The book began as every page-turner should, with a dramatic opening.
"Do you like tall buildings, good food, and awesome parks? If you do, Downtown is the place for you!"
So says Leona Hazlewood, a student in Sarah Fineman's 2017-18 class at Aquarian Charter School, and one of 25 authors of the school-published "A Kid's Guide to Anchorage and Beyond."
Alaska guidebooks are, almost without exception, written from the perspective of adults, often people who have never had the chance to fish for salmon with a princess pole, ride a zip line or cannonball into a mountain lake and eat marshmallows afterward.
Fineman's class of second and third-graders was more than willing to share that perspective with me when I stopped by shortly before school released for the summer break.
We sat in a messy circle on the classroom carpet and I asked the students why they had chosen to write about their hometown. Hands and answers went up into the air almost immediately.
"It's the best place ever!" shouted someone. "We wrote about Alaska history, too!" yelled another voice, before Fineman regained control and advocated for a quieter method of sharing information with me.
I called on 8-year-old Gracelynn McCotter, who sighed deeply before answering my question of "Why write about Anchorage?"
"Lots of times," she said, looking me straight in the eye, "kids have to go where parents say they do."
Gulp. From the mouths of babes.
Fineman likes to create year-long projects that bring her class toward achieving a goal. Last summer, she ran across an old copy of Anchorage With Kids, written in 2006 by local pediatrician and mother Michelle Laufer, M.D. She thumbed through the pages and was reminded that parents visiting Anchorage or new to town probably needed a resource like this.
But, she quickly realized, Anchorage had grown by leaps and bounds in the decade since the book was published. Fineman brought the guide to class at the beginning of the school year and discussed her new students' favorite places to explore with their families. The kids and their teacher decided a new guidebook, with more emphasis on outdoor spaces, was a needed. Thus the fun project began, and would continue over the next 180 days.
"I truly believe in creating a classroom where the focus is on excellent craftsmanship and doing things for a real purpose," Fineman wrote in an email after my visit. "Doing a project like this helps the kids become active contributors to our Anchorage community and part of a larger authentic purpose."
Fineman's students don't know any of this, of course, but the lessons learned made an impression.
The hardest part, they all agreed, was deciding who would write what. Many kids had the same favorite places, so compromise and collaboration became important. They did a lot of brainstorming, persuading and list-making. Classics like Winner Creek Trail in Girdwood and the Coastal Trail in Anchorage were no-brainers. Others, like Halibut Cove near Homer, inspired discussion.
"We expanded our reach because the kids had favorites beyond the Anchorage Bowl," said Fineman.
They wrote about what they knew, places with personal connection, discovering along the way that the way we feel about a place sometimes sparks creativity with words.
Some students had interests that meshed with local events, like Ezra Engeberg, who mushes his own team of dogs and wrote about the Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage.
"It's what I know best," he said with a slight shrug of his narrow shoulders.
Fineman also took the class on several field trips around Anchorage, walking around some of the selected sites so the kids could see firsthand the importance of knowing one's subject. There were the big names: the museum, the zoo, Flattop — places most out-of-town visitors tend to gravitate. Students also included a brief history of Alaska, interesting facts and a section detailing the state's natural resources.
The most interesting parts were the individual stories that allow an adult to view Anchorage through the lens of an 8-year-old. We may think kids want to see the latest, greatest tourist attraction, but often, they just want to be part of a landscape, old or new, with no expectation of anything other than just being there, now.
Gracelynn McCotter, who had lamented to me earlier the drag it can be to always do what parents want during a vacation, said it best in her essay about Oceanview Park.
"My favorite thing of all to do there is to lay down on the soft grass and look at the clouds," she wrote. "I love listening to all the birds sweet little songs."
Currently, the only way to obtain a copy of A Kid's Guide to Anchorage and Beyond is to download it online, unless you happen to know a student in the class. The kids have big dreams of seeing their book distributed all around Anchorage, they told me, and I'd like to see that, too.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a resource for family travel and outdoor recreation. A Kid's Guide to Anchorage is linked on her website.