It's cold, but tales from the Arctic can fill young minds with warmth, wonder


January 21, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Winter wins. Surrender those mangled shovels, leaky boots and clogged cans of De-Icer. Yield to the arsenal of Arctic blasts and stay at home, where reading about the Arctic can help put our cold snaps into perspective.

* Peter Sis is one of the most talented creators of contemporary children's books. He hasn't won a Caldecott Medal, but his work has made the list of New York Times Best Illustrated Books four times. This past year it was for "A Small Tall Tale From the Far Far North" (Knopf, $15, 40 pages, ages 5-10).

Mr. Sis, born in Czechoslovakia, grew up reading the adventure stories of Jan Welzl. He was a Czech explorer and folk hero who supposedly traveled across Siberia to the Bering Sea and spent a good deal of time living with Eskimos.

In his fine prologue and epilogue, Mr. Sis explains that the veracity of Welzl's stories has been challenged. Some critics have called them fabrications; others say Welzl was guilty of exaggeration.

What is certain is the stories captivated many a young reader, Mr. Sis included. He introduces the book by writing, "Here is a fragment of Jan Welzl's story (a tall tale?), as it has grown in my imagination . . ."

And what an imagination. As he did in "Rainbow Rhino," "Komodo!" and "An Ocean World," Mr. Sis pulls readers into his pages as if by magnetic force. His pointillist style -- shapes and shadows emerge from thousands of tiny dots -- is as entrancing to pore over as it must be excruciating to produce.

He sneaks in details you won't find on the first perusal -- the mountain that turns out to be a woman's face in profile, or domestic scenes of Eskimo life that are pasted and captioned as if they're entries in an anthropologist's sketchbook.

Mr. Sis' sense of humor is sometimes sly and sometimes slapstick, always balanced with a reverence for his subject. Readers will come away with respect for the Eskimos' decency, and they will rejoice at Jan Welzl's method of protecting them from the outsiders who sweep in during the Klondike gold rush.

* The upheaval and devastation caused by white traders is central to "Inunguak: The Little Greenlander" by Palle Petersen, illustrated by Jens Rosing (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $14, 32 pages, ages 6 and up).

Although we call them Eskimos, most natives of the Arctic refer to themselves as Inuit, which translates to "human beings." Mr. Petersen weaves Inuit legends through this story about a young boy, Inunguak, who is shunned by the people of his village because instead of learning to become a great hunter, he spends all of his time listening to his grandfather's stories.

The lessons Inunguak has learned end up rescuing the villagers. They had traded furs and blubber to the white men for glass beads and iron knives, and when winter came, they began to starve. Inunguak remembers his grandfather's story about the Mother of the Sea, and she rewards him with a bounty of seals, walruses and whales.

* The Inuit have their own versions of cautionary tales familiar to every culture. The Yupik Eskimos of Alaska tell of a giant who is always looking to make a meal out of children who don't come home when their parents call.

The big guy is ugly, smelly and on the dumb side in "The Hungry Giant of the Tundra," retold by Teri Sloat, illustrated by Robert and Teri Sloat (Dutton, $14.99, 32 pages, 4-8).

He hunts down some children who won't go home because they're having too much fun playing outside. To keep his dinner from running away while he searches for his knife, he takes off his pants ("Giants are not very modest"), ties the legs together to make a bag, stuffs the children inside and uses the suspenders to hang the trousers from a tree.

The kids enlist the help of a clever chickadee, who unhooks the suspenders from the branch. Then, before the giant returns, they fill the pants with rocks and grass and sticks, and the chickadee knots the suspenders back on the branch.

The giant, furious when he discovers he has been duped, almost catches up with his quarry.

* One of my all-time favorite books, "Julie of the Wolves," used the Arctic as the setting for a classic coming-of-age story. Here's a newer favorite, now out in paperback: "Toughboy and Sister" by Kirkpatrick Hill (Puffin, $3.99, 128 pages, ages 8-12).

Toughboy, 11, and his younger sister, Annie Laurie, have always spent summers at their family's fish camp. The year after their mother dies, their father brings them back to the remote camp. But he disappears on a drinking binge and dies, his body drifting away in their boat. Toughboy and Sister are marooned in the wilderness.

As their supplies dwindle, Toughboy and Sister learn to make bread and catch fish. They come to respect themselves, and each other, for their courage and resourcefulness. When they are finally discovered at summer's end, they are able to convince the adults that they have earned the right to remain together, instead of getting shuffled off to live with different relatives.

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