Somewhere, a wolf is howling. Jean Craighead George, author of over 100 books, mostly about the natural world and mostly for children, has died.
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It seemed that the world had just begun to pull itself together and move on after the death of Maurice Sendak last week when we learned of the passing of another literary lion. Like Sendak, she was one of Ursula Nordstrom's geniuses, another sad coincidence.
It was Nordstrom who took on Julie of the Wolves, which was inspired by a trip the journalist took to Barrow, Alaska, to write about scientists who were studying wolf society and communication. The story that grew out of that visit told of Miyax (her gussak name is Julie), an Inuit girl alone on the tundra who befriends a pack of wolves to survive. The young teen has left a disastrous early, arranged marriage and flees to her dimly remembered father, who follows the old ways. Starving, she studies the communication patterns of a wolf pack and manages to join it, forming an incredible relationship with the wild animals. It went on to win the 1973 Newbery Medal.
More importantly, my mother brought it home one day for me, and I read it over and over, until I was pretty sure I could make a hide sled and build an igloo and sew myself a parka if I was just given a ulu and half the chance. There was something about Miyax's adventure with the wolves that struck a chord in me, though I was hardly what anyone would call an outdoorsy type. I thrilled to Miyax's growing bond with alpha wolf Amaroq, his mate Silver and their charismatic cub Kapugen. And I cried every time I came to the so-tragic end.
When our daughter was younger, my husband read Julie of the Wolves allowed to her, followed by the sequels that George wrote long after I had grown up: Julie and Julie's Wolf Pack. I'm not entirely sure how he ended up reading those particular books, as he had pooh-poohed the notion that a human could ever divine and then use wolf language. But our daughter loved them, and he soldiered on through book after book.
(And then we got a puppy who, amazingly, "talked" just like cub Kapu: She rolled over and showed her belly when scolded and crawled up and nibbled under our chins adoringly. George had written an animal-communication manual called How to Talk to Your Animals, but we didn't bother with it. Seeing the opportunity, we found our copy—my old, battered copy—of Julie of the Wolves, flipped to the section where Miyax decodes the wolf language and started reading. We had a civilized puppy in no time.)
On behalf of every child who has spent time on the tundra, in the forest and on the ocean through your books, may I say, Thank you, Jean Craighead George.
Vicky Smith is the Children's and Teen Editor of Kirkus.