The Adventures of a South Pole Pig:
A Novel of Snow and Courage
Chris Kurtz, author
Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illustrator
HMH Books for Young Readers
This book came out on my birthday this year (January 8) along with titles such as Hokey Pokey, Navigating Early, and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brockett. Despite the "potential Newbery buzz" for books like Hokey Pokey and Navigating Early (both were on the early "to read" list at Heavy Medal, for instance), my favorite of this group is The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage.
So, why do I like this little chapter book so much? A longheld love affair with Charlotte's Web making me predisposed to like any pig chapter book? A general fondness for talking animal stories? A son who loves all things "pig"? Those are all reasons that helped me pick up this title off the "new" shelf at the library earlier this year. But those are not the reasons that make me like this book better than others I've read this year.
The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage is well written. Pure and simple. Characterization is top notch. We first meet Flora as a piglet who dreams of life beyond the pigpen, befriending the barnyard cat (Luna) in hopes of finding out "stuff." One day: escape! And Flora meets Oscar, a lead sled dog. Henceforward, after being returned to the pigpen, Flora dreams not just of exploration but of joining the sled dog team. After all, she has courage, pluck, strength, a stout heart. What more could you ask for in a sled dog team member?
One day, Flora is taken, along with Oscar and a number of other dogs, on board a ship bound for an Antarctic expedition. The reader will pick up on clues that go over Flora's head: her destiny is clearly for the crew's plates. She and her newest cat friend, Sophia, team up in the ship's hold to conquer the myriad rats, and Flora works hard to build up her strength in preparation for her anticipated sled dog/pig role.
Catastrophe strikes the ship, Flora's stout heart and strong legs help save the day, and she becomes essential to the team's survival. Flora forms an unlikely team with old Oscar, prickly Sophia, and the boy Aleric to help save the day in a heartwarming ending that is not at all saccharine.
The best chapter books for the third-fifth grade crowd feature great friendships, often between unlikely characters. You will find that in spades in this delightful book. Flora seeks adventure and finds it beyond her wildest dreams. Her courage is tremendous. Sophia's begrudging acceptance of the role of team player is well done. The scary and tense situations are just the right level for the target age group. As bizarre as the plot line is, it somehow works: we're rooting for a pig and a cat in the Antarctic and we know they will make it.
This book works on so many levels: plot, characterization, "issues" (survival, friendship, teamwork, etc.), setting (from the farm to the boat to the Antarctic). Illustrations are quirky and effective. But it also works on a sentence level: the text is excellent. A well constructed text can be read aloud easily and to great effect; Kurtz gives us that here. In fact, while this book will delight strong third and fourth grade readers (and younger), I think it's real gift will be as a read aloud so that a group can cheer on Flora together. She would like that; she's a friendly type and a real team player.
Recommended as a read aloud to first grade and up; independent read as third-fifth grade.
Book from my local library; cover image from HMH Books.