Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book of the Week: JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George

Hello there, Esteemed Reader. Lovely to see you as always. You’ll remember last week when I reviewed The Giver, I promised that Lois Lowry would be the first of two of my favorite authors from childhood to appear on this blog and that the second would be revealed this week. I know you've been losing sleep over this mystery, wondering who could be the second author. Well, rest again, Esteemed Reader. This week, the second mystery author is revealed to be none other than Jean Craighead George, author of such middle grade classics as My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves.

Rejoice, Esteemed Reader! Jean Craighead George will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions and even though that is more content than any one blog deserves, we’ll have another surprise literary agent stopping by the blog on Saturday. Oh what a wonderful week it’s going to be and what an exciting time it is to be a ninja!

My Side of the Mountain is one of my most favorite middle grade novels and one that I will probably review here sooner or later. But today we are discussing the book for which Jean Craighead George won the John Newberry Medal, Julie of the Wolves. I knew I had to chose one of these fantastic books to review (but you don’t and if you haven’t read them, you should read both), and in the end I felt like I owed Julie of the Wolves an official apology. More on that in a moment.

But first, you regular Esteemed Readers know I love and respect a good hook to grab the reader right from the start and Julie of the Wolves has a great opening. It’s in the second sentence, not the first:

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. It was a yellow disc in a lime-green sky, the colors of six o’ clock in the evening and the time when the wolves awoke.

True, the book is called Julie of the Wolves, so the reader expects wolves sooner or later. Still, to learn that the wolves are awakening is bound to arouse reader interest. Is this a good thing, or a scary thing? I’d wager the idea of wolves awakening is not a comforting thought for most readers. 

In college, I delivered pizzas regularly to a house in the country where wolves were kept and I hated it every time. Always, I delivered the pizza at night and the scary wolves would run right up to the gate to snarl at me. I don’t remember how much of a tip that family gave me, but I promise it was never enough. I can also assure you that walking up to that house in the darkness of a country road, I never found the idea of wolves awakening to be a comforting thought.

I don’t want to spend the entire review focusing on these two lines, but beginnings of great novels, and more, successful novels, are always worth paying attention to. Behold, Esteemed Reader, an opening that attracted not just an agent, not just an editor, not just those responsible for selecting the winner of the Newberry Medal, but readers. The hook is all good and well, but it’s buried. Why doesn’t Jean Craighead George simply start with “the wolves awoke (brace yourself, y’all).” The answer is because Jean Craighead George is too smart for that. Let’s look at what else these two lines accomplish.

First, there’s the name Miyax, far less common to most readers than Julie. When we learn that Miyax is wearing a sealskin parka and looking at the Arctic sun, we can probably deduce that she is an Eskimo and we know our setting (cold). True, there’s a picture of an Eskimo girl on the cover, but supposing the cover of this reader’s book had been torn off, and remember that an editor first read a cover-less manuscript. And characterizing Miyax with these concrete details is far more eloquent than simply saying, “An Eskimo named Miyax looked at the sun. The wolves awoke (brace yourself, y’all).”

Second, revealing the setting before revealing that the wolves awoke makes all the difference. After all, if this were a story about a zookeeper or a pizza-loving jerk who can’t be bothered to get carry-out, the wolves awakening might not be a big deal. But if this story is about an Eskimo, presumably out in the open—which she is, but to be fair we have to read more than two lines to learn it—the wolves awakening is a big deal.

Third and finally, Miyax is checking the time by checking the position of the sun. This tells us two important things: 1. Miyax is concerned enough about the wolves to be timing their awakening, leading us toward the conclusion that the wolves awakening is a scary thing. 2. Miyax has the ability to tell time by looking at the sun, which is an interesting trait that makes her compelling. Also, as this is to be a novel about survival, it is important to know up front that Miyax has got some survival skills.

So there you have it: an opening that reveals not just a hook, but character and setting. All of this is accomplished in two lines and seamlessly. Most readers will read these lines and keep reading, which is the point. But as you know, Esteemed Reader, this is a blog about craft, and I am simply blown away by this opening. It doesn’t firmly establish the story by any means and it doesn’t have to. It simply has to pull us in so we’ll keep reading long enough for George to establish the story, which she does far more directly in the second paragraph:

Her hands trembled and her heartbeat quickened, for she was frightened, not so much of the wolves, who were shy and many harpoon-shots away, but because of her desperate predicament. Miyax was lost. She had been lost without food for many sleeps on the North Slope of Alaska. The barren slope stretches for three hundred miles from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean, and for more than eight hundred miles from the Churkchi to the Beaufort Sea. No roads cross it; ponds and lakes freckle its inmensity. Winds stream across it, and the view in every direction is exactly the same. Somewhere in this cosmos was Miyax; and the very life in her body, its spark and warmth, depended upon these wolves for survival. And she was not so sure they would help.

