Monica Devine's Kayak Girl
Illustrated by Mindy Dwyer
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Jana is an Alaskan Native girl.
Normally, during the long summer days, she would be outside playing - helping her father catch salmon, picking fireweed for her mother, collecting rocks to paint, or using her story knife to draw pictures in the sand.
But this summer, she is mourning her mother. She sits inside - by choice - and gazes out the window.
Her father, we assume, is out plying his trade. Her lone companion (besides melancholy) is a sweet dog, never mentioned, only pictured.
Into this sadness comes her grandfather, from a village far upriver. He attempts to engage Jana, but Jana doesn't much engage. She does watch though, as Grandfather carves her "a long, skinny boat with a girl inside."
This "Kayak Girl" isn't meant to be kept on a shelf. Her job? In Grandfather's words, to "bring back Jana's spirit."
When Grandfather leaves, he takes the figurine with him. He tells Jana that he will set it in the water upriver, and that it will be her responsibility to go to the river every day to look for it.
She agrees, though it's not entirely clear why.
But Jana is faithful to her promise. For the better part of a year, she visits the river, waiting for a wooden voyager who, readers see, is encountering her own obstacles.
As Jana worries and wonders what's keeping Kayak Girl, she imagines her scared. She imagines her lost. She imagines her lonely. Each imagining brings back a recollection of Jana's mother, imaginings that are clearly healing for Jana.
Without even being there, Kayak Girl is indeed bringing back Jana's spirit.
When the figurine finally appears, Jana is joyful. She snatches
her from the river and provides her some loving care. Then Jana sets her
back in the water, to continue her own journey, and returns to the
things that she loves.
Author Monica Devine knows her stuff; her work has her traveling to small Alaskan villages as a speech-language pathologist. Illustrator Mindy Dwyer depicts an Alaska always in movement, with swirls of wind and water. To restrict oneself to the indoors, she seems to be telling us, is the ultimate sadness.
For all the book's import, Kayak Girl's main character is oddly remote. As often as not, author Devine chooses not to explicitly share with us Jana's thoughts and feelings, so Jana can seem strangely stoic and impenetrable, and adults will have to help younger children fill in the emotional blanks.
But in a picture book touching on the subject of death, the grown-ups probably should be chiming in anyway, don't you think?
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