Dispatch #1: Top of the Heap
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (Puffin Books, 2001)
For years, I’ve kept track of my favorite children’s books that inspire a connection to the natural world. It’s a long, ever-changing list, and it would be crazy to suggest that any single title clearly belongs on top. Still, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George comes close! It’s a thrilling survival story with a likable boy protagonist, and it contains some of the most vivid and accurate descriptions of the natural world in all of children’s literature. Plus, really—who hasn’t fantasized about running away from home and befriending a pack of woodland animals?
Jean Craighead George was uniquely equipped for this project, knowing more than most of us ever will about edible wild plants, forest shelters, wildlife, and the training of falcons. Hers wasn’t textbook knowledge; it was personal insight gained from a lifetime spent outside, really paying attention. You can feel it in passages like this one:
“The chickadees, like the people on Third Avenue, had their favorite routes to and from the best food supplies.”
“Once . . .I came upon a male cardinal sitting in a hawthorn bush. . . . As I watched him, he shifted his feet twice, standing on one and pulling the other up into his warm feathers. I had often wondered why birds’ feet didn’t freeze, and there was my answer. He even sat down on both of them and let his warm feathers cover them like socks.”
Probably my favorite single paragraph comes when our runaway, Sam, is lying on the ground and hears a strange popping noise. Eventually he realizes it’s the sound of earthworms popping out of the soil:
“This got me to smiling. I don’t know why, but this seemed like one of the nicest things I had learned in the woods—that earthworms, lowly, confined to the darkness of the earth, could make just a little stir in the world.”
It may seem odd to celebrate a passage about earthworms in a book about winter survival and hunting, falcons and weasels. But that’s sort of my point. We get so used to the high drama and the big noises of our 24/7 60-mph world. But just think: somewhere in the world there must be a little earthworm fireworks going on right underfoot. Do you think anyone is listening?