In April 2013, starting from their Seldovia home, Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman and their two children, Katmai, now 7, and Lituya, now 5, set off to circumnavigate Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet by foot and pack raft. About a week out a storm stopped them at Aurora Lagoon on the south side of the bay. Low on food, McKittrick said she was trying to figure out how to keep her young son and daughter happy.
“It was a real blizzard — blowing horizontal snow and 12 degrees,” said McKittirck, 36. “Katmai goes into the alders and starts stomping and sticking his arms into the snow.”
She asked him what he was doing, and McKittrick said Katmai replied, “I’m a mammoth. I never get cold.”
That incident inspired McKittrick to write “My Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes,” “an almost true Alaskan adventure,” she calls it, about a family like hers who treks into the wilderness. When faced with adversity, the boy in the book imagines himself as animals and how they would cope with challenges.
“Be the mammoth or the moose or be whatever. In a way, it’s imagination, but it’s kind of a real technique,” McKittrick said.
Illustrated by McKittrick’s sister-in-law and Seldovia neighbor, Valisa Higman, 35, the new book published by Sasquatch Books of Seattle had its official release on Tuesday. This Saturday, Higman, McKittrick and her children visit Homer several events.
At 1 p.m. Saturday they do a reading and craft time at the Homer Public Library. McKittrick also will bring her pack raft and other outdoor gear and talk about getting outside in nature with children and how children can relate to animals. From 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Higman and McKittrick sign their books at the Homer Bookstore. Books will be available for sale.
McKittrick has been trekking with her husband and later her children since they came to Alaska in 2007 — a move done by human power. She told that story in her first book, “A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski” (Mountaineers Books, 2009). Her second book, “Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska” (Mountaineers Books, 2013), tells of the family’s further trips, this time with small children. “Tracing the Heart of Alaska,” about the Cook Inlet journey, comes out in 2017.
McKittrick got the idea to pitch a children’s book when her stepmother in Seattle told her she had a friend at Sasquatch Books and they were looking for picture books. Higman and McKittrick put together a proposal. McKittrick wrote the entire book, told in rhyming verse. Higman made a few cut-paper illustrations and then did sketches for the rest. McKittrick said that for a children’s book, especially for a new writer, the text has to be complete and pretty polished. Their proposal got accepted.
“I am fortunate to have Erin as a sister-in-law,” Higman said. “She has her connections in the publishing world. That really helped a lot.”
Higman, Bretwood’s sister, said she’d always wanted to illustrate children’s books ever since fourth grade, when Homer children’s book writer Shelley Gill visited her school with Anchorage artist Barbara Lavallee.
“I got to experiment in making kid’s books,” Higman said. “I thought that would be the most exciting thing to do.”
Higman has been creating her paper-cut illustrations since high school at Susan B. English School, Seldovia, where she graduated in 1998. She got her idea of cut-paper art from her mother, a silkscreen artist. In silkscreen printing, to make the screen using film glued on to the fabric, the artist cuts away the places where color will be printed.
“Watching that developed my sense of what you cut away to make what you want. You’re dealing with negative space. It’s similar to block printing,” Higman said. “You look at things and think about the space behind them and the actual space it occupies.”
She starts her illustrations by taking a black sheet of paper and cutting away the parts that will be color. The black lines are the paper left behind. Higman then adds color behind the black outlines by cutting out pieces of paper to fit. She also will paint in details with watercolors.
“It’s very colorful and bold,” McKittrick said of Higman’s technique. “It’s very well suited for a kid’s book of that style.”
“Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes” has 15, two-page plates. Each plate has the real scene on the left and the boy’s imagined scene on the right. For example, McKittrick writes, “We walk and we walk, and it’s terribly long. / My legs are so tired — I hope they grow strong. / My herd is beginning our lengthy migration. / I know I cam make it to our destination.” Higman shows the family hiking through the tundra. The next page shows a caribou family, a bull and a cow and two calves, but they’re wearing backpacks just like the humans. The girl and one calf’s backpacks both have a pink teddy bear poking out the back — a visual clue so children can see what’s going on.
The collaboration between Higman and McKittrick came easily. They live on a large family compound in Seldovia. Higman’s mother, Dede Higman, lives in a house, Valisa Higman has a small cabin, and McKittrick and her family live in a yurt. They also share a bath house and other buildings and have dinner together.
“We’re the author and illustrators, but also sisters-in-law and next-door neighbors,” McKittrick said. “It was a close collaboration.”
“Working with her, I would say there were no issues,” Higman said. “There were no negatives to it. To me it was a big positive. …Having close proximity and good communication made it a very easy process.”
Higman said she and McKittrick plan to do another book together featuring the same wilderness trekking family. Now that they’ve written about Katmai, they also need to tell Lituya’s story.
“In all fairness, we have to do a book with her as the main character,” Higman said.