When book covers are produced, designers often leave a little open space, a spot where a sticker signifying a literary honor can be neatly placed.
The cover for Alaska author Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson’s debut novel, “Eagle Drums,” will be quite crowded in 2024.
An author and illustrator from Anaktuvuk Pass, Hopson recently earned both a Newbery Honor and an American Indian Youth Literature Award-Middle School Book Honor for her debut.
“Eagle Drums” is a young-adult novel that examines the traditional Messenger Feast with an injection of mythological themes.
“I had the smallest of hopes that ‘Eagle Drums’ would win an award,” Hopson said in an email. “A very quiet hope that I did not share with anyone, even my closest friends and family and colleagues. ... But seeing those stickers now on the cover gives me hope for future Indigenous writers. Gives me hope that there might be many more Iñupiaq writers in the future. And that is exciting stuff.”
A hero’s journey and a coming-of-age story at its core, “Eagle Drums” follows an Iñupiaq boy who is kidnapped by deities, Golden Eagles. In captivity, he learns about song, dance, making drums, holding feasts — “and the purpose of it all,” Hopson said in a phone interview. There is also “a little bit of a twist at the end of the story, and a little bit of mystery,” she added.
The book is based on oral Iñupiaq myth filled with fantastic creatures and adventures that used to be passed down from generation to generation to teach young people morals and values, she said. Taking a myth as the core of her book, Hopson then filled the story with modern cultural experiences, events and personalities.
“The myth holds everything up,” she said. “I took that myth, and what I ended up doing was padding the flesh around it. ... It’s filled with as much culture, Iñupiaq culture, as I could fit into the story.”
Iñupiaq values — unity and generosity — are the red thread of “Eagle Drums”: The hero of the book, Piŋa, is taught by his captors the skills and knowledge he needs to bring his people together and teach them to share their bounty.
“In our culture, it’s very important not only to get along, but being able to share and encourage and support each other,” she said.
Hopson was born in Utqiaġvik and raised in Point Hope, absorbing the Iñupiaq culture of the North Slope as a child. After school, she left Alaska to attend California’s Humboldt State University, now known as Cal Poly Humboldt. Missing home and her culture, she came back north in her 20s to teach middle school art in Utqiaġvik.
“It was a part of moving back to Alaska and back to the North Slope — reconnecting with things that I didn’t think were cool when I was young,” she said, “finding out that my culture was pretty cool.”
That’s when she attended her first Kivġiq, or Messenger Feast — a longtime tradition where Iñupiaq tribes gather and trade subsistence harvest and crafts in years of abundance. The festival is now held every other year in Utqiaġvik.
At her first Kivġiq, in a jampacked gym, she remembered people from all over the world — Greenland, Siberia, Canada and Alaska — coming together to dance, reunite with family and celebrate.
“You literally walk in there and you hear laughing, and you hear people talking and screaming in joy, and it’s just so much happiness,” she said. “It’s a big-time ‘wow.’”
While working at the North Slope Borough School District, Hopson learned more about the history of Kivġiq and the efforts to revive the festival. Hopson’s mentor, Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, showed her records from elders who attended the feast years ago and talked about the traditions, dances and myths that went into it. The story behind it, told in just a page and a half, immediately grabbed Hopson’s interest. She wrote it down, and that version — about 50 pages long — was later used in the school curriculum.
About three years ago, Hopson decided to develop the story into a novel for youths. She wrote about 50 pages during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on the isolation of that time.
“I remember talking a lot about community and getting along and taking care of one another,” she said. “It was such a parallel universe.”
The medium — a young adult novel — came naturally to Hopson. When she was a passionate reader in middle school, the only books that captured her were about dragons and faraway worlds. As an adult, she realized it was because she could not connect with characters “unless they were encountering something strange and magical and wonderful.”
Now as a writer, Hopson always keeps her young self in mind, focusing on what she would find cool and interesting as a child and weaving a positive outlook into her stories.
“When people ask me ... how could you tell you’re writing for kids?” she said, “I always tell them, you know, it’s about hope.”
Hopson also hopes her book will inspire a deeper appreciation for Iñupiaq culture.
“I was a kid that grew up not believing that my culture and where I grew up was anything special,” she said. After publishing “Eagle Drums,” Hopson said, she’s hearing “from the kids themselves, seeing themselves in it and being on the side of the main character, and enjoying just the learning about new stuff and a new culture that actually exists.”
Parents, teachers and librarians also praise the book. Some have shared with Hopson that they love being able to give children a novel from northern Alaska. Others say they appreciate having a way to stay in touch with the culture they moved away from.
“People who are disconnected from the community in some way, they love having a way to reconnect with the community,” she said. “I wrote this and published it for children, but I didn’t expect how adults would find it moving and special. To me, that means quite a bit.”
Receiving awards for her novel was also unexpected for Hopson. She found out about the Newbery Honor the day before the announcement was made a few weeks ago and was shocked to get the call.
“I asked them to please repeat themselves. It took me a minute to understand what was happening,” she said. “All I could say was, ‘Wow,’ for a good three or four hours.”
She woke up early the next morning to watch the announcement. Even though the feeling of surprise had dissolved, Hopson said “to hear them say my name with a graphic of my book cover splashed across the computer screen, and a crowd cheering in the background, is an emotional and valuable and surreal moment for me.”
Established in 1922, the Newbery Medal is a longstanding and distinguished prize in children’s literature. The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, cites other leading contenders for the medal as Newbery Honor Books — a distinction now bestowed on “Eagle Drums.”
Hopson said earning an American Indian Youth Literature Award book honor evokes different feelings.
“Winning the AIYLA Honor feels like a community win, a win that is a product of our Indigenous communities’ efforts and passion,” she said.
Even though “Eagle Drums” was published less than six months ago, Hopson has started a number of new projects. She is illustrating a book by friend and author Debby Edwardson and her husband, George Edwardson. She said she’s also doing some writing for a company that’s creating a “console game that centers Arctic peoples and cultures.”
Hopson hopes her experience as a writer will inspire and help other Indigenous people overcome the fear of entering the world of publishing. Writing, she said, can be a step on a journey to heal the generational trauma of Indigenous people punished for speaking their language. It can be a way to invest in spiritual and mental health.
“I would like this to encourage Indigenous people to write, especially for children,” she said. “Writing is incredibly healing.”