Jean Craighead George

Newbery-winning author of Julie of the Wolves

Jean Craighead George was born in a family of naturalists. Her father, mother, brothers, aunts and uncles were students of nature. On weekends they camped in the woods near their Washington, D.C. home, climbed trees to study owls, gathered edible plants and made fish hooks from twigs. Her first pet was a turkey vulture. In third grade she began writing and hasn’t stopped yet. She has written over 100 books.

Her book, Julie of the Wolves won the prestigious Newbery Medal, the American Julie of the Wolves Library Association’s award for the most distinguished contribution to literature for children, 1973. My Side of the Mountain, the story of a boy and a falcon surviving on a mountain together, was a 1960 Newbery Honor Book. She has also received 20 other awards.

She attended Penn State University graduating with a degree in Science and Literature. In the 1940s she was a reporter for The Washington Post and a member of the White House Press Corps. After her children were born she returned to her love of nature and brought owls, robins, mink, sea gulls, tarantulas – 173 wild animals into their home and backyard. These became characters in her books and, although always free to go, 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.

When her children, Twig, Craig and Luke, were old enough to carry their own backpacks, they all went to the animals. They climbed mountains, canoed rivers, hiked deserts. Her children learned about nature and Jean came home and to write books. Craig and Luke are now environmental scientists andTwig writes children’s books, too.

One summer Jean learned that the wolves were friendly, lived in a well-run society and communicated with each other in wolf talk — sound, sight, posture, scent and coloration. Excited to learn more, she took Luke and went to the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Utqiagvik, Alaska, where scientists were studying this remarkable animal. She even talked to the wolves in their own language. With that, Julie of the Wolves was born. A little girl walking on the vast lonesome tundra outside Utqiagvik, and a magnificent alpha male wolf, leader of a pack in Denali National Park were the inspiration for the characters in the book. Years later, after many requests from her readers, she wrote the sequels,Julie and Julie’s Wolf Pack.

Interviews

2010

Jean Craighead George, an acclaimed children’s book writer, and the mother of Bowhead Whale expert and Arctic resident Dr. John “Craig” George, expresses her deep connection and love for the Arctic in a conversation with Peter Lourie. Having visited the Arctic Research Lab in Barrow, Alaska in 1970, she was captivated by the wolves, snowy owls, and the Eskimos she encountered. Inspired by her experiences, she wrote “Julie of the Wolves,” a story about a young girl protected by a wolf pack. Her exploration continued as she learned about whaling and the early Eskimos, which she depicted in her book “Water Sky.” “Ice Whale” aims to shed light on the traditional ways of the Arctic’s inhabitants and their adaptation to the modern world. Jean marvels at how the Eskimos and remarkable individuals like Eugene Brower persist in safeguarding their culture and spiritual connection to the sea, land, and ice, despite the challenges posed by technology and melting ice. She emphasizes the presence of dedicated scientists from around the world and highlights her son, Craig, who heads whale research. Jean acknowledges the extreme conditions of the Arctic, including temperatures as low as 50 below zero, which she experienced firsthand. Despite the harshness, she describes the cold as invigorating and yearns to return to the North, a place she finds ethereal and captivating. Jean believes that the Arctic resonates with the American spirit, evoking a sense of wilderness and drawing people into its allure. She concludes by emphasizing the beauty of this last untamed frontier, acknowledging that many may never have the opportunity to witness its splendor.

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Author Jean Craighead George reflects on her journey to the Arctic and the inspiration behind her renowned book, “Julie of the Wolves.” She explains that she initially traveled north after learning from Dr. L. David Mech that wolves are friendly.mJean encountered a young girl in the Arctic, whom she affectionately called Julie. Jean’s understanding of wolves blossomed during her time at the Arctic Research Lab, where scientists taught her about the plants and the ways in which wolves communicate through their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and posture. She developed a unique bond with a mother wolf and her four wolf pups, gradually gaining their trust. Dr. Michael Fox studied the behavior of the alpha male and conducted tests and observations on the wolves, revealing traits like curiosity, perseverance, and assertiveness. Jean found similarities between these wolf characteristics and human behavior.

