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Jean Craighead George: Nature Writer

Jean Craighead George, hiking

Jean Craighead George came easily to her life’s work as a nature writer. Her father was an entomologist (studier of insects), and the rest of her family loved the outdoors as well. Her mother enjoyed storytelling, and, after graduating from college with a degree in science, Jean was eventually able to combine both family talents by writing compelling books about nature for young people. Whether she writes factually of what happens in the animal world or weaves a story about young people who love the outdoors, she always adds a generous amount of woods lore and scientific knowledge to her writing however lyrically it’s presented.

Meet Sam Gribley

Her first major work, My Side of the Mountain, became a classic that is still very much enjoyed by kids and adults who love nature. In this story, young Sam is tired of living in his small, New York City apartment with his many brothers and sisters. He dreams of going back to the land his grandfather abandoned in the Catskill Mountains and living a self-sufficient existence away from the concrete and noise of the city. He has bus fare, a general idea of where to go, and a lot of outdoor knowledge gained by reading books. He also has his parent’s permission—although his father thought he was just kidding around when he gave it. But Sam is entirely serious, very practical and rather lucky. How he survives by learning not only from books but also by observing the natural world and raising a young peregrine falcon to help him makes for an exciting and satisfying story.

In the sequel, On the Far Side of the Mountain, Sam is no longer alone in his wilderness, and things are more complicated.  His sister, Alice, has vanished and a conservation officer has taken his beloved falcon.  While looking for his sister, Sam and his friend Bando uncover a plot against the mountain’s creatures.  Frightful’s Mountain is the last book in the series, and it is told mainly from the falcon’s point of view as she matures just as Sam and Alice have in the previous books.

Join the Wolf Pack

Julie of the WolvesAfter a family visit to Alaska, Jean was inspired to write about the native people and their connection with nature. In her Newbery Medal-winning book Julie of the Wolves, Julie is a thirteen-year-old, native girl fleeing an arranged marriage. Hoping to find her way to her pen pal’s home in the States, she gets lost on the tundra and very nearly dies until she successfully befriends a pack of wolves. By watching their behavior, she figures out how to present herself as a member of their pack—and membership has its privileges for a pack member must be fed and protected. Julie of the Wolves has much in common with My Side of the Mountain. Both are survival stories where nature has a starring role, but, whereas Sam stayed in the wilderness for months by choice, Julie realizes that it is only by the grace of the wolves that she continues to be alive.

In the sequel Julie, she returns to civilization only to find that human interaction is much more complicated than the life she experienced on the tundra—particularly when her father remarries a white woman and her beloved wolves become the prey of men. Jean Craighead George finished the series with Julie’s Wolf Pack.  While spending her later teen years among fellow humans and growing to love a hunter and naturalist, Julie’s story only sometimes intersects with that of the pack that saved her life—and this book is focused on the wolf pack.  When they meet again, it’s under dangerous circumstances, and this time it’s Julie’s turn to save the wolves.

Nature Books for Everyone

How to Talk to Your DogJean has written books for younger audiences as well. Both the Mountain stories and the Julie stories have had aspects taken and retold in the picture books Nutik, the Wolf Pup, Frightful’s Daughter and Frightful’s Daughter Meets Baron Weasel.

Even if readers don’t live in a tree house, they, too, can become a nature observers at home with their own pets. Her non-fiction books, How to Talk to Your Dog and How to Talk to Your Cat, will help readers communicate with their (mostly) domesticated house pets.

When Jean Craighead George first started writing, environmentalism wasn’t a word that was known by many people. Two of her recent books—The Wolves Are Back and The Buffalo Are Back—celebrate what can happen when people start to value the natural world—something that this author’s books surely helped become a reality for generations of young naturalists.

Fast Facts on this Author:

  • Born: July 2, 1919, in Washington, D.C.
  • Parents: Frank Cooper (an entomologist) and Mary Carolyn Craighead
  • Married: John Lothar George, January 28, 1944 (divorced, 1963)
  • Children: Carolyn Laura, John Craighead, Thomas Luke
  • Education: Pennsylvania State University, B.A., 1941; also attended Louisiana State University, 1941-42; and the University of Michigan
  • Other Employment: Writer and journalist. International News Service, Washington, DC, reporter, 1941-43; Washington Post and Times-Herald, Washington, DC, reporter, 1943-46; Pageant, New York, NY, artist, 1946-47; Newspaper Enterprise Association, New York, NY, artist and reporter, 1946-47; teacher in Chappaqua, NY, 1960-68; Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville, NY, staff writer, 1969-74, roving editor, 1974-80.
  • Major Awards: My Side of the Mountain won the Newbery Honor; Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal
  • Other interests: painting, field trips to universities and laboratories of natural science, modern dance, white-water canoeing
  • Current Home: Chappaqua, NY
  • Email: jeangeorge1@verizon.net; jeangeorgemail@aol.com

Information for the article was taken largely from

"Jean Craighead George." 2010. Books & Authors. Gale. Gale Internal User 22 Jun 2011 http://bna.galegroup.com.proxy.crrl.org/bna/start.do?p=BNA&u=gale

This database is available to CRRL card holders at no charge.

For more information online:

BookPage, Deborah Hopkinson, author interview. “A Nature-loving Author Searches for Paradise in a Swamp”

HarperCollins Web site, author interview on her book, Luck.

Jean Craighead George Home Page, http://www.jeancraigheadgeorge.com

New York Public Library Summer Reading Web site, (August 17, 2004), "Transcript of Live Chat with Jean Craighead George”

Wolf Conservation Center, (October 19, 2010), "An Afternoon with Jean Craighead George"