Too many interests. That’s my problem, isn’t it? I just have too many interests. But of course that is also the advantage of running a blog about children’s literature. No matter what your interest (as long it’s appropriate) you can probably find a children’s book on the topic. And if you can’t? Write it, baby.
Now we find ourselves in 2020. Our sleepy complacency has been ripped off of us like bedsheets in the morning. We’re questioning things we’ve maybe never thought to question before. And one question that comes to mind is one of the simplest: Am I a good person?
I’m not going to be able to answer that question for you today. Sy Montgomery, my guest author, will also not be able to answer that question, but she did write a book that might be of interest. In 2008 Ms. Montgomery wrote the adult memoir How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals. The publisher described it as a “restorative memoir” that, “reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals, Sy’s friends, and the truths revealed by their grace.” It proved to become a New York Times bestseller, and you know what that means. Whenever a book for adults makes a little money, someone’s going to want to make a young reader edition. Particularly if the author has any kind of experience in that area.
But Becoming a Good Creature isn’t some dumbed down version of Montgomery’s hit book. There are some similar underpinnings but the description is much different. It reads:
“Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson” (Boston Globe), Sy Montgomery has spent her decades-long career traveling the world and writing about its animal inhabitants. The creatures Sy has met on her travels have taught her how to seek understanding in the most surprising ways, from being patient to finding forgiveness to respecting others. With the turn of each beautifully illustrated page, BECOMING A GOOD CREATURE shares these lessons Sy has learned along the way, inviting readers to look around and contemplate what it means to be good. The world has never needed it more.
Today, I get to the bottom of what exactly is going on with this book, and you’ll get a sneaky peek at its book trailer to boot.
Betsy Bird: As I recall, Becoming a Good Creature is an adaptation of your adult book, How to Be a Good Creature. You’ve written so many books at this point, but this strikes me as the first you’ve done where your adult book was adapted into a children’s format. Was that the plan from the start or did the idea of adapting the book for a younger audience come up unexpectedly?
Sy Montgomery: You are correct—Becoming A Good Creature is in fact an adaptation of HTBAGC. I have adapted several other of my adult books for younger audiences in the past: Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon, was written for kids roughly in grades 4-8 as an adaption of Journey of the Pink Dolphins. Likewise, The Man Eating Tigers was a young person’s version of parts of Spell of the Tiger; and Search for the Golden Moon Bear also came out in a title for children (with a different subtitle.) All those were my ideas—ways of sharing these important and inspiring conservation stories with kids.
But this new book—which is for even younger children—was the brainchild of my beloved editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kate O’Sullivan. In fact, How to Be a Good Creature was an editor’s idea too! I am loathe to write about myself. My book The Good Good Pig was, I thought, to be my one and only memoir. I certainly didn’t think I would end up writing two more! But I trust Kate completely and I am glad I listened to her—and thrilled to work again with the wonderful artist Rebecca Green. (I not only love her art—I love HER! We first met right before she moved to Japan and became fast friends. Cannot wait till she returns to the US so we can celebrate our book together.)
BB: I know that stories from the adult edition had to end up on the cutting room floor when formatting the children’s book. Were there any stories that you particularly regretted having to cut, whether in terms of content or space?
SM: Actually, Kate wanted MORE animals for the adult memoir, How to Be A Good Creature! But I thought the book was complete with those 13 individuals. Because I feel awkward writing about myself, like I do in front of a camera, I was eager to put the last period on the last sentence and then jet off like an octopus. Happily, Kate (like my editor for The Good Good Pig, Susanna Porter) convinced me that the Sy character is a foil to show off the animals’ powers, a way to highlight their intellect and emotion and individual personalities. My life is a backdrop, a reflection—the setting for the jewel that is each animal’s story. Still, I didn’t want to keep going on and on about my own story. The new picture book has more animals in it—sharks, tigers, piranhas, electric eels, a cassowary, hyenas—and far less about me.
BB: Makes sense. And I’ve always admired your ability to deftly work on children’s books sometimes and books for adults (like, for example, The Soul of an Octopus) others. What determines the project you work on next?
SM: Early on in my writing career, I was fairly strategic about what I wrote and when. For my first book, published in 1990, I wanted to pay homage to my human heroines, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. That first book, an adult title, was a biography of their relationships with their study animals—this was what made possible every one of all these women’s many scientific breakthroughs, and the reason this new approach changed forever the course of the study of animal behavior.
The subject of my next book, also for adults, was also carefully chosen: it also examined the relationships between people and animals—but this time explored our troubled relationship with predators. This one explored the science and story behind the man-eating tigers and the people who worshiped them in the Sundarbans mangrove swamp spanning India and Bangladesh. While elsewhere, humans were wiping out tigers, here the people worked out a way to not only coexist but actually reverence these powerful predators. I felt this was an important story to tell as tiger numbers dipped to a perilous low.
