Jean Craighead George, author of ‘My Side of the Mountain’ and ‘Julie of the Wolves,’ dies at 92
By Emily Langer,
Jean Craighead George, a children’s author widely regarded as one of the premier American nature writers for young readers, died May 15 at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 92.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son Luke George.
A Washington native, Ms. George had lived for the past five decades in a cedar-shingle house in the woods of Chappaqua, N.Y. She often credited her frequent childhood expeditions along the Potomac River with inspiring her lifelong love of the wild.
Her novels and picture books — more than 100 — have sold millions of copies. “Julie of the Wolves,” a novel about a 13-year-old Eskimo runaway who is welcomed by a wolf pack in the Alaskan tundra, received the 1973 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
Like many of Ms. George’s books, “Julie of the Wolves” possesses all the ruggedness of “The Call of the Wild” and other turn-of-the-century works by Jack London. But Ms. George began writing just as the construction of highways and suburbs began to transform American life and childhood in the 1950s.
Ms. George rose to national prominence in 1959 with the publication of “My Side of the Mountain,” a novel that chronicles the experience of young Sam Gribley as he runs away from his New York City apartment for a life of self-reliance in the Catskills. Mary Harris Russell, an expert in children’s literature, once described the volume as “part ‘Walden,’ part ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ ”
Many reviewers commended Ms. George for the scientific expertise that suffuses nearly all her writings, including “My Side of the Mountain.” She shrugged off the praise.
“It took me only two weeks to write,” she once said of the book in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “It was basically about my own life.”
In the wild, Sam’s closest companion is a falcon. Ms. George’s twin brothers, who grew up to become leading American scholars of grizzly bears, were falconers as teenagers. And like the Craighead children, Sam learns to builds lean-tos, forage in the woods and whittle fish hooks from twigs.
Ms. George described the boy’s exploits so convincingly that an executive at the E.P. Dutton publishing company initially rejected her manuscript on the grounds that it would encourage would-
be runaways. (The publisher changed his mind, The Washington Post reported, when he reflected on his own affection for the Adirondack Mountains.)
Ms. George wrote “Julie of the Wolves” after traveling to Alaska as a reporter with Reader’s Digest in the 1970s. The magazine had sent her to Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, to write about research on wolves taking place at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. Ms. George created the character of Julie after becoming fascinated by an Eskimo girl she had seen alone on the tundra.
With help from the laboratory’s scientists, Ms. George learned to communicate with the wolves. “Oh, those golden-yellow eyes of the wolf!” she once told the Monitor. “You can feel yourself being pulled in. I knew I had been accepted — and that I had spoken to another species.”
The novel was “packed with expert wolf lore, its narrative beautifully conveying the sweeping vastness of tundra as well as many other aspects of the Arctic, ancient and modern, animal and human,” author James Houston wrote in the New York Times in 1973. “It is refreshing to see the Arctic well portrayed through a woman’s eyes.”
Years later, Ms. George returned to the character of Julie for two sequels, including “Julie’s Wolf Pack” (1997), written from the lupine perspective. “My Side of the Mountain” also had sequels and was made into a 1969 film starring Ted Eccles as Sam and Theodore Bikel as the wanderer Bando.
Ms. George’s later books included “Tree Castle Island” (2002), a survival story about a 14-year-old boy who builds his own canoe to roam the Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida-Georgia border, a region Ms. George, too, had explored. Her book “Fire Storm” (2003) was inspired by a relative’s experience being surrounded by wildfire in Idaho.
Ms. George kept more than 170 pets over the years, including owls, mink, sea gulls and tarantulas. “Although always free to go,” reads the biography on her Web site, “they would stay with the family until the sun changed their behavior and they migrated or went off to seek partners of their own kind.”
Her autobiography, “Journey Inward,” was published in 1982. Another memoir for children, “The Tarantula in My Purse,” followed in 1996.
Jean Carolyn Craighead was born July 2, 1919, in the District. Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service as an entomologist. Her first pet was a turkey vulture.
After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School, she received a bachelor’s degree in science and English in 1941 from Pennsylvania State University.
Ms. George initially pursued a career in journalism and worked briefly at The Post as a society reporter and picture editor.
In 1944, she married John L. George, an ornithologist. Before divorcing in 1963, they wrote and illustrated several children’s books about animals, beginning with “Vulpes, the Red Fox” (1949). Ms. George had kept a pet fox as a child and became acquainted with its tricks.
Her three children became naturalists.
Survivors include two sons, Luke George of Fort Collins, Colo., and John C. “Craig” George of Barrow, Alaska; a daughter, Twig George of Cockeysville, Md.; a brother; and six grandchildren.
Ms. George regularly received fan mail from her young readers.
“A lot of them write to tell me they want to run away like Sam did,” she told a Post reporter, referring to the hero of “My Side of the Mountain.” “I tell them to run away in a book. It’s easier, and warmer.”