By: Rebecca Slocum
Last week would have been Jean Craighead George’s 100th birthday.
George was an adventurer. Born into a family of naturalists, she spent much of her time camping near the Potomac River, observing the local flora and fauna, and learning valuable wilderness skills. Her love of nature and the hours spent exploring the outdoors eventually inspired over 100 books, including 1960 Newberry Honor, My Side of the Mountain, and 1973 Newberry winner Julie of the Wolves.
After graduating from Penn State, she worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and was a member of the White House Press Corps. When her children were born, she knew she wanted to, as they say, get back to nature. She not only wanted to be closer to the outdoors herself, but to inspire that love and fascination in her children as well. She took them canoeing, hiking, camping and encouraged them to explore and observe their surroundings. Their home was filled with animals- over 170 of them! And not just dogs and cats; the George children often shared their breakfast with crows, raccoons, or whatever animals happened to be residing with them at the time. Her love of wildlife was formed around the idea that humans and animals could live and work in tandem. And something obviously stuck. Her sons, Luke and Craig, grew up to be environmental scientists, and her daughter, Twig, is a former school librarian and wildlife author in her own right.
In July of 1970, while on assignment as a writer for Reader’s Digest, George and her son Luke visited Barrow, Alaska, a small Inupiat town in Northern Alaska. George’s writing was known for its extensive research and attention to detail, and her proposed piece on wolves in Alaska would be no exception. She wanted to follow the new research that showed wolves, rather than being the ferocious animals typically depicted in literature, are more human like in their capability for emotion and even communication. Once in Barrow, her observations of the wolves, as well as her interactions with the indigenous people of Barrow, inspired her to write Julie of the Wolves.
Miyax (known to her American friends as Julie) is a young girl living in an Eskimo village. She is wed to a boy in the village through an arranged marriage; she escapes one night after he assaults her. Alone and lost in the Alaskan tundra, she slowly approaches, and is eventually accepted by, a wolf pack. With the help of these wolves, she learns to survive with her new family. Eventually, though, she knows she must rejoin the human world and choose between the fading Eskimo way of life and a new, more modern one.
While it’s hard to imagine an objectionable sentence in such a captivating story, many people have voiced their opposition to the brief scene depicting Julie’s assault by her husband. So many people, in fact, that it was one of the top banned books from 1990-1999. While I understand the concern regarding the harshness of the scene, it is but one small part (seriously, it’s less than a page) in a well-crafted novel that shows a strong, capable girl who experiences and overcomes hardships that most adults cannot even imagine. Not only does Julie face physical challenges (building her own shelter, hunting her own food, living through an endless winter night), but she experiences the vulnerability of potentially losing her traditional way of life. George paves the way for so many learning opportunities, from survival skills, to traditional Eskimo culture, to living and learning from wildlife. Even Julie’s assault opens the door for discussions on consent and respecting people’s bodies. Middle grade readers, many of whom are just starting to realize that life can be difficult in all sorts of ways, will certainly benefit from reading about a brave, intelligent girl who fights for who she is and who she wants to be.
I’m thankful to Jean Craighead George for writing courageous and capable characters like Julie for our students and patrons to admire and emulate. And I’m grateful for George, for she herself was a courageous and capable woman; her adventures, whether canoeing on the Potomac River or hiking on the frozen Alaskan tundra, are certainly an inspiration to budding writers and naturalists, and even older school librarians and adventurers at heart.
Happy 100th Birthday, Jean Craighead George!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.