Adventurer and children’s author Shelley Gill told wild stories to students in the district this week in an effort to promote literacy.
Gill, originally born in Florida, never thought she’d come to Alaska.
“When I was nine years old I read a book about it while I was sitting under a coconut tree eating a dill pickle,” she said. “It changed my life.”
The book talked about dog mushing and she couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to squish dogs — until she read further.
“I wanted to go to Alaska,” Gill said. “I wanted to be a musher in the bush.”
She begged her parents year after year for a dog after that.
“I graduated from high school and you know what they got me? A Volkswagen,” she said. “I drove it to Alaska and the first thing I did — bought a dog.”
In the first two years of living in Alaska she amassed 52 dogs and it wasn’t long before she started racing. Gill raced for 10 years until she had to get a job, so she started writing for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and Alaska Magazine.
“One day, I had an epiphany,” Gill said. “I could go have... adventures and write stories about it and people would pay to read them.”
She started writing children’s books in 1983 — the first one about the Iditarod race. At that time, there was only one other author writing children’s books about Alaska. When she went to publish that first book, she was met with some resistance — why would anyone want to read about a sled dog race?
Gill lived in Alaska for 38 years and has traveled all over the globe, including Antarctica.
One year, her daughter told her she didn’t want any more gifts for her birthday, instead she wanted an adventure. Her daughter wanted to swim next to Earth’s largest creature — the blue whale.
“You ain’t seen nothing ‘til you see a blue whale poop,” she said.
Gill is also a whale detective (for 32 years) and helps do research.
Gill explained how she uses her adventures to find stories to tell. She told them of walking into a warming shack from the Iditarod race and described all the smells that affront the senses. Gill put up a picture of a female racer and said, in writing, they couldn’t just describe her as tired, and asked the students to describe how the woman looked.
“Use examples to show story, you’ve got to show your story,” she said. “You’ve got to squish it through your teeth like Jello pudding. Use those descriptions in your stories and you put your reader right on the Iditarod rail.”
Gill also told the students about nature — how Alaska has three kinds of bears and the tests on bears on Admiralty Island have polar bear DNA; or the carnivorous bunny at 8,000 feet on Denali; or how when the glacier winds hit that mountain birds fall frozen out of the sky.
Gill also focuses on the environment, and asked students if we should be cutting down 1,000-year-old trees to make things to throw away, or if we should be drilling for oil when there isn’t hope of cleaning up a spill and other resource scenarios.
“I write about the environment, but I also write about the culture and the history,” she said. “I think the nature here is fascinating.”
Gill said out of her presentations, she wants students to be inspired.
“I want them to think about nature and the future,” she said. “I want them to be better writers. I want them to be able to express themselves in this world. Citizenship requires being able to discern between the truth and lies and being a critical thinker.
I want them to be able to form an opinion and a position and express it in a higher manner than we’re seeing right now in American society. I am over the rudeness.”
She said getting students to become critical thinkers is necessary to have scientists, mathematicians and literacy.
Paige Merriam, librarian at Gastineau Elementary, said she was able to get Gill to the schools to promote literacy.
“We get visiting authors, real life examples of people who are literate, readers, critical thinkers,” she said. “It’s really inspirational.”
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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