How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green, 208 pp, RL 4

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green
Review Copy from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Compassion is one of the four pillars of character, along with excellence, perseverance and integrity, that we strive to instill in students at the school where I work. We are constantly talking about examples of compassion, in an effort to teach compassion, between humans. Yet we rarely have the opportunity to talk about compassion for other living creatures, especially as the demographics of our student population make owning and caring for a pet, or visiting places where animals can be experienced, a luxury. Yet, having read naturalist Montgomery's magnificently descriptive, magical book about her relationships with animals from all over the world, I believe that my students could truly begin to understand what compassion is as they read her stories of life lived with, and in observance of, animals. 

Green's superb black and white illustrations of the animals Montgomery writes about, as well as occasional illustrations highlighting quotes from the text, add to How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals while also inspiring readers to do research on their own. Montgomery's work experiences - from tracking tree kangaroos in the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea to searching for snow leopards in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia's Gobi to swimming with piranhas and electric eels while researching pink dolphins in the Amazon - are interwoven with her personal experiences as a pet owner. Starting with her childhood dog, a Scottie named Molly, Montgomery describes her burgeoning fascination with the animal world that grows into a deep connection, especially with Christopher Hogwood, the pig who, "taught us how to love. How to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops," and Tess, a border collie, Montgomery says is the, "very definition of grace." The chapter in which Montgomery describes the grinding depression she sinks into after both Christopher and Tess die is painful, yet, for anyone who has ever loved an animal companion, relatable. It is especially moving that, through her connection with animals - tree kangaroos - Montgomery is able to move beyond her loss. I'll leave you with her words (and my regret that I didn't squeeze in details on Montgomery's chapter about Octavia, the octopus, which is totally entrancing) on Chris and Tess, the two tree kangaroos named in honor of Montgomery's beloved creatures:

These beautiful wild animals were not my Chris and my Tess, of course. Nor were they in habited by their spirits. They were their own complex, individual selves, who loved their unique lives. But also, they were, to me, wildness itself. These two animals carried within them the wild heart that beats inside all creatures - the wildness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wilderness that keeps up on this spinning planet. Here, in the cloud forest, I found again the wildness that keeps us sane and whole, the wild, delicious hunger for life.

More books - for adults and children - by Montgomery

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