The reindeer was plastic, “made in China, of course,” Per Breiehagen recalled with a slightly pained grin. He’d gotten it for their family Christmas card, posing daughter Anja dressed as a Norwegian elf and offering an apple to the antlered fake.
Printed, signed and mailed, the seasonal task was done. Or so he thought.
Recipients cooed and gushed over the image, so much so that the gears in Breiehagen’s brain began to creak. The photographer and his wife, stylist Lori Evert, always returned to his native Norway twice a year. He had connections: a friend who herds reindeer, a neighbor with a picturesquely stocky fjord horse.
This could happen.
The Minneapolis couple began creating a Christmas story about a little girl who wants to become one of Santa’s elves. She skis through a snow-decked landscape, guided by friendly animals. No more Chinese knockoffs, though. In this book, the polar bear sheltering the sleeping Anja between his massive paws would be real.
Cue the magic.
Breiehagen, an award-winning outdoors and location photographer, has a penchant for wintry subjects, so he’d documented polar bears and taken photos of frozen landscapes throughout Norway, Canada and Antarctica. Yet the key was Lake Harriet, where his wife and daughter posed in the middle of the frozen expanse, as if sleeping.
From the magic of the photo studio emerged a charmingly breathtaking image of a little beauty and a beast.
The final result is “The Christmas Wish” (Random House, $17.99), a book that’s been on the New York Times’ list of bestselling children’s book several weeks.
Its tagline message: Be brave. Be kind. Believe.
More books on the way
At the Bookcase in Wayzata, the trio recently autographed books for a line of customers. Anja, now 9, looks older — she was 4½ years old when the book was made — yet she still wears the same red plaid dress.
It’s a traditional stakk, Breiehagen said. “Both of my grandmothers wore that exact same dress every day,” he said. “They may have had two,” he added, although doubtfully, given that theirs were frugal lives in the small village of Ål. That Anja still wears her stakk speaks to its clever design, with gussets that enable the dress to grow with her.
Still, the decorative hem that grazed the snow in the book now hits her at mid-calf, so a new one is on order, because new books are in the pipeline. Turns out that Anja, even more than what peeks from beneath her costume, has legs.
A book about a springtime adventure will come out next year, as well as another Christmas book in 2015. Neither Evert nor Breiehagen can say when Anja’s story will end, only that it always will be told with impressive, even obsessive, attention to authenticity.
Using real animals in the photos was essential, Breiehagen said, even though reindeer “are one of the most skittish animals in the world.” A friend’s semi-tame herd proved the solution.
Reindeer hides also provided Anja’s Sami shoes that curl at the toe, the better to remain in ski bindings that also are authentic: Breiehagen ordered custom-made cross-country skis based on an 1840 telemark model. (Norse purists will be delighted to see that Anja skis with only one pole, also traditional.)
Anja, for her part, embraced her elfin persona. She dragged a small pine tree around for an hour as her dad sought the right shot. She stared at her ski pole with a curious expression that imagined the guiding cardinal that would, in the book, appear perched there.
At home, she’s an avid reader and writer. A pink pup tent in her bedroom houses a table and 1940s-era typewriter. “I like to make little newspapers,” she said, inspired by Kit, the American Girl doll who wants to be a reporter.
What has she learned from the book experience? “I’ve gotten to meet so many animals,” she said, adding that a two-month-old reindeer was named after her. She sighed. “It was adorable.”
“The Christmas Wish” also is a hit in Norway, where it’s published as “Juledrommen,” “although Norwegians think it’s more important that the book is a success here,” Breiehagen said with a wry smile.
He added that he and his wife were careful to make Anja’s journey, while an adventure, not a frightening experience.
“There’s too much of that in the world as it is now,” he said. “Even growing up, my first lullaby was a song about a boy and his goat, and halfway through, the goat is eaten by a bear. That’s just the way it is in Norway.”