Ice Whale (Penguin, 2014), Jean Craighead George’s posthumous middle grade work, may have begun with the author and her love of the natural world, but it ended as a true collaborative effort between her surviving children, Twig and Craig. After the award-winning author passed away in 2012, leaving Ice Whale unfinished, Twig and Craig stepped in to complete the work, a middle grade novel set in Barrow, Alaska, about a long-living bowhead whale whose life is intertwined with several generations of two families.
Though the genesis of the novel started with Jean, even before her children were asked to help finish it, Craig had planted the seed for the book. Being a scientist who studies whales, Craig had spent some time working on his PhD at his mother’s house in Chappaqua, New York. Craig discovered that bowhead whales can live up to 200 years, and as she helped her son with his writing, Jean—in turn—became fascinated with the concept of a whale living that long and so was inspired to write Ice Whale. Two or three years into the project, Jean died. Her longtime editor at Penguin, Lucia Monfried, contacted Craig and Twig, who is a teacher and had previously penned her own books including Pocket Guide to the Outdoors (Penguin, 2009) with her mother.
The project posed several unique challenges and rewards. Geography was one obstacle. Twig lives in Baltimore (MD) and Craig in Barrow (AK).
Monfried said, “Technology helped. We worked from [scanned documents] with each other’s comments and suggestions and notes, and we all had the same goal in mind—doing it for Jean.”
Craig also spent a week working with Twig in Baltimore, where she would tweak the storyline and plot, and he would focus on getting the scientific aspects right.
Twig described the process as gratifying: “We would be reading [the manuscript] and working on it, and we’d come to… some of the science, and Craig would say that something wasn’t quite right.”
Even if Craig didn’t know something, he’d know the right person to contact to verify a fact. Keeping dates and names of characters straight was a problem they encountered as well. For their mother, these details were intuitive, but Craig and Twig found themselves overwhelmed, so they created a whole chart of the different generations of characters.
Another challenge that the two faced was staying true to their mother’s voice. Incorporating science writing—which can be dry—into fiction can be difficult, said Craig. According to Twig, her mother would write out a story and then go back and rewrite to add the poetry or the stylistic details that made a book her own.
“It was her book,” said Twig, “so we really had to keep her voice, and we tried as much as possible to keep as much of her [in it].”
Their childhood experiences may have made channeling her voice a little easier. The two describe memories of waking up to the sound of their mother typing at 5 a.m. and a house full of raccoons, owls, and crows. So much of the family has a connection to nature or writing—from Jean to Jean’s two brothers (famous biologists who studied grizzly bears) to Twig, Craig, and their sibling, Luke, an ornithologist (a zoologist who studies birds).
“I think we all fell into it in different ways,” said Craig. “I think I went the furthest away but nonetheless stuck with the ‘[family] business.’”
For Twig and Craig, revisiting the world of Barrow (AK) was a welcome return. Jean’s Newbery award–winning novel Julie of the Wolves (Harper, 1972), the story of a young girl who eventually lives among and gains acceptance from a wolf pack, was also set in Barrow, where Jean spent time in the 1970s.
“It was her love of Barrow and [its] people that drove part of this book,” said Twig. “This is how Mom gives back. She writes books.”
The experience of finally seeing Ice Whale finally come to fruition was gratifying for all.
Monfried said, “I think it is a beautiful book. It was a huge amount of work, but it was something I wanted to do for Jean—because of who she was, [and] her place in the pantheon of American writers for children.”
Ice Whale is available April 3.