two warmheated novels coming to you from alaska and sweden

happinessHappy stories with loving relationships, but nary a saccharine note. Real, honest, children’s viewpoints. Young girls who, like Billy Miller (which won a Newbery Honor — did you see?!?! So thrilled about that) are good, and like being good, yet have not a snitch of prissy, goody-two-shoes about them.

That’s what you get in both of these warm, engaging books, which are so unalike in most other ways. Oh — there’s no mother in either of them. That’s another similarity. First up is…

bo at ballard creek cover imageBo at Ballard Creek, by Kirkpatrick Hill, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
published in 2013 by Henry Holt and Company

…and it’s the winner of the 2014 Scott O’Dell prize for best historical fiction. Read it, and you’ll see why.

It’s set in a tiny mining town in Alaska, 1930.

Two strapping, barrel-chested guys — Arvid and Jack — have been knocking around these parts since they stampeded up during the 1897 Klondike gold rush. One life-changing day, a spiteful gal named Millie up and bo at ballard creek illus2 leuyen pham 001hands her infant daughter to Arvid, tells him to deposit her in an orphanage, traipses onto a steamboat, and leaves without a backward glance.

But Arvid and Jack, who have hearts to fit their girth, take that baby girl in and raise her as their own. Bo, they call her, and not knowing the first thing about babies, they fall desperately in love with her in a twinkle.

Bo is about five years old as our story begins. She speaks Eskimo and English, makes fluffy, golden biscuits like nobody’s business, and feels utterly at home in this insular world of miners and Eskimos, good-time girls and sled-dog couriers. There are adventures and hard bo at ballard creek illustration leuyen pham 001times, celebrations and daily chores. Always, there are Arvid and Jack — the anchors of her contented life.

Kirkpatrick Hill’s book reads a bit like a Little House story with its charming string of anecdotes. LeUyen Pham’s warm-as-toast illustrations even echo Garth Williams’ sense I think, and the layout of the ivory pages with their rough cut edges all strike the same note as those early Little House editions. Laura Ingalls was a spunky girl, and Bo is, too, but Bo’s honest gaze at life is more penetrating than Laura’s. Marvelous, matter-of-fact voice throughout the book, a host of colorful characters, and such a rich depiction of this world. I couldn’t put it down. Fabulous read-aloud for ages 6 and up. There’s a little sprinkling of spicy language from time to time courtesy of the miners, just FYI.

Then, coming from Sweden, a chapter book for girls from 6-10…

my happy life cover imageMy Happy Life, by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
published in 2013 by Gecko Press

This one packs a lot of emotion into its sparsely-worded pages.

Dani is just old enough to start school, which brings quite a mix of excitement and trepidation. Her biggest worry is: what if I don’t make any friends? Understandable.

Happily, despite a lot of rowdy mayhem on the playground, Dani spots Ella and they quickly become best friends, stuck together like my happy life illustration eva erikssonpeanut butter and jam. One heartbreaking day, though, Ella moves away.

Dani is no stranger to grief, having lost her mother years ago. Now a bewildering new thorn of unhappiness deflates her, stings her. It takes tender understanding from her dad and others in her life, time, a couple of sparkle-eyed hamsters, some bad days and redeeming my happy life illustration2 eva erikssonmoments, before Dani is able to identify herself as happy again.

Sweet, poignant, insightful. Emotionally-honest without veering beyond the young narrator’s voice. And despite the bruises in Dani’s life — this story has a happy outlook and ending. Charmingly illustrated by Eva Eriksson, an award-winning, much loved Swedish illustrator. Her illustrations and a lot of white space really dominate the pages since these 20 teeny chapters have an unusually low word count. It’s pretty much a girl-book, that works for an early chapter book,  a reluctant reader, or a read-aloud.