I choose to write young adult novels and started my writing journey with middle grade stories. The coming-of-age character is the one I connect with, but the authors who inspired me to read were the children’s authors I discovered in elementary school. While I read hundreds of phenomenal authors, the two writers who always pop into my head are Jean Craighead George and Cynthia DeFelice. George's Julie of the Wolves Trilogy and DeFelice’s The Ghost of Fossil Glen center on young women, aged thirteen and eleven respectively, who struggle to live like children, think like adults, protect and interact with the environment and its creatures, and represent the kinds of children that are needed in modern society.
Live Like a Child, Think Like an Adult
George’s character Julie, or Miyax, is raised in the Alaskan tundra with her widowed father until the age of thirteen, when she marries a boy her age and moves away. When her boy-husband tries to force himself on her (without graphic detail), Julie runs away and gets lost on the tundra. She is discovered by a small wolf pack who take her in as one of their pups and it is because of them that she finds shelter, food, and protection.
Married at thirteen is difficult enough without having to survive a season in the Alaskan tundra. George’s character is strong because of her determination to better her life, even if the process is dangerous and uncertain. Julie relies on her survival instincts, taught by her father, and the trust of the wolves. The alpha male is often portrayed as regal and trustworthy, the alpha female is caring and stern, and Julie’s favorite pup is precocious and brotherly. Attributing characteristics normally given to people gives these animals a humanistic persona, and the young reader will feel safer with the wolves in nature as Julie does rather than in a warm house with a misguided young man. This idea, that sometimes what is found in nature is safer than what we create in our society, is what children need to learn and understand in case they fear the situation they are in or are terrified of learning what is the unknown.
DeFelice’s little girl, Allie, resembles a way of life more young readers are accustomed to: a small house in a neighborhood, a little brother, and two parents who are loving but strict. Allie encounters the ghost of a girl and it is her job, along with her best friend Dub, to discover how she died and why and hopefully to bring peace to her soul.
Allie deals with murderous people and haunting apparitions, but she deals with them without the help of her parents or other adults. Allie has an active imagination, and early in the story her parents are heard discussing if they should send her to a psychiatrist. I was one of these kids. Allie is seeing and hearing a dead girl who needs help, but she can’t ask the two wide people in her life for help because they would never believe her. While Allie’s predicament is severe, most children feel this way about their parents because once adulthood arrives, most people stop exploring and wanting to hear stories. Allie views her parents as good people, but ones who are too far gone from childhood to understand when she is telling the truth and when she is telling a story. DeFelice creates a story of trust and understanding, and while it is unwise to teach children to not trust their parents, children also need to learn that their parents are not as curious as they are and so a mutual understanding needs to take place between the two groups in order for communication to flow.
Children should be shown respect for their curiosity, because most of us will lose this wondrous thought once we grow older. These ideas are pure, unhindered, and often the right or just idea, and these kinds of trustworthy instincts should also be praised while they are made on character and nothing more. If wolves and a ghost are more trustworthy than people, shouldn’t that be a look at our society and how children are raised in it rather than anything else?
Julie’s mission is to survive, but she is also intent on protecting the wolves from hunters and poachers. A single wolf’s ear can fetch quite a bit of money, but after living with them and realizing they live like the community she left behind with her father and his friends, she cannot comprehend how anyone could end their lives for something as temporary as money.
Children inherently want to do good to animals; it is only when they see their parents, older siblings, or other friends abusing them that they think it is right. Julie’s father taught her how to hunt but also how to respect the animals. He taught her to eat certain animals when they overpopulate and when to not bother with them when their numbers are low. Not only that, but the Alaskan tundra is seen untouched and without machines or modern technology, which only highlights Julie’s fascination with nature. In ten, fifteen years, novels that focus on young characters exploring the wild will be seen as classic literature because children will be engrossed in computers, phones, or games. George writes a story about survival, but also shows the nature in the best light while reserving the dim light for the actions of people when needed.
DeFelice’s Allie loves animals, but it is Fossil Glen that she feels the greatest connection with. At only eleven, she climbs the cliffs of the rock and tries to beat her best each time, but on one incident she can’t get down and risks falling. However, despite that, she is still drawn to the glen and its natural state, and it is because of this connection that the ghost contacts her.
Allie often plays with her teacher’s golden retriever Hoover, and throughout the novel it is Hoover who comes up with the clues to the ghost’s death when Allie and Dub cannot. Fossil Glen also plays a large role in the ghost’s story because Allie realizes that the glen will be demolished for a new housing district. The idea of clearing out such a large expanse of land horrifies her and she and Dub fight the man who is in charge of the project. This strong determination will encourage readers to fight for what they believe, especially when it for things who cannot speak for themselves. Animals and nature are subject to humans’ wrath and apathy, so it falls to young shoulders like Allie’s that have not been worn down by the truth of the world so they can stop unnecessary destruction.
Young readers will read about the beauty of the tundra and the glen and be willing to help the animals inside it after reading stories that follow these paths, and while some may argue that the environment is fine, it only takes the smog, the lack of green in the cities, and people’s failing health to realize that something should be done. Often, the ones who make the biggest headlines for the environment are young individuals to those in their early twenties who still possess the determination they cling to from their youth.
Children need to hear stories of independence, determination, and protection if they want to do more in their lives. Encouraging a child to play outside rather than in front of a screen will help them realize their power in their area of the world. They may not be able to see the rainforest or the ocean, but they know that they would never want something to happen to the tree that provides them a house or the water that comes out of the hose that provides them a waterfall. Teaching them to hold on to these values will be the greatest step to ensure they hold on to them when they reach the boring, unimaginable stage of adulthood that most people fall into.