New Board Books Highlight Alaska Native Talent

Photo by Taylor Booth
Photo by Ian Merculieff
Photo by Esther Pederson
Photo by Esther Pederson

I’ve been honored to serve as editor of a publishing project instituted by Best Beginnings here in Alaska. If you haven’t heard of this amazing organization, you’ll learn that they’re a branch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and they mail free books to hundreds of families all over the state each month. Getting books into the hands of babies and preschoolers can make all the difference in their later success in school.

Nonetheless, for many Alaskan families something was missing in all of those wonderful books. That “something” was the faces of Alaska Native children and their families. Enter Best Beginnings director Abbe Hensley, who hired me to execute their vision for a series of board books based on the seasons in the Northland. The emphasis would be on rural life, and specifically Native family life in Bush Alaska. A federal grant from the Office of Child Care, Administration for Children and Families, funded that vision. We wanted the books to be completely Native-written and completely Native-illustrated.

The final team of authors and photographers are from all over the state and represent a wide variety of Native cultures. We cultivated the talents of authors Joni Spiess (Nome/Anchorage), Yaari Toolie-Walker (Savoonga/Anchorage), Angela Y. Gonzalez (Huslia/Anchorage), and Carla Snow (Bethel). Photo submissions came in from many talented photographers: Esther Pederson (Nome), Ian Merculieff (St. Paul Island/Anchorage), Carol Maillelle (Togiak/Anchorage), Taylor Booth (Nome), Greg Lincoln (Bethel), Jacqueline Cleveland (Quinhagek), and Cheryl Kriska (Fairbanks).

This weekend, with the launch of the book series, some of those authors and photographers will join Best Beginnings leadership and me at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel during the annual Anchorage Association for the Education of Young Children (AAEYC) conference. Our panelists will talk about their creative process, but also touch on deeper issues of what it means for children to see their culture represented in a book, how it feels to be misrepresented or to view cultural misappropriation in other books, and they discuss the outlook for seeing more Alaska Natives in publishing.

Meanwhile, if you want to grab a set of these groundbreaking books, hot off the press, contact BestBeginningsAlaska.org. And if you are an Alaskan family with babies to preschoolers, connect with Best Beginnings to enroll your family in the program and get more information to help your baby grow! Simply click here.

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