• George, Jean Craighead bio

Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies

George, Jean Craighead
July 2, 1919 -


2003 Ludington Award Winner

Ludington Award Citation

"Jean Craighead George." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by HarperCollins.

Newbery Medal winner Jean Craighead George has made nature the center of her fiction and nonfiction work in a career spanning over half a century of writing and including over one hundred books. In her novels, picture books, and books of fact, George has given young readers many fascinating glimpses of nature, earning a reputation as "our premier naturalist novelist," according to New York Times Book Review contributor Beverly Lyon Clark. Writing first with her husband and later alone, she has penned studies of animals, such as Dipper of Copper Creek, as well as adventures of young people learning to survive in wilderness, like My Side of the Mountain and its sequels, and Julie of the Wolves and its sequels. Her books are distinguished by authentic detail and a blend of scientific curiosity, wonder, and concern for the natural environment, all expressed in a manner critics have described as both unsentimental and lyrical. As Karen Nelson Hoyle observed in Dictionary of Literary Biography, George "elevates nature in all its intricacies and makes scientific research concerning ecological systems intriguing and exciting to the young reader."

Born in Washington, D.C., to a family of naturalists, George was bound to develop an early love of nature. Her father was an entomologist, her mother a lover of nature and of storytelling, and her twin brothers were also drawn to the outdoors and contributed articles to major magazines about falconry while still in high school. Her twin brothers were a hard act for George to follow, and growing up she was as at home on the softball field as on a mountain trail. George graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1941, studying science and English. Thereafter she studied art at Louisiana State University and pursued graduate work at the University of Michigan.

George met her future husband, John L. George, during World War II; the couple married four months after their first meeting. Three children were soon born, and after the war John worked on his dissertation on birds and taught at various colleges, including Vassar. George's first six books were written in collaboration with her husband; each book characterizes a different animal. These early books "are best represented," according to Hoyle, by Dipper of Copper Creek, which "interweaves facts about the life cycle of the water ouzel with the tale of prospector Whispering Bill Smith and his grandson Doug's yearning for independence." Winner of the Aurianne Award in 1956, Dipper set the tone for much of George's literary output to follow: informed and sensitive blendings of fact and fiction.

One of her first major solo efforts was My Side of the Mountain, a book that had been growing in her mind for some time. Using the woods lore she learned as a child on camping trips with her father and brothers along the Potomac River, George finally found a character and plot device to present such information. A survival story about a teenage boy who runs away to the woods to live off the land for a year, My Side of the Mountain won a number of awards, including a Newbery Honor, and widespread praise. The first-person account describes thirteen-year-old Sam Gribley's self-sufficient wilderness life in detail, including the hollowed-out tree that becomes his home, his capture and training of the female peregrine falcon he names Frightful, and his various woodland recipes. Equipped with a pen knife, a ball of cord, an ax, and forty dollars, Sam whittles a fish hook out of a green twig, constructs a tent from hemlock boughs, and makes snowshoes from ash saplings and deer hide. George's story of Sam's year in the woods is considered by some critics to be the ultimate survival tale for youngsters. Writing in Horn Book, Karen Jameyson commented on the book's premise: "When Sam explains, in his determined, quietly exuberant way that he has decided to leave his New York City home . . . to go to live on the old Gribley land in the Catskill Mountains, the plan sounds a bit cockamamie. It also sounds mighty appealing." Zena Sutherland of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books called the novel "amazing and unusual," and noted that it was "(a)bsorbing reading."

So appealing was the premise that the novel was adapted for a movie in 1969 and has had two highly popular sequels, On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful's Mountain. In the second book in the series, Sam's peregrine falcon, Frightful, has been seized by a conservation officer as an endangered species, and Sam's sister Alice is missing. Reviewing an audio version of the book, Edith Ching noted in School Library Journal that George's "attention to detail continues to be important" in this novel, and concluded that the book "is a narrative for all ages." With the third volume, Frightful's Mountain, the point of view shifts from humans to wildlife. The book opens with Frightful, Sam's peregrine, held by poachers, and the bird can think of only one thing: returning somehow to Sam. Sam's sister Alice is instrumental in freeing Frightful, but then the falcon must make it on its own back to Sam. "George builds the suspense in a third-person narration that most often takes the falcon's perspective," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. The same reviewer observed that details such as peregrine migratory, mating, and nesting habits "are seamlessly woven into the plot," and felt that "nature lovers will not be disappointed." Booklist's Linda Perkins wrote that this third installment "may not have the broad appeal of the earlier books, but it will attract and enchant animal aficionados." Praising the title in the New York Times Book Review, Mary Harris Russell commented that Frightful's Mountain "is a novel that will change the way you look at the world," and concluded, "You've probably not read anything quite like this."

