August 31 2009

Sy MontgomerySLJ's Extra Helping: Sy Montgomery talks about tarantulas, orangutans and believing in her readers.

Sy Montgomery has been chased by a gorilla, bitten by a vampire bat, and assaulted by a nocturnal, flightless, endangered parrot. Armchair travelers who love to read about these kinds of encounters but shudder at experiencing them in person are fortunate that Sy is not only an adventurer – she’s a distinguished writer for adults and children who has been selected as this year’s winner of the Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award.

The award honors an author or author-illustrator whose body of work has contributed significantly to the quality of nonfiction for children.  Nonfiction is defined as written or illustrated work that arranges and interprets documentable facts and is intended to illuminate, without imaginative invention, the fields of science, technology, social science, history, biography and the arts.

The criteria for the nonfiction award include distinguished writing and illustration; clarity and accuracy, as well as literary distinction in writing; presentation of ideas and facts in a way that is likely to stimulate and challenge young readers; and reader appeal, which includes lively writing.

Sy followed her interest in the natural world by writing books for adults about female primatologists, man-eating tigers and the rare pink dolphin of the Amazon.  After she had published four books, she was approached by photographer Nic Bishop about collaborating on a book for children.  When she saw examples of his work, she said she was amazed that “on the faces of every animal, including the insects, you could see the calm.”  Impressed with Nic’s photographic skills and caring approach to animals, she decided to work with him on a snake book.

She and Nic launched Houghton Mifflin’s award-winning “Scientists in the Field” series with their first collaboration, The Snake Scientist, published in 1999.  This series is unique in introducing young readers to a scientist who’s currently working in the wild.  Children get a feel for the way scientists really operate, complete with occasional setbacks like wasp stings and altitude sickness, while they set up field stations in some of the most spectacular locations on earth.  In the course of researching these books, Sy has traveled to Manitoba to see a pit filled with 18,000 red-sided garter snakes, hiked in Papua New Guinea in search of rare tree kangaroos, and crawled around in the rain forest of French Guiana, known as the tarantula capitol of the world.

As Sy explains, she writes old-fashioned adventure stories, except that these stories are true.  She likes to embed the adventure into a narrative that tells kids a lot about science along with the excitement of solving a mystery.  “We are all hunter-gatherers originally,” she explains, “and we naturally pay attention to the natural world.”  Her goal is to help children do that by making nature and science accessible.

“I’m writing love stories,” she asserts.  She wants kids to see that their natural love for animals is not just legitimate but “utterly necessary.”  Readers will notice that Sy includes children in all of her books, like the schoolchildren who visit the Narcisse Snake Dens in Canada or the youngsters who accompany the scientists on a three-day hike into the cloud forest in search of the tree kangaroo.  She wants children to realize that they could grow up to do this work, too.

Sy has adapted some of her adult books for young readers.  In The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans, adapted from Spell of the Tiger, she brings her strong storytelling skills and extensive research, including four trips to India, to a story that begins with a terrifying attack in the middle of the night.  A tiger silently springs onto a small boat and carries off a young man before his companions realize what’s happening.  The man is never seen again, and his friends are sure the tiger has killed and eaten him.  But is this what really happens when the tigers of Sunderbans attack?  Scientists aren’t sure, and Sy gradually reveals the hidden truths in this tantalizing mystery.

2009 brought publication of the latest collaboration between author and photographer, Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia. Trekking in Mongolia with scientist Tom McCarthy, Conservation Director of the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust, Sy fell off the mountain “ a couple of times,” she admits, but survived to tell the fascinating story of one of the most elusive creatures on the planet.  

For Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot (2010), Montgomery and Bishop waited five years until the small flock of these endangered birds finally mated and the two of them could visit Codfish Island off the coast of New Zealand to see and photograph the parrots.  Sy speaks of her experience with these unusual birds with reverence and joy.  “Each parrot is more precious than the Hope Diamond or the Taj Mahal,” she says. 

Learn more about Sy Montgomery at www.authorwire.com.

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