When Jean Craighead George was a girl, her father took her and her brothers camping and canoeing near their home in Washington, D.C, nearly every weekend. These early childhood experiences with the natural world have had a profound effect on George’s life and on her writing. Author of more than 90 books for children, including the Newbery Award-winning Julie of the Wolves, George infuses her books with the wonders of nature. Her latest novel, Tree Castle Island, is no exception.
The setting of Tree Castle Island is the mysterious and spectacular Okefenokee Swamp, the largest swamp in North America. Okefenokee is a Seminole term meaning Land of Trembling Earth. This fascinating ecosystem of more than 700 square miles in southeast Georgia has been protected since 1937 as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
To research her new book, George canoed throughout the Okefenokee (the area has more than 120 miles of canoe trails) along with her family, including her 14-year-old nephew and two granddaughters. She recalls that her nephew was fascinated by the small islands, alligators, egrets, herons, cypress trees and fish in the swamp. As we explored the swamp, my nephew kept pointing out places that would be perfect to build a tree house. I began to think that the Okefenokee would be a great place to put a boy in a survival tale, George says. And so the story of Jack Hawkins was born. As the story opens, Jack Hawkins sets out in his homemade canoe, L’tle Possum, to explore the swamp. Jack is especially interested in tracking down one of the mythic places in Okefenokee legend Paradise Island, a utopia where the beautiful Sun Daughters lived. Like sirens of old, the Sun Daughters lure men into the hidden heart of the swamp. There are so many mysterious legends and myths surrounding the Okefenokee, says George. And although Jack doesn’t find Paradise Island, he does make an important discovery about his own past. A careful researcher, George supplemented her personal experience of the swamp with discussions with scientists and naturalists. For Tree Castle Island, she also consulted her brothers, who are naturalists. (In this family, it’s no surprise that two of her own children grew up to be environmental scientists, too.) My brothers are both experts on bears, says the author. In the book, Jack befriends an orphaned black bear cub named Mister. I knew just who to call to get the information I needed. It takes George about eight or nine months to write each of her books. Accuracy is important. Not only does she check her facts, but in Tree Castle Island, George also decided to do her own illustrations. I just didn’t think someone who hadn’t been in the swamp could capture it, she explains.
George doesn’t always illustrate her books. In fact, she is especially excited about her upcoming four-book collaboration with artist Wendell Minor. I wanted to do a series of picture books to get kids really involved in nature, George explains. The first, out this spring from HarperCollins, is called Cliffhanger. Others in the series are Firestorm, Avalanche and Yellowstone Trek.
The author also has another exciting project coming up. After many years, it seems that a movie version of Julie and the Wolves is finally in the works, she reports. George, who worked on the screenplay, is looking forward to being involved in the production.
Given her interest in nature, Jean Craighead George is away from her Chappaqua, New York, home much of the time, traveling and researching. But we can only hope this beloved author stays put long enough to spin more exciting tales for young readers. Deborah Hopkinson’s newest book for children is Under the Quilt of Night.