My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George (1959)
A Sweet Spot and Intermediate Selection.
Sometimes a chestnut from another generation can be just the right antidote for our times. So it may be with Jean Craighead George’s Newbery Honor book, My Side of the Mountain. While the modern world offers many conveniences like a weather report on your phone or groceries delivered to your doorstep, a life more closely connected to the land and the whims of Mother Nature still has lessons to teach us.
That’s how Sam Gribley lives. He leaves the material comforts of New York City behind to make a home for himself in the woods of the Catskill Mountains upstate. No one believes he will actually stay, but stay he does and has countless adventures during his year in the wilderness.
Sam is blessed with a true Robinson Crusoe soul, the attitude and skills necessary to master the wilderness. Despite early missteps, your students will marvel at his ingenuity and tenacity. Sam creates all manner of handy, well-crafted natural solutions for the problems he encounters, from clothing and shelter to fishing, hunting and entertainment. The food alone will give you plenty to explore as Sam learns to feed himself by hunting, fishing, and foraging everything from wild onions to cattails. He even finds companionship in a falcon fledgling, Frightful, who becomes his friend and hunting partner. (Frightful and Sam star in several sequels, including one published almost 50 years after the first, so students who fall in love with this wilderness tale will have more books to explore.)
Sam’s adventures will invite students to look at nature through new eyes, providing an opportunity to talk about the interconnectedness of the human and natural world. The book is also bursting with possible STEM activities as students can try to replicate Sam’s engineering feats using simple, natural materials. And, it is a book that fairly demands you to linger over the language as it paints vivid pictures of Sam’s surroundings:
September blazed a trail into the mountains. First she burned the grasses. The grasses seeded and were harvested by the mice and the winds.
Then she sent the squirrels and chipmunks running boldly through the forest, collecting and hiding nuts.
Then she frosted the aspen leaves and left them sunshine yellow.
Then she gathered the birds together in flocks, and the mountaintop was full of songs and twitterings and flashing wings. The birds were ready to move to the south.
An old-fashioned story, well-told, with plenty for us to learn in the 21st century, makes My Side of the Mountain a rewarding choice for your schoolwide reading event.