It’s utterly bizarre to me to think that an author as influential in my house as naturalist Sy Montgomery has never yet made it onto my blog. Grappling with how that could have happened, I realized that I’m pretty sure that my last post on the Changeling’s marsupial research was on Welcome, Wombat so I don’t think I’ve even told you about The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo or any of her other marsupial books at all. And yet we’ve been slowly but surely gathering quite the collection of Sy Montgomery books, including, first, How to Be a Good Creature (really pitched for adults) and, more recently, the picture book adaptation of that excellent, wise book, likewise illustrated by Rebecca Green, Becoming a Good Creature. (NB: How to Be a Good Creature is not a children’s book and a parent should read it first due to some quiet but honest references to severe depression and even suicidal ideation, but I don’t think there’s anything a clever kid can’t handle– my Changeling is 7 years old and adores this book– and Rebecca Green’s illustrations catch a child eye.)
I think we all know, by this point in the pandemic, a few things: a) Schools and teachers are incredibly valuable, and undervalued by society as a whole; b) The formal school systems in your area or mine (whether public or private, and at whatever level of education) are really only one avenue to learning. Many families, and many children, are getting an explosion of new experiences, by main force, right now: If I can’t be in a classroom, sitting in one desk in a row of desks, where can I learn, and what, and how? I know a mother homeschooling two children in Canada who has done some of the most remarkably creative work of any teacher I know, from making their own cuneiform tablets to practicing measurements in a field to see just how REALLY big various dinosaurs were, once upon a time.
And, now we’re in December 2020 and many families are considering their end-of-year charitable contributions, I want to invite you to think in a new way about your charitable giving: What is the best way to be a Good Creature and to support other Good Creatures?
To that end, maybe we need to think more broadly about education for ourselves and our children, Sy Montgomery reminds us (accompanied by equally meaningful pictures to reinforce these points from Rebecca Green). Why think only humans can teach humans about being Good Creatures for the good of all? Her earlier book, How to Be a Good Creature, articulates in touching and vulnerable detail her personal experiences learning from animals who often communicated to her with more honesty and kindness than humans. The animals ranged from ones the uninitiated might expect– we think, instinctively, that since dogs are man’s best friend, of course we can relate to them, limited as they are. But no: Sy teaches us that we’re thinking inside the box. The dogs aren’t the limited creatures: we humans face limitations we don’t even know to acknowledge. She learned quickly, as a child, that “these differences, I decided, were not insurmountable. Maybe I could be like her [Molly the Scottie]. If only I could learn her doggy secrets!” Molly has something to teach, and Sy wanted to go with her, to a world “just out of my ordinary human sensory range.”
That’s really the launching point for these two wise books: what are our limitations and what can we learn from the other incredible creatures, the whole world over, whom we normally either indulge as little pets, ignore as irrelevant to our daily lives, or treat as commodities for our use and enjoyment? Sy Montgomery’s earlier books taught my girl to see a pig as a friend and companion (Christopher Hogwood in How to Be a Good Creature) and overcome fear and wildness in order to reach an understanding of a beloved animal– the Matschie’s tree kangaroo. The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo so fascinated her that she decided the dangers of an expedition through the Cloud Forest of Papua New Guinea are completely worth it to see: “a plump, plush fellow, with huge brown eyes, his woolly fur dark brown except for his moon-white belly…” Those, of course, are traditionally “cute” creatures– but even ones I felt nervous about, such as tarantulas, are enthralling to my Changeling, and I keep my conditioned nervousness to myself.
When Becoming a Good Creature was announced, I knew we’d get it, but wasn’t initially in a rush. I knew it would be lovely, and the prospect of a higher proportion of art was appealing since I was expecting another kid (who’s now here, shape-shifting Spriggan that he is!) but all things considered– my Changeling loved How to Be a Good Creature and the Tree Kangaroo, and since Condor Comeback had just come out and she was sleeping with it nightly, where was the rush for a younger picture book?
