Soonchild by Russell Hoban

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Ill. by Alexis Deacon. Walker, 2012. ISBN 978 1 4063 2991 9.
(Ages: 10+) Warmly recommended. Mythology. With the Soonchild remaining in his wife's belly, Sixteen-Face John is astounded when the child tells him that she cannot hear the World Songs, songs she needs to hear before she can come out of the womb. Sixteen-Face John is distraught and so goes on a journey to find them.
His journey takes him to other times, through shape shifts and several layers of death, talking to animals, singing songs and finally going into the Black where he and the raven must go back thousands of years to find the World Songs, including his own Death Song. Once the songs are found, the man, now called No-Face John returns to his wife and in kissing her transfers the songs to their daughter and she can be born.
Beautifully told, the story fills the reader with the cold of the North, as Sixteen-Face John uses his sled and huskies for much of his quest, but must also go into the spirit world to talk to his great grandmother, avoid the wolves which carry with them all the things he has neglected to do, and finally befriend the raven.
The sense of place is overwhelming. Both the words and illustrations bring the cold, the sense of the North with its biting winds, into the imagination of the reader, allowing them to view No-Face John's quest with admiration at his courage and tenacity. Readers will gasp with delight at the images of the animals he meets along the way, cower with fear as the man is surrounded by wolves and feel despair as he and the raven descend into the Black. Added to all of this is the background of the people who live in the Hudson Bay area, their lives and stories bound up with their environment and now entwined with modern life, presented to us through John's indolent life, neglecting his elders, drinking coke and becoming fat, wary of his responsibilities as a sharman. The beautiful hardcover edition, with a wrap around dust cover portraying a polar bear, is a pleasure to hold and will entice younger readers to look inside.
Fran Knight