PUBLISHED: 1:55 PM on Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Great reads for Alaska kids
The growing Alaska children's book niche means lots of choices for young readers and listeners

If it's interesting and occurs in Alaska, you can bet there's a children's book on it, or one soon to be published.

"Information books for children exist on almost every Alaska topic," said Katy Spangler, a professor of education at University of Alaska Southeast who has been tracking local children's literature since the 1980s. One recent example is "Whistlers on the Mountain," by Juneau's Robert H. Armstrong, a long-time Alaska naturalist and photographer, and Marge Hermans, who has written about the state for the last two decades. This colorful work of non-fiction introduces kids to the marmot, a cousin of the squirrel. Much of the book comes from the authors' exploration of Mount Roberts.

Spangler said that not only is the subject matter expansive, children's books about Alaska are now being translated into different languages. She cites "Whale Snow," by Barrow writer Debby Dahl Edwardson as one example. The book tells of the customs and whaling traditions of the Inupiat people through the eyes of a child. First published in English, "Whale Snow" is now available in Inupiaq. It is illustrated by Annie Patterson.

A totem pole features prominently in another recent entrant to the children's book scene. The story starts something like this: "In the heart of a cedar forest stood a totem pole. Many years ago a carver stacked the totem animals and then forgot them...

One night, the moon rose low and full. Bathed in moonbeams, the totems came to life."

"Totem Tale: a Tall Story from Alaska," by Deb Vanasse and illustrated by Erik Brooks tells of a magical Alaska evening when a beaver, frog, grizzly bear and raven came alive. As the dawn emerges they stop

their frolicking to figure out where they belong on the pole. Who should be on top of whom? Alicia Smith, owner of Juneau's Imagination Station, said "Totem Tale" is one of her recent favorites for young children from ages three to eight.

Juneau Montessori School primary class teacher Andrea Stats said she's fond of work by Alaska author Shelley Gill and illustrator Shannon Cartwright.

"Our focus is reality based learning and Gill's books interest students in fact finding," she said. Stats said the books appeal to children as young as four and five by asking broad questions and helping listeners or readers come up with answers. Stats recommends "Swimmer," a book about a Chinook salmon that travels over 10,000 miles to complete her life cycle. She also likes "Thunderfeet" about dinosaurs in prehistoric Alaska and its captivating questions: Did dinosaurs hibernate during winter months? Did they migrate south to find food?

Gill's newest book, also illustrated by Cartwright, is "Up on Denali." It explores almost every facet of Alaska's great Denali Mountain including flora and fauna, geology and human expectations. The book combines fiction and fact and the author gives two explanations of the mountain's origins - a scientific and an Athabascan Indian legend version. Cartwright exemplifies a striking phenomenon among Alaska authors and illustrators-she leads a life as colorful as the subjects she portrays. Cartwright recently came out with "Alaska ABC Bears" and "Alaska 123"-board books for very young children based on the adventures and wildlife she discovers in the Alaska "bush." Cartwright and her husband have two dogs and three cabins in the Talkeetna Mountains near Denali. Cartwright has said sometimes she's had to ski 14 miles just to pick up the mail.

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will continue next week.