Hill, Kirkpatrick 1938-
Hill, Kirkpatrick 1938-
Born April 30, 1938; daughter of William Clifton Hill (a mining engineer) and Isabel Stirling Matson (an office worker); married (divorced); children: Matt, Shannon, Kirk, Crystal, Mike, Sean. Education: Attended University of Alaska; Syracuse University, B.S., 1969. Politics: "Liberal." Hobbies and other interests: Music, art, history, cooking, books, animals, film.
Home and office—Box 84435, Fairbanks, AK 99708. E-mail—[email protected]
Author and educator. Elementary school teacher in Alaska, 1971-2001.
Blue Ribbon Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1991; Chicago Center for Children's Books Top Ten Books of the Year designation, and Children's Book Award Master List citations in Rhode Island, Alaska, and Kansas, 1993, all for Toughboy and Sister; Berlin Senate Commissioner for Foreigners' Affairs Award, 1997, for Winter Camp; Smithsonian magazine Notable Books for Children designation, and Once upon a World Book Award, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Museum of Tolerance, both 2001, both for The Year of Miss Agnes; Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award finalist, 2002; Jefferson Cup Title Worthy of Special Note designation, Virginia Library Association, 2003, for Minuk; nominations for Young Hoosier Award, William Allen White Children's Book Award, Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Book Award, Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, Norma Klein Award, and Nebraska Golden Sower Award.
Toughboy and Sister, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 1990.
Winter Camp, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 1993.
The Year of Miss Agnes, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 2000.
Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway, illustrated by Patrick Faricy, Pleasant Company (Middleton, WI), 2002.
Dancing at the Odinochka, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 2005.
Do Not Pass Go, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 2007.
Hill's books have been translated into German, Danish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Braille.
An elementary teacher who worked in Alaska for over three decades, Kirkpatrick Hill is best known for writing novels that introduce younger readers to life in the Alaskan wilderness areas known as the "bush." In the middle-grade novels Toughboy and Sister, The Winter Camp, and The Year of Miss Agnes, as well as in the young-adult novels Dancing at the Odinochka and Do Not Pass Go, Hill "lets the audience live inside her story, and in fortifying her characters she fortifies readers too," according to Elizabeth Devereaux in the New York Times Book Review. Hill's novels are told entirely from a young protagonist's point of view, allowing readers to identify with the fear, grief, and resolve that her teen and preteen characters experience while surviving the harsh conditions of the Arctic region. "If good children's books got the attention they deserve, Kirkpatrick Hill would be a name known to everyone," Devereaux concluded.
Born in 1938, Hill spent her first years in a mining camp outside Fairbanks, Alaska. "We moved into Fairbanks so I could go to school," she once related to SATA. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the University of Alaska, but left when she got married. Even with one, then two, then three children at home, Hill found the time to return to school to complete her studies, and she received her bachelor's degree from Syracuse University in 1969. Three more children followed, after Hill began a teaching career that took her back to the Alaskan bush.
Hill began writing during a year off from teaching, while she remained at home with her youngest child. "I decided [then] that it was the right time to write," she later recalled. "I was going to write the Great Alaskan Novel. There are Alaskan novels, of course, but most are romantic clichés, full of absurd situations which could never happen in Alaska. Jack London's stories of Alaska and the Yukon Territory are incredibly popular all over the world. But Jack was only here a year. He got some things right, but he got a whole lot wrong. For the next five months I wrote the Great Alaskan Novel. It was pretty terrible. So I thought I'd try a book for kids."
"Like all teachers, I read out loud every day," Hill told SATA. "When I read books about Alaska, my students and I would groan and roll our eyes when we came upon some bogus Alaskan myth. You know—bears that can be tamed by kindness; that water thrown in the air freezes solid before it reaches the ground; that a good lead dog will find the nearest state trooper when you're in trouble. So I decided I'd write a book for my Yukon River kids that was absolutely real. I was so determined that it be real that all the characters were real people and every situation had actually happened. This obsession with authenticity has become so ingrained, such a part of every book, that I worry that I have no imagination. Someday I'm going to try to write a book in which nothing is real, just to see if I can do it!"
Hill connected with an editor, Nachama Loechelle, who, the author recalled, "pointed out things in the book that would be obscure to a non-Alaskan kid, words we use differently, perhaps, or objects they'd never seen, like a fish-wheel or a kicker. But she let me leave in all the Yukon-ese, all the down-river speech patterns. That was very important to me because the speech has to be right if the book's going to be an authentic picture of our life."
With Loechelle's help, Toughboy and Sister was published in 1990. The book tells the story of two Athabascan Indian children who are forced to survive on their own after their mother dies during childbirth and their father—an alcoholic who cannot get over the loss of his wife—meets his death in a boating accident at a fishing camp on the Yukon River. Eleven-year-old John and his sister, nine-year-old Annie Laurie, find themselves abandoned in this remote area and forced to rely on their wits to survive. Calling Toughboy and Sister a "strong, satisfying short novel accessible to very young readers," Betty Levin added in the New York Times Book Review that "Hill has achieved a sense of a world that spans two cultures and a feeling for two children whose clear and convincing voices speak to us across the divide."
As she later told SATA, Hill was especially pleased that the publisher "didn't shy away from the grim aspects of Toughboy and Sister. There are a lot of bad things that happen to the children in this book and they didn't ask me to water it down. Life in Alaskan villages is decidedly rough. We have the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States, the highest accident rate, and the highest infant mortality rate. You probably wouldn't believe some of the things our kids go through on a day-to-day basis. I want to write about those things honestly."
Toughboy and Sister return in Hill's second novel, Winter Camp. By now the siblings have found a new home with their neighbor, an elderly Alaskan woman named Natasha, who brings the children with her to her winter trapping camp during the month of October. Falls through the ice, attacks by moose, and the endless search for enough firewood to keep the trappers warm punctuate an experience during which Sister learns to abhor the cruelty of animal trapping. Praising Winter Camp, a Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Hill's "portrayal of these competent, courageous children battling the intense cold is compelling."
In The Year of Miss Agnes Hill transports readers to the 1940s and introduces ten-year-old Frederika. Fred's feelings about schoolwork change drastically after a new teacher named Miss Agnes comes to the small, one-room schoolhouse in Frederika's remote Abathascan village. While many teachers have come and gone—some lasting only a few weeks—Miss Agnes is here to stay, and inspires Fred and her friends with her creativity and excitement over learning. Told in what Horn Book reviewer Roger Sutton described as Fredrerika's "distinct and definite voice," Hill captivates her readers with "the anecdotes about Miss Agnes's masterful teaching methods," creating a novel Sutton dubbed "always true and involving." In Booklist Gillian Engberg praised The Year of Miss Agnes as "an uplifting portrait of a dedicated teacher."
Do Not Pass Go, Deet is a middle grader whose world comes crashing down when his stepfather, Charley, is arrested and sent to jail for possessing drugs. In addition to causing him to reevaluate his feelings toward Charley, Deet's reaction to having a parent in prison—including his self-absorbed worries about what his friends at school will think about him—gradually gives way to the realization that many of his assumptions about people are worth reexamining. In Publishers Weekly a critic praised Do Not Pass Go as a "quiet, insightful" novel featuring a "sensitive, courageous protagonist who is smart enough and open-minded enough to look past people's mistakes." In Booklist, Todd Morning was also enthusiastic, writing that "Hill is a master of the telling detail" and dubbing Do Not Pass Go "compelling."
Set in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Dancing at the Odinochka follows a girl's coming of age as she grows up in the isolation of a Russian Alaskan trading post. Erinia Pavaloff lives on a cultural divide; her father is half Russian and half Tlingit while her mother is Athabascan, and her parents' trading post is located on the physical border between these same two worlds. A local murder threatens to inflame local cultural differences, and when the region is annexed to the United States, Erinia and her neighbors must learn to adapt to a third culture and become American Alaskans. Noting that Hill devotes much of the novel to bringing to life the small details about living in this northern region, Engberg concluded of Dancing at the Odinochka that "the central focus is on the family's closeness and the facts of survival" in a culture rarely captured in children's books. In School Library Journal, Denise Moore praised the novel, writing that "believable characters and good descriptions of the area allow readers to become a part of this time in history," and a Kirkus Reviews critic cited Hill for her "admirable research and attention to historical detail."
