Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Positioned At The Top

Over the course of fifteen years winter has grown to become my favorite season.  It's a time when Mother Nature takes a pause, resting before renewal.  Whether walking along a worn path on crystal clear, blue sky days with air so crisp you could cut it or through drifts of new snow and biting winds, my dog Xena and I would make our way regardless of what the day offered.

On March 6, 2016 the ceremonial start of The Last Great Race, the Iditarod, began in Anchorage, Alaska.  Following these women and men and their dog teams traveling a course across the forty-ninth state is breathtaking.  The challenge of nearly one thousand miles through unforgiving land and weather is beyond comprehension but many of them have done it for decades.  At this time there are still forty-three women, men and their dogs on the trail.  Thirty have completed the journey in less than ten days.

In 1988 a trip never accomplished before was undertaken.  Helen Thayer's Arctic Adventure: A Woman And A Dog Walk To The North Pole (Capstone Young Readers, an imprint of Capstone, March 1, 2016) written by Sally Isaacs with illustrations by Iva Sasheva portrays thrilling moments of this milestone adventure.  Attitude, preparation and determination fueled every step made.

Few people have walked to the magnetic North Pole. Especially alone.

When Helen Thayer was fifty years old she knew she wanted to walk three hundred sixty-four miles around the magnetic North Pole.  If she fulfilled this dream she would be the first woman to do this.  Prior to beginning this journey she prepared for two years.

Upon her arrival at a village in northern Canada a local bear hunter advised her strongly not to go alone.  His offer for the use of a dog team was turned down by Helen.  She did agree to take one dog, a dog comfortable with staying outside and guarding his humans from polar bears.  Helen called him Charlie.

For four days it was snow and ice, walking, eating and sleeping inside the tent with Charlie on watch.  On the fifth day terror struck the duo in the form of an angry polar bear.  The following attack left Helen unharmed but Charlie ran like the wind after the retreating bear.  Helen was now alone.  Was that a speck of black against the white horizon?

By day eight Charlie was no longer sleeping outside the tent but sharing a pillow with Helen at night.  Together they survived a storm lasting days and frightening cracks in the sea ice.  A truly terrifying event happened on the twentieth day causing Helen to not only wonder if they would succeed in reaching their goal but if they would live.  A photograph supplies the answer.  Buried in the ice in the northern realms is a small metal container filled with contents only Helen Thayer could have placed there.  One woman.  One dog.  One month in 1988.

As a result of extensive research including first person accounts in print and through phone conversations with Helen Thayer, author Sally Isaacs recreates an action-packed accounting of the expedition.  Specific details heighten the intensity of situations where survival hangs in a balance.  The use of numbering the days and a blend of conversation and narrative make this a more intimate experience for the reader.  Here is a sample passage.

Charlie jumped up.  Helen did too.  She peeked outside and gasped.
There was a long crack in the ice---only 5 feet (1.5 meters) from her tent door.
How could she leave?  The violent wind was hurling ice and snow.
How could she stay?  The crack was inching toward her tent.
If the ice broke under the tent, they would fall into the icy black water.

Artist Iva Sasheva depicts the harsh environment of the Arctic along with the persistent passion of Helen Thayer and Charlie on the front of the book case.  This scene moves over the spine to the left on the back with a vision of the endless sky, snow and ice.  The opening and closing endpapers are differing images of swirling flakes against the pale gray wintry sky and pale blue landscape below.  Beneath the text on the title page, we are given a bird's eye view of Helen and Charlie each pulling their respective sleds over the snow; Helen on skies and Charlie walking beside her.

These paintings by Sasheva are nearly photographic in their detail spanning single or double pages.  The text is tucked into each illustration.  Her color palette reflects the atmosphere of the region day and night along with the precarious balance maintained by Helen and Charlie between life and death and reaching their goal.  It's easy to imagine the silence except for the sound of Helen and Charlie moving over the ice and snow, the roar of the attacking polar bear, the deafening crack of breaking ice or the howling wind tossing about pieces of ice as if they are paper.

One of my favorite pictures is of Charlie being introduced to Helen as Tony stands nearby.  Helen is squatting in front of Charlie so they can assess each other eye to eye.  Behind them in the blowing snow are the buildings of the village.

You can't help but read Helen Thayer's Arctic Adventure:  A Woman And A Dog Walk To The North Pole written by Sally Isaacs with illustrations by Iva Sasheva as fast as you can turn the pages.  Once again readers will be astonished by the feat of a single individual who succeeded in being the first woman to reach the magnetic North Pole.  At that time she was also the oldest.  The text and images in this book take you to that place and time with Helen and Charlie as surely as if you were there.  When you finish this you will realize there is nothing you can't do.  At the end of the book is A Note from Helen Thayer, More About...Helen Thayer, More About...Charlie (this is particularly interesting), a Glossary, Read More books, Internet Sites, Discussion Questions and an Index.

To become more familiar with Sally Isaacs and Iva Sasheva please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website is a page with additional resources; three websites and five books.  At HistoryLink.org more fascinating information is available about Helen Thayer.  Trust me...you will be amazed.  Please enjoy these two additional videos.

Each week the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge leaves me more informed and wiser about people, animals, things and places than I was before reading these books.  Please take a moment to see the titles selected by other bloggers this week at Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.

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