One Summer Up North – Book Review

One Summer Up North

Written & illustrated by John Owens | University of Minnesota Press

Release Date: September 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5179-0950-5

Age Range: 3 and up

Hardcover: 32 pages, 16 color plates

Size: 12” x 9”

A wordless picture-book journey through the Boundary Waters, canoeing and camping with a family as they encounter the northwoods wilderness in all its spectacular beauty

More About The Book:

It’s a place of wordless wonder: the wilderness of the Boundary Waters on the Minnesota–Canada border. Travel its vast distances, canoe its streams and glacial lakes, take shelter from the rain under a rocky outcropping (or in your tent), and camp in its vaulting forests as stars embroider the darkening sky. Is this your first visit? Or is it already your favorite destination?

A family’s journey unfolds, picture by picture, marking the changing light as the day passes, the stillness before the gathering storm, and the shining waters everywhere, rushing here, quietly pooling there, beckoning us ever onward into nature’s infinite wildness one summer up north.

About The Author/Illustrator:

John Owens is a freelance illustrator who teaches at the University of Minnesota. This book, his first, was inspired by his travels north to paddle, portage, and camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

My Thoughts, Praise, And Critique:

The wordless format
The power of wordless picture books is often underestimated. They are universal – there is no language barrier, so anyone can experience the joy of a book through this wordless format. These books, driven solely by the illustrations, allow readers to delve into the deeper meaning of story. They empower one to make connections and decide which visual elements are important to them, therefore driving the story.

Image Copyright 2020 John Owens, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

John Owens employs the wordless format successfully and effectively. The story features a family on a canoe adventure. However, the environment also becomes a vital character. The reader is an observer within the environment which allows for greater exploration of the illustrations. The sights, sounds, and atmosphere of the outdoors become a personal journey that differs for every individual. When immersing one’s self in the illustrations, someone might focus on the landscape, or possibly the wildlife, or maybe simply the water itself. There is something for everyone because each reader becomes an active participant, choosing the story they wish to follow.

The color palette and composition
The limited and appealing palette used in the artwork is applied strategically within the effective compositions to guide the eye and extend the reading enjoyment.

Image Copyright 2020 John Owens, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Subtle hues add to the serenity of the scenes, evoking a peaceful atmosphere. In contrast, the family and their canoe stand out through a brighter color treatment, in a vibrant, yet non-jarring way. This contrasting use of color puts the reader’s initial focus on the illustrations of the family’s trek. Subsequent reads reveal the flora and fauna of the Boundary Waters, which are less identifiable within the monochromatic areas of the art.

The trim size and orientation
The book utilizes the landscape format which works much more effectively than a portrait orientation would have. As the family travels with their canoe through the Boundary Waters, the reader journeys along and is able to lose themselves in the illustrations. The length of the horizontal layout expands the view and allows readers to tour the scenery as though they were part of the landscapes.

Humanity and nature
The visuals deliver the idea that even though humanity is not part of nature, they are able to coexist harmoniously. While the deliberate color treatments allow the family to stand out, the colors harmonize with the rest of the scene, conveying the message that communing with nature brings with it a responsibility to respect the environment.

Image Copyright 2020 John Owens, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Being an avid kayaker and outdoors person, I must admit that I approached this book with a somewhat critical eye. There is one thing that has always stuck in my mind since the first time my husband, a former canoeing instructor, took me on an extended canoe-camping trip:

“Do not touch the gunwales!”

And John Owens did not disappoint, nowhere in the book did any of the family members touch the gunwales. Not even the young daughter. Well done!

Following the family as they canoed, portaged, camped, encountered wildlife, admired countless stars, and basked in the serenity of nature, hit a chord within me. These are the type of family vacations we enjoy with our girls each summer and John captured the essence of these family trips perfectly. I have not visited the Boundary Waters but this book has cemented this destination as a bucket list item.                                                                    

Note: A gunwale, also referred to as a gunnel, is the top edge of the canoe. New and inexperienced canoers instinctively grab hold of these for support, but this can destabilize the boat and increase the chances of capsizing. Therefore, touching the gunwales is a no-no!

My Recommendation:

One Summer Up North, written and illustrated by John Owens, is a beautifully illustrated wordless picture book that showcases the beauty of nature and clearly conveys the author’s love for the outdoors. The limited palette of the artwork and inventive compositions add to the message that it is possible for man and nature to coexist harmoniously. This book is perfectly suited for not only nature lovers and canoe enthusiasts, but for anyone who loves a truly immersive reading experience. The wordless format draws the reader in, and surprising discoveries on every page will delight kids aged 4 to 99. Even the outdoor novice will be left longing to paddle and enjoy the beauty of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

You can find a teaching guide to accompany this book here:

Note: University of Minnesota Press asked me to review this book. I received an advanced reader galley of the book.