My first book for kids was also carefully chosen, after much thought. The extraordinary photographer Nic Bishop and I wanted to create a whole new way of doing nonfiction books about animals. We envisioned a book, half text and half photos, with a true narrative about a scientist studying snakes because these animals are so maligned—we reckoned children could be the thought leaders in the human community changing everyone’s minds about snakes once they read about the work of Bob Mason, working in largest snake pit on Earth with 18,000 of these beautiful, smooth, harmless little animals slithering all around him (and us!) I also carefully chose to write The Soul of an Octopus for a specific reason at a specific time. And as mentioned above, sometimes I get a great idea from an editor.
But these are the exceptions. Generally the animals show me what to do next. One animal leads to another!
BB: Let’s look at that word “good”. The title talks about being a “good” creature. And here we are in 2020 when it can increasingly feel as though “good” and “bad” are either more difficult to determine or completely black and white. So I put it to you. What is a “good” creature? What, if anything, makes a living thing good?
SM: This is such a thoughtful question. Every animal is an individual, and of course some individuals are what we humans would consider kinder, gentler, smarter, braver etc. than others of the same species. But all animals—and all people—have goodness in them. We just need to learn to see it. Each individual of every species is an expression of the creative force that I call God, the force that most of us see as holy and sacred—the very definition, I think, of what is good. If we learn to open our senses and our hearts, we will be able to see that every creature offers something we can admire, something to learn from, something we can emulate, in our quest to become better creatures ourselves—more courageous, creative, forgiving, patient, loving and compassionate.
BB: Beautifully put. So the child that tells their grown-up that they love animals could easily be told that they should be a vet or work in a zoo when they grow up. That can be so limiting. You loved animals as a child yourself. What did you think you’d grow up to do? And what can adults tell children when they profess a love of animals?
SM: I, too, thought I would be a vet growing up. I knew my life would be among animals, serving them. But then I learned to read. My father read The New York Times each morning, and he would share the animals stories with me. But back when I was learning to read, in the 1960s, most of the animals stories were about creatures threatened with extinction! We were just then learning about pollution, poaching, overpopulation, and to my horror humans were responsible at every turn! It was then I decided I would be a writer. But there are so many ways each of us who love animals can help, and many ways to make a career of doing so!
In my Scientists in the Field books, I love to show how every one of the scientists working to understand the animals they study work with people with other talents. Nic’s and my Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, while highlighting the exciting work of radio collaring and tracking snow leopards, also shows how Mongolian women making handicrafts, and the people back in America who are marketing them, are helping to save these endangered cats. Our Chasing Cheetahs discusses how dog trainers are part of the team protecting cheetahs. Our Quest for the Tree Kangaroo team research included not just a field biologist, but also an artist, a zookeeper, a biologist, a photographer, a writer, a veterinarian and dozens of villagers—without whom the mission would not have succeeded. And in our just-published Condor Comeback (photographed by Tia Strombeck) we show how school children and Native American elders and youth are helping to restore this magnificent bird to its rightful home in American skies.
BB: I was absolutely crazy about Chasing Cheetahs when that came out, so thank you for mentioning it. Last but not least, what are you working on next?
SM: A book on hummingbirds to come out next year, with photos by Tia Strombeck; the year after that another nonfiction picture book, The Seagull and The Sea Captain (with the same artist I worked with on my first picture book, Inky’s Amazing Escape, Amy Schimler-Safford.) Next August I am headed, as had been planned for this past August (cancelled due to covid) to Ecuador for a Scientists in the Field book on giant manta rays.
Right now, and for the next year or so, I am at work researching two books on turtles—a picture book with lifelike paintings by the turtle artist Matt Patterson, and a longer book for adults about turtles and time. For this book, among other things, Matt and I are volunteering with Turtle Rescue League, which rescues and rehabilitates injured and unwanted turtles.
It is hard to beat turtles and Sy’s such a class act. Still, if you’re looking for a book trailer, we have one on offer!
Sit back and enjoy . . .
Becoming a Good Creature is out everywhere September 29th.
In addition to researching films, articles, and over twenty books, National Book Award finalist Sy Montgomery has been honored with a Sibert Medal, two Science Book and Film Prizes from the National Association for the Advancement of Science, three honorary degrees, and many other awards. She lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, with her husband, Howard Mansfield, and their border collie, Thurber. symontgomery.com | @SyTheAuthor
Rebecca Green is an illustrator of many children’s and middle grade books, including The Unicorn in The Barn, Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea, Madame Saqui, and From Far Away. She is also the author and illustrator of How to Make Friends with a Ghost. This is her second collaboration with Sy Montgomery, their first being How to Be a Good Creature. She resides with her husband, and their lovely animals, Mori and Junie B. www.rebeccagreenillustration.com | @rebeccagreenillustration.
Special thanks to Sy Montgomery for answering my questions, Anna Ravanelle for connecting us, and HMH for the book.