Una Huna? What is This?
Una Huna? What is This?
Ukpik’s ataata and the Captain were catching up on the past winter’s catch and what could be traded for the sealskins and fox furs Ataata had prepared.
“Last summer I saw you eating with these funny-looking wooden things,” Ataata said. “I tried to make some over the winter, but I cannot get big enough pieces of wood to make more. Do you have some to trade?”
“Do you mean forks and knives and spoons?” the Captain asked.
Inuit-owned publishing house Inhabit Media’s picture book Una Huna? What Is This? was written by Juno award winner, Susan Aglukark. The story’s protagonist is a young girl named Ukpik. She lives with her family in an isolated settlement in the North. When a ship visits, the captain trades with Ukpik’s father, and she is excited to learn how to use the knives, forks, and spoons obtained during trading. Ukpik’s initial enthusiasm, however, soon wanes as she begins to wonder if the eating utensils are a harbinger of complete change.
Una Huna? What Is This? has strengths. In a clever design feature, the end papers feature a repeated pattern of knives, forks, and spoons. Many Inuktitut words are included within the main English narrative with the context providing enough information that the presence of these words causes no confusion for an English-only reader. The Inuktitut words add authenticity to the text. A glossary and pronunciation guide are also provided. All of these are good inclusions.
As a view of an early Inuit and Euro-North American contact experience, the book has great potential, but, unfortunately, it fails to deliver. Aglukark’s text and the mixed media illustrations lack the firm editorial hand necessary to transform an interesting story idea into an interesting book. What results is a book in which the characters are flat and lifeless in the illustrations and the writing. This is, perhaps, not surprising seeing as the publisher seems confused as to their product. The publicity material describes Una Huna? What Is This? as being based on “true, pre-contact memories”. The ship’s captain and Ukpik’s father, however, are acquainted. Indeed, the text states that “the Captain had come back for another season of trading.” Ukpik’s father specifically mentions having seen the captain eating with utensils, and it is this experience prior to the book’s setting that precipitates the trade at the centre of the storyline. The book is obviously early contact rather than pre-contact. Either way, the language is grating and out-of-place at times. For instance, one character complains that she does not like the eating utensils and then asks her friends for their opinions with the words, “I don’t like these new things very much. Do you guys?” The authenticity of using Inuktitut words is overpowered by such poor word selections as “you guys”.
Tightening of the written text was necessary and could have been easily and effectively achieved. The italicized words in the following example are all unnecessary: “The huskies started barking in the direction of the water” [italics added]. This is just one of countless instances where the writing is loose and too wordy. Elsewhere, it is vague and imprecise: The father is “quite happy;” Ukpik is “quite excited.” Worse still, the utensils are described as “odd by Ukpik’s estimation.”
The illustration credit is given to two artists. Unfortunately, the illustrations are obviously the work of two people with different artistic styles and, presumably, different visions of the project. The cool blue watercolour skies featuring chalk or white pencil clouds are excellent. So, too, are the depictions of the water and the tundra. In contrast, the human figures lack vibrancy. The backgrounds are beautiful and enticing. The people are limp and lifeless caricatures.
Una Huna? What Is This? is the first of a planned six-part series. It is hoped that the project quickly finds its feet and that the quality improves sharply. This book had the potential to be much better. Unfortunately, it was poorly executed.
Dr. Gregory Bryan, a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba, specialises in literature for children.