With the pandemic, things changed. First of all, pre-orders were important for the promotion of books, and I care, deeply, about my local book shops (SHOP INDIE, everyone!), and also about authors and illustrators. HMH announced a pre-order draw (if you sent in proof of a pre-order you could be entered to win a prize pack), so I entered for the fun of it and promoted it online. My less practical, more nuanced thought, though, was my conviction that kids needed this book– and parents, too: I had a feeling that Sy and Rebecca would be telling us about where to look for teachers beyond ourselves, and this was the time for that message.
I was 100% right– and 150% lucky! First, I won one of the prize packs, including a beautiful poster of the book cover I plan to frame for the Changeling’s room. The Changeling was wild with joy when I told her she got a signed bookplate (BOTH Sy Montgomery and Rebecca Green, two of her Real Life Heroes!) for her Becoming a Good Creature and she generously told me I could keep the How to Be a Good Creature signed by Sy Montgomery downstairs so she could finally be allowed to sleep with the old, rather battered copy. (I mean, she was sleeping with it anyway, but now she’s allowed to.) (NB: She’s also told me we’re getting two pigs– she’ll have a boy pig named Christopher Hogwood, and I can get a girl pig and name her Circe.) (I’m not sure the Town of Brookline lets you keep multiple pigs in the backyard?)
I haven’t actually told you much about Becoming a Good Creature itself, yet, have I? Well, there’s a reason for that. It’s not an easy book to convey through a stark blog post, though if you’ve read this far, you probably have a good sense of it: it’s a book about experiences, so it relates to how to be open to experiences, and why it’s worthwhile, and you can really only get that by the experience of living. Some of the lessons? I can give you the words, but you won’t internalize it until you read the book, brought to life by some of Rebecca Green’s most vivid, challenging-yet-easy-feeling art yet. It’s a book about learning by experience, so it’s a book that conveys its message experientially– by flipping through and immersing yourself in the merger of text and art. Animals in the wild and at home taught Sy many lessons over many years, and she shares that as well as she can, but always makes clear that you’ll find your own teachers by your own experiences.
This book, in short, felt important: and IMMEDIATE. As we transition from a difficult 2020 to a 2021 which has taken on new levels of urgency and importance, this is an author, this is an illustrator, and this is a set of books I want to share and promote– and it’s a message I want to promote, too. Be a Good Creature by caring for and listening to and learning for Good Creatures.
I talked to my Changeling and we thought about it. I had two extra books, now: one of How to Be a Good Creature, one of Becoming a Good Creature, both from my local Children’s Book Shop, here in Brookline, where I have met many a Good Creature, and good book! I asked the Changeling whether we should share these, and she agreed. So here’s our plan, on which we agreed together and in consultation with Sy Montgomery:
We’re going to hold a “Thanking Good Creatures” giveaway! If you donate to one of the following charities (I encourage at least a $10 donation) and email me proof of donation at firstname.lastname@example.org then I will enter you to win one of these gorgeous books. DEADLINE: December 31, 2020. I will draw two names at random in the first days of January, 2021, and ship them out the first week of January. I WILL SHIP WORLDWIDE!
To win Becoming a Good Creature, please donate to Sleepy Burrows Wombat Sanctuary near Gundaroo in Australia; the donation page is HERE.
The Changeling says: “Wombats have taught me to share a burrow with other animals who need one.” (During the horrific wildfires in Australia earlier this year, wombats escaped much of the danger due to their burrows, and they tolerated, as they frequently do, the presence of other animals in their burrows, thus allowing many of them to escape danger.)
Sy Montgomery has been working hands-on with the Turtle Rescue League to help out her turtle friends. She says they’re teaching her “at a time of terrible sickness and sorrow in our country, about the tremendous joy of taking a hand, no matter how small, in mending our broken world.”
So, please! Consider making a donation, send me a note with which charity you supported so I know which book you’re entered to win. Again:
a) Donate at least $10 to one of the above charities by December 31, 2020
b) Email me with your receipt and chosen charity/book
c) I will notify you if you win in the first days of January and ship your book shortly afterwards!
Thank you so much for helping to make the world a better place! And thanks so much to Sy Montgomery and Rebecca Green for their work and for showing all of us, kids and adults, concrete ways to work with our fellow creatures to be better ourselves.