The Christmas Wish

A Minnesota couple’s mission to embrace winter has led to a bestselling book series, a global movement – and a happy, well-adjusted teen in South Minneapolis. 

The trio is traveling across the Twin Cities this holiday season to promote the new addition to their series – book No. 6, The Polar Bear Wish, published by Random House and touted as “dreamlike” by Publishers Weekly.

The husband, Per Breiehagen, again took the book’s pictures. The wife, Lori Evert, as always, wrote its text. And their daughter, Anja, returned as the protagonist, posing in all the pictures and adding input at every step of the creative process. As they spread a little Christmas magic at book signings, they’re conveying a message they consider more urgent than ever: put the phone down, bundle up and go outside!

The books burst with a spirit of adventure, showcasing stunning winter landscapes and an intrepid protagonist, the rosy-cheeked Anja, who treks through the snow in traditional Norwegian garb and enjoys close encounters with artic animals.

The book project seems to be the inevitable byproduct of Lori and Per’s marriage – the perfect intersection of her Minnesota upbringing and his Norwegian roots. And their free-spirited, fresh-aired parenting philosophy made it all possible – an approach that has embraced the rich educational opportunities available outside the classroom, from trips to Minnehaha Creek to their Norwegian cabin to the countless lessons folded into the publishing process. Sometimes that has meant taking Anja out of school for extended travel, a privilege the 14-year-old has always met with great earnestness and dutiful catch-up work.   

It’s been a dream come true for all three.

It all started when Anja was 3 and her parents dressed her in a traditional Norwegian dress that had been in Per’s family for generations, reindeer shoes from the Sami people of Northern Norway and a handmade red wool elf hat. Per photographed the decked-out toddler with a reindeer, an image that turned into the family’s first Christmas card.

The response from family and friends blew them away, emboldening the husband-wife pair to continue down that creative path. They ordered a pair of vintage skis and set out to create a series of pictures of Anja in the wilderness interacting with real reindeer, snowmen and Santa Claus.

It marked new ground for Per, an award-winning freelance photographer who had collaborated with National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine and accompanied Will Steger on his legendary polar explorations. This was a personal project that tapped into his long-groomed talent and his new mindset as a dad.

He created some images through extensive Photoshop editing to show Anja riding on a polar bear and flying with Santa.

Other pictures remained in original form, shot in Norway, Minnesota and Michigan.

Meanwhile, Lori relied on her complementary background working as a prop, set and wardrobe stylist, arranging intricate details at every turn.  

The pictures were picked up by Per’s photo agency, Getty Images, and within a year, they appeared in editorial and advertising campaigns across the globe. In 2012, AT&T commissioned Per to create a holiday campaign based on the images.

To Lori, seeing her daughter transform into an arctic elf called to mind one recurring thought: She should be in a children’s book.

So Lori channeled her journalism degree from the University of Minnesota – the program that first introduced her to Per, a classmate – and set to writing a narrative that would connect all the pictures.

“Long, long ago, in a place so far north that the mothers never pack away the wool hats or mittens, lived a sweet little girl named Anja, whose greatest dream was to become one of Santa’s elves,” she wrote.

The journalism training proved helpful, as did the newest title on Lori’s resume: Mom.

“I don’t think I could’ve written a children’s book without having a child,” she said.

Indeed, parenthood breathed life into the project for both Per and Lori, whose spirited, snow-loving 3-year-old paved their way. It came from a genuine place – not a social-media influencer forcing an agenda on a begrudging young child but a pair of devoted parents embarking on a family project in the purest, most creative sense.     

Random House published the book, The Christmas Wish, in 2013.

It became a New York Times bestseller. It was followed by The Reindeer Wish (2015), The Tiny Wish (2015), The Brave Little Puppy (2016), The Puppy’s Wish (2017) and The Polar Bear Wish (2018).

All the books contain Minnesota images and influences, especially the latest release, which was photographed in part at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, Minn., and features a stunning ice castle constructed two winters ago by local sculptor Jennifer Shea Hedberg on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.

Anja recently came up with a concept for the next book in the series, which the family will submit as a formal proposal.

She’s been recognized around the Twin Cities, but the teen who regularly autographs books with her face on the covers handles the attention with grace. And she shines the brightest when meeting her youngest readers, many of whom are overcome by shyness.

“She’s very humble, and we’re very lucky,” Lori said. “We wouldn’t have kept doing it if it would’ve seemed to have a negative impact on her. She’s still a goofy, normal 14-year-old.”

She’s also a well-rounded teen who plays soccer and sings in a 5-person band, 612live, that won the teen talent competition at the state fair.

For Lori and Per, raising a teen has challenged the nature-loving parents to establish a delicate balance – one that doesn’t eschew technology but keeps it in its proper place. Anja has her own iPhone to communicate with bandmates and teammates, but she honors her parents’ rules: no phones at the dinner table, no phone after 8 p.m., no phone in the bedroom and no Snapchat.

“Per and I try not to look at our phones all the time because how fair is that?” Lori said. “We look at her as one of the citizens in the household, and we should have the same rules to some extent.”

They encourage other parents to establish tech boundaries that work for them – and to bond through family projects, whether or not they lead to a New York Times bestseller.  

For instance, they cited a local family whose teen builds bikes and invents other creations. The whole clan goes off to the junkyard to lend a hand.

“If anyone in the family has a passion, have the whole family help them,” Per said. “Make it a fun project. It doesn’t have to be marketable.”

“And if your children have entrepreneurial ideas, you can only try,” Lori said. “If you believe it in and work hard, something could happen. It brings families together to have constructive projects and goals to work towards.”

“We have found that childhood disappears too quickly,” Per said. “Take more pictures. Be creative with them. Now it’s easy to make your own picture books with all these apps and websites. You could create family projects to send to relatives. Or just for fun! As a memory, it’s invaluable.” 

Check out this event page to meet Lori, Per and Anja at an upcoming book signing. 

 Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children (and fourth on the way!) in Inver Grove Heights. Write her at [email protected].