A Sitka-based author has taken a detour into young adult fiction, and the diversion has paid off with a national award.
Brendan Jones will receive/received the “Green Earth Book Award” in a virtual ceremony on December 7th from Delaware. The award has been presented for the last 18 years by the nonprofit Nature Generation, for exceptional work in a genre now called “Eco-Lit,” or literature which explores ecological issues.
Jones’ new novel Whispering Alaska, was published last year by Penguin/Random House. Jones says the story about twin girls who move to an island in Alaska wasn’t his idea; rather, it was suggested to him by an editor at Random House. However, the novel didn’t come together until Jones was living in the Russian Far East on a Fulbright scholarship.
“My agent called up and said, ‘Hey, listen, there’s a great editor out there, Beverly Horowitz,’” said Jones, “‘Would you be interested in writing a story about twins coming from Pennsylvania to Alaska?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know anything about, you know, young adult.’ And, Julian, my agent pointed out, ‘Well, you’re gonna have three of them – and specifically three girls, because you have three girls who are younger now. So I’m sure it’s something you’ve been thinking about. And so maybe you could give it a shot.’ And so I did. I wrote a manuscript and sent it to Beverly, and she said, ‘This is not good. Try again.’ And I did and I sent her one. And she said, ‘This is still not good. Try again. Start over.’ And I went to Siberia, and just had a couple of months on my own right before COVID started in March (2020). And I had some time alone. And I just really dropped into some sort of creative space and sent her one. And she said, ‘We can work with this.’ And that was Whispering Alaska.”
Jones says that although the story coalesced into a novel before COVID, writing during the pandemic informed the plot. In fact, Jones says his publisher believes that this is the first young-adult fiction to explore the impact of the pandemic on youth. In this case, the twin girls at the heart of the story have suffered the death of their mother, an emergency room doctor. And although they’re twins, a rare genetic twist means that they each have a unique experience of grief.
“So they’re grieving their mother’s loss, and they’re mirror twins. It’s this incredible thing where twins are actually mirrors of each other. They’re they have birthmarks on opposite sides, even their hearts are on opposite sides – it’s this crazy phenomena. But it also means that one is right brain and the other is left brain. So they literally mirror each other. And so when their mother dies, they have very different ways of dealing with her death. And both those different ways – one, for lack of a better term is more type A and one’s more type B – are seen through the lens of the Tongass and through this small remote island town, and they react so differently. One is much more biology in the classroom and engaging on that level, and the other just wants to get out into the old growth and experience what’s there.”
Jones says that Whispering Alaska is aimed at readers who are around age 12 and up – which in the publishing industry is known as “middle-grade.” He’s recently returned to Sitka from a trip to Port Alexander, where he taught the book for a week, and he says that it’s been a great way to reach Alaskan kids with a story that’s more relatable than the usual novels like To Kill a Mockingbird. His plan is to take Whispering Alaska into other classrooms in Alaska, and into high school and university courses he’ll instruct in the coming year.
Jones has received high marks for his previous work: His debut novel The Alaskan Laundry won the 2017 Alaskana Prize, and was recognized by Oprah’s Book Club.