The Last Frontier of Literature: Books about Alaska

When talking about princesses and Cinderellas the other day, I failed to mention a new favorite in the Cinderella variations – The Salmon Princess, which is an Alaskan Cinderella story (you can tell because it’s about salmon fishing and the princess wears Xtratufs). This got me to thinking about Alaskan children’s literature. I am originally from Alaska. I was born and raised in Juneau, the capital city, and because of this I have a fondness for stories about Alaska. Plus, anything you can do to dispel myths that Alaska is constantly covered in snow, that there are 24 hours of sunlight or darkness in all parts of Alaska (it’s a big state!) and that everyone lives in igloos (this ignores so much of Alaskan Native cultures), the better. Alaska is the Last Frontier and there’s a lot of children’s literature about it, ranging from information books to folklore to historical and contemporary fiction.

(Sandy Beach from my last winter trip home, December 2009)

Alaska has a great history of storytelling because of the Native Alaskan traditions as well as the early Russian immigrants and the Filipino, Irish, and other immigrant groups of Alaska. I’m particularly fond of the Tlingit/Haida tales I heard growing up in Southeast Alaska, especially those about Raven. Raven is a trickster and is involved in a number of Tlingit creation stories, like how Raven stole the daylight (included in this volume of Native American creation myths). Check out stories like Totem Tale: A Tall Story from Alaska,The Wave of the Sea-Wolf, and The Frog Princess: A Tlingit Legend From Alaska (retold by my very favorite Eric Kimmel) for good examples of this Alaskan storytelling tradition.

Alaska is a vast wilderness and the people who grow up and live there have a unique view on life and many feel a special connection to nature. There are many subjects about Alaska that children would enjoy reading about, including:

  • the Iditarod Sled Dog Race
  • amazing animals like all types of bears (especially the fearsome Kodiak Grizzly), caribou and moose, salmon, puffins, and narwhals
  • Gold Rush. The stories from Skagway are especially interesting and this book is a good place to start. Another part of Alaskan storytelling comes from the Sourdoughs, the miners that came to find gold in Alaska. One of my favorites growing up, partially because of a particularly good reading by my 8th grade English teacher, was The Cremation of Sam McGee.
  • modern stories from Alaskan Native cultures. There is a tendency for many non-Native children (and adults) to view Native cultures as something that exists in the past when these cultures are still very much alive. Learn more about the tribes of the Aleutians, the tundra, the far North, Southeast, and all the varying regions of Alaska.
  • nature! From temperate rainforests (my hometown area) to the tallest mountain in North American (Denali) to the tundra, Alaska is filled with beautiful wilderness and exciting things for children to learn about

If subjects are too broad, a couple of great authors to start with are Cherie B. Stihler (she did a great adaptation of the Gingerbread Man called the Sourdough Man) and Susi Gregg Fowler. Both of these authors have a number of different types of books based in Alaska that will get you started on your journey into the Last Frontier.

 

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