Writer Sy Montgomery has been chased by a gorilla, bitten by a vampire bat, and assaulted by an amorous parrot. But it’s all good – these experiences and more have found their way into her award-winning books for children.
This coming Saturday, April 17, Montgomery will be accepting the Children’s Book Guild of Washington Nonfiction Award at the National Geographic Society in Washington. Both kids and adults are welcome. Ticket information is available at www.childrensbookguild.org.
Montgomery specializes in profiles of scientists who conduct research in exotic locations. One of the most likeable is Sam Marshall, introduced on the first page of “The Tarantula Scientist,” lying on his belly in the rainforest, poking a stick into a hole in hopes of finding a tarantula.
How did he get there? Marshall loved animals growing up and arrived at his college dorm room with a menagerie that included a hawk, a ball python, and a monitor lizard. Not a great student, Marshall finally found his calling when he did research on his favorite animal: tarantulas. Now he divides his time between teaching at Hiram College, where he runs the Spider Lab, and collecting spiders in the rain forests of French Guiana.
In “Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia,” Montgomery and her frequent collaborator, photographer Nic Bishop, accompany scientist Tom “Danger Man” McCarthy into the high, stony Altai mountains of Asia.
Snow leopards are famously elusive, blending into the rocky landscape so well that even trained eyes can look right at them without seeing them. Nevertheless, McCarthy is determined to estimate their population so that he can better assess their survival rate. He’s managed to capture a few leopards and outfit them with transmitters, but as the book opens, he hasn’t clapped eyes on a snow leopard in nine years. Bishop’s dramatic photographs and Montgomery’s storytelling skills make for a suspenseful story.
Montgomery followed scientist Lisa Dabek to a magical place for “Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea.” The terrain is like “a living fairy tale…we half expect a hobbit or a troll to show up.” Dabek is searching here for one of the rarest, strangest and least understood animals in the world, a kangaroo that lives in a tree.
Unlike many scientists, Dabek grew up in a big city and, rather than collecting animals, was so allergic to them that she had to give away her cat. But as an adult, she has found that the clean air of New Guinea’s cloud forest, up at 10,000 feet, actually makes her asthma better.
Montgomery’s newest book, coming in May 2010, is “Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.” Fewer than a hundred still exist in the world, all of them on remote Codfish Island off the coast of New Zealand. There these eight-pound birds spend their nights (they’re nocturnal) thrashing through the undergrowth (they’re flightless) in search of food.
Montgomery and Bishop waited for years until scientists sent word that the kakapos were breeding at last. The two dropped everything and made their way across the planet to witness this rare event that might mean the difference between extinction and survival.
As for the amorous kakapo who made overtures to Montgomery? Come to DC this Saturday to hear the whole story!
This article was first published in the Free Lance-Star on April 13, 2010.