New Children's Book Chronicles the Life of Alaska's State Bird

Oct 1, 2013

Credit University of Alaska Press

Leaves are changing and so are the feathers of Alaska’s state bird.  This time of year, Ptarmigan trade their brown, mottled look for a snowy white appearance.  The ptarmigan is the subject of a children’s book, published by the University of Alaska Press last month.  The book called ‘Gone Again, Ptarmigan,’ is a collaboration between two friends:  a well-known painter and a long time poet. 

The book opens with a lynx silently stalking a fluffy snowshoe hare.  When the wildcat pounces, it flushes a white bird from its hiding place in the snow.  “Gone again, Ptarmigan!”  That’s a recurring line and the title of a new book from California poet and author Jonathan London. “That’s the theme of the story," says London.  "They survive for various reasons, but the number one reason is because they’re camouflaged based on the seasons.”

London’s story starts in the winter.  Turn the page to spring.  The new season brings a hungry wolverine who chases a weasel as the ptarmigan, now with mottled feathers, gets away.  London collaborated with Anchorage-based painter Jon Van Zyle to depict a year in the life of Alaska’s state bird.  “I really don’t know what makes a good story, as far as critics," Van Zyle admits.  "I do know what makes a good story to me, and that’s by simply reading the text and when I read that text, if I can see mental pictures, that to me is a winner.”

Van Zyle makes little sketches in the margins as he reads a manuscript.  One of them became a vibrant depiction of autumn.  It a raucous, colorful painting of a ‘flame colored fox’ who leaps after a deer mouse as orange and yellow leaves fall to the ground.  In the story, the ptarmigan ‘flare and flutter and land among the fallen leaves.’ Van Zyle says he did his best to match his illustration to Jonathan London’s story.
“Jonathan likes to write in very lyrical kinds of words and because I am illustrating his lyrical words," says Van Zyle.  "I kinda like to paint lyrical kinds of paintings.  To me it’s kind of a marriage of what the art looks like and what the words say.  To me things have to flow.” 

On some of the pages, London and Van Zyle include little vignettes that teach the reader about the boreal forest.  In one, a lemming crouches in snow.  Another depicts a wolf’s paw print.  London also writes about crowberries, harebells and local vegetation. “What I’m trying to do is catch facts about wildlife, in this case ptarmigan, and some of the other animals involved, but making that making that secondary to the story line and flow of it, but getting it in there in such a way that it’s not intrusive and yet it’s there and it can pique the interest of a young reader,” explains London.

He says it’s important to him to accurately tell the ptarmigan’s tale, which is why a brief life history is included at the end of the book.  As the illustrator, John Van Zyle says accuracy was also his goal.
“There has to be one hundred percent truth in the art, especially in the kids’ books," Van Zyle says.  "The author is basically a teacher, the illustrator is basically a teaching and you’re teaching kids what in words and in visuals what is true.  My whole career has been only in painting things that I physically know.”

The idea for a book about a ptarmigan was Van Zyle’s.  He and Jonathan London have been friends and collaborators for many years.  They are currently working on a book about wolves which they hope to have out next year.  They also plan to publish a story about the first flight of a horned puffin.  That book is due out in 2015.