For her, writing comes naturally
Did you groan when you had to write another essay on "what I did this summer"? Would you still groan if it turned out those essays were your key to success?
Ask well-known children's book author Jean Craighead George. "Doing interesting things and then writing about them is the best way to become a good writer," she says. She should know. She's written more than 100 books, and all of them were inspired by her and her family's outdoor adventures.
"My Side of the Mountain" was a 1960 Newbery Honor Book, and "Julie of the Wolves" won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1973. Those books have sold about 8 million copies each.
George is still working hard. Her latest book, "Fire Storm," is due in stores this month. "Now that I'm so-called 'retired,' " she says, "I'm busier than I ever was!" She laughs, and her blue eyes sparkle.
George writes in a room that looks out over a man-made waterfall, bird feeders, and flowers. The room is in her two-story wood-shingled home tucked into the woods in Chappaqua, N.Y. She's lived there for 46 years.
Her African gray parrot, Tocca Two, tried to join our interview, chattering away (in Eskimo, by the way) from the stairs. Her surroundings seem a perfect fit for the notable naturalist.
"Children are still in love with the wonders of nature," she says enthusiastically, "and I am, too. So I write them stories in hopes that they will want to protect all the beautiful creatures and places."
George's passion for nature stemmed from her father, who worked for the Forest Service studying insects and plants. When she was a girl, he would spend most weekends taking her and her twin brothers camping and canoeing near their home in Washington, D.C. They climbed trees to study owls, gathered edible plants for meals, or caught fish using hooks that they made from twigs.
"I was so surprised when I got to kindergarten to find out that everybody didn't have a vulture for a pet," she says.
Her brothers were among the first falconers in the United States. They raised wild falcons and trained them to hunt and to land on outstretched, gloved arms when called, even if they were flying hundreds of feet in the air.
George wrote "My Side of the Mountain" based on these experiences. "It took me only two weeks to write, because it was basically about my own life," she says. The book tells the story of Sam, who runs away from his home in New York City to live in the woods. There, he survives on wild plants and animals. He also trains a falcon.
George's pets inspired other books, too. She takes me to the kitchen and shows me the window where Crowbar, her family's mischievous pet crow, used to fly in and out. She points out the small pond in the entryway that once held tadpoles, crayfish, and even a 24-inch large-mouth bass. I'd read about them in "The Tarantula in My Purse" (1996). Still, I'm awed that so many extraordinary stories come from such ordinary surroundings.
George began writing in third grade. When she graduated from college, she became a reporter for The Washington Post. She was a member of the White House Press Corps - rare for a woman in those days. But when she had kids, she began writing children's books.
She brought owls, minks, bats, sea gulls, tarantulas - 173 wild animals in all - into their home and backyard, so that she and her three children could learn more about them. (This was before it was illegal to keep wild animals as pets.)
"I would just watch the animals and their stories would roll out when I wrote," she says. She did careful research, too, and interviewed scientists. (Conveniently, her brothers and two sons all do animal research of some sort.) She travels a lot, to research locations for her books.
Her idea for "Julie of the Wolves" came to her when she read about wolf research at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, Alaska. In the 1970s, animal behavior was a new field of study.
"I was fascinated by their findings," she says, "that wolves were actually friendly, lived in a well-run society, and communicated with each other using sound, sight, posture, and scent."
She traveled to Barrow to learn more. She even learned to "talk" to wolves using their language. "Julie of the Wolves" tells the story of a young Eskimo girl lost in the vast Arctic tundra. She survives by learning to communicate with a wolf pack.
George illustrates many of her books herself, including her recent "Tree Castle Island" (HarperCollins, 2002). It takes place in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp. "Illustrating helps me be more aware of my surroundings and a much more observant writer," she says. Plus, she didn't think an illustrator who hadn't been to the swamp could accurately capture it.
To research that book, she canoed the Okefenokee with her family, including a 14-year-old nephew and two granddaughters. Her nephew "kept pointing out the perfect places to build a tree house," she says. That's when she decided the book would be about a boy who has to survive in the Okefenokee.
But for her latest picture book, "Fire Storm" (HarperCollins), she collaborated with artist Wendell Minor. He travels with George so he can accurately illustrate the scene, while she does research.
