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Children's author J. Craighead George dies

Jean Craighead George, a children's author widely regarded

Jean Craighead George, a children's author widely regarded as one of the premier American nature writers for young readers, died May 15, 2012 at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 92. Newsday's obituary for Jean Craighead George
Credit: Susan Farley

Jean Craighead George, a children's author widely regarded as one of the premier American nature writers for young readers, died May 15 at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 92.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son Luke George.

A Washington, D.C., native, George had lived for the past five decades in a cedar-shingle house in the woods of Chappaqua, N.Y. She often credited her frequent childhood expeditions along the Potomac River with inspiring her lifelong love of the wild.

Her novels and picture books - more than 100 - have sold millions of copies. "Julie of the Wolves," a novel about a 13-year-old Eskimo runaway who is welcomed by a wolf pack in the Alaskan tundra, received the 1973 Newbery Medal for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Like many of George's books, "Julie of the Wolves" possesses all the ruggedness of "The Call of the Wild" and other turn-of-the-century works by Jack London. But George began writing just as the construction of highways and suburbs began to transform American life and childhood in the 1950s.

George rose to national prominence in 1959 with the publication of "My Side of the Mountain," a novel that chronicles the experience of young Sam Gribley as he runs away from his New York City apartment for a life of self-reliance in the Catskills.

Mary Harris Russell, an expert in children's literature, once described the volume as "part 'Walden,' part 'Swiss Family Robinson.'" Many reviewers commended George for the scientific expertise that suffuses nearly all her writings, including "My Side of the Mountain." She shrugged off the praise.

"It took me only two weeks to write," she once said of the book in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "It was basically about my own life."

In the wild, Sam's closest companion is a falcon. George's twin brothers, who grew up to become leading American scholars of grizzly bears, were falconers as teenagers.

And like the Craighead children, Sam learns to builds lean-tos, forage in the woods and whittle fish hooks from twigs.

George's later books included "Tree Castle Island" (2002), a survival story about a 14-year-old boy who builds his own canoe to roam the Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida-Georgia border, a region George, too, had explored. Her book "Fire Storm" (2003) was inspired by a relative's experience being surrounded by wildfire in Idaho.

George kept more than 170 pets over the years, including owls, mink, sea gulls and tarantulas. "Although always free to go," reads the biography on her website, "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." Her autobiography, "Journey Inward," was published in 1982. Another memoir for children, "The Tarantula in My Purse," followed in 1996.

Her three children became naturalists.

Survivors include two sons, Luke George of Fort Collins, Colo., and John C. "Craig" George of Barrow, Alaska; a daughter, Twig George of Cockeysville, Md.; a brother; and six grandchildren.

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