The popularity of My Side of the Mountain could not have come at a better time for George, who divorced in 1963 and set about earning a living as a single parent by her writing. She also pursued her love of nature, turning her home in Chappaqua, New York, into something of a zoo with hundreds of wild animals living in her house and backyard, including owls, robins, mink, seagulls, and even tarantulas. The success of My Side of the Mountain helped, as did a job with Reader's Digest from 1969 to 1982. Several other juvenile novels followed, including Gull Number 737, Hold Zero!, and Coyote in Manhattan, as well as the popular nonfiction series, "Thirteen Moons," which features a different animal for each of the new moons of the year in a lunar calendar. Sutherland noted in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review of The Moon of the Fox Pups that George "writes of the animal world with knowledge and enthusiasm, her descriptions of wild life untainted by melodrama or anthropomorphism." The thirteen books in the series were reissued in 1993 with new illustrations.

One summer in the late 1960s George and her younger son, Luke, made a journey to Alaska that strongly shaped her novel, Julie of the Wolves. The two had gone to Barrow to learn about wolf behavior from a scientist doing a study there, but they also got some unplanned lessons in native Inuit culture. George met a young Inuit woman and her husband, a girl whose character shaped that of the heroine of Julie of the Wolves and from whom she learned more about Inuit life. From the scientists studying wolves, George learned that men were actually communicating with wolves and were able to learn how to use wolf language. One female wolf actually communicated back to the author. "When she answered back," George wrote on her Web site, "I knew that I wanted to write a book about a little girl, who is lost on the tundra and saves her life by communicating with wolves. So I did."

Julie of the Wolves tells the story of adventures of an Eskimo girl who becomes lost on the tundra while running away from an unhappy marriage. When her father disappears on a hunting expedition, Miyax, also known by the English name Julie, is adopted by relatives. At thirteen she marries so she can leave her foster home. Although her husband is slow-witted, the marriage is little more than a formality at first, and Miyax is content to live with his family. His forceful attempt to have sex with her, however, frightens her and she leaves him. Remembering her California pen pal's repeated invitations to visit, Miyax sets out across the tundra. When she loses her way in the barren land, she survives by learning how to communicate with a wolf pack and be accepted among them, befriended by the lead wolf whom she names Amaroq. Her own knowledge of Eskimo ways is also crucial, although gradually she begins to understand that the old ways are dying.

Reviewers were enthusiastic about the novel. Hoyle felt that Julie of the Wolves "is George's most significant book," and that the "plot, character development, and setting are epic in dimension." Writing in School Library Journal, Alice Miller Bregman called the novel "compelling," and commented further that "George has captured the subtle nuances of Eskimo life, animal habits, the pain of growing up, and combines these elements into a thrilling adventure which is, at the same time, a poignant love story." Reviewing Julie of the Wolves in the New York Times Book Review, James Houston observed that the novel "is packed with expert wolf lore, its narrative beautifully conveying the vastness of tundra as well as many other aspects of the Arctic." Writing in Horn Book, Virginia Haviland called Julie of the Wolves a "book of timeless, perhaps even of classic dimensions." Awards committees nominated the book for many prizes, and the novel won the prestigious Newbery Medal among other honors.

George revisited her characters in Julie, a sequel that begins only minutes after the ending of Julie of the Wolves, and in Julie's Wolf Pack, told almost totally from the perspective of the wolves. In Julie, the young Eskimo girl returns to her father's village, Kangik, only to discover that her long estranged father, Kapugen, has married a white woman and has left the old ways behind. In fact, readers learn that he is the one who shot Amaroq from a plane at the end of the previous novel. She struggles to save her beloved wolves and also falls in love with a young Siberian man, Peter Sugluk. Susan Dunn, in a Voice of Youth Advocates review of Julie, commented that book is "an excellent adventure story" and a novel that supplies a "delicious taste of a nontraditional lifestyle and personality." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Hazel Rochman observed, "what's glorious is the lyrical nature writing. . . . George's sense of the place is so instinctive and so physically precise that the final Edenic vision of natural world order restored . . . is like a ringing song of triumph."

With Julie's Wolf Pack, the focus shifts to the wolf pack, now led by Kapu, the alpha male. Constantly challenged by a loner wolf, Raw Bones, Kapu must prove himself to the pack. Rabies is another enemy to the pack in this installment. Though many reviewers felt the third novel lacked the dramatic tension of the first two, largely because Julie is peripheral to the plot, Carrie Eldridge, writing in Kliatt, thought George's "obvious knowledge of her subject matter is admirable and resonates throughout the story."

George has written about the Arctic in other novels, as well, most notably in Water Sky and The Wounded Wolf. She has also looked at nature in the continental United States with her ecological mysteries, including Hook a Fish, Catch a Mountain (republished as The Case of the Missing Cutthroat), Who Really Killed Cock Robin?, The Fire Bug Connection, and Missing 'Gator of Gumbo Limbo, and with adventures tales such as Going to the Sun, set in the Rocky Mountains, River Rats, Inc., dealing with white water rafting, The Wentletrap Trap, set on Bimini, and The Cry of the Crow, set in the Florida Everglades. Another novel set in the Everglades is The Talking Earth. More environmental issues are dealt with in There's an Owl in the Shower, in which an out-of-work logger's son takes in a baby owl only to discover that it is a species of spotted owl that cost his father his job.

George has also teamed up with illustrator Wendell Minor and others to create a nest full of picture books introducing the ways of nature to the very young reader. More northern adventures are served up in Arctic Son, a "picture-book ode to the Arctic," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. A chronicle of the birth and early years of George's grandson, the book is a "warm, positive story of life in the Far North," wrote Mollie Bynum in School Library Journal. In Morning, Noon, and Night, another collaboration with Minor, George portrays the activities of a variety of animals from dawn on the East Coast to sundown on the West. The Arctic spring is captured in Snow Bear, which tells of an Inuit girl who goes out on a hunt and encounters a bear cub. Patricia Manning, reviewing Snow Bear in School Library Journal, commented, "The simple, pleasing text is accompanied by luminous watercolors that faithfully record this charming (if improbable) chance meeting." Teaming up with Thomas Locker, George has also produced The First Thanksgiving and To Climb a Waterfall, and has created a series of picture books as companion volumes to Disney's "Animal Kingdom."

More Arctic themes are developed in the picture books Nutik, the Wolf Pup and its sequel, Nutik and Amaroq Play Ball, both illustrated by Ted Rand. George adopts a story from the 1997 novel Julie's Wolf Pack for these tales of an Eskimo boy and the wolf pup he raises and trains. Warned not to become too fond of this wild animal, the boy, Amaroq, loves the animal anyway. "This beautiful book is a terrific way to introduce younger readers to George's award-winning prose," thought Catherine T. Quattlebaum in a School Library Journal review of Nutik, the Wolf Pup. Booklist's Linda Perkins found the same book to be a successful condensation of the longer tale "with heart-tugging appeal." The sequel, Nutik and Amaroq Play Ball, finds the young Eskimo boy and his wolf pup playing football together on the tundra far from their village. When wanting to return home, Amaroq finds that Nutik has a better sense of direction than he does. "Children will enjoy the simple story and learn a bit about life on the tundra," wrote Carolyn Phelan in a Booklist review, while School Library Journal's Sally R. Dow felt that the picture book presented a "sensitive story full of observations of the Arctic wilderness."

In addition to her fiction, series nonfiction, and picture books, George has also provided a host of nature lore in stand-alone nonfiction titles, including Animals Who Have Won Our Hearts and The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets, both of which recount tales of animals beloved to mankind in general or to the George family in particular. Reviewing The Tarantula in My Purse, Booklist's Carolyn Phelan felt that these autobiographical stories of family animals are filled with "humor, insights, and writing ability" that make the tales "a treat to read aloud to a class or an individual."

In all of her work, according to critics, George has blended scientific accuracy with a writer's eye for telling detail, dramatic narrative, and dimensional characters. "I write for children," George noted on her Web site. "Children are still in love with the wonders of nature, and I am too. So I tell them stories about a boy and a falcon, a girl and an elegant wolf pack, about owls, weasels, foxes, prairie dogs, the alpine tundra, the tropical rain forest. And when the telling is done, I hope they will want to protect all the beautiful creatures and places."

Aurianne Award, American Library Association (ALA), 1958, for Dipper of Copper Creek; Newbery Medal honor book award, ALA, 1960, International Hans Christian Andersen Award honor list, 1962, Lewis Carroll Shelf citation, 1965, and George G. Stone Center for Children's Books Award, 1969, all for My Side of the Mountain; named Woman of the Year, Pennsylvania State University, 1969; Claremont College award, 1969; Eva L. Gordon Award, American Nature Study Society, 1970; Book World First Prize, 1971, for All upon a Stone; Newbery Medal, and National Book Award finalist, both 1973, both for Julie of the Wolves; School Library Media Specialties of South Eastern New York Award, 1981; Kerlan Award, University of Minnesota, 1982; Ludington Award, 2003; My Side of the Mountain selected a New York Librarians book to represent the state at National Book Festival, 2005; Grumman Award.

Born July 2, 1919, in Washington, DC; daughter of Frank Cooper, Ph.D., (an entomologist) and Mary Carolyn (Johnson) Craighead; married John Lothar George, Ph.D., January 28, 1944 (divorced, January 10, 1963); children: Carolyn Laura, John Craighead, Thomas Luke. Avocation: Painting, field trips to universities and laboratories of natural science, modern dance, white water canoeing. Education: Pennsylvania State University, B.A., 1941; attended Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1941-42, and University of Michigan. Politics: Democrat. Memberships: League of Women Voters, PEN, Dutchess County Art Association. Addresses: Homeoff--20 William St., Chappaqua, NY 10514. Agent--Curtis Brown Ltd., 10 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003. E-mail--jean@jeancraigheadgeorge.com.

International News Service, Washington, DC, reporter, 1942-44; Washington Post and Times-Herald, Washington, DC, reporter, 1943-44; United Features (Newspaper Enterprise Association), New York, NY, employee, 1944-45, artist and reporter, 1945-46; continuing education teacher in Chappaqua, NY, 1960-68; Reader's Digest, Pleasantville, NY, staff writer, 1969-74, roving editor, 1974-80; author and illustrator of books and articles on natural history. Pageant (magazine), New York, NY, artist.

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