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What animals can teach people about being ‘good creatures’

Naturalist and best-selling author Sy Montgomery adapted her "How to Be a Good Creature" memoir for kids.
Naturalist and best-selling author Sy Montgomery adapted her "How to Be a Good Creature" memoir for kids.courtesy of Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and writer of best-selling books for grownups including “The Soul of an Octopus” and “The Good Good Pig.” The public radio regular has also written many books for kids, including her “Scientist in the Field” series and the recent “Becoming a Good Creature” (2020). We reached Montgomery at her home in New Hampshire to ask what young people might learn from wildlife as they venture outdoors this summer.

Q. You published the best-selling “How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” in 2018. What inspired you to adapt the book for young kids?

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A. My sainted and brilliant editor [at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt] Kate O’ Sullivan suggested it. The memoir for adult readers shared how 13 individual animals helped me meet life challenges, from finding my passion to coping with despair. We adults sometimes forget that small children face equally difficult and important challenges. Kate helped me see that the animals who saved me could also help young people in their struggles to become good creatures in the world.

Q. You assert in the book that animals can be great teachers for kids. Can you say more about that?

A. Humans have been important in my life — I even married one. But animals, too, have been essential as friends, mentors, teachers, inspiration. My first dog, Molly, showed me what I wanted to do with my life: learn the secrets of animals. Three emus showed me the path to do so: to follow wild animals wherever they were, and tell their stories. A pig showed me that family is not made out of genes, but love. An ermine taught me forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that humans don’t make good teachers, but it’s great to reassure both kids and grownups that teachers are everywhere, not just in the classroom, and they don’t all have two legs and opposable thumbs.

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The cover for Sy Montgomery's “Becoming a Good Creature” (2020).
The cover for Sy Montgomery's “Becoming a Good Creature” (2020).Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Imagine if you only ate one kind of food, or listened only to one type of music. Expand your attention and love to other creatures, and whole new worlds open — worlds not even available to our human senses. Animals, with abilities to detect sounds we can’t hear, scents we can’t smell, see spectrums of light invisible to us, detect chemicals and electrical currents we can’t perceive, apprehend the world in a way we cannot. If we attend to them, we grow in wisdom. We widen our appreciation of the planet. We expand our capacity for compassion.

Q. Are there reader responses that particularly resonated with you?

A. Many parents have written that their children totally got every animal in the book. Children instinctively know what it took scientists and philosophers many decades to admit: that animals are individuals who think, feel, and know, and who love their lives as we love ours.

Q. You’re known for books and activism on behalf of all creatures. What’s one thing readers would be surprised to learn about you?

A. I was once afraid of bees. In my 20s, I was stung by hundreds of yellow jackets and went into anaphylactic shock as my throat began to close up. But because I was more afraid of doctors than bees, I didn’t go to the ER, but instead took a handful of antihistamines. I failed to die. But I thought I was so allergic that the next sting might do me in. It was decades before I learned that anyone might have gone into anaphylaxis with that many stings. And that under normal conditions, these beautiful, beneficial, and social animals posed me very little danger.

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LITERARY spotLIGHTS: A CONVERSATION WITH SY MONTGOMERY

6 p.m. Wed. Hosted by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. RSVP at www.associatesbpl.org

Interview was condensed and edited. Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.