April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Newbery Winner Jean Craighead George Dies at 92

Newbery-winning author and naturalist Jean Craighead George, who inspired many children to pursue careers in the natural sciences, died May 15 at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY from complications related to a stroke. She was 92.

jeancraigheadgeorge(Original Import)George wrote more than 100 books for young adults, including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves (Harper, 1972). Since writing her first book, Vulpes, the Red Fox (Dutton) in 1949, which she co-wrote with then-husband John L. George, she strived to bring a love of nature to her readers.

George went on to connect kids with wildlife in her Newbery Honor book, My Side of the Mountain (Dutton, 1959), which tells a story of a 12-year-old boy named Sam Gribley who runs away from his cramped New York City apartment to find his grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains. There he befriends a peregrine falcon and a weasel.

“I believe it will be read year after year, linking together many generations in a chain of well-remembered joy and refreshment,” wrote Ruth Hill Viguers in her review the book for The Horn Book. To this day, visitors stop at the Cannon Free Library in Delhi, NY, where Gribley befriends a librarian, to ask questions about the book. My Side of the Mountain was placed on the Hans Christian Andersen Award 1959 honors list.

Like Maurice Sendak, George worked with Ursula Nordstrom, a legendary publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. It was Nordstrom who gave George the green light to write Julie of the Wolves after the author saw an Eskimo girl during a visit to Barrow, AK, and came up with the idea of a girl who communicated with wolves.

Catherine Balkin, who worked at HarperCollins Children’s Books for nearly 14 years setting up author appearances in schools and libraries, remembers George as “pleasant, easy going and extremely funny.”

When Balkin asked George if she had any dietary restrictions, her reply was, “I’ll eat anything on the menu, including moose, caribou, elk, seal meat, or whale blubber.”

Jane Friedman, the CEO and founder of Open Road Media, and former CEO of HarperCollins, says George was a very strong, outspoken, and opinionated writer “in the best sense of all of those words.”

“She knew her own mind and was the best thing you could say about anyone—she was her own woman.”

Wendell Minor, an illustrator and longtime collaborator with George, says her death is “like losing my mother. It leaves a tremendous hole in my life, but we gave it our best.” The two met on Earth Day in 1990 and closely collaborated, traveling to Alaska, the Florida Everglades, and Yellowstone National Park to research their books.

“She was a pioneer in children’s nature writing and brought it to a high standard,” adds Minor. “She wanted to get everything right and could withstand the scrutiny of the scientific community.”

An SLJ review of their collaboration on The Buffalo Are Back (Dutton, 2010) describes it as “eloquent and affecting.” “The writing transports readers onto the plains and into the past, making the devastation sobering and real,” the review reads. Their last book together, The Eagles Are Back (Dial), is due for release in March 2013.

George was born on July 2, 1919 into a family of naturalists. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, she became one of the first women journalists to join the White House Press Corps.

She married George in 1944 and became a professor’s wife, a mother, and a magazine writer. George and her husband wrote some of her early books together, and they divorced in 1963.

In 1991, George became the first winner of the Knickerbocker Award for juvenile literature, given by the school library media section of the New York Library Association for the “consistent superior quality” of her literary works.

Although highly praised, Julie of the Wolves was often challenged in schools because it included a martial rape scene. The book ranked 32 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999 and 91 on the 2000-2009 list.

SLJ visited George in her longtime Chappaqua, NY, home in 2009 to conduct a 90th birthday interview. When asked about her legacy, George said, “Remember me as somebody who talked about nature, who awakened them to a new world, and helped them restore it.”

She is survived by three children, her daughter, Carolyn Laura (Twig), and two sons, John Craighead and Thomas Luke, and six grandchildren.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.