When the connection's right, children like to linger in their books, live alongside favorite characters and join in their adventures. Not too long ago, matching Alaskan kids with an Alaskan adventure-between two covers-was a tough assignment.
Juneau youth service librarian Sandra Strandtmann said the scope and diversity of children's Alaska books has expanded dramatically since the 1960s when she was a public school teacher in Fairbanks and a mother of young children on the lookout for good books. "There was one about Alaska, 'On Mother's Lap,' by Ann Herbert Scott, and that was it," she recalls. "And that book's been a stand-out since it came out," she says. On Mother's Lap tells of a young Eskimo boy who sits on his mother's lap with his baby sister, his toys and a blanket until his sister cries and he decides there's not enough space for him. His mother proves otherwise. The story was first published in 1972 and re-issued with new illustrations in 2000. It is recommended for children between ages two and five.
Debbie Reifenstein, co-owner of Hearthside Books, says some of the best children's books come from local authors. They include Susi Gregg Fowler and Jim Fowler, a couple who has collaborated on a handful of children's books. Last year Jim illustrated "First Salmon," a book for elementary school age readers by Roxane Beauclair Salonen. It's the story of a young boy named Charlie, who takes part in the annual First Salmon sacred ceremony performed by his Native American people, and how the event helps him to confront his grief for his beloved late uncle Joe.
Reifenstein said other fantastic local children's book authors include long-time Juneau resident Nancy Warren Ferrell, known for her non-fiction work.
"Alaska's Heroes: A Call to Courage" is her most recent book and it's for teenagers and young adults. The book showcases winners of the State of Alaska Award for Bravery-Heroism from its inception in 1965. The books' individual stories include incredible rescues in different parts of Alaska involving people of different ages, cultures and genders. Ferrell also wrote "Alaska: A Land in Motion," a geography book about Alaska for elementary school-age children.
Perhaps the best-known children's book collaborators are Jean Rogers who works with local artist and illustrator Rie Muñoz. Among their best known work: "King Island Christmas," a story about Alaska's King Island, where the Eskimo villagers are soon to be cut off from the world for many winter months. First they have
to brave a rough sea to collect a new priest in time for Christmas celebrations. In "Goodbye my Island," also by Rogers and Muñoz, 12-year-old Esther Atoolik tells of the last winter her people spent on King Island in the early 1960s.
Refeinstein said she's noticed an increase in interest among tourists in local Alaska children's works. She said so far this year, her best selling children's Alaska book is "Stickeen: John Muir and the Brave Little Dog," as re-told by Donnell Rubay. The classic man-and-his-faithful-companion theme is an adaptation of Muir's original writing on Southeast Alaska's glacial magnificence.
"It's a well told story, beautifully rendered," said Refeinstein.
She also recommends "Alaska's Glaciers: Frozen in Motion" by Katherine Hocker. For kids of all ages, the documentary tale takes readers through Alaska's glaciers, talking about glacier life, the science behind the ice fields and what's next for these vast frozen expanses. It is published by Alaska Natural History Association, which also has a winner in "Ballad of the Wild Bear." It came about when a group of Alaska citizens became concerned about keeping bears wild and people safe. The Ballad of the Wild Bear is written by retired park ranger Sandy Kogl and Pat Chamberlin-Calamar. It tracks the trail of two bears as they head into town and shows how human behavior affects their fate. The book won an Association of Partners of Public Lands children's media award.
Reifenstein said she's also seen more retelling of traditional legends. One new version she particularly likes is "The Frog Princess: A Klinkit Legend from Alaska," by Eric A. Kimmel. This modern adaptation of a classic story tells of the daughter of a village headman who, after rejecting all of her human suitors, finds happiness among frogs in the village lake.