Perhaps more than most books for children, Cindy Lou Aillaud’s Recess at 20 Below has its feet firmly planted in the real world. The reason for that, of course, is that it’s illustrated with the author’s own photographs of children at the school in Delta Junction, Alaska, where Aillaud teaches physical education. And it’s probably for that reason too that the book makes the most of what some might consider an unlikely subject—the way kids cope with sub-zero temperatures in the far north.
Through a combination of first-person narrative—presumably spoken by one of the schoolchildren—and engaging images, Aillaud walks her readers (5 to 10 years old) through a typical winter’s school-day recess in Alaska. First there’s the laborious process of dressing to go out: pulling on snow pants, parkas, boots, hats, and gloves. Then there’s the cumbersomeness of all that gear. Once everyone’s outside, though, the fun begins—sledding, soccer, building snow forts, and the usual playground activities of swinging, seesawing, and sliding. Recess over, everyone clumps back inside and sheds their winter gear.
Throughout, Aillaud strives to distinguish life in such an extremity of cold from what most readers may be used to. She mentions, for example, the danger of touching one’s tongue to cold metal—”It will stick!”—the difficulty of snowball fighting in conditions that turn snow to powder, the way frost rimes on your eyelashes and hair when you breathe hard during play.
For readers who have experienced winter, say in the lower 48, the world Aillaud depicts will be at once different—and not so different. A winter that lasts from September to April, with temperatures remaining at 20 below or colder for weeks on end might be beyond the experience of most American children. But a three-month’s winter with below-freezing temperatures—much more widely familiar—would require similar preparations for keeping warm, whether for recess or after-school play. And in that respect, the subtext of Recess at 20 Below is that, as far away as we might live from one another, we’re not so different from each other after all.