Kah-Lan takes place on the BC coast, which I have made my home; Karen Autio also has a picture book coming out entitled Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2016), which is set in a valley of the Okanagan-Similkameen, where I was born and raised. Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon will tell the history of the area through fictional means and again, beautiful illustrations, this time by Loraine Kemp. Given her choice of subject matter, and the promise of Kah-Lan, Autio is definitely an author I intend to follow.
Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter
Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan has recently been short-listed for the Green Earth Book Award, which seems completely appropriate, given the verisimilitude of Autio’s depiction of the interaction between the young seal pup, Kah-Lan, and his natural environment.
I think what drew me first to Kah-Lan, though, was Sheena Lott’s peaceful watercolour on the cover. Also, I love sea otters. And the BC coast. I was truly delighted when the content of the book lived up to the expectations aroused by the delightful cover. Kah-Lan opens with a lively description of two sea otter pups in a kelp forest, weaving and leaping through the kelp, nipping each other in play. The fluid motion of sea otters is captured perfectly; Kah-Lan and Yamka are real sea otters, with just enough anthropomorphism to satisfy young human readers. When his mother calls him to safety, Kah-Lan is “tired of obeying … he figures he has plenty of time to escape” (11), but then he watches as an orca stuns then consumes an Elder from his raft. The world of Autio’s fictional sea otter contains real-life dangers.
The sea otter pups must balance their play with a necessary obedience to the parental members of the raft and the constant need to feed. Ostensibly just searching for food (as any teen would rationalize disobedience), Kah-Lan gets caught in a riptide and pulled far from his familiar hunting grounds. Once he discovers a greater abundance of food in this new location, he still has to find a way to return to his raft, a daunting challenge given the currents and dangers of the tumultuous waters off the BC coast. Presenting Kah-Lan’s choices as consistent with his sea-otter nature, Autio is able to create a narrative that is exciting, and an animal character that nonetheless replicates human children’s need for both belonging and individuation.