Plenty of new Alaska-themed children’s books are on the shelves, providing fun and educational summer reading fodder for the younger set. Beginning reading books are a great way to introduce children in Alaska and beyond to our state and its many cultures and wonders, and none of the following half-dozen books disappoint.
The first three are all part of the Baby Raven Reads series published by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The books in this series are designed to explore and present Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures to the world’s children, as well as to encourage children within those cultures to become readers and improve academic performance.
These three books were published as a set within that series, and all feature Raven as their lead character. In an introduction found in each volume, Rosita Worl, the highly regarded Tlingit anthropologist who serves as president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, explains Raven’s role in Alaska Native traditions. He’s not a god in the legends passed down orally for thousands of years, but he does have certain mystical powers. Often mischievous, his shenanigans are frequently credited with creating changes in the landscape. Worl explains that within the oral tradition, his “inconsistency between benevolent and malevolent (actions) is reflected in the dual personality of Raven as Culture Hero and Raven as Trickster.”
In “Raven and the Tide Lady,” Raven is hungry and asks Mink to obtain a sea urchin from under the water. The sea level, we learn, is controlled by the Tide Lady, who keeps it high and the creatures below the surface out of reach. So Raven, wishing for low tides, berates and physically goes after her until she relents and allows the creation of tides as instructed by him. This allows all creatures — including two-legged — to gather needed food from the beach and sea.
The legend is adapted by Juneau artist Michaela Goade; the artwork is beautiful, the faces on the characters expressive, and the twirls in the sea just reminiscent enough of Van Gogh to show his inspiration without simply duplicating his style.
David Lang, a tattoo artist who also hails from Juneau, offers up “Raven Loses his Nose,” the most comical of the three books, and the one most deeply rooted in the trickster aspect of the lead character’s personality. In this tale, Raven swims beneath a boat full of fishermen and steals their bait. An expert fisherman, seeking to discover why the bait is vanishing, manages to hook Raven’s nose and remove it. The remainder of the story revolves around how Raven tricks the people into returning it.
Lang’s artwork is sparer than Goade’s and uses nearly-empty space on parts of the illustrations to enhance the details. His depiction of Raven’s nose is drawn from what is depicted in Southeast Alaska Native totem poles and paintings, capturing an artistic style distinct to that part of the world.
In “Raven Makes the Aleutians,” the hero heads out to sea, where he finds nothing but water and a few creatures. Encountering a sea otter, he asks it to swim to the bottom and bring him back a handful gravel. Equipped with the pebbles, he begins plunking them one-by-one in the water, where each becomes an island, essentially seeding the Aleutian archipelago into existence.
Janine Gibbons, originally from Petersburg, is the artist on this book, and her paintings have the most depth on the page of the three. There’s a feeling of dampness to her depictions of the islands that rim the Pacific Ocean and the sense of remoteness is perfectly captured.
Raven is also found in “Dream Flights of Arctic Nights,” although not so much in the Alaska Native sense. In this bedtime story by Chugiak author Brooke Hartman, a young boy lies in his bed on a cold winter night in the mountains, wishing he could fly. A raven comes to his window and offers to take him away. The two embark on a nighttime flight over Alaska, where they see animals, birds, fish, sea mammals, as well as stars and the northern lights.
Artist Evon Zerbetz, perhaps best known for the Alaska children’s book classic “Blueberry Shoe,” relies on patterns and the expert use of darkness to create enchanting scenes on each page.
“Pedro’s Pan: A Gold Rush Story,” is based on the real life story of Felix Pedro, whose discovery of gold in the hills north of Fairbanks helped establish the town as the commercial center of Alaska’s Interior. This story is told from the point of view of his gold pan, which share’s Pedro’s frustrations as his searches for the precious metal keep coming up empty. This book follows the familiar “never give up” theme of many stories for young ones. The pan begins to blame itself for Pedro’s repeated failures, but then one day, their luck changes.
Author Matthew Lasley, who grew up in a mining family in the Interior and now lives in Anchorage, includes instructions for mining and other information in the back. Artist Jacob Souva, from upstate New York, gives readers a chubby Pedro with suspenders. His somewhat block art style explodes with personality that conveys a deep complexity beneath its deceptively simple initial appearance.
Finally, the beloved Alaska children’s book author and artist Shannon Cartwright’s “Alaska ABC” has been reissued and updated for a 40th anniversary edition. This mainstay of libraries, kindergarten classrooms and homes of young parents includes lively artwork and words for kids just learning their alphabet. Snowshoeing salmon represent the letter S, a moose in mukluks tromps through for M, and for H, the best of the lot, huskies haul a halibut on a sled.
Our state is fortunate to have so many authors and artists eager and able to present it to children everywhere through these books. All of them make great gifts for kids. Grab a few and sit down with the young ones in your life to help them learn to read while discovering Alaska in the process.