The idea for this story came from - where else? - George's family. In 2000, her brother's son and his family were rafting down the Salmon River in Idaho when suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a quickly spreading wildfire. In real life, and in George's story, the characters have to make some quick decisions to survive.
"I hope my books empower kids," George says, "and that they learn how to work out their problems themselves."
Her hope seems to be coming true. Every day, she gets about 10 e-mails and letters from readers. One girl wrote to say how one of her wolf characters gave her strength during a soccer game. Others have told how her stories inspired them to became research biologists, environmental scientists, or even a falconer. How does that kind of response make her feel? Eyes wide, George simply says "Wow"!
In addition to writing, George is working to turn "Julie of the Wolves" into a musical. She hopes the book will also become a movie. "My Side of the Mountain" was filmed in '69, but "Julie" has been harder to translate to the big screen, given that the cast includes wolves.
When she's not busy writing and researching, George likes to go to elementary schools to talk about writing and the environment. And her advice to budding writers? "Keep a journal," she says, "and write a lot of letters about what's happening in your life. You will become more observant of your world and more aware of yourself."
You've probably spoken to a dog before. Perhaps you commanded him to come, sit, or stay. But did you ever talk to a dog in its own language?
Children's author and naturalist Jean Craighead George has spent a lot of time studying animals, including wolves. If you speak to a dog in its own language, she explains in "How to Talk to Your Dog" (HarperCollins, 2000, 26 pp., ages 6 to 9), "he will reward you by being an even more devoted friend."
Dogs see themselves as part of a pack, with you as their leader! To be a good leader, then, you must treat your dog well and be able to communicate. Here are a few lessons in "dog language":
Saying hello: Most people greet their dogs by saying "Hello" or patting the animal's head. To say hello in "dog," sniff toward your dog's nose. Your dog will answer by pulling his ears back and close to its head. This means, "Hello, leader."
Saying goodbye: Dogs say goodbye with a whisk of their tails, then they turn and walk off. Since you don't have a tail, "swish your hand downward" - like a tail - "and show your back," Ms. George says. If your dog ignores this message and runs after you, tell him "I am boss" in dog talk (see below), then repeat the dog "goodbye."
I am the boss: Even puppies want to be the boss. When dog meets dog, one dominates the other by lifting his head higher. Your dog may try to dominate you by jumping up. Don't let him. Speak in a low voice, and hold your head high with your chest out. That posture, used by people to show their high rank, also tells your dog, "I'm the boss."
I am your leader: One dog tells another he is leader by putting his mouth around the other dog's muzzle. That dog's ears will go back and against his head, and his tail will lower if he agrees. Tell your own dog you are the leader by taking his muzzle in your hand and gently shaking it. Tell him "Good dog" as you do this.
Let's play! Dogs invite each other to play by slapping their forepaws on the ground and sticking their rear ends in the air, tails wagging. You can "say" this by getting down on all fours and slapping the ground with your hands and forearms - as Ms. George is demonstrating below.
Jean Craighead George has more than 100 books to her credit. Here are a few of her best-known works:
'My Side of the Mountain'(1959), junior high and up, 177 pages. In this classic tale of wilderness survival, Sam runs away from New York City to live in the Catskill Mountains. There, he trains a falcon named Frightful, and survives with her help. Sam's little sister joins him in the sequel 'On the Far Side of the Mountain' (1990). In 'Frightful's Mountain' (1999), Sam has to let his falcon go.
'Julie of the Wolves' (1972), junior high and up, 170 pages. Julie, an Eskimo teenager, gets lost in the Alaskan tundra. She survives by learning to communicate with a pack of wolves. In the sequel, 'Julie' (1994), she moves in with her father and struggles to reconcile the old Eskimo ways with the new. And in 'Julie's Wolf Pack' (1997), a new leader of Julie's pack emerges.
'One day in the Desert'(1983), ages 9 to 12, 48 pages.
A vivid introduction to desert ecology. Four more 'One Day' chapter books focus on the tropical rain forest, the prairie, the woods, and the alpine tundra.
'How to Talk to Your Cat,' (2000), ages 6 to 9, 28 pages.
Find out what your cat is saying - and talk back!
• For more about Ms. George, log on to: www.jeancraigheadgeorge.com