Thursday, May 01, 2014

Reader's Diary #1117- Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, illustrated by Iris Churcher: T is for Territories

A lot of people get uptight when celebrities get book deals. While most would agree that actors and musicians are artists in their own right, it does not mean that they are skilled in the writing arts. So why is it that we so often assume that those skilled in one written form must be skilled in another written form? I'd consider myself a fan of Margaret Atwood's novels, but I don't think she's much of a children's author. Likewise, I'm a fan of Michael Kusugak's picture books and even his YA novel, but I'm sorry to say, I don't think he's much of a poet.

T is for Territories is one of about a gazillion alphabet books published by Sleeping Bear Press. Other such titles as Z is for Zamboni, D is for Democracy, and P is for Pilgrim. They have so many, in fact, that they could do an A is for Alphabet Book and it could serve as their catalogue. (Though if you should use this idea, Sleeping Bear Press, you'll still need an X book. X is for X-rated Movies? Probably not. How about X is for X-Ray Machine: A Hospital Alphabet Book? No chance you'd go for a X is for X-Men: A Superhero Alphabet Book is there?) In any case, T is for Territories is certainly not the first time they've gone for a non-poet. Often they decide to go with experts on the topic rather than poets, or even writers in some cases (Kurt Browning wrote their A is for Axel book, which, sadly, wasn't about Guns N' Roses).

If you're wondering why they'd need an expert for an alphabet book, that's a perfect segue into the part where I come around on T is for Territories and declare it, and their choice of Michael Kusugak, fine after all. When most people think of alphabet books, they think of early literacy books, wherein these books can help someone learn their alphabet. Sleeping Bear Press alphabet books aren't really that sort of thing. While the books can be enjoyed across age and skill levels, even the small poems are probably too advanced for emergent readers. In Kusugak's poems for example, there's a reference to "ancient inuksuit" and neither of those words are exactly "See Spot run." In the sidebars of each page things get even more complex, with smaller text and more factual information to back up the topic introduced by that page's letter. The I page in Kusugak's book talks about the Inuit and igloos. Words like "circumpolar" and "superinsulated" certainly don't simplify matters, but again, I don't think they were meant to. In these books, the alphabet is more about a simple and fun way to organize information on a topic. I can see teachers in higher grades using the format to help students organize any number of research projects. It's also because of these sidebars that I feel Kusugak was a justifiable choice. He's well-known enough to help the book's sales, and as a writer who's visited and even lived in many communities around the three territories, he's very knowledgeable. Granted there are still poets that may have been given a shot (PJ Johnson in the Yukon and Renaltta Arluk in the Norrthwest Territories are just two that come quickly to mind). They're perhaps not as bankable as Kusugak, but if that's the route Sleeping Bear Press wants to take, they'll never have actual poets! All that aside, Kusugak did do a great job on the sidebar information, presenting a very diverse, balanced view of the 3 Canadian territories.

Iris Churcher's artwork brings along other potential complaints. Unlike Kusugak, nothing in her biography suggests that she has ever lived in the north, which could lead to questions about why they had not gone with a northern illustrator as well. However, there's a certain style to the Sleeping Bear alphabet books and I'm not sure they would have kept that consistent with a northern artist. Also, Churcher's artwork is fantastic regardless of her origins and it is not difficult to see the enormous amount of research that she must have put into the project.

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