Tag Archives: Alaska

5 Best Family Travel Books


Destinations: Beijing, Burma, Korea, Australia, Alaska

Books: Several

By Powell Berger


Every place we’ve ever visited has been made better by a book. Relatable teenage characters overcoming odds and introducing us to cultures other than our own open doors to exotic locales and make these new places familiar and welcoming. For us, travel planning goes something like this: pick the destination, book the flights, find the books.

For my first post on A Travelers Library, I’m excited to share the five best family travel books, the ones we immediately talk about when remembering our travels or planning the next adventure.

family travel book
Forbidden City: A Novel of Modern China by William Bell takes the reader on a personal trek through the political nightmare of Tienanmen Square, all through the eyes of Alex Bell, a Canadian high school student who travels to Beijing with his father, a journalist. What starts out as an opportunity to miss school and explore China becomes a harrowing story of a western teenager embroiled in one of the most dangerous political uprisings of modern times. Separated from his father during the demonstrations, Alex has to fend for himself while also helping young demonstrators find safety. A riveting novel based on the true stories surrounding the massacre, Forbidden City delivers a powerful history lesson while leaving the reader on the edge of her seat until the last page.

book cover: family travel to Burma
Elephant Run, by Roland Smith also delivers a great history lesson, drawing the reader into the world of rubber plantations in Burma and the Japanese occupation of that gentle land. Nick Freestone’s mom fears for her son’s safety in their London home after the night bombings, so sends him to live with his father on their rubber plantation in the remote Burmese elephant village. Before Nick even settles in, however, Japanese soldiers invade the village, occupy the plantation and take Nick’s father hostage. To save his father, Nick and the Burmese villagers who work the plantation stage a daring and dangerous counter-attack, depending on their timber elephants to save the day. While the story keeps the reader turning pages to know that the Freestones prevail, its real beauty is in the lovely story of these beautiful elephants, their mahouts, and the deep bonds that hold them together.


book cover: travel to KoreaA Year of Impossible Goodbyes, by Sook Nyul Choi is one of those books that never quite leaves you. My daughter and I still tear up occasionally when we talk about this one. Ten year old Sookan and her family endure the atrocities brought on their native North Korea during WWII by running a sock factory that supplies the Japanese army. The story unfolds in layers, painfully but with grace, unveiling the horror and cruelty of the Japanese soldiers occupying their village. The author handles the issue of comfort women with particular skill, remembering her audience of middle school children, but also not flinching from the atrocities endured by these gentle, proud people. Another page-turner, the book takes the reader through the double whammy – occupation first by the Japanese, then the subsequent horror that Russia inflicted after defeating the Japanese. The courage and determination of Sookan and her family to survive the horrors and ultimately escape to freedom is both inspiring and heart-breaking.

Walkabout: family travel book to Alaska
Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall is an Australian classic but rarely read by American audiences. Marshall tells the story of two American kids who survive a plane crash in the Outback and team up with an Aboriginal boy to save their lives. The author skillfully unfolds the history and tradition of Australia’s native people through these children’s fate. “Walkabout” is a treasured Australian tradition, where young people (usually men) leave home to explore and find themselves, walking about until they figure out their purpose on this planet. The story offers terrific insight into the plight of Australia’s aboriginal people and the issues of racism and discrimination that still exist today.

book cover: family travel to Alaska
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen takes the reader on an adventure through remote Alaska with Cole Matthews, an angry teenager whose rage leaves another young man fighting for his life. Out of options to rehabilitate Cole, the village leaders turn to Circle Justice, a native American tradition that attempts to rehabilitate hardened offenders through a community/victim/perpetrator program. Cole is sentenced to a one-year banishment to a remote Alaska island where he must fend for himself, under the watchful but stern eye of his Tlingit Indian parole officer, Garvey. Cole endures a gruesome bear attack that leaves him clinging to his life and survives on raw worms and other despicable foods, scenes set in gruesome, stomach churning detail. It is Cole’s encounter with the Spirit Bear that eventually sets him on a path to redemption, guided by his own demons, his past, and his determination to save himself. This coming-of-age story is poignant in both its harsh reality and depth of love and connection between an unlikely set of characters.

Note: To learn more about Powell and her family’s travels, and why she is a good judge of best family travel books, see this interview.

Links from the cover illustrations are affiliate links to Amazon.  Even though it costs you no more, when you shop through these links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thank you.

Canada: Inuits from the Arctic Go to Alaska and Solve Crimes


This book is not written BY a Canadian, and does not take place IN Canada, but is about Inuits from the Arctic Circle in far northern Canada. This book may not make you want to travel to its main locale, Alaska, but it just may make you yearn to visit the Inuit settlement on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, in search of Edie.

