Storytelling goes back a long, long ways. I’m guessing early humans told stories of hunting animals they depicted in their cave drawings. Stories add drama to scientific narratives, settings and characters that readers (especially children) can relate to. Jean Craighead George (July 2, 1919 – May 15, 2012) was a pioneering author of this literary form and published 130 books for young readers in her lifetime, classics like “My Side of the Mountain” and “Julie of the Wolves.”
Now her daughter, Twig C. George, is continuing this literary style, teaching science through children’s books that tell stories. I first met Twig in the early 80s when she came to an elementary school in Vineland, New Jersey, to see me perform my “Whales, Giants of the Ocean” assembly program. At that time, Twig was the educational director for “the Center for Environmental Education,” a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization advocating a healthy environment and protection of our endangered species.
Twig must have liked my performance, because she set about to write a grant to put me on the road, from New Orleans to Boston, teaching school children about seals, whales, and sea turtles. She named this show, “Fur, Flukes and Flippers”. It was a big deal for me, because I was getting national recognition. As Twig’s husband, Dave Pittenger, the retired executive director of the Baltimore National Aquarium, was fond of saying, “Twig literally put you on the map.”
I visited Twig and Dave at their Maryland home on my recent trip back East. Twig is busy working on her seventh book, titled “An Unlikely Friendship.” It’s the story of Emily, a young girl who visits an aquarium every week to see her friend, an octopus. Twig had previously published four books of her own: “A Dolphin Named Bob”, “Swimming with Sharks,” “Jellies, the Life of Jellyfish,” and “Seahorses.”
She has also co-authored two other scientific books. One with her mother, “The Pocket Guide to the Outdoors based on My Side of the Mountain.” She also finished her mother’s last novel with her brother, Dr. John “Craig” George, titled “Ice Whale” in 2013. The book was based on Craig’s research. He and a colleague discovered that bowhead whales live 200 years!
I asked Twig what made her want to become an author. She reflected, “At first I was determined not to be an author! I studied art, taught, and worked as a librarian. Then there was a dolphin born at the National Aquarium, where my husband worked. That dolphin had a remarkable story. I realized if I wrote a book based on this dolphin, I could include information about their biology, communications and social structures. After many tries it was accepted and published. And, then other stories emerged.”
Twig has advice for youngsters who show an interest in writing. “I used to say, ‘Just write!’ But, I have since learned from students and other authors that there are many ways to develop your writing and storytelling skills. Some kids make up plays, others build block-buildings or draw pictures with sound effects and narration. All these activities are preparation for writing.”
Finally, I asked her how teachers and parents can lead young people to better appreciate the workings of nature? She responded, “It starts with spending more time outside. A camera can help children see things in nature that might otherwise get overlooked. Creative play in streams and woods is a good place to start, especially if kids think there is nothing to do out there! Making fairy houses, bark and leaf rubbings are just a few ways to get children to begin to interact with nature. Go hiking, camping, canoeing, tubing – anything to make a connection with this beautiful planet. And … bring good things to eat under a canopy of trees or on a rock overlook. Make it fun!”
I am so fortunate to have friends who inspire me like Twig and Dave. Perhaps the root of my appreciation goes all the way back to growing up on a small farm in northern Minnesota. We didn’t have much, only a few books in the house, and hardly any culturally expanding experiences, beyond radio programs and Saturday night cowboy movies at the theater in town. A title for my memoir might be “Still Catching Up.” Yes, in my travels, I am always learning something new from my generous and gifted friends. Thank you, Twig. Thank you, Dave.
Ozzie Tollefson lives near Phelps Mill and is the author of “Mr. Teacher.”