Goodness me, we’re nearly out of review and I’ve spent the whole time talking about the first page! There are 170 pages in this book and all of them are worth reading. If you take nothing else away from this review, take away this: Julie of the Wolves is a great book and worth reading, especially if you are a writer looking to improve your craft. Of particular interest is the way George finds a way to establish specific traits for each member of the wolf pack. The wolves in this story never talk or behave in human ways, though Miyax often behaves in wolf ways. Yet, George finds a way to make every wolf a separate character so that the reader will be impacted when some of them fail to survive the story (not a spoiler as I haven’t said which ones).

I know what you’re thinking, Esteemed Reader: if this book is all about some Eskimo named Miyax, who the heck is Julie? The answer is Julie is Miyax, who goes by the name Julie among Western people. The book is broken into three parts: Now, Before, After. In the first part of the story, Miyax interacts with the wolves and actually becomes a member of their pack. Forget Kevin Costner chatting with Indians in Dances with Wolves, Miyax is actually dancing with wolves. When we first meet Miyax, as you now know, she is starving and desperate having run away from home. We don’t care why she ran away yet because the issue of her starving is more compelling.

I've never read anything quite like Julie of the Wolves in terms of an outsider establishing a relationship with a new tribe. Miyax isn’t just dealing with a language barrier or a cultural barrier, the wolves are another species. Miyax observes the wolves and then begins to interact with them by crawling on all fours and gesturing with her body as they do. In time, she is able to communicate with the wolves and they with her. Miyax goes to extraordinary lengths to communicate with the wolves (she even takes a little pee to the face with good humor), and is rewarded with meat from the wolves’ hunt.

Once this happens, the reader is assured that Miyax is all right, at least for the moment, and naturally the reader begins to wonder what the heck is Miyax doing out on the tundra starving and having to chat up wolves to survive in the first place. That is when George hits us with part two, which covers the before section of the plot and we learn what happened in the world of people to cause Miyax to run away. I’m not going to spoil it all, but what is fascinating is the way George is able to contrast and compare the society of humans to the society of wolves in such a way that the reader may find life with wolves to be preferable.

I’m also not going to tell you much about the third part of the book. Does Miyax/Julie return to the world of people and make it to San Francisco to see her pen pal? Are she and the wolves eaten by a bear, the end? You’ll have to read to find out. Instead, I want to share with you the most controversial passage from a book ever. In the middle section of the novel, Miyax is forced into a marriage with a mentally handicapped man named Daniel, who attempts to rape her.

In the fifth grade, we completed a unit on Alaska and wolves, so naturally our teacher had our class read Julie of the Wolves. This, of course, led to Armageddon. Parents called the school and wrote angry letters as the subject matter in Julie of the Wolves was far too adult for children. One parent swore in front of our teacher and she cried all day and had to be consoled by the principal. We kids laughed inappropriately at the book, and some, including, sigh, yours truly denounced the book as a corrupting force. Satan was prowling our elementary school and preying on the minds of the innocent under the pen name Jean Craighead George. All of our parents said so, and at that age, if our parents said something, it was true. I can recall actually feeling my mind being warped and Jean Craighead George stealing my innocence.

And now, brace yourself, Esteemed Reader. Ask any children present to leave the room. And pull the curtains tightly closed lest a neighbor witness you reading what comes next. Here, in its entirety, is the offending passage:

"You. You're my wife."
"Daniel, what's wrong?"
"They're laughing at me. That's what's wrong. They say, 'Ha, ha. Dumb Daniel. He's got a wife and he can't mate her. Ha.'"
He pulled her to her feet and pressed his lips against her mouth. She pulled away.
"We don't have to," she cried.
"They're laughin'," he repeated, and tore her dress from her shoulder. She clutched it and pulled away. Daniel grew angry. He tripped her and followed her to the floor. His lips curled back and his tongue touched her mouth. Crushing her with his body, he twisted her down onto the floor. He was as frightened as she.
The room spun, and grew blurry. Daniel cursed, kicked violently, and lay still. Suddenly he got to his feet and ran out of the house. "Tomorrow, tomorrow I can, I can, can, can, ha ha," he bleated piteously.

