Essay

The Nature of Jean Craighead George

Honor the spirit of Earth Day by celebrating the renowned children’s book author and environmentalist.

Jean Craighead George

Photo: Jean and Yammer, A Screech Owl (1964) Courtesy of Harper Portraits

It’s not every day you hear that a young girl’s first pet was a turkey vulture. But then again, Jean Craighead George was not your average young girl.

Born in 1919 to a family of naturalists, she cultivated a deep respect for all walks of natural life, from the insects her entomologist father studied to the forests surrounding her childhood home in Washington, D.C. As a child, George’s love for the environment was amplified after her father introduced her to a “lovely, quiet, and warm” colleague, who also happened to be the future author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson. As an adult, George turned to writing and upheld her earnest reverence for nature, managing to captivate six generations of like-minded young readers and ultimately penning more than 100 beloved books throughout her career.

Jean Craighead George

Photo: Jean with Tonka the Newfoundland and Trinket the Mama Cat (1964) Courtesy of Ellan Young

She often peppered novels with her own lively experiences, as in The Summer of the Falcon, wherein the young protagonist’s coming-of-age in the 1930s clearly mirrors George’s own adolescence, beloved bird and all. Likewise, the ever-adventurous author drew inspiration for her young-adult classic Julie of the Wolves after traveling to the Arctic Tundra to study the canines herself. Her compassionate reconsideration of this unjustly demonized creature garnered her the prestigious Newbery Prize in 1972, but perhaps the biggest reward of the entire experience for Jean came from the wolf pack she grew to love. She recalls fondly the time its alpha female “came up to me, and we both recognized each other, and then she looked me right in the eye . . .  Those big, golden eyes. And that’s taking you into the family. We had a relationship that was just wonderful.”

Though Julie of the Wolves and her earlier novel My Side of the Mountain are arguably George’s best-known works, her literary trajectory truly began when she created the American Woodland Tales. In this classic series, readers are introduced to six dynamic, lovable creatures amid a brilliantly depicted naturalistic backdrop. Throughout her lifetime, Jean famously hosted a total of 173 animals in her household (none of which were cats or dogs!), and it’s easy to imagine these lively critters serving as muses for Vulpes, the clever fox who uses his smarts to beguile his adversaries, or an impetuous mink named Vison, forced to survive on his own after the sudden death of his mother. With characters as complex as any human literary figure might be, George weaves timeless worlds that are sure to captivate explorers of all ages.

Jean Craighead George

Photo: Jean and Her Alaskan Malamute, Qimmiq (1990s) Courtesy of Ellan Young

In fact, that was exactly her intention. George was aware of the frailty of nature long before most: she sagely warned that our “planet has limits, and we must not abuse them.” As evidence about grim environmental conditions continues surfacing, it is vital that we nurture the inherent inquisitive nature of young generations so that they grow to understand for themselves the fundamentals of respect for all creatures. George understood that better than anyone, leaving behind a legacy of hope for the world to come. For above all else, her stories evoke a deep sanctity for all of nature’s creatures—and there’s no better way to encapsulate the spirit of Earth Day than that.

Tags: