Northwest Passage, by Stan Rogers and Matt James (2013)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest Level: 6-10
Northwest PassageLike so many Canadians, I’ve always loved Stan Rogers’ haunting ballad, Northwest Passage, and was delighted to hear this picture book was coming out. Matt James’s luscious illustrations bring Rogers’ words to life, unveiling the song’s origins as the musings of a road traveller across our inspiring geography as he contemplates the legacy of explorers in whose footsteps he follows. James goes beyond merely illustrating the song, however. He interrupts the song’s narrative to introduce the story of Franklin and his doomed search for the Northwest Passage, helping to strengthen the connection between Rogers as driver and the travellers of long ago. But this is where it went a bit sideways for me. James, an award-winning illustrator and storyteller, begins with a timeline of exploration in northern Canada, then shifts to the story that fascinates Canadians of the tragic voyage of Franklin and his 130+ men. But I wonder – who is the intended audience? While it’s an absorbing story, the language is too sophisticated and the print occasionally too small for emerging readers. Adults reading aloud will be startled by gruesome descriptions of cannibalism. The timeline feels unnecessary, though a map of the North would have been helpful. I like the Gallery of Explorers, but it’s decidedly Eurocentric, and the layout needs a bit of attention. Throughout, James’ illustrations provide a joyful, detail-rich background that invites exploration and study, which provides access to younger readers who won’t sit for the longer narrative. And it invites readers who know the song to sing it out, with Rogers’ deep voice providing harmony in our heads as we read. Groundwood also published a similar treatment of that wonderful Gordon Lightfoot song, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy, illustrated by Ian Wallace. (An interesting aside – CBC commissioned that song from Gordon for our 1867 centennial!)
More discussion and reviews of this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13584765-northwest-passage

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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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