Welp, here it is—Election Day at long last.
If, like me, you’ve found this election—and, well, the last four years—incredibly stressful, disheartening, and often infuriating—here’s a book to soothe your spirits. Two books, actually.
Becoming a Good Creature, written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020), offers bite-sized lessons in living for young and old. It’s adapted from Sy’s 2018 memoir How to be a Good Creature (also illustrated by Rebecca Green), which I loved.
Sy Montgomery is an intrepid traveler, naturalist, animal lover and the author of many bestselling nonfiction books for kids and adults. I, too, love animals—but no one would ever call me intrepid. So I really enjoyed reading Sy’s memoir, tagging along on her adventures and meeting a variety of creatures close up, from the ordinary to the exotic. I particularly loved how she used these inter-species connections as a way to share personal and very human stories of loss, disappointment, heartache and forgiveness.
So I was thrilled to learn she’d written a version for kids. And curious. How would she condense and simplify so much material into a picture book format?
In part, she did it by using a concept all kids can relate to: teachers. Becoming a Good Creature is a collection of vignettes about Sy’s life and the animals she’s encountered all tied together through this animal-as-teacher theme. Here’s how it starts (click to enlarge):
This opening offers the perfect set-up to introduce the animals—and the lessons they teach us—in the coming pages. The first teacher we meet is Sy’s childhood dog, Molly:
From there the animals get more unusual. Sy meets emus in Australia, gorillas in Africa, a tarantula in South America. The headings offer advice from these animal interactions—things like “Respect Others,” “Wait Patiently,” and “Don’t Be Afraid.” The hyenas she meets provide an important lesson for future news consumers: “See for Yourself.”
One of the strangest creatures Sy befriends is an octopus. Due to the constraints of the picture book format, she doesn’t go into depth about this relationship. But in the memoir, I found their friendship particularly moving. Her connection to these otherworldly animals made me look at them in a new way—which, I imagine, is exactly Sy’s mission. (They really are fascinating creatures. Have you seen the documentary My Octopus Teacher? A perfect escape, especially when you’re homebound during a pandemic.)
At the end of the book, Becoming a Good Creature hints at the poignancy of the memoir—friends move away, beloved animals grow old, good things end. But, as the final heading— “Trust Tomorrow”— suggests, it also offers hope. A new puppy arrives, blind in one eye, that no one wants. Guess who adopts him?
The book closes with this line:
Here’s to finding new teachers just when you need them.
Rebecca Green shares a terrific behind-the-scenes look at her illustration process on this page of her website.
And Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has a great downloadable Activity Kit.
Share this picture book with the kids in your life, but be sure to read How to Be a Good Creature for yourself.
And if you haven’t done it already—please go vote!!!
P.S. The winner of The President of the Jungle from last month’s post was Angie Quantrell.