Baby Raven Reads book is Alaska’s selection for National Book Festival

A book from Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Baby Raven Reads was selected by the Alaska Center for the Book, a literacy advocacy organization, to represent Alaska in the Library of Congress’ 2021 National Book Festival.

The selection is a first for BRR, amid a rising tide of recognition for Alaska Native and other Indigenous writers and illustrators in the literary world.

“To be recognized on a national level is very exciting,” said Tess Olympia, BRR’s program manager, in an email. “We hope it brings people’s awareness to Alaska Native culture, and gets more children and families excited about reading.”

The book, “Shanyaak’utlaax̱ – Salmon Boy,” is a traditional Tlingit story brought to print in 2018 by Johnny Marks, Hans Chester, David Katzeek and Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, according to an SHI news release. Michaela Goade, recently named the first Alaska Native/Native American winner of the Randolph Caldecott Award for best children’s picture story, illustrated the book, which was also named best picture book at its 2018 debut by the American Indian Library Association.

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“The theme is ‘Open a book, open the world’. We thought that particular book would help people get to learn more about the Alaska Native people,” said Sue Sherif, who sits on the board of the Alaska Center for the Book. “The illustrations are really beautiful. The book has received a number of awards.”

Shanyaak’utlaax̱ – Salmon Boy might not be the first Alaska Native-written book to go to the National Book Festival, but it’s unique in other ways beyond being the first to come from the BRR program.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the first book by an Alaska Native. But it is definitely the first illustrated by an Alaska Native person and the first bilingual book,” Sherif said. “There aren’t very many publishers; they don’t see the market for Alaskan languages being very robust nationwide. It’s really up to Alaskan entities. A lot of school districts have produced their own materials.”

The BRR program, born from a federal Department of Education grant in 2016, has expanded rapidly as it finds traction in the Southeast, said Kristy Dillingham, SHI’s education director. Since the program’s beginnings in 2016, a study by the McKinley Research Group showed that Alaska Native children participating in the BRR program in Juneau have shown a marked increase in early childhood literacy skills, Dillingham said.

“It’s closing that achievement gap of Native kids and nonnative kids as they enter kindergarten by an incredible amount,” Dillingham said. “They see their ancestors, the land, the values are all represented in the literature they’re sitting down reading together.”

The recognition will help the BRR program to keep improving the breadth of its offerings for kids in the Southeast and beyond, Dillingham said.

“It allows the recognition of the program and the funding to keep moving forward. It gives us the opportunity to keep building and growing the program,” Dillingham said. “When a kid is surrounded by books that are reflective of their culture, reflective of who they are, they seem themselves reflected in what they’re reading and listening to.”

The National Book Festival will run from Sept. 17-26 this year in a number of interactive programs accessible online through the festival, according to the Library of Congress’ website.

“The success of the program model overall has been really incredible to see,” Olympia said. “The data shows that families are spending more time reading together and we hope that more children will now get to read Shanyaak’utlaax̱ – Salmon Boy with their families.”

This book and BRR literature isn’t just for Alaska Native readers, said SHI President Rosita Worl in the news release.

“We developed our Baby Raven Reads series so Native children would see themselves accurately mirrored in literature, but we also know non-Native students read them,” Worl said. “This recognition underscores our parallel goal to promote cross-cultural understanding on a national level.”

An audio version of the book in Tlingit read by elder David Katzeek is available at https://www.sealaskaheritage.org/file/salmon-boy-davidmp3, with an expanded version read by Tlingit storyteller Ishmael Hope at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGH8cmKKZ78&t=11s.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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