Tongass coming-of-age story wins prestigious award for eco-lit

A book called "Whispering Alaska" next to a bear
“I’ve always wanted a gold sticker on my book. And now I have one,” said Brendan Jones. (KCAW photo)

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 the Green Earth Book Award in a virtual ceremony on Dec. 7 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 — it was suggested to him by an editor at Random House.

But 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.”

Jones says the work didn’t go easily at first.

“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.’”

Jones says 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.,” he says. “So when their mother dies, they have very different ways of dealing with her death.”

Jones says thatWhispering 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. 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.

Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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