Chiru, small, sheep-like animals in Tibet, have a unique plight—they cannot be shorn to use their luxurious wool, but must be slaughtered instead. In this arresting picture book, The Chiru of High Tibet, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrator Linda Wingerter handle this delicate topic with much care. Their lyrical text and ethereal illustrations chronicle the work of conservationist George Schaller, the first of several men whose heroism saved the species from poaching. Here, Martin talks about the bravery at the heart of this story.
How did you first learn of the chiru? And did you immediately realize that you wanted to pursue a project on the subject?
I heard of this story on NPR one morning as I was driving to a school visit. I was immediately taken with the notion of the four mountain-climbing men making this dangerous journey for no reward, except the satisfaction of saving an endangered species from extinction. Their journey and George Schaller’s work were examples of a kind of bravery that involved neither physical violence nor guns. I remember that I was buoyed all that day by my excitement at the possibility of telling this story.
If you were to choose one thing a child could do in order to get involved and make a difference in conservation efforts, what would that be?
There are so many things to do…both close to home and out in the world. For example, close to home, students could participate in the Christmas bird count, sponsored by the Audubon Society. They could grow vegetables for their families in order to reduce the carbon footprint of their families’ meals.
A little further away, they might look in their area for a wildlife sanctuary or animal rescue program at which they could volunteer. Perhaps they have an idea for raising money to help with international rescue efforts—babysitting, selling cookies, walking dogs, mowing yards. I have read recently of a turtle rescue effort at the site of the Gulf oil spill and of the ongoing efforts to save the whooping cranes from extinction. From small animals like frogs to large animals like rhinos, there are many other species that need our help and many organizations that could use money. Students might want to get together with other kids of like minds and form a conservation club.
If I had to choose just one thing, however, I would say kids should read. As a boy, George Schaller read accounts of travel to Tibet, which fired his imagination and made him determined to go there as an adult. And look what came from that! Reading also informs us all, any age, about what’s going on, so that we can make good choices about what to do.
What is your work process like when you’re in the throes of a project like this?
I read as much as I could find about chiru and made myself a two-dimensional paper model of a chiru so I would have a visual sense of their size. But the paper model wasn’t enough. I decided I needed to see these animals. I received a travel grant from Wellesley College, my alma mater, and spent three weeks traveling and camping in the Chang Tang wilderness in Tibet. By the time we arrived the females had left for the birthing area, but I saw many male chiru, I saw the home ground of the chiru and met some of the Tibetan people, who call these animals sacred.
Martin’s favorite books of 2010:
“I really love Phyllis Root’s new book—Big Belching Bog, illustrated by Betsy Bowen. It’s about the life in a seemingly lifeless place, a Minnesota bog. We don’t all live in Minnesota but we can all find this book interesting and wonderful. It’s a great reminder to look more closely at the world around us.”
“I also have enjoyed Joyce Sidman’s book of poems about night creatures, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, illustrated by Rick Allen.”
“Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, illustrated by John O’Brien is not exactly [a nature book] but it fascinates me. I like the story and love that [author] Joseph D’Agnese decided that readers would respond to a story about this mathematician who lived in the Middle Ages.”
For a complete list of nonfiction books for children featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of great children’s books for animal lovers featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
The Chiru of High Tibet: A True Story
Jacqueline Briggs Martin; illustrated by Linda Wingerter
Houghton Mifflin / September / 9780618581306 / $17.99