Alaska Boots

Image of "Alaska Boots for Chelsea" book cover.  

Grandmothers’ Patterns

Children’s book author Phyllis Adams wants readers to know a tale is more than a story

by Rosanne Pagano

Summer 2023, FORUM Magazine

'These are the boots our Athabascan people have used for many generations'

AS GRAY AND COLD November arrived at classrooms throughout Alaska, elementary school teachers like Phyllis Adams prepared for Native American Indian Heritage Month, a time to recall contributions and achievements of Indigenous people. The observance gained federal recognition in 1990. By then, Adams had been teaching for a decade in Anchorage, where more than 90 languages are represented in the public schools and home to the state’s largest concentration of Alaska Native people. Her love of teaching began early: As a first-grader in the mid-1950s growing up in the Interior town of Nenana, population barely 300, Adams turned cardboard boxes and mounds of snow into desks for instructing imaginary pupils. Her favorite outfit was pleated skirts and penny loafers, just like the ones her teachers wore. 

Now with real-life students before her, Adams realized that cherished memories of growing up Athabascan—watching Tanana River ice go out, hunting spruce hens in the fall, hearing her grandmother whistle while she beaded and sewed—deserved a place in heritage month lessons. And because traditional stories and knowledge of living off the land were overlooked, Phyllis Adams, the girl who gladly spent summer days in an empty schoolhouse, standing at the front of a classroom, talking away to vacant seats and writing on the chalkboard, would come up with her own lessons on Athabascan life, tailored to whatever grade she happened to be assigned. 

“I was concerned about the lack of Athabascan children’s stories that I could identify with,” she recalled. Despite early encouragement from one of her professors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Adams found that starting her career as a classroom teacher—along with obligations to her family—left her without time to write the recollections she wanted her students to know. Today a list of children’s books by Alaska Native authors includes at least a dozen titles. Adams’ solution was personal: “I would show my own artifacts and regalia, I’d talk about the culture I was raised in,” she said. For Alaska Native students, heritage week was a chance to foster recognition. For everyone else, it was an introduction to people, places and things that Adams believes all Alaskans must know. 

“I was concerned about the lack of Athabascan children’s stories that I could identify with.”

‘It is important to listen to your Elders'

Chelsea—of Adams’ picture book, Alaska Boots for Chelsea—is not only a real girl but the author’s granddaughter. Twenty years retired from teaching, Phyllis Adams has vibrant brown eyes, a wide smile, and an easy way of talking about her family that makes you think you’ve known them forever. There is Chelsea, the little girl who loved to laugh and dance. There is Grandma Daisy Alexander, daughter of Chief Alexander of Tolovana. And there are Nina, Adams’ mother, and grandsons Owen and Quinn, the boys who on sleepovers grew tired of hearing the Gingerbread Man story and prompted Adams to rework a shopworn fairy tale into the story of a griddle-cake moose that comes to life. Her retelling, Alaska Gingerbread Moose, was published in 2006 when retirement afforded time to write. The book, her first, is a half-dozen copies away from being out of print.

Adams followed in 2016 with Alaska Boots for Chelsea, illustrated by the British Columbia watercolorist Kathleen Lynch, whom Adams sought out after seeing Lynch’s work for other children’s books. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly the person I’m looking for,’ ” Adams recalled, and a first meeting confirmed her hunch: “We hit it off.” Lynch brought to life a pony-tailed Chelsea, clutching her beaded, pink-tassled, moosehide boots the way other children hold tight to a security blanket. The handmade boots are from Sitsu, Chelsea’s grandmother, who begins by drawing an outline of the girl’s bare foot for a perfect fit. “Basee’ dineega,” Chelsea says. Thank you, moose.

Deciding to feature her granddaughter as the main character, a stand-in for any child who cherishes a gift and risks losing it forever, stemmed in part from Adams’ teaching days when she went looking for stories of Athabascan life.

“Including Chelsea was not only my gift to her, as part of her heritage, but a way of drawing interest to other children so that they might learn the importance and value of the Athabascan culture,” Adams says. Grandma Nina did indeed make wonderful footwear for Chelsea, Adams added, just as Grandma Daisy had sewed moosehide boots for a young Phyllis whose Athabascan-speaking grandparents lived just blocks away.

“I came upon the story idea while watching my mother sew beaded slippers for Chelsea,” Adams recalled. The moment instantly brought to mind Grandma Daisy’s handiwork. “She made her own patterns and had different stages of finished boots, mittens, and beadwork lying on the rug of her bedroom floor,” Adams said. “There she always sat, whistling softly as she sewed.” It was for Grandma Nina that Chelsea danced.

“I came upon the story idea while watching my mother sew beaded slippers for Chelsea... There she always sat, whistling softly as she sewed.”

‘Each star twinkled in the moonlight’

For Kathleen Lynch, the artist who so captured Nina’s likeness that Adams says it brought one close friend to tears, illustrating Adams’ story drew on Alaska memories of Lynch’s own. An anthropologist who arrived in Alaska in 1972, Lynch traveled to Athabascan and Inuit sites for a decade-long adult literacy project overseen by the University of Alaska. She contributed writing and illustrations for booklets that explained traditional survival skills like how to make snowshoes or drive a dog team.

“It all came back to me,” Lynch said. Her pre-oil boom adventures included time spent living among Alaska Native people of Pedro Bay, attending potlatches, observing wildlife. Writers need not be illustrators themselves, Lynch has learned, to have an image in mind about how a scene or character should be depicted; instead, bringing a story to life becomes a matter of writer and illustrator seeing things the same way. “You get into the spirit of the story,” Lynch said. Working back and forth by email, she sent draft drawings for Adams to comment on; disagreements were few. “I had a pretty good idea of what was in Phyllis’s head, what she was talking and writing about,” Lynch added. “I could visualize it pretty well.”

The result is a 32-page picture book of soft-edged, full-color images that reward a close look. Some drawings—a potlatch circle, a snowy night—occupy the whole page. Just as Adams tells a story specific to one culture while inviting all others to come along, so do Lynch’s drawings range from scenes known to Alaska children—moose standing in deep snow, a storage cache perched on stilts—to moments known the world over: A little girl’s hot tears, a grandmother’s reassuring embrace.

Alaska Boots for Chelsea devotes its last few pages to a glossary of Athabascan words, an explanation of traditional ways of Athabascan people, illustrated descriptions of wildlife featured in the tale. True to the little girl who liked to dress as a teacher, educating her readers is never far from Adams’s mind. Just as heartwarming for her is when children speak up during one of Adams’ read-alouds, eager to tell what they know about Native dance or receiving a priceless gift. That’s when Adams knows her story has been understood. ■

Anchorage-based writer and online content producer Rosanne Pagano teaches at Alaska Pacific University. Her writing, “Speaking of Salmon,” appeared in FORUM in 2017.

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