Are you all right? Breathe, Esteemed Reader! Breath! Someone fetch the smelling salts! I’m sorry to have so basely offended you by inflicting that cruel passage upon you, Esteemed Reader, but we mustn’t be afraid to look evil in the eye and say get thee behind me Jean Craighead George!

Actually, I couldn’t help laughing at this passage reading it again as an adult and remembering all of the conflict it stirred up. It’s tastefully written and does just what it’s supposed to do: it tells this part of the story and moves on. More, Daniel is contrasted with a weak wolf and a greater truth about humanity and our relationship with animals is revealed. Also, this scene serves as a catalyst for Miyax to light out for the new territories, ahead of the rest, and therefore its inclusion is absolutely essential to the story.

So what are we to take away from this passage and the episode I have described? One, I should clarify for the record, Jean Craighead George is not Satan or even one of his minions. She is an amazing writer and we couldn’t be more fortunate to have her with us on Thursday to face the 7 Questions, assuming she has a sense of humor about me casually comparing her to the Prince of Darkness:)

Two, this scene really isn’t such of a much. Oh, it’s terrible, what happens to Miyax and that she is put in such a predicament. But it’s relatively tame compared to some of the sections in Saraswati’s Way. If we had read that book way back when in my fifth grade class, I imagine the hallways of my elementary school would have been littered with bits of the exploded heads of parents. And certainly, The Giver, which our class did read, contained far more graphic scenes to warp our minds. But, of course, that book contained violence, which for some inexplicable reason does not bother Americans as much as sex. American parents seem to be cool with their children taking in a man murdering a woman, but don’t you dare show him kissing her when they are not wearing clothes! And yes, that is different than attempted rape, which is really violence again, but you get my point.

So why on earth have I brought all of this up? Is it so that I may caution writers to keep their prose free of anything readers might find offensive? Not in this life. Offending readers is part of a writer’s job and sometimes little minds need to be warped so that they may grow to be big minds. Jean Craighead George did that for me, and I have read and enjoyed Julie of the Wolves many times since. As a writer, I have been the center of controversy on a few occasions, even on this relatively tame blog. In college, my fiction critique group annoyed me, so I wrote them a story guaranteed to offend (I’d tell you more, but this is a blog about children’s fiction), and as the writers in my class howled for my blood, it was parents howling like wolves for Jean Craighead George I thought of: confused, wrong, and really upset about their children growing up more than the book itself.

Still, I promised an apology and here it is: To Jean Craighead George and to Julie of the Wolves, I, Robert Kent, Middle Grade Ninja, apologize for thinking you were offensive and for once allowing that imagined offense to keep me from reading and loving a wonderful story that was expertly crafted. For myself I can say only that I was very young and very naïve and that I have since tried to make amends by reading Julie of the Wolves and recommending it to everyone. And now I recommend it to you, Esteemed Reader.

In conclusion, if you live out in the country where there are no street lights and you keep wolves on your property, please don’t make poor college students deliver pizzas to you in the dark:) Be sure to find yourself back here on Thursday, Esteemed Reader, when Jean Craighead George will be here and again on Saturday when we’ll have another literary agent drop by. Until then, I’ll leave you as always with some of my favorite passages from Julie of the Wolves:

Miyax was a classic Eskimo beauty, small of bone and delicately wired with strong muscles. Her face was pearl-round and her nose was flat. Her black eyes, which slanted gracefully, were moist and sparkling. Like the beautifully formed polar bears and foxes of the north, she was slightly short-limbed. The frigid environment of the Arctic has sculpted life into compact shapes. Unlike the long-limbed, long-bodied animals of the south that are cooled by dispensing heat on extended surfaces, all live things in the Arctic tend toward compactness, to conserve heat.

Amaroq got to his feet, and as he slowly arose he seemed to fill the sky and blot out the sun. He was enormous. He could swallow her without even chewing.

She came back to her house in a fog so thick she could almost hold it in her hands.

She sniffed the air to try to smell the cause, but only odorless ice crystals stung her nose.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. I loved this book when I was a girl! I'll have to give it a re-read because I kind of forget what happens. And I'll have to re-read "My Side of the Mountain" too! These are such great books.

  2. I hadn't heard of this. The first 2 lines are really great. They say so much.


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