|Debby Dahl Edwardson's latest young adult novel is a Junior Literary Guild selection|
Thirty-five years ago, when I first came to Alaska, I fancied myself a poet. I was also dabbling with short stories and thinking--although daunted by the thought--of novels.
I was living in an old log cabin outside Fairbanks on the corner of Goldstream and Nugget Creek, without electricity, plumbing, running water—or money. There were no roads leading into that little cabin but in the summer you could pick a gallon of blueberries on the trail in and in the winter it was a great run to town, along the flank of Murphy Dome, with the northern lights dancing and the train whistle wailing. I ran dogs in those days and had an old Smith Corona. I would sit there, by kerosene light, pecking away at poems and stories and dropped these into the mail, one by one, like dead mice, and waited for their return with the inevitable rejection slips. I took a course in journalism from Chuck Keim at UAF, thinking to make a living of it—which I later did—and when I sold my first freelance story, covering the Alaskan visit of Gary Snyder, I was elated. Such were the early years of my apprenticeship as a writer.
Today I have three books out and I live in Barrow, a place even more remote than my little Fairbanks cabin. But today I have a laptop, a website, a blog and I can lie in bed and talk to the world. The world has changed.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Alaskan books are still largely on the fringes of the publishing world—voices in the wilderness, as it were, speaking of experiences as remote as the moon to mainstream readers. So I am incredibly proud to be celebrating the release of my new book, My Name is Not Easy, at the start of our first ever Alaska Book Week.
I am likely preaching to the choir here, but I want to tell you why I think Alaska Book Week is important.
In October of 2009, I was honored when my first novel, Blessing’s Bead, was featured on the cover of Booklist with the headline: “Spotlight on First Novels.” All month long the Booklist icon on Facebook was the cover of Blessing’s Bead. Heady stuff for a first time novelist. I didn’t even mind too much that the Booklist online site suggested that people who liked Julie of the Wolves would like Blessing’s Bead—it’s hardly an insult to be compared to a writer like Jean Craighead George, whose work has earned several Newberrys, one of the top awards in the field of children’s literature. Besides, Jean’s son, Craig, lives in Barrow and she was kind enough to write a blurb for the book.
I was less elated by the Goodreads reviewer who suggested that if readers were into ‘Inuits and whatnot” they might like my book.
I’m Alaskan, which by definition means that I resist boxes. Alaska and its literature are too big to be boxed into the (in my case) things-inuit box. Our books, written from the heart of the Great Land, are about the human experience—nothing more and nothing less. Sing it out, I say, in every forum you can find--and Alaska Book Week is a great new forum.
As an Alaskan children’s writer—another box—there is something else to consider. In my day job, I am a school board member and in 2009 I wrote an essay, published in the Horn Book, which combined the concerns I have as an Alaskan writer with those I face as school board member. The essay was entitled “Reading Under the Midnight Sun” and it chronicled my journey as a parent, seeking reading material that would engage my own children and speak to their unique experience as biracial children, living in Bush Alaska. I voiced the strong belief that in order to engage young people, books must offer both mirrors of recognition and windows illuminating new worlds. I mentioned the low reading scores we see in rural Alaska and suggested that the antidote to this might be more books relevant to the experience of these readers—and, by extension, more books relevant to the lives of other under represented minorities.
In running successfully for re-election to the school board this month, I reiterated my belief that culture is not at the fringes of education, it is core to it: everywhere in the world where we see really successful educational systems, we see systems that grow from and live within the cultures of the communities they serve. In terms of children’s books, this means that Alaskan kids need our books. In global terms it means that all kids, in this increasingly multicultural world of ours, need them, as well. Our Alaskan books represent an important piece of the puzzle which, taken as a whole, chronicle what it means to be human.
Ditto for adult books. Think about it.
Debby Dahl Edwardson, along with several other Alaskan writers, including Alaska 49 founder Deb Vanesse will be making a presentation at the Alaska Association of School Boards Annual Conference November
2 in Anchorage entitled: “Alaskan Books for Alaskan Kids: how to boost interest in reading in your schools.”