When Heather Montgomery was a child she climbed trees and pretended to be a monkey. She snuck up on a great blue heron in a marsh to see it fly. She waded in streams to see what swam around her feet. But she feared spiders and other creepy crawlies. “I was the kid who wouldn’t go to the bathroom at camp because there were spiders in there,” she says.
The junior ranger programs at national parks changed her mind. “I thought the rangers were the most fantastic people ever,” she says. They inspired her to conquer her spider-phobia and become an environmental educator. “Now I pick up spiders in my hand and teach kids about them,” she says. And although thousands of students visit her environmental education center in Alabama each year, she wanted to reach a wider audience. Writing seemed to be the best way to achieve that goal.
For Montgomery, the desire to write nature books did not necessarily translate into the courage to write, but she found support and instruction at her local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and entered a contest. She walked away with first prize, and although she says, “that manuscript hasn’t been published…yet, [the prize gave me] the encouragement I needed to say ‘yes, I can do this!’”
The author of more than a dozen nonfiction nature books, Montgomery approaches each topic as a mystery and thrives on uncovering clues and following leads. “Questions are the key to everything,” she says. “They’re what get me going as a scientist and a writer. What out there isn’t neat and fascinating?” But because her books and her environmental programs encourage kids to question, she takes particular delight in the way children perceive the world. For example, while hiking with a group of students in the wilderness, they spied a tree whose roots encircled a rock. One kid asked, “Is that tree eating that rock?” Montgomery and the students composed questions for a botanist and a geologist who confirmed that the tree absorbed minerals from the rock. “So in a weird way, the tree was eating the rock,” she says. The question prompted a soon-to-be-published article forHighlights.
The Internet is Montgomery’s jumping off point for each book. She locates research papers published in scientific journals, and then tracks down the scientist for an interview. The research phase for her newest book, Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals, was a blast. “It was so much fun talking to the scientists,” she says. And since her book includes the wackiest new species, she spoke to some incredible people. “There’s a guy who goes around with a trowel in his hand, and his job is to find new earthworms. How fun is that?”
Montgomery compares writing a nonfiction book to assembling a puzzle. She gathers the pieces—articles, cool facts, scientific papers—over time (often years). In the case of Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals, she stumbled upon an article about a scientist who discovered braconid wasps. These wasps lay eggs in caterpillars. When the larvae hatch, they consume the caterpillar from the inside out. Montgomery dug deeper, but the puzzle’s picture remained fuzzy.
Later, she read an article about a hot pink millipede—a new species—and realized that what intrigued her about the wasps was the fact that no one ever knew they existed. The puzzle pieces snapped into place. A frame took shape around a book that celebrated the wackiest new species she could find. Some of the pieces Montgomery gathered were included in the final book, but others felt like parts of a different puzzle.
Currently, Montgomery is hard at work on another puzzle about bugs that can’t behave. Since 2005, she has tried several approaches—poetry; different voices and lengths; various formats—without success, until recently when she stumbled on a melding of content, voice, and format that provided the necessary frame she needed to complete her puzzle.
Montgomery celebrates the widespread surge of interest in nonfiction. “The information [is] being broken into smaller and smaller chunks,” she says. “The good side of that is that kids will often pick up a book and tackle a topic they would never have delved into. The downside, of course, is it doesn’t help them develop an endurance for reading. I think as an industry we have to be careful…that we don’t lose the meatiness of nonfiction books.”
Regardless of what the publishing industry does with nonfiction books, Montgomery will continue to question and deliver the wackiest, grossest, most fascinating stories that nature throws her way.