Jean Craighead George, author of more than 100 books for children – including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves – died on May 15 at the age of 92. Wendell Minor pays tribute to his friend and longtime collaborator.
I remember well the phone call I received from HarperCollins art director Al Cetta asking me if I would like to re-do the cover for the mass market paperback of Jean Craighead George’s Newbery classic Julie of the Wolves. At the time, I knew Jean by reputation, but must admit that I had not read Julie of the Wolves until that assignment was given to me. I was immediately taken with the book and promptly did the painting for the new edition. Little did I realize at the time, that that was the prelude to what would become a 22-year journey of collaborations with Jean.
Jean and I first met officially on Earth Day 1990 at an ALA Conference being held at the United Nations in New York. We found that we had so many interests in common, and developed an immediate rapport. That was the beginning of my working relationship with Jean, as well as a very close and dear friendship that included my wife Florence.
Many of Jean’s early works were illustrated by Jean herself, with great success, so winning her confidence to become an illustrator of her books took a bit of time. Our first picture book collaboration, Everglades, was published in 1995, and I’m happy to say that the book still survives in paperback to this day.
Jean’s work has always had, as its basis, a strong foundation of science and nature, and so it was necessary for her artist to complement her writing with the same accuracy and attention to detail. If we were going to do a book based in Alaska, well, we were going to Alaska! So, for our second book together, Arctic Son, we traveled to Alaska. I’ll never forget landing at the airstrip on the frozen tundra in Barrow. The sun was low on the horizon, and it was 42 degrees below zero! We would be staying with Jean’s son Craig, his wife Cyd and their two sons, Sam and Luke, who lived (and still do) in Barrow. I had the great opportunity to meet and learn about the Inupiat people and their culture, take wild rides on snowmobiles, and have my first-ever dogsled ride on the frozen Arctic Ocean. My research during this incredible trip to the top of the world would provide reference for two later Alaska-based books with Jean, Snow Bear and The Last Polar Bear.
Other research trips included watching the wolves in the Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park for The Wolves Are Back and The Buffalo Are Back, spending time in the Tetons and watching Jean’s great-nephew, Scotty, rock climbing as reference for Jean’s “boys’ adventure” series (Cliff Hanger, Snowboard Twist and Firestorm), and traveling with Jean and her family to Kearney, Neb., in March to watch the migration of 500 Sandhill Cranes; yet another unforgettable experience. Jean was always the first one awake and ready to go. At 4:00 a.m. there would be a knock on your door, which would be Jean saying, “Get up... time to go see the cranes!” She wanted to make sure that we were all in our protective blinds at first light to watch the cranes wake up and take flight along the Platte River. It was a scene of primordial splendor that has been taking place for millions of years.
These are but a few of the experiences of a lifetime, which have made my relationship with Jean one that I will always treasure.
Jean was unique in that she brought nature to so many children around the world who do not often have the chance to experience such events first-hand. Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain and their follow-up books are the great classics of nature books that will always be relevant for our time and all time to come. Of the innumerable book signings we’ve done together over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said that My Side of the Mountain changed their lives by giving them a course to follow in a career in the natural sciences. Grandparents, parents, and children shared together the wonderful experiences of Sam and Frightful.
Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George were the last of the great talents fostered by Ursula Nordstrom. Jean passed a week to the day of Maurice’s passing. We all share this great loss. They made our world a better place.
Florence and I feel honored to be part of Jean’s extended family. She will be profoundly missed by the entire children’s book community, and by all who knew and loved her.
Jean’s legacy will continue with more books to be published in the near future. Currently I am working on the paintings for Galapagos George, the story of the oldest tortoise in the Galapagos, to be published by HarperCollins, and in spring 2013, Dial will publish The Eagles Are Back.... What better way to symbolize Jean’s life than an eagle soaring free over the mountain.