The Winter Olympics are almost upon us, when we’ll witness amazing feats of stamina by extraordinarily strong women and men. To get ourselves in the swing of things, I’ve got five real-life, epic accounts of people grappling with winter extremes beginning with…
The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands, by Louise Borden, illustrated by Niki Daly
published in 2004 by Margaret McElderry Books
Piet Janssen is a 10-year-old Dutch boy, living in the town of Sluis, in the Netherlands. It’s December, 1941. The bitterly cold winter is igniting a fire in Piet’s blood despite the grim reality of German occupation, fueling his dreams of one day competing in the Netherlands’ glorious, national skating race, the Elfstedentocht, a 200 km race along the canals in the north held only in the coldest of winters. And this is one of them.
Piet’s skating dreams and abilities are about to be put to the test in quite another race, however, a race to guide his neighbors to safety in Belgium. When their father is arrested for owning a hidden radio, the children must flee, and Piet is the one to escort them along the maze of frozen canals, past the Nazi soldiers, to one dark blue door in Brugge where relatives are waiting. Piet must be careful, brave, and strong, but after all, that’s what it means to be Dutch.
Louise Borden’s historical-fiction story is packed with colorful details about the real Elfstedentocht, the skating culture of the Netherlands, the bravery of the Dutch resistance, and life under German occupation. It’s a tense, gripping story, yet well-suited to an early-elementary audience. An added section about what happened to these characters after the war makes Piet and his neighbors feel all the more real.
Daly’s colored pencil and watercolor illustrations are beautiful windows into the era and this place with its architecture and long, flat landscapes. Informative notes about the Elfstedentocht and the history of skating are included.
The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail, by Debbie S. Miller, illustrations by Jon Van Zyle
published in 2006 by Walker Children’s
If you love dogs, as I do, this story will make your heart fairly burst with adoration for a stout-hearted fellow named Togo.
The heroic relay race of 1925 bringing serum to Nome to stave off a diphtheria epidemic is something many of us are somewhat familiar with, but Debbie Miller tells much more of the gritty tale than most of us know in this stirring, nonfiction account. There are many heroes in this venture — 20 stalwart, brave mushers and 160 willing, strong dogs — but Togo, who has been shortchanged in the press over the years, is the central figure.
He started out life as a bit of a mischief-maker apparently, but won over Leonhard Seppala, his master, with his fierce determination to stick with his team. That determined spirit was essential when he guided Seppala’s sled for 260 miles through ferocious weather, 10 times the distance of many of the other sled dog teams. Although Balto is the name most of us associate with this superb feat, Togo’s more amazing contribution is marvelously told here.
Blinding blizzards, cruelly-cold temperatures, frozen paws and underbellies, intense danger. The skilled, compassionate mushers pushed through it all with the help of these cunning, loyal, and persevering animals. You will be amazed. Jon Van Zyle’s paintings beautifully capture the quality of light in the North, the frigid conditions, unique equipment and clothing, weatherbeaten faces of the mushers and their tenderness with these noble dogs. Additional notes about the dogs, mushers, and the Iditarod which commemorates this trek, are included. Ages 5 and up.
Black Whiteness: Admiral Byrd Alone in the Antarctic, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop
published 2011 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
In March 1934, Admiral Richard Byrd began a very different kind of journey — a journey through nearly constant darkness, intense isolation, cruel cold, abysmal conditions, and illness — which lasted almost six months. This journey required him to stay put rather than travel; to live all alone in an underground house…in Antarctica.
Byrd underwent this extreme trial in order to record meteorological data for the first time on an inland Antarctic base, as well as to conduct an experiment in human stamina. Could he endure the suffocating loneliness in this wickedly cold, dark place? Robert Burleigh gleaned the vivid, tense, dramatic answers to that question from Byrd’s book, Alone,
which was published in 1938. The initial burst of steam, the dwindling energy, and the raw anguish Byrd experienced seem to echo the stages of a grueling journey.
Burleigh’s poetic prose is gripping as he describes Byrd’s dwelling, tasks, struggles, and thoughts. A number of direct quotes from Byrd add his voice to the story which I really appreciated. Honestly, it is nearly incomprehensible that he survived this ordeal. Krudop’s illustrations in oil and vinyl paint are fabulous, muted with so much darkness, evoking the weariness, the vastness of the icy landscape and the small, solitary figure inhabiting it.
This is an outstanding, fascinating book. Although it’s a picture book, it seems best suited to ages 9 and up. Perhaps you will want to read Byrd’s full account afterwards.
Snowshoe Thompson, by Nancy Smiler Levinson, pictures by Joan Sandin (An I Can Read Book)
published in 1995 by HarperCollins
John “Snowshoe” Thompson was a Norwegian man who immigrated to California in the early 1850s. In wintertime, when the heavy mountain snowfalls isolated the communities of northern California, Thompson heroically journeyed over the Sierra Nevadas many
times, bearing 100-pound bags of mail on the 90-mile, 5-day, trek. Thompson became a gold-rush legend, often rescuing lost men along the dangerous trails while he was at it. He made the trip on skis, which were a Scandinavian staple, but brand new to most Americans.
Most of this information is found in the afterword of this easy-to-read chapter book. The story line is of a young boy, Danny, who misses his dad, off digging gold in Nevada. Danny writes a letter from California, begging his dad to come home, but the postmaster says that no mail can make it over the mountains now that winter has set it. Snowshoe Thompson isn’t stymied by snow, however! He volunteers to deliver that mail himself, but first he’s got to make some skis, and then Danny’s got to wait and worry the whole long time he’s away.
It’s an interesting slice of history about a guy who must have had quite a passel of stories to tell in his old age. Pleasant watercolor illustrations bring the characters to life, as well as the process of making skis, and the snowy beauty of the mountainsides.
Over the Top of the World: Explorer Will Steger’s Trek Across the Arctic, by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster
published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin
Will Steger is a household name here in Minnesota. He makes his home in Ely, just a short trek through the forest from our lake cabin and almost spitting distance from Canada. His life has been full of one adventure after the next, from mountaineering to dogsledding, including several excursions exploring the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
This book chronicles the herculean expedition across the Arctic Ocean which Steger undertook in 1995 along with six (or so) human teammates and 33 amazing dogs. Oh, and two tons of gear.
The trip involved strenuous maneuvers over stories-high ice ridges, dangerous crossings of open leads, many dunkings in icy water, blizzard conditions, and a seriously-scary episode with a moving wall of ice.
So why did they do it? This particular trip was especially designed for school children, rigged up electronically so the team could “bring the Arctic into the classroom” and teach us the profound beauties and importance of the Arctic ecosystem.
It’s a lengthy book, and it looks daunting — so much print! But it’s very engaging writing, jammed with interesting, personal stories of this trek and great photographs, so don’t be put off. Lots of extras are tucked in, too, including cameos of several of the wonderful dogs who made the trip possible. I’d read this aloud, in segments, to kids ages 7 and up. Fascinating for older kids and adults as well.