Book review: 'Once Upon Alaska, A Kids Photo Book'

“That’s not a sea lion, Mom, because it doesn’t have ears.”


Indeed my 5-year-old son was mostly correct. And he was a quick study, because only a few pages prior in the new book by photographer Mark Kelley and author Nick Jans titled “Once Upon Alaska, A Kids Photo Book” the big two-page sweeping photo had shown a cluster of sea lions. They were packed upon a familiar buoy haulout in Stephens Passage, backdropped by the Mendenhall Glacier. One unlucky member of the group wasn’t going to find room.

“They’re not being very nice,” my son had said. “They should share.”

Again, he was correct.

Nestled on the couch, wedged between my son and 2-year-old daughter, I continued reading. The two had quickly fallen silent as soon as I opened the book — a sure sign the full color, glossy images and colorful text had captured their minute attention spans.

Back on the sea lion page, we launched into a full discussion of the difference between these slinky creatures and their look-alike counterparts, the seals. Elias went wide-eyed with understanding as I explained the difference. Marin, the youngest, wondered where the walrus were.

“They must be farther north,” I said.

And so we turned the page and I began to read.

“A little snooze upon the water ...”

With the silence broken and curiosity piqued, I was interrupted again.

“What’s that?” she quickly said.

“... just the way an otter oughter.”

“That’s a sea otter,” I said.

Elias chimed in, “you mean an otter can’t eat Harry Potter?”

Giggles rolled off the couch as I turned another page and began to read.

“We don’t mind a bed of ice, but a comfy mattress might be nice.”

Two harbor seals — a mother and her pup — lounged on a frigid-looking ice berg somewhere near a tidewater glacier.

Elias knew his mammal this time; Marin, meanwhile, still wondered where the walrus were.

And so the pages flipped on, from the bright cyan of a calving glacier (which Elias thought looked more like an avalanche) to the charcoal eyes of a lounging bear, each page captivated the young onlookers and the rhymes cultivated chuckles from all.

“Two dozen salmon hit the spot, I’ll eat another ... burp ... maybe not.”

The photo spreads flipped from land to sea, from sky to alpine in pleasant predictability. And the clever word play continued on as a perfect compliment to each subject.

Then came the mountain goats — the nanny and her kid — and Marin wondered where the “Daddy goat” was. We all decided he must be up a mountain elsewhere.

But the most excitement came from the page featuring a cow moose peering from behind a spruce tree.

“Big but gentle, strong but shy,” the page read, “I’ll wait right here till you pass by.”

Alaskana was represented well in the 25 images. For longtime residents, some of the images are well known, like the one of Kelley’s son, Owen, holding a large king salmon with two hands in the light of a sunset. Or that of an orca cutting through the calm ocean.

My only criticism comes at the end, where I discovered two full pages of details about each of the images. And at that point I wished I'd known about them sooner.

But the kids didn’t seem to mind.

For these two well-known Alaskans, Kelley and Jans, this first-ever kids book from the pair is a certain success.

The book, available in hardback, was published by Kelley and designed by Heidi Reifenstein, who grew up in Juneau and currently lives in Anchorage. Copies are available for $14.95 by calling Kelley or going on the website at Additional copies are also available for preorder through Hearthside Books on their website at In-store copies will be available next week.

Both Kelley and Jans will be participating in a First Friday event at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center on Friday, April 4. Then, on Saturday, April 5 the pair will be signing copies from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hearthside’s Nugget Mall location.

• Contact Abby Lowell at or at 523-2271.


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