Sunday, April 12, 2015

Getting to Alaska

 My friend Claudia McGehee has written and illustrated a book--My Wilderness. And I want to share it.  It's a story of a nine-year old child named Rocky, who happens to be a son of artist Rockwell Kent. The older Kent and his son Rocky spent nine months on an island off the coast of Alaska. I remember standing in Claudia's studio a few years ago, as she told me of her idea to write of this island adventure. And I'm so glad it's now a book.

Claudia spent her childhood in Washington state so has her own ties to the northwest. She has also said that thinking of the father and son together in their remote cabin touched the parent part of her being. "In my mind, I saw the Kents ...doing [playing checkers and chess]in a little cabin in the middle of a big wilderness and I knew I had to learn more and write about their time on Fox Island."

Jennifer Black Reinhart at picturebook builders has interviewed Claudia about her process in researching and illustrating this book. Here's what she said in that interview about her attraction to the story and the process of making the book:

"American artist Rockwell Kent and his 9-year-old son Rocky’s visit to remote Fox Island, Alaska in 1918 captivated me on several levels. I related to Rockwell Kent (the painter)’s deep inspiration of nature, and his need for some solitude to create art. I also admired the parent-child bond that Kent and his son forged living in such rustic circumstances. I’ve loved how nature seemed to be another character in the story and relished trying to express that visually. I knew the base of the story was a timeless example of the power of nature on people’s lives. It’s a message that lines up with my own personal beliefs. So I researched for a couple years and got my story to a place I could send it out. I tried four different Houses over the years and couldn’t find the right home. I’d put the story away for a while and then be inspired to work on it and try again. Sasquatch was a publisher I’d long admired. They focus on Pacific Northwest topics and 'My Wilderness' clicked for them. My vision of the book complimented my editor’s (Tegan Tigani) well and the whole project was a pleasure to realize."

 Claudia's scratchboard illustrations of the island and seascape are wonderful. They invoke the grandeur of the place and invite contemplation. This is a book to be lingered over. 

But for me, the best part is the voice Claudia creates for the young Rocky Kent. I love her use of verbs: "Once ashore, Olson introduced us to the other Fox Islanders. Three Angora goats bleated hello. I bleated back. Blue fox darted shyly around a wooden corral."

"At bedtime, Father played his flute for me, he island's night voices chiming in....The wind whistled down the stovepipe as the fire crackled and popped."

And here's Rocky, describing his winter activities: "I was an otter. I was a bear. I was Prince of the Mountain. King of the Wilderness! I was a little lonely." It's the repetition and the surprise that makes all those "was-es" work.

At her book party at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City Claudia said she focused on the young Rocky because his was the experience she wanted to capture. The artist is a peripheral figure in story, though sometimes engaging and quite humorous.
"snow bath"

Congratulations Claudia!  Beautiful and wonderful book!