5 Alaska children’s books perfect for gifting this holiday season

The holiday season is on us, and as usual, those looking for gifts for kids can find some fine children’s books that take readers all across the Last Frontier.

The Juneau-based husband and wife team of author Sarah Asper-Smith and artist Mitchell Watley reach out to early readers in “You Are Home With Me” (Little Bigfoot, $16.99). This bedtime book follows the classic theme of mothers staying by their young, presenting examples of Alaska wildlife from all regions as they settle in for the evening.

A raven and its chicks perch in a nest, while a polar bear and cubs nestle in a den. Whales, puffins, lynx and moose also find places to bed down for the night. Animals that don’t often surface in Alaska kids’ books are also found here. Hoary marmots, flying squirrels and tundra swans prepare for sleep in their respective safe havens.

Watley’s painting bring the animals to life. His renditions are are both accurate and animated, and he uses backgrounds well to present habitat. But it’s the tundra swan painting that stands out. What could easily have been a flat and featureless landscape is imbued with so many shades of gray and green that it wonderfully conveys the enchantment those boggy wetlands offer to all who look closely.

Moving up a notch to kids with longer attention spans, “Chia and the Fox Man” (Alaska Northwest Books, $16.99) is forthcoming from Anchorage authors Barbara J. and Ethan J. Atwater, and artist Mindy Dwyer. This book is drawn from a Dena’ina fable and tells the story of a young orphan named Chia who lives with a rich man.

One night their cabin door keeps blowing open, and Chia heads out to investigate why. He encounters a fox taking an ax to a glacier, with the flying chips causing all the weather turbulence. So he sneaks up on the fox and steals the ice. The fox, however, wants it back. What happens? Therein lies the story’s moral.

This book includes several Dena’ina words along with their pronunciations, reminding youngsters that English isn’t the only language spoken in Alaska. Dwyer’s artwork is deceptively simple, but her humans and animals move gracefully across the pages during a dark winter night.


For the early to mid-grade school set, the aurora borealis offers endless fascination since it combines the chance to behold wonders in the sky with a promise of being allowed to stay up past bedtime. The real life mother-daughter author team of Elizabeth and Izzi Rusch from Portland, Oregon, do just this through fictional counterparts who go on “A Search for the Northern Lights” (West Margin Press, $17.99).

Beautifully illustrated by Cedar Lee, the book follows a young girl named Alix who becomes enthralled with the aurora. After watching a total eclipse from their home in Portland, Alix and her mother decide witnessing the northern lights would be the perfect encore. Alix accompanies her mom on a business trip to Anchorage, where they go for a dog sled ride and visit a reindeer farm, but only catch a meager glimpse of action in the sky. On a subsequent road trip to Glacier National Park in Montana they fare a bit better, but it’s not so far from home that they finally get treated to a full display.

Lee’s artwork is enchanting, with her depiction of lights erupting across the heavens both imaginative and colorful. But an upwards glimpse through birch trees during daytime in fall steals the book. The authors provide basic science about the lights and tips on viewing them in the final pages.

Children of the First People” (Alaska Northwest Books, $13.99) spans the entirety of Alaska through the lives of kids from all 10 of the state’s primary Native cultures. Anchorage author Tricia Brown and Eagle River artist Roy Corral present these well-illustrated stories for junior high students in this 20th anniversary followup to their widely acclaimed “Children of the Midnight Sun.” It’s a chance for the pair to find out what has changed and what has stayed the same in rural Alaska in the two decades since that first book.

Internet connectivity is probably the biggest change. Ten-year-old Inupiat Tyler Kramer of Kotzebue is the star of his mother’s social media videos and is followed by hundreds. He likes hamburgers, but prefers muktuk. At a time when guns and kids are becoming a deep concern nationally, Cordova’s Aaliyah Tiedeman, an Eyak, is shown taking a hunter safety course, reminding readers that, properly instructed, children and firearms are not inherently mismatched. For Tiedeman, as for other kids found here, it’s all part of subsistence, which they practice side-by-side with basketball games, baking muffins and guitar lessons.

The complex relationship between Christianity, which is widely practiced, and the religion’s history of sometimes suppressing traditional Native cultures is addressed honestly, as is the restoration of those cultures without abandoning the faith in the process. This straightforward discussion of religion is far too uncommon in children’s books, which more often either ignore its existence altogether, or evangelize to the point of being off-putting. Here it’s one more fact of life for kids who have one foot in their Native heritage and the other in the modern world, and are in the process of finding their way through both.

Finally, and while not specifically for kids, “Gyotaku Prints of Fish and Crustaceans in Southeast Alaska” (University of Alaska Press, $40) is kid-friendly for older artistic types and suitable for adults as well.

Artist and author Julia Tanigoshi Tinker has taken the Japanese gyotaku tradition of making prints from caught fish that are inked and pressed on paper, and applied it to the sea life of the Panhandle. To these she adds watercolors, and the results are both perfectly accurate and quite appealing. Give this to your favorite artistic prodigy and watch the adults dig into it as well. Or vice versa. Tinker explains how it’s done, so let the family art projects ensue.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at