New books for children offer slice of Alaska

Posted: Thursday, August 01, 2002

Michael Bania, author and illustrator of "Kumak's House -- A Tale of the Far North," will share the process of creating a children's book from 6 to 8 p.m. today at River City Books in Soldotna. Bania will give examples showing the stages a picture book goes through before it becomes available at a bookstore. At 7 p.m., Bania will read from the new book, "Kumak's House" and will answer questions about it.

Slices of Alaska's history and culture come alive in two new books written for the younger set. One is a story about the crowded house of Kumak and his family in the Inupiat village of Buckland, just south of the Arctic Circle. The second tells the story of Balto, Gunnar Kaasen's lead dog that delivered the much needed serum to diphtheria-ravaged Nome at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, 1925. Each book has colorful illustrations meant to grab the eyes of young readers and young listeners.

Kumak's House -- a Tale of the Far North

Written and illustrated by Michael Bania. Alaska Northwest Books. 32 pages, $8.95.

This delightful story of a family that seems to have outgrown its small home is told against the remote setting of Buckland, a village just beneath the Arctic Circle, but the theme is one that applies well beyond the boundaries of the Northwest Arctic.

With his wife, his wife's mother, his sons and his daughters all living under one roof, Kumak laments, "Too small, this house."

Searching for a solution, he goes to Aana Lulu, the wisest and oldest village elder.

First she instructs him to invite Rabbit to move in. Trusting her advice, he does as she suggests. But still the house is too small.

Again he goes back to Aana Lulu. This time, she tells him to invite Fox to follow him home. And he does. But still the house is too small.

Back Kumak goes, to Aana Lulu. In fact, he goes to her six times, following her advice each time, until the house is bursting at the seams, filled with the smiling rabbits and fox, as well as caribou, porcupine, otters and bears.

But after Kumak brings home a whale, he bellows, "TOO SMALL, THIS HOUSE!"

It is in following the advice he receives from Aana Lulu on his seventh visit that finally brings smiles to the family.

Woven throughout the story are scenes and activities of village life, shared by Bania who lived in the Arctic for 17 years, 9 of those years in Buckland, a community of 450 people.

There's the faded purple and orange sunlight of an arctic winter afternoon. The clothes drying around the stove that keeps the small home warm. The blowing wind that makes snow fall sideways. A glistening sundog that halos a white sun. The aurora borealis rippling across the sky.

There is mukluk and parka making, dog mushing, bread baking, berry harvesting, blubber slicing and basket weaving. A mask hangs on the wall. A birch basket sits beside an ulu.

The little details Bania includes in her scenes of family life add humor and a universal sense of reality. Children struggle with sharing toys, but have no problem sharing their meal with the family pet. Spilled cups of juice drip off the table. Babies struggle to grab something beyond their reach.

The book is a treat to read and the pictures a treat to enjoy. And an author's note at the end of the book will make sure you don't miss anything and offers additional information for the discussions this book is sure to inspire.


Balto the Dog Hero!, Written by Kyle Forbush. Illustrated by Lisa Forbush. Todd Communications. 23 pages, $6.95.

Balto the Dog Hero!

Written by Kyle Forbush. Illustrated by Lisa Forbush. Todd Communications.23 pages, $6.95.

Before there was the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, with its televised start and mushers in designer parkas, and before there were airplanes connecting Nome to the rest of the world, there was the 1925 outbreak of diphtheria in this Seward Peninsula community.

If the frozen Bering Sea wasn't enough to keep Nome separated from the rest of the world, officials quarantined the city to keep the disease from spreading. But what could be done to help the people that lived there?

The staff of territorial Gov. Scott Bone sent a telegraph to E. G. Wetzler, Railway Mail Service chief clerk in Nenana, instructing him to send a message to the U.S. Signal Corps stations from Nenana to the Bering coast that their best mushers and teams be prepared to receive the serum for Nome starting from Nenana. The distance between the two points: 674 miles.

The first team left Nenana on Jan. 27. And on Feb. 1, Gunnar Kaasen's team, led by Balto, left Bluff, headed for Safety. There, Kaasen was to pass the serum to Ed Rohn and his team for the final lap to Nome.

Speaking with Balto's voice, the dog's heroic deeds are told by Forbush in a way that young children can understand and appreciate.

"I was careful not to lead the team in open water where the ice had cracked apart."

Adults reading the book will recall an incident when Kaasen tried repeatedly to get his team to move forward, but Balto refused to budge.

Finally, the musher discovered that Balto was standing in overflow, where river water was reaching through a crack in the ice. Clearly, the dog had saved the team, the musher and the serum from disaster.

"The wind blew so hard that the sled went up in the air and came down hard."

So fierce was the storm, in fact, that the sled, dogs and the serum went flying. After righting the sled and untangling the dogs, Kaasen searched in the snowy darkness until he found the serum and tied it to the sled.

When Kaasen and his dogs reached Safety, Rohn was asleep. Rather than wake him, they continued on to Nome, completing the 53-mile dash in seven and one-half hours.

"We had mushed 53 miles by the time we pulled into Nome. We were very, very tired but we had made it!"

The book is dedicated to Togo, Leonhard Seppala's lead dog, who completed a 91-mile stretch of the race to save Nome.

No matter what age, this story of heroism is one of which all Alaskans can be proud.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lane writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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