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Alaskana kids' books available for holidays

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

Books make wonderful holiday gifts, and this year publishers are offering a nice selection of new children's picture books from Alaska.

Nine have come across our desk this year, all with quality combinations of writing and illustration. All deal with animals, from clams to caribou. Children and parents who have read them praised each one, with the caveat that sometimes the appropriate age level is hard to gauge from the cover (or even the publishers' recommendations).

Who is Alaska's Favorite Bear?

Written by Kyle Forbush

Illustrated by Lisa Forbush

Todd Communications

$6.95 (board book)

Excerpt: "The wise eagle said, 'Just as the clouds, sky and sun are all special in their own way, so are the forest, the valleys and mountains, as well as the snow and ice. I would not choose one over the other."

"Who is Alaska's Favorite Bear?" is a board book with simple pictures that addresses the youngest book lovers. Alaska's three bear species vie to be declared "the favorite" until a wise eagle gives them a preschool version of diversity-appreciation training. The text is rather complex for the "Goodnight Moon" set, but it is a warm and fuzzy tale for children with a good grasp of language and ideas.

Little Red Snapperhood: A Fishy Fairy Tale

Written by Neal Gilbertsen

Illustrated by Evon Zerbetz

WestWinds Press

$8.95 (paperback); $15.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "Red swam into a grove of kelp, Where frightful creatures hide, And soon a slimy wolf eel came, And slithered to her side."

"Little Red Snapperhood" is a slightly weird, punny undersea retelling of "Li-ttle Red Riding Hood." Author Gilbertsen, who among many talents calls himself a "fish poet," tells how a wolf eel complicates the little red fish's errand to deliver an octopus casserole to her granny. But the situation ends happily for all. Readers singled out Evon Zerbetz's exuberant block-print illustrations as especially fun.

Groucho's Eyebrows

Written by Tricia Brown

Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee

Alaska Northwest Books

$15.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "'Yes, he's ours,' her mother said. 'Well, yours, really. And no, I don't know his name. But those funny eyebrows remind me of a famous man who made people laugh."

"Groucho's Eyebrows" is a gentle, buoyant tale of young Kristie and her odd-looking cat, based loosely on a real cat the author's family had. When Groucho gets lost in the snow, Kristie sets out to rescue him. Young children really liked this cozy story and Lavallee's famously delightful pictures and that silly cat. A portion of the proceeds from the book's sales benefit a no-kill animal shelter affiliated with the Groucho Marx Estate.

Big Blue

Written by Shelley Gill

Illustrated by Ann Barrow

Talewinds/Charlesbridge

$15.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "I know just about everything a kid can know about whales. ... A blue whale's heart is the size of a car, weighing two tons and pumping 60 gallons of blood with each beat."

"Big Blue" also is inspired by real-life adventures, and the author tells the story from the viewpoint of her daughter, Kye, who was 9 at the time. Although the book is brief and profusely illustrated, it floats over the heads of preschoolers. Its real audience is older children, closer to Kye's age, who find fascination in nature and can understand the biology and conservation concepts Gill so skillfully slips into her narrative.

Big-Enough Anna: The Little Sled Dog Who Braved the Arctic

Written by Pam Flowers with Ann Dixon

Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

Alaska Northwest Books

$8.95 (paperback); $15.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "At three months, Anna was the first to wear a dog harness. ... By six months all the puppies could pull a sled for five miles. Little Anna always pulled the hardest."

"Big-Enough Anna" is another true story, an adventure drawn from Pam Flowers' long-distance mushing exploits in the arctic. The sled dog heroine appeals to the dog lover in all of us, and Farnsworth's paintings combine realism with romanticism. In the process, the story conveys constructive ideas about positive attitudes and teamwork without preaching. This book struck a chord with primary-school listeners: They loved it.

Whale Snow

Written by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Illustrated by Annie Patterson

Talewinds/Charlesbridge

$15.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "The snow fell soft and slow like shreds of cotton grass floating down from the sky. Amiqqaq leaned up against the window, wishing he were out on the ocean ice, out in the big tent with his papa, out with the whalers."

"Whale Snow" is a rarity: a book for young children about Inuit culture and subsistence hunting. The spiritual concept of respecting the whales killed and the Inupiaq words included make this story too sophisticated for the very young, but intriguing for older children ready to ponder cultural differences. Non-Native parents said the Inupiaq made it difficult for them to read "Whale Snow" aloud, but Native and Bush families may want to run out and grab such an attractive book about contemporary village life. The publisher even offers an Inupiaq version online.

The Big Caribou Herd: Life in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Written and illustrated by Bruce Hiscock

Boyds Mills Press

$16.95 (hardcover)

Excerpt: "The spring migration begins when small bands of caribou head north into the mountains. The first deer are heavy with young, since pregnant females always lead the way. The old bulls will follow later."

"The Big Caribou Herd" describes the life cycle of the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the North Slope through the seasons. Author Hiscock traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the Sierra Club when he researched this topic, and he makes no bones about his opposition to drilling there. The text is too dry and complicated for young children, and some parents complained about the frank scenes of predation.

However, it contains much information for older elementary students, including notes about other arctic animals.

The Adventures of Seldovia Sam

1: Seldovia Sam and the Very Large Clam

2: Seldovia Sam and the Sea Otter Rescue

Written by Susan Woodward Springer

Illustrated by Amy Meissner

Alaska Northwest Books

$6.95 each (paperback)

Excerpt: "The road wound back up along the cliffs high above Kachemak Bay. On the left, the land dropped away and Sam could see the ocean far below. Dad slowed down so Sam could look at his favorite eagle's nest."

"The Adventures of Seldovia Sam" is a new series of beginner chapter books for primary students to read themselves. A teacher friend said easy readers about Alaska are rare, and these are good ones. The vocabulary is about third-grade level. Although Springer takes some dramatic liberties with the facts (such as portraying an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee as a 'heavy') her decades living in Seldovia give the rollicking stories credibility and substance. The children who read these were enthusiastic and asked when more in the series will appear.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks. This time, she had help reviewing the books from a great group of young book lovers in her neighborhood.



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