A Reader Thanks Jean Craighead George

When I was in middle school, I was lucky enough to be part of a special English class for kids who, like me, were avid and insatiable readers. Instead of learning to parse sentences and plodding through stories too easy for us, we read the best of the best: winners of the Newbery Medal, awarded each year to the best children's and young adult literature.

Julie of the Wolves (Amazon.com)

Our class was exposed to so much great young adult literature – we read Bridge to Terebithia and Jacob Have I Loved, The Westing Game and Island of the Blue Dolphins. We learned about other cultures and unfamiliar experiences, and we actually enjoyed reading for school – not something that can often be said of 12- and 13-year-olds.

One of my most beloved authors from that time in my life, Jean Craighead George, recently died. George was honored with the Newbery Medal for her classic Julie of the Wolves, another book we read in middle school English. Like so many of the award-winning books we read, it introduced us to a way of life completely foreign to us – this time, that of a young girl who survives alone on the Alaskan tundra by communicating with wolves, in their own language.

Many great books for young readers are challenged in an attempt to remove them from libraries and reading lists, and Julie of the Wolves was one of them. For me and other reading kids, this just served to make us want to read them more, and to make us impressed with the teachers who assigned them. The scene that drove George's book onto the challenge list was a rape – disturbing, to be certain, but part of real life. Something that might have happened to the mothers and aunts and older sisters of the children reading the book.

In Julie of the Wolves and more than a hundred other books for young adults – including the Newbery honoree My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George taught her young readers about life. And that included all of life, the foreign and the familiar, the beautiful and the ugly. The lucky kids who read her books, and other Newbery Award winners, can thank her for the lessons. And for the good reads.