by Judy Molland
Getting children out into nature has become an overriding passion for many of us in these days of rising childhood obesity rates and the increasing reliance of young people on their electronic devices.
For Jean Craighead George, who died last week at age 92 and was a leading writer of novels about nature for young readers, that passion arose long before modern conditions prompted it. Working from a deep impulse that it was important for children to find themselves in the natural world, and to know how to survive, she grounded her fiction in her own wilderness adventures.
Importantly, not only are her young protagonists at one with nature, but George also tells thrilling stories and fills them with meticulous details drawn from her intimate knowledge of nature. As The St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers puts it well, George is at her best “putting adolescents in nature where they rely on their own ingenuity and learn to listen to and respect nature in order to survive.”
My students understood that. When I was teaching in Brooklyn, New York, several years ago, one of my fifth-grade book groups read Julie of the Wolves, George’s Newbery Award–winning novel. They fell in love with Julie, or Miyax as she was called in her native tongue. For their book report they acted out a scene where the 13-year-old runaway tries to make friends with a pack of Arctic wolves. The other students in the class were entranced, and the memory of the students’ performance still brings tears to my eyes over 15 years later.
That’s because George wrote what she knew, having taken a trip to Alaska to study wolves at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. She was thrilled when a scientist there taught her how to “talk” to a wolf in its own language, and she became captivated by the sight of a young Eskimo girl standing alone on the tundra: these were the very real beginnings of Julie of the Wolves.
Some other activities to explore with this novel:
- make a mural depicting Julie’s travels across the Arctic tundra
- learn about the Arctic animals (wolves, lemmings, grizzly bears, caribou, seals, wolverines, terns, buntings), and have students present their findings on a PowerPoint
- continue the story to find out what happens after Julie returns to her father at the end of the book
Jean Craighead George died of congestive heart failure May 15 at a hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. Born July 2, 1919, in Washington, D.C., she grew up having outdoor adventures with her entomologist father and twin brothers, who were teenage falconers. (Frank and John Craighead later conducted a lengthy survey of grizzly bears that is credited with helping save the species from extinction in the lower 48 states.) After earning bachelor’s degrees in science and English, Jean Craighead returned to D.C., where she worked briefly as a newspaper reporter.
In 1944, she married ornithologist John L. George four months after meeting him, and the couple authored a series of animal biographies by the end of the decade. They divorced in 1963. By this time, Ms. George was living in a home in the woods in Chappaqua, New York, where she was to spend the rest of her life. There she raised three children and encouraged them to bring home “wild birds and beasts to have and to contemplate,” as she wrote in her 1997 book The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets. Since her three children have all embraced nature, I think she succeeded: her daughter Twig writes books about nature for children; one son, Craig, studies whales; and the other, Luke, is an ornithologist.
Altogether, George wrote more than 100 fiction and nonfiction titles, which have collectively sold millions of copies. Her two best-known are Julie of the Wolves and the earlier My Side of the Mountain, which tells the story of a boy who runs away from New York to live in the Catskill Mountains. Here’s how the novel opens: “I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave on the tree that I now call home.” How wonderfully George uses her own deep empathy with nature to pull us into Sam Gribley’s world!
Although George is no longer with us, her books will stay hauntingly alive, permeated by her wise and visionary spirit.
What a gift she has left us, and sharing this gift with your children is a perfect way to encourage them to get out into nature. If it’s a cold day, or raining, or you just don’t feel like stepping out, stay home and savor George’s books at home. On a fine day, grab a copy of My Side of the Mountain and read outside. Reconnecting our children with nature has never been more important than it is today, and Jean Craighead George provides a magical way to do that.
Do you have experience sharing George’s books with children? Please share your comments below.
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