The Making of Toughboy and Sister

In my classroom we often read books about Alaska, but we used to groan when the author introduced something really bogus, something that just couldn’t have happened. These books weren’t written by Alaskans we were sure, and relied more on imagination than actualities. So I decided I’d write a book for my Athabascan kids, something real about their lives. I loved Boxcar Children when I was a kid, so that was my kick-off. I wanted to write a book about kids managing on their own. And because I was so obsessed with the idea of writing something absolutely real and authentic, I used real people in my book, and real circumstances.

I was a bit worried that the real people I’d “borrowed” would not be best pleased, but as it turned out no one ever recognized themselves, and I think I know why. I guess the truth is that everyone sees himself or herself in a certain way, and the people who know them each have their own image of that person, and so what I was writing was my concept of this person, and not necessarily anyone else’s.

I had to put alcohol in the story because it was certainly a part of the real life I wanted to portray. And it was something I knew about from a kid’s point of view. My father was an alcoholic who died in very similar circumstances when I was eleven, like Toughboy.

Things were changing so fast the year I sat down to write Toughboy, I think I was already in my Grandma Moses mind set. I wanted to preserve the past, so our village kids could remember the way it used to be. I set the book in the early 70s because that was pretty much the end of the “old days.” After that we got phones in our village, and television, and things changed drastically. (I remember how excited the kids were to see on television animals they’d just read about and seen in books..the giraffe!) Now that things have changed even more and then more again, I am more driven to keep the past a little alive. My new book about the old mining days is my latest attempt.

The fish camps were part of nearly everyone’s life in the summer, and wonderful places they were in the old days. You’ll notice in the book that the kids don’t wear life jackets. In those days no one did. An empty gas can was supposed to be your best bet if you went in the river.

And in those days the radio was vastly important, the only daily link with the outside world, which is why Toughboy and Sister were so devastated when the batteries died.

The funeral scene was played out over and over in our village. A wonderful custom– a warm one.

  1. #1 by Joel on October 24, 2012 - 9:08 pm

    Thank you for your book. I live in “Suburban” Alaska and my 4th grade son is a reluctant reader but very bright. Tough Boy and Sister has captured his interest in the “Real” Alaska of the past and he is reading more and more. I’ve had to tell him to turn off the light and stop reading late in the night! THANKS SO MUCH!

  2. #2 by Kirkpatrick Hill on October 25, 2012 - 7:12 am

    Please have him e-mail me when he finishes..nothing makes me feel so good as having a ten year old interested in the old days!

  3. #3 by Joel on October 25, 2012 - 10:39 pm

    We will do that!

  4. #4 by sandy on February 22, 2014 - 10:54 pm

    I read your book. I am from Michigan and took a teaching job in Barrow for 4 year old preschool. I am taking a class online about Alaska NativeHistory/Children’s literature. This book was amazing, and in my mind I could picture everything; it was described so well. Thank you.

  5. #5 by April jarrett on April 9, 2016 - 8:30 pm

    I have loved your book ever since I was a child. I am now 32 and I recently repurchased Toughboy and Sister. It’s at the top of my favorite books list still to this day.

    • #6 by Kirkpatrick Hill on April 10, 2016 - 11:20 am

      Oh April, to think of my first readers being 32!!! The boy who was my model for Toughboy was a student and he’s now in his late 50s and hasn’t changed a bit, really. It was wonderful of you to write…now that I know what getting a letter from a reader feels like, I wish I’d thought about writing to my favourite authors when I was a kid..but I don’t think it ever entered my mind that they were real people! You didn’t tell me where you are..

  6. #7 by April Jarrett on April 10, 2016 - 3:06 pm

    I live in South Carolina. I’m not sure if I got the book when I lived in Wyoming or if I got it here in South Carolina but I just love it still to this day. I read Toughboy and Sister to my 5 & 6 year old daughters last week. My 6 year old loved it!

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