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In a conversation with the Newbury-winning writer Jean Craighead George, the author discusses her son Craig’s journey to the Arctic and his immersion in the world of whales. After graduating from Utah State, Craig took a job counting whales and never returned home. Jean shares that Craig has been teaching her about whales and taking her on adventures, including camping on the ice in freezing temperatures. She vividly describes the experience of venturing out of a warm sleeping bag into the frigid cold. Jean recounts a moment when she listened to the whales’ low notes from the Acoustics lab, marveling at their unique communication. Inspired by her experiences and Craig’s wealth of knowledge, Jean decided to write a book about whales. Craig provided her with new information, such as how whales play with logs when surrounded by ice. The Eskimos have a deep love for these magnificent creatures, and Jean embarked on writing the story, incorporating the lives of generations of Iñupiat and the bowhead whale they hunt.

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Jean Craighead George describes her unique process of creating panoramic drawings for her books. She explains how she starts with a line and continues sketching, folding the books over and over until a complete panorama unfolds. She shares an example of a drawing depicting people pulling a whale onto land during the spring whaling season. She proudly mentions that many of her books feature her own illustrations, as she studied art in college. While some editors suggested hiring other artists, she found it more enjoyable to illustrate her own books. She also discusses the artwork in “My Side of the Mountain,” clarifying that the drawings were done by Caldecott Medal-winner John Schoenherr. Moving on to her home, Jean mentions her 17-year-old African gray parrot, known for its exceptional talking abilities. The parrot says phrases like “Who let the dogs out?” and recognizes people’s names. Jean showcases Alaskan masks and Eskimo dolls that she collected, along with whale bone carvings and other artifacts.

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Jean discusses various items in her home and their significance. She explains the baleen, which are filters hanging from the roof of a whale’s mouth. These filters, numbering 640 in total, function to separate and capture the whale’s food from the water. The baleen here was brought back by her son, Craig (Dr. John “Craig” George, whale biologist). Jean also points out a painting on the wall by artist Tom Melvin, a friend of Craig’s, who is known for his mural artwork in Chicago. She mentions her long tenure in the house where the interview takes place (in her kitchen), having lived there for 54 years and raising her children there. Jean expresses her attachment to the place, even though it would be practical to move closer to her daughter Twig in Maryland. She takes the interviewer through her office. Jean mentions missing the animals she used to have in the house when the kids were growing up, and she finds solace in her pet African gray parrot, with whom she communicates. Despite not having many animals around anymore, she recalls joyous former times with crows, tarantulas, robins, mice, and white-tailed deer. As she gazes out of her office, she finds inspiration in the beauty of nature, particularly in the dynamic movements of waterfalls and fire.

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Jean Craighead George reflects on her experience traveling to Barrow (now called Utqiaġvik), Alaska, where scientists aiming to reach a wider audience through education outreach took her out on the tundra, teaching her about the depth of the permafrost and the ocean currents. Jean considers it a valuable education and acknowledges the scientists’ desire to bridge the gap between their scientific writings and a broader audience. She recounts how her son, Luke, now a professor at Humboldt College in California, accompanied her and corrected her notes based on what he heard from the scientists. Jean realizes that scientists can convey information effectively but need someone to document it in a more accessible manner. She mentions the fascinating behavior of lemmings, clarifying that they don’t actually run into the ocean but run until they exhaust themselves, falling prey to predators along the way. She recalls how the local Iñupiaq children collected lemmings for the scientists’ study on warming, showcasing their knowledge of where to find them. Jean remarks that these children would make great collectors and humorously suggests that they should be hired now.

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Jean Craighead George passionately describes her fascination with the Arctic during a conversation. She explains that the allure of the Arctic lies in its wildness, unexplored landscapes, and vast open spaces. She acknowledges the people who are born and live amidst the ice and snow, considering them an integral part of the region. Jean emphasizes the enormity and remoteness of the Arctic, which adds to its captivating beauty.

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