Remembering Jean Craighead George, a Real Natural
MacPherson, Karen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)
Jean Craighead George was already an award-winning author when she met Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary children's book editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) publishing company.
Still, even George was unprepared by the blithe way that Nordstrom accepted her vague and unusual verbal proposal for a new children's novel.
As George recalled in her 1982 autobiography, "Journey Inward": "[Nordstrom] was bent over her desk in concentration, her gray hair grooved where her fingers had pressed. Hearing us [come into the room] ... she nodded to say she knew who I was and why I was there.
" 'I want to write a book,' I said, 'about an Eskimo girl who is lost on the Arctic tundra. She survives by communicating with a pack of wolves in their own language.' "
Nordstrom had only two questions, according to George: "Will it be accurate?" (Yes, said George), and "Who is your agent?"
George concluded: "Never before had I been offered a contract and advance before a word had been written. ... I went home and began writing 'Julie of the Wolves.' "
As usual, Nordstrom's instincts were dead-on. "Julie of the Wolves" won the 1973 Newbery Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the best written children's book.
"Julie" and "My Side of the Mountain," a 1959 novel by George, are probably the best-known examples of the deeply felt theme that ran through all of George's work: the connection between the natural world and human beings.
All told, George, who died in Valhalla, N.Y., on May 15 at the age of 92, wrote more than 100 fiction and nonfiction books for children. They included "The Thirteen Moons" series, in which each book focuses on the life of a different animal, and the "One Day" series, which provide brief portraits of different natural settings.
As George wrote in an essay for "Children's Books and Their Creators": "I have discovered I cannot dream up characters as incredible as the ones I meet in the wilderness."
George added that she wrote for readers "who are excited by a frog that finds a pond and by hawks that know where there are dense grasses voles abound in."
Born in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1919, George was the daughter of a naturalist who inspired a love of animals in his children. The family had numerous wild animals as pets and, as George recalled in a 2003 interview with The Journal News of Westchester, N.Y., it wasn't until she went to kindergarten that "I was surprised to find out I was the only kid with a turkey vulture. …