By Georges

Twig George grew in the shadow of her mother, Newbery Medal winner Jean Craighead George, but she's branched out on her own and become a successful children's author

October 09, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Anyone with a supremely accomplished mother knows what a unique challenge that can be. On one hand, she is someone to be proud of, to emulate. On the other, in her shadow, how do you breathe, let alone persevere in your personal quest?

If you're Twig C. George, you use gifts inherited from that same talented mom, plus your own wisdom, wit and experience to find a way.

George, of Cockeysville, is the 49-year-old author of two children's books, including "Swimming With Sharks," published this year. She is also the daughter of 80-year-old Jean Craighead George, Newbery Medal-winning author of classic children's books, "Julie of the Wolves," "My Side of the Mountain," and more than 80 other works of fiction and non-fiction.

George takes her "daughter of Jean" status in stride. "Everything in life is a mixed bag," she says. "She provided us with such an incredible life. It's hard to be a child of a legend, you have to figure out where you are. It takes some doing."

Then again, you have to figure out who you are no matter who your mother is, George says. Having Jean as a mom was merely part of "the puzzle we were presented with."

Mother and daughter are scheduled to appear together to discuss their latest work and sign books tomorrow at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Monday at the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park. Students at Gunpowder Elementary School have also asked Twig George back for a return engagement Monday morning and to "bring her famous mother."

The paired arrangement suits Twig, who says she often is approached by people who feign interest in her books, then say, "We would love to have your mother "

Not that the George daughter is an aggressive self-promoter. Her occasional appearances at area schools are more due to word of mouth than design. Such is the case at a recent appearance at Gilman School on a bright October morning. As she prepares to talk to elementary school students, George comes across as a Goldie Hawn on terra firma. She is pretty, has a chirpy voice and is utterly becoming in light makeup, a red knitted vest and a flowing, black-and-white printed skirt. Soon to be 50, George exudes enthusiasm and counter-cultural instincts that took root in her family's wilderness experiences and prospered at Bennington College and the New School.

Her mother is one of Twig's best fans. By phone, she says, "When you meet Twig, you will see that she is very vociferous and full of life, and she just goes right ahead. In my presence she sometimes holds back, but we tend to look at each other and take cues."

As well as anyone, Jean George understands her daughter's daunting task. "Managing the house and the kids and everything, she kind of grew up with me doing the same thing. First things first, and any free time you write. [But] to come out and compete and get in the same field with me is just breathtaking. I just love her for it."

Jean George points out that Twig receives much more support from her husband, David M. Pittenger, the National Aquarium's executive director, than she had from her husband, whom she divorced in 1963.

Twig George remembers her parents as "godlike beautiful and talented." And she remembers thinking, "Why couldn't these people get along?"

Her first book, "A Dolphin Named Bob," is based on a real, mischievous dolphin calf that held the National Aquarium's dolphin show hostage by refusing to return to his tank. Twig laughingly suggests that she sees a little of herself in Bob. She, too, has an impish streak, and like Bob, she didn't get enough nourishment as an infant.

She was born Carolyn Laura, but nicknamed Twig, because, as her mother wrote in "Inward Journey," her autobiography: "She's so small, she's not even a branch on the family tree."

No one got any sleep in the George household until the pediatrician recommended solid food and "peace descended upon us."

Twig and her two younger brothers (both naturalists), grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., in a home shared over the years with 173 animals rescued from the wild. The Georges spent vacations in the Colorado mountains and other remote expanses, where both parents did research for their respective projects.

Twig George received a master's degree in teaching from the New School, then became director of a conservation organization. It wasn't until she was 40 that she seriously applied herself to writing. Like her mother, George takes pains to carefully research her topics and to place human characters as deftly as possible within the natural world.

She tends not to rely on her mother for too much feedback. "She's not an editor; she's a writer," who will just as soon rewrite a chapter as make a suggestion, Twig says. It may be "everybody's dream to get Jean George to do their homework for them," but not hers.

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