Top 100 Children’s Novels #77: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
As a child, Jean announced that she was running away from home, only to return after forty minutes. Later she’d write about a kid who did a bit better than she did. Before survival tales were their own middle grade literary genre, Ms. Jean Craighead George knew how to give the kids what they wanted. Her recent death was a blow to the field but happily it appears that some of her books will continue to live on long after she is gone.
Children’s Literature described the plot this way: “Young Sam Gribley lives a comfortable life in New York City. But tired of urban living, he, with his parents’ knowledge, runs away to the Catskills Mountains, determined to live on the site of his great-grandparents’ old homestead. Leaving the city with few possessions, he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime. His initial nights on the mountain prove difficult as he struggles to stay warm and find food. Eventually, Sam adjusts, learns much about himself and becomes a true backwoodsman, eating off the land, making deerskin clothes, hollowing out the base of a large tree to live in and becoming part of the wilderness environment. He steals a baby peregrine falcon from its nest and adopts the bird he names Frightful. They become inseparable as Frightful helps his new ‘parent’ hunt for food.”
And why did Jean Craighead George write the doggone thing? In 2002 on her website she gave this answer: “Let me tell you why I wrote My Side of the Mountain. When I was a kid, my father who was an entomologist and ecologist, took my brothers and me into the wilderness along the Potomac River near Washington, D. C., our home. He taught us the plants and animals, where to find wild asparagus and other edible plants. We made lean-tos to sleep in, fished with our own homemade fish hooks and basswood fiber lines and trained falcons. My brothers were two of the first falconers in the United States and gave me a falcon to train when I was thirteen. It was a glorious childhood. When I became a writer I wanted to tell about those wonderful days. I wrote eight books before I saw a way to get Sam out in the wilderness without the park rangers or his family coming to get him. He would tell his Dad he was going to go to the family farm in the Catskill Mountains. Then I put myself in Sam’s head and began to write using my own adventures, including eating all those delicious foods.”
Strange that she would call those foods “delicious”. Now if you can track it down, the Horn Book article “A Second Look: My Side of the Mountain” by Karen Jameyson (found in the July-August 1989 issue) is worth its weight in gold. As she says (particularly about the food):
“Is it possible, we may wonder, that such bogus-sounding entrées as frog soup and crow’s eggs–cooked in a leaf, no less–can sound as scrumptious as filet mignon and crêpe suzettes when described by this Julia Child of the wilderness? And, surely, sleeping inside a tree, bathing in an icy spring, and using the bark of the slippery elm for soap scarcely reflects a scene from House Beautiful. But how many readers with an ounce of adventure in their bones have longed to pour Western civilization’s regimented details down the drain and head for a Walden Pond or a Tinker Creek? When Sam explains, in his determined, quietly exuberant way that he has decided to leave his New York City home with a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, some flint and steel, and forty dollars to go to live on the old Gribley land in the Catskill Mountains, the plan sounds a bit cockamamie. It also sounds mighty appealing. Our hero has fortunately prepared himself so thoroughly that we never doubt that he knows what he’s doing. He has made good use of the New York Public Library and regularly refers to the tips he picked up during his research.”
You can see why I like that quote.
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cites this book as the one that was the most important to him. In 1964 he wrote Ms. George a letter asking (he was eleven) where he should look to find an occupied kestrel nest. This was not some fly-by-night request. Kennedy was part of a raptor breeding project in school and says, “My years as a falconer informed my own career choice as an environmental lawyer and advocate. My Side of the Mountain has inspired countless children, as it did me, to take up ecological stewardship in our adult years.”
The book was a 1960 Newbery Honor title, beaten by Onion John by Joseph Krumgold. True story.
- Here’s a supplemental unit to use with the book.
- In case you authors out there wish to feel lazy, here is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on a writer’s website. She has sorted her book titles alphabetically, and you can find them by selecting the correct letter at the top of the screen. Geez o’ marie.
- Fans of the book may be interested in this very recent non-fiction companion book by Ms. George and her daughter Twig (mostly Twig, as I hear it) Pocket Guide to the Outdoors: Based on My Side of the Mountain.
Horn Book said of it at the time, “”Perhaps it will appeal only to a few children. But I believe it will be read year after year, linking together many generations in a chain.”
While searching for covers I thought I’d found a cool old one. I could not have been more wrong. Truth be told there’s not much variety in the jackets here. Just a handful to choose from, really.
Was there a movie adaptation in 1969? Survey says yes. Here’s the poster:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network