Alaska Book: The Boy in the Snow Destination: Alaska

Book: The Boy in the Snow, An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery (NEW in paperback and e-book, October, 2013) by M. J. McGrath

As I read this book, the last part* of a poem called Fire and Ice by Robert Frost kept running through my head:

…I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Nome Alaska Seacoast
Nome Alaska, Coast of the Bering Sea, Photo by Dan Perez

The Boy in the Snow: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery  is so firmly dependent on its setting and the culture of its main characters, that you might say it is frozen in place. (Ouch! Terrible pun.)  The setting is Alaska, where Edie Kiglatuk has gone to help her ex-husband who is running the Iditarod (the unique dog-sled marathon). Edie, her husband, and a policeman/game warden sidekick come from Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle. They are Inuit. Edie is only half Inuit (her friends joke that she wears her wristwatch on the other half) but culturally, the ways of the “Outside” mystify her as much as she mystifies the outsiders. She tries to explain herself to an Alaskan policeman early in the book.

“Listen detective, I was born in Autisaq on Ellesmere Island. Seventy people live in Autisaq…I watch TV, I teach at the school, but your world, this world, is hot and crowded and noisy and you eat stuff that doesn’t even resemble food…

Writer M.J. McGrath does for the Inuit (Eskimos to us outsiders) what Tony Hillerman did for Navajos. I was hoping her website would give me more insight into how a non-fiction writer (by the name of Melanie McGrath) from England becomes expert enough on the Inuit to write a whole detective series.  I did learn that she wrote a book about the transport of a people from Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island. She has an old post in her moribund blog about the high rate of homicide in the Arctic Circle.  Finally I got a little insight with this CBS interview, from soon after her first book, White Heat, was published.

Inuit Man in Kayak
Inuit Man in Kayak, 1929


McGrath gives us a peek into the Inuit lives while letting us see ourselves reflected in their eyes. The reflection is not always a pretty sight.
Led into the woods by what she believes is a spirit bear, Edie discovers the frozen body of a baby.  That incident sets up her very unofficial investigation that leads to political corruption,religious intolerance, human trafficking and numerous dead bodies.
The actions of the dangerous people in this story are magnified by the dangers and unique challenges of the frozen landscape.  While Edie sees the snow and ice as a friend, they also become a deadly enemy. Driven to continue her hunt–Inuit women, are born to hunt–she tracks her prey tirelessly, waiting for her chance.
Along the way she makes sharp observations like this of her neighbors in the apartment building ” (they) were living like cliff birds, wedged into their tiny little fortresses, puffing up their feathers and pecking away all comers, wary of any motives that were not their own.
Edie befriends a waitress who learns to serve her a double hamburger without the bun and minus veggies, a dish of reindeer stew, and a side order of bacon. She kills a coyote to freeze chops for her dog. Although she’s driven snowmobiles before, she teaches herself to drive a four-wheel vehicle for the first time by renting a truck and taking off from Anchorage for Homer, driving through snow and rutted roads.
People who have visited Alaska may be amused or bemused by her observations of familiar places.  Anchorage, she says, is not different from “the other tiny frozen hamlets she was familiar with, human settlements hopelessly outclassed by surroundings that were forever threatening to swallow them up.”
While I moved across the country to get away from freezing winters, Edie only feels really comfortable in weather that calls for four layers of clothing. Riding a snowmobile out of Nome, she says:

The sun appeared briefly, and it was bitter cold, the kind of hard crisp freeze you could do business with.  Heading east on the sea ice with the land spread low and rocky to her left, the great expanse of Norton Sound to the right, she felt more at home than she had since she’d arrived in Alaska.

Inuit Nation on a map
Inuit Nation Map, Photo by Douglas Sprott

Edie Kiglatuk is certainly the most original amateur detective I’ve every come across, and I highly recommend it for its peek at a culture we generally don’t learn about.  The Boy in the Snow is the 2nd in the series.  McGrath’s first, White Heat, was highly praised.

Disclosures: The publisher has provided copies of the books for review and for the contest.  Photos here are from Flickr, and are acknowledged. Click on the photo for more information.  Links to Amazon are for your convenience, should you want to buy the book. However, I am obligated to tell you that A Traveler’s Library will make a few cents off of any purchases you make through those links. That’s how we keep running this site, so thank you!
*Fire and Ice by Robert Frost starts:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice…

Figuring Out Romantic Love and Family Love

Be My Valentine Week

Book Cover
Book: My One Square Inch of Alaska (New 2013) by Sharon Short

Destination: Ohio and an American Road Trip


Ohio farm scene
Ohio Farm scene

This book picked me up in a red convertible with the top down and set me down right back in Ohio in the 1950’s.  I saw a place where the town diner served the Blue Plate Special of chipped beef on toast (and the cook called it ‘shit on a shingle’); where girls ‘going steady’ wore their boy friend’s class ring on a chain dangling over their sweater set and you could send in cereal boxes to win one square inch of Alaska. Continue reading Figuring Out Romantic Love and Family Love