Turning again to history, Hill presents a contribution to Pleasant Company's popular "Girls of Many Lands" series in Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway. Featuring illustrations by Patrick Faricy, the middle-grade novel finds twelve-year-old Minuk watching as her family's Eskimo traditions give way to Western ways after Christian missionaries arrive in their Yup'ik village. The year is 1892, and Minuk is both intrigued and saddened as her language, lifestyle, and spiritual traditions confront those of America. Calling Minuk a "provocative book [that] will prompt thought and reflection" on the part of younger readers, Sue Sherif added in School Library Journal that Hill's short novel presents "a remarkably honest picture of [Eskimo] life … that pulls no punches" and is expanded in the book's well-researched afterword. "Minuk's story, and the skillful, involving manner in which it is told, should knock the socks off habitual readers of series historical fiction," concluded Martha V. Parravano in her Horn Book review of the novel.
As Hill told SATA, she "grew up in Alaska listening to the stories of the ‘old timers’—the miners who had come north for gold, the women who came with them, and the old Indians who watched them come. I wish I'd had sense enough to write them down, but I didn't and of course I've forgotten half of them. On the Yukon River where I spent half my life the first Russians came in 1845 so there were old Athabascan people who remembered what their parents had to say about that first contact. My stepfather's mother told me about her mother, who remembered the first white men she'd ever seen. Since then I've always been interested in acculturation: the things that happen when one culture meets another.
"I didn't start writing until I was forty, so now I'm an old-timer myself. Old people live with a constant sense of impending loss. The old days, they old ways are melting away from all of us. We all think of the old days as better, more innocent. (In spite of the fact that people were dying of tuberculosis like flies, and if you had an accident out in the village you were pretty much a goner, but still.…) I wanted to capture life in the villages the way it was when I was a kid. Nothing makes me happier than when someone my age or older reads a book of mine and says, ‘Yes, that's the way it was.’ My first books were about those early days in Alaska and they're like scrapbooks or patchwork quits of memories: people I've known and the things that happened to them. A collage of old memories, old friends, old students, old places, old times. The way it used to be.
"I have six grandchildren in the Fairbanks area, so much of my time is spent with them. My house is always full of kids, toys, dogs, and cats. And in between I try to find a few hours to write. My youngest daughter and I spend as much of the summers as possible in our big cabin near the Yukon village of Ruby.
"I love getting letters from kids. I wish now I'd written to some of the writers I loved so much when I was a kid. But it never occurred to me that they were real people!"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of The Year of Miss Agnes, p. 438; October 1, 2002, Kathleen Odean, review of Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway, p. 326; August, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of Dancing at the Odinochka, p. 2028; December 15, 2006, Todd Morning, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 41.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1993, review of Winter Camp, p. 85; November, 2000, review of The Year of Miss Agnes, p. 105; September, 2005, Hope Morrison, review of Dancing at the Odinochka, p. 18; February, 2007, Deborah Stevenson, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 241.
Horn Book, November, 2000, Roger Sutton, The Year of Miss Agnes, p. 755; February, 2003, Martha V. Parravano, review of Minuk, p. 73.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1993, review of Winter Camp, p. 1461; June 15, 2005, review of Dancing at the Odinochka, p. 683; December 1, 2006, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 1221.
Kliatt, July, 2005, Claire Rosser, review of Dancing at the Odinochka, p. 11.
New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1991, Betty Levin, review of Toughboy and Sister, p. 19; March 13, 1994, review of Winter Camp, p. 20; January 21, 2001, Elizabeth Devereaux, review of The Year of Miss Agnes, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, review of Minuk, p. 69; August, 2005, Denise Moore, review of Dancing at the Odinochka, p. 128; January 15, 2007, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 52.
School Library Journal, September, 2000, Kit Vaughn, review of The Year of Miss Agnes, p. 199; October, 2002, Sue Sherif, review of Minuk, p. 164; March, 2007, Kristin Anderson, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 210.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1993, review of Winter Camp, p. 292; February, 2003, review of Minuk, p. 476; October, 2005, review of Dancing at the Odinochkha, p. 18; April, 2007, Kevin Beach, review of Do Not Pass Go, p. 48.