When Newbery Medalist Jean Craighead George, author of more than 100 children’s books, died in 2012 at the age of 92, she was in the process of writing Ice Whale, a sprawling novel about a bowhead whale’s 200-year bond with an Eskimo clan in northern Alaska. After their mother’s death, Craig George and Twig George teamed up with Lucia Monfried, the novelist’s longtime editor, to complete the middle-grade novel, which Dial Books for Young Readers will publish in April.
Monfried, now senior editor at Dial, first met Jean in 1988, when she edited On the Far Side of the Mountain, the sequel to Newbery Honor book My Side of the Mountain, published by Dutton in 1959. “Christopher Franceschelli, who was then publisher of Dutton, had convinced Jean to write the sequel,” Monfried recalled. “I was young and scared at the time, and I wondered, ‘How do you work with a legend?’ But Jean was welcoming and wonderful, and so hardworking. She was always happy to get suggestions and eager to improve a manuscript.”
After Jean died quite suddenly, Monfried knew that Ice Whale needed to be completed. “Our company would never have allowed this book not to be published,” she said. “Jean and I had worked together on two drafts, and she had consulted with Craig, who’s a biologist specializing in whales, on the scientific facts. He was already involved, so I knew I could loop him in. And Twig is a published writer who is familiar with publishing procedures and editing, so she brought a lot to the project. I didn’t need to convince them – I knew they would want to do this for their mother.” (A third sibling, Luke, was not involved in the project.)
All in the Family
In one sense, Ice Whale had been a George family project from the start. Craig lives in Barrow, Ala., the northernmost town in the U.S, which is also and the setting for this novel, as well as of Jean’s Newbery-winning Julie of the Wolves and of Water Sky. During the winter of 2008, he spent several weeks with Jean at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., while he finished up his PhD dissertation. Not surprisingly, his naturalist mother was fascinated when he told her that his research had revealed that bowhead whales can live up to 200 years. “That’s all Mom needed to hear for her to spin a story around it,” he said. “She had the idea of following a bowhead through seven or eight generations of a family.” Craig provided the bibliography for his mother’s research for the novel.
After Jean’s death, Craig stepped in to do what Monfried called “scientific clean-up” and to fine-tune the factual information. “I was sort of Mom’s technical advisor on bowheads, so I’d been involved earlier,” he recalled. “It was tough, since she had come up with this amazing story, and I didn’t want to mess with her storyline and the cultural aspects of the novel. I tried to polish it up, but not interfere with her writing, and that’s a delicate balance.”
Twig, who has written several children’s books of her own, including A Dolphin Named Bob and Swimming with Sharks, found collaborating with her brother very rewarding. “I loved working with Craig on this,” she said. “He has so much knowledge about the Arctic and about bowheads. We tried to keep Mom’s words whenever possible – her descriptions are so beautiful. She was amazing, and working on her book was like being with her again.”
Monfried also emphasized that Ice Whale is very much a Jean Craighead George book. “Craig, Twig, and I seamed together the plot and smoothed the timeline, but the voice that comes through is totally and unmistakably Jean’s,” she said. “The fact that other loving hands were involved does not change that.”
In their acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Craig and Twig thank their mother “for leaving us with this ‘homework assignment,’ which pulled us together after she died.” What would have been Jean’s reaction to the completed assignment, we asked? “I think she would have been really touched that we were able to understand what she wanted to do in the novel, and that we worked together to honor her voice as well as used our skills to make this the best book we could,” Twig said. “Someday it will sink in what an extraordinary opportunity it was for us to finish this novel.”
Ice Whale by Jean Craighead George. Dial, $17.99 April ISBN 978-0-8037-3745-7