The Shaman’s Apprentice, by Zacharias Kunuk,  illustrated by Megan Kyak-Monteith


The Shaman’s Apprentice, by Zacharias Kunuk,  illustrated by Megan Kyak-Monteith. Inhabit Media, 2020. 9781772272680

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3.5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Picture book

What did you like about the book?  In this book set in Nunavut, a girl and her grandmother are preparing for an upcoming ceremony when a messenger arrives with the news that a man in a nearby camp is very ill. The shaman and her apprentice depart at once, and find the patient close to death. To save him, they must enter the dangerous spirit world, leaving their bodies behind. Kannaaluk, the One Below, appears and reveals the cause of the man’s sickness: he has selfishly held back a delectable polar bear tongue after a hunt instead of sharing it with his friends. The man confesses and recovers, and the shaman leaves her apprentice with the question, “What did you learn?” Kyak-Monteith is described as an oil painter and the illustrations glow softly with the rich colors of this medium. They are subtle, sophisticated, and mysterious. Each 2 page-spread features gold text on a black background facing a somber, earth-toned (for interiors) or blindingly bright (for the outdoor scenes) image. I loved how each picture showed incredible and minute details about Inuk life: the bones that make up the frame of the qarmaq (house), the tattoos on the women’s faces, and even the minute hairs on the shaman’s pot. Back matter includes a glossary along with pronunciations of the Inuktitut words and some biographical information on Kunuk and Kyak-Monteith, including their tribal affiliations.

Anything you didn’t like about it? I found the story a bit difficult to follow; apparently it was inspired by a short film directed by Kunuk.  For example, the qullig (pot) falls off the qamutiik (sled) enroute, but then mysteriously reappears when the apprentice looks for it. And then the shaman bathes the patient’s face in urine; for both, why? Kunuk does not tell us if this a folktale or a story from his imagination; if it is a traditional tale, that information along with where and when the tale was collected should be supplied. I’m pretty sure it is set in the past as I learned from further research that the Inuk tradition of facial tattoos for women is no longer practiced. Again, I think for the book to be appreciated, readers should be aware that this is not how the Inuk live today. A map would also have been helpful.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Libraries looking for more authentic voices in their picture book collections may find this book of interest. Readers with some knowledge of Inuk culture and traditions or art lovers will find it especially compelling. 

Who should buy this book? Elementary or public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: August 4, 2021

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