Sy Montgomery has written many award-winning books for readers of all ages, including the international bestselling memoir, The Good Good Pig (2006). With photographer Nic Bishop, she’s contributed to the Scientists in the Field series, garnering two Sibert Honor recognitions, for The Tarantula Scientist (2004) and Quest for the Tree Kangaroo (2006). Their most recent collaboration recounts the dramatic, often-heartbreaking efforts to save New Zealand’s tame, flightless, oversized parrots—the kakapo. Here, Montgomery discusses their book Kakapo Rescue.
In a video interview with [the adolescent literacy resource] adlit.org, you said that your field work for the kakapo project was your “most emotional expedition yet.” Could you comment further?
During the short period we were on Codfish Island, we had the staggering privilege of seeing the only kakapo chick alive on the planet at that time. Imagine the thrill! Imagine how much we loved that helpless, fluffy baby bird! And then imagine how crushing it was when that dear little chick inexplicably died. We all wept…And then, another egg hatched. In the short time we were there, we experienced elation, sorrow, fear and redemption—a roller-coaster ride of emotions.
Why do you feel it’s particularly important to write for children now?
When we get older, we get set in our ways. An adult might not want to change the way they eat, shop or vote to save the planet. They’ll say, “Oh, don’t tell me about how bad factory pork farms are for the environment—I want to enjoy my bacon!” But a child won’t. Children are more flexible, more hopeful and more creative than most adults. If you reach kids early enough, they won’t buy the lie that what’s important in life is clothes and money and status and “security.” Kids are our future, of course—but certain after what for the environmental movement, they are also very much our present. An educator friend of mine has told me that parents get some 70 percent of their environmental news from their children.
What drew you to collaborate with Nic Bishop on the Scientists in the Field books?
I met Nic Bishop at a conference at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where I gave a talk on a book I’d written about man-eating tigers (The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans, 2001). He came up and proposed we work together on children’s books. I asked him to send me some of his photos. The minute I saw them, I knew this was the man I wanted to work with.
In his portraits of small mammals, frogs and even insects, I could tell by looking at the animals’ faces that they were not afraid. Too many animal photographers are animal paparazzi. They’ll pursue a wild animal till it’s stressed, sometimes to exhaustion. They’ll explode flashes in their faces, confine them against their will. If you look at the faces and postures of many of these animals you can see they’re terrified. Nic handles every animal with great gentleness and patience. He waits until the animal is calm to take its portrait. And when he does, he shows the creature at its best—not frightened or angry, but looking like a frog or a spider or a squirrel or a tree kangaroo or a snow leopard really looks—dignified and confident.
In that same interview with adlit.org, you said that your “reality opens up” in the presence of an animal. What did the kakapo reveal to you?
What struck me most profoundly about the kakapo was its intense curiosity and friendliness. And not just in Sirocco, [the parrot] who was raised by people and a bit confused about his identity. We had to capture one bird, Lisa, to change the battery pack on her radio telemetry. When we let her go, she raced away—but couldn’t help but pause and give us one last curious glance from behind a tree.
I found this so compelling for two reasons. Curiosity and friendliness are traits we value highly in humans. Yet kakapo, as birds, are more closely related to dinosaurs than to humans. In fact, all birds are direct descendants of the therapod dinosaurs. We’re discovering that many dinosaurs had feathers. We now know T. Rex was covered in fluffy down when he hatched out of the egg! If a living dinosaur is capable of forming a friendly relationship with a human, shouldn’t we humans return the favor to all species on this earth—not just our own?
And I find it hugely moving that kakapo seem so friendly to us even after all humans have done to their species. We should all learn to be so forgiving!
For a complete list of children’s nonfiction books featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of children’s books for animal lovers featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot
Sy Montgomery; photographs by Nic Bishop
Houghton Mifflin / May / 9780618494170 / $18.00