I suspect that most people picture the Arctic as I did before I read North - a cold, frigid, forbidding place where perhaps only polar bears and Santa Claus feel at home. In reality, there are four seasons in the Arctic, including a glorious summer. And, incredibly, animals and wildlife travel for thousands of miles to arrive in the Arctic during the summer.
Dowson sets the stage for this migration by describing the deepest winter. During that time of year, "even the seas freeze deep" (p. 4). But eventually the winter ebbs, and the polar bears and arctic foxes are no longer the only Arctic inhabitants. It begins with warmer seas as spring evolves. Algae bloom under the ice, and plants grow as the ice melts and recedes. As the spring continues animals begin their treck toward the Arctic in what Dowson terms "THE GREATEST JOURNEY ON EARTH!" (p. 11).
There are tons of animals, birds and other wildlife on this incredible journey. Gray whales travel for eight weeks up through the Pacific Ocean without eating. Terns fly to the Arctic all the way from the bottom of the world in Antarctica. Snow geese fly from Mexico, caribou travel from Canada, walrus swim up the coast of Alaska. "By late May, travelers crowd together near the very top of the world." (p. 36) And summer has finally arrived, just in time. "Tundra flowers grow rainbow-bright, the calm air hums with summer bees...New life is everywhere." (p. 40). Animals have risked their lives, traveled unceasingly, gone without food to reach the Arctic at precisely this moment. And their seasonal cycle will continue until September, when winter begins to descend again. Next spring, most of these animals will begin this journey again.
This book was on the Cybils nominations list for Non-fiction Picture Books, and one of the panelists really loved this book. When I first looked at it, I liked the illustrations, and was struck by their crystalline beauty. Benson uses mostly blues and whites in these illustrations, all in a limited palette. There is also cream added, particularly as the summer begins, and some accents of black and gray. The blue, almost a greenish teal, reflects off the frigid waters and the ice. White isn't used just for the ice and glaciers, but striates the walrus' thick skin and delineates the feathers of the terns' wings. The illustrations are highly realistic, but also majestic. One of my favorite illustrations takes place along the gray whale's journey. A young gray whale swims up the Pacific. The top half of the double page spread shows the whale passing Los Angeles; in the bottom half she surfaces near the Golden Gate Bridge. The light is golden in Los Angeles as skyscrapers and hotels stand witness to her journey. In San Francisco, a mother, her child and their dog monitor the whale's progress. I love the way this page is divided. It spreads across both pages, making the reader sense the enormity of the journey. Many of the pages are divided in a variety of ways, keeping the action of migration fresh and compelling. There are close-up illustrations that show the stress of the trip on some of the wildlife, some illustrations that show the expanse of the Arctic.
These illustrations match so well with the text. Dowson's writing is poetic, yet conveys the information clearly and concisely. I was surprised at how much I learned from this book, which seems relatively simple on the surface. This takes a very unique look at migration and its impact on the Arctic. As he describes herrings on their journey, Dowson writes "With bright scales like mirrors, they swerve together, fin by fin." (p. 33). It is gorgeous, emphasizing the awesome journey these animals undertake.
As for back matter, there is a note giving more information about the Arctic. The note also asks readers to consider global warming and its impact on this migration. There are also some websites on the Arctic, a glossary, and an index. While this story makes my trip to DC seem minute in comparison, it does an amazing job explaining the migration of this group of animals, fish and birds for a summer in the Arctic, just where they all want to be. This book does a terrific job of detailing the greatest journey on Earth.
North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration. Nick Dowson; illustrated by Patrick Benson. Candlewick Press, 2011.
sent by the publisher for consideration for Cybils
Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and thoughts on this book.