I’m a bit late for the early launch of Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink at the Vancouver Aquarium (22 September 2020), but in time for you all to buy copies for Christmas for the young ecologically minded readers in your lives. Inside Vancouver also recommends it as representative of Vancouver and [my hopeful interpretation] our environmentally sensitive ethos. Why, you might ask? What makes this book special amongst all the animal stories out there? The answer is partially given in my review of Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter when it came out in 2015. Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink contains the same level of interest and delight, with an added message of concern for our environment.
Kah-Lan is growing up. He longs “to leave the raft of female sea otters and pups … to explore the coastal waters. But not alone” (1). He remembers the dangers away from the raft, but his yearning is stronger than his fear.
The oldest male in the raft, Kah-Lan is unsuccessful at convincing other males to go with him, and so he does set out, alone, to find a raft of males to join. The descriptions of the sea otter pups frolicking in the currents, the power of the ocean waves that toss them, the octopus shooting its “cloud of black ink” at them create a feeling of other-worldliness tempered by the simple, accessible language. There is security in these descriptions, and familiarity. When Kah-Lan strikes out on his own, though, readers feel his wariness, a maturity learned from his antics with Yamka in his first book. Rejected by the male raft he approaches, Kah-Lan sets out to find other male youth, hoping to establish a new raft for mutual protection. More than a shortage of food and deadly orcas, Kah-Lan is now aware of another potential threat, one he does not fully understand: “Those strange furless ones that walk on their hind legs” (7-8).
Throughout his journey, the descriptions of what he sees and thinks are presented in words that reduce our complex world to a fictional sea otter’s comprehension: sea trees and sea forests; “strands of fish-web”; the furless Elders and furless pups; the “big shiny creatures that pass by the raft” (19); and of course the “stink-ink,” with its “smell from the shiny creature but worse” (23). Autio creates and effective and interesting balance between Kah-Lan’s understanding and diction and what is really happening as the “furless Elders”—in fact marine rescue workers—perform actions readers will recognize but he does not. The marine rescuers’ words are presented in italics, allowing a cognitive switch between Kah-Lan’s perspective and the reader’s world. We can feel Kah-Lan’s trepidation, the fear and curiosity combined, as he is taken to be healed from his encounter with the “stink-ink.” Again, as in the first Kah-Lan book, the real dangers of life in the wild, and the hazards—both natural and of human creation—are not glossed over. Danger and death are a part of a sea otter’s life. This knowledge is reinforced in Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink, and this time, the danger comes not from orcas but from a very real environmental threat. It is never to early to teach our children the dangers humans present to the ocean and all its inhabitants. It’s a damaged world we older generations have passed on to our children; the least we can do is help them understand the need to do better than we did. I would love to see Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink not only on the shelves in elementary school libraries, but taught as part of the curriculum.
[Okay. That’s really not a comment I often make, and—interestingly—the book I most recently felt this strongly about was (wait for it) Karen Autio’s Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon, for a completely different reason. I stand by my recommendation in both cases.]
Perhaps the message has been getting through. Last week (8 December 2020), Amy Attas published an article in West Coast Traveller about the return of the sea otter to Haida Gwaii after 150 years. Let’s all keep at it, and maybe our oceans can be successfully restored.