, blinks, diamond dust, fall equinox, flat light. midnight sun, northern lights, sparkles, summer solstice, sun dogs, twilight, vernal equinox, and winter solstice in exquisite detail for those who may be geographically deprived by living in the more southerly climes. Zyle's sublime illustrations make me long for the many-varied colours and emotions of my childhood.

and sorry~but, i just gotta say it here Danger the Dog Yard Cat (Discoveries in Palaeontology) by Libby Riddles (with Shelley Gill) is Cute

with words that sound like song lyrics (and i think they just might have been written to be)

There once was a cat of questionable background,

who had done hard time in the Nome dog pound.

Danger was a cool cat, some say a fool cat,

a mean, lean break-all-the-rules cat.

The woman who saved him was a sled dog racer.

She introduced 57 huskies to the cool mouse-chaser.

Scattered among Shannon Cartwright's other winsome illustrations are various prehistoric creatures and there is mention of Danger imagining himself as a saber-tooth tiger but that is the only connection i am making with the palaeontology of the title (although it isn't included on my copy). The story itself is a little weak, but like i said it's a song (and there are more lyrics at the end) apparently about a real cat, and the book is cute (you know, cats, i'm weak, what can i say...)

So with visions of mountains and polar bears and Inuit villages and happy childhoods (that perhaps are misremembered~or at least conveniently edited, but, oh well) dancing in my head, i can curl up in my warm home with my kitties and

Happy Yule and Blessed Be )O(

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