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2011 Robert F. Sibert Award for Nonfiction: Kakapo Rescue

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot
Written by Sy Montgomery
with Photographs by Nic Bishop
Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field Series, ISBN # 978-061894170

Book Review

Imagine an eight-pound flightless parrot with an owl-like face and yellow, green, and brown honey-scented feathers nesting in the undergrowth of a fairy-tale forest, hidden among lush ferns, mosses and wizened trees. You are picturing the Kakapo, a critically endangered bird species found only on Codfish Island off the coast of New Zealand. In this title in the highly acclaimed Scientist in the Field series, nature writer Sy Montgomery and notable photographer Nic Bishop team up once again, visiting the island to document the efforts of scientists and volunteers to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. With her fluid conversational style, Montgomery transports the reader to this remote locale, while the vibrant images from the master photographer reinforce the reader’s immersion in this adventure and capture the heart and soul of this mission. During their ten-day stay Montgomery and Bishop watch nests through the use of hidden cameras; follow parrots outfitted with radio trackers using telemetry; sanitize, refill, and replace feeding stations; and are witness to dramatic new life and tragic death. The events of the visit reflect the grim struggle to save the Kakapo, yet a chance face-to-face encounter with a curious Kakapo ends the text on a hopeful note. This title offers a concrete opportunity for young readers to ponder the impact and responsibility of human interaction with the natural world.

Teaching Invitations
Grades 3-8
  • Literature Circles. Use the three titles by Montgomery and Bishop listed below along with this book for nonfiction literature circles. Form four groups, each group responsible for reading and discussing one of the four books. Ask each group to prepare a brief presentation about their book (perhaps using Voice Thread or PowerPoint) for their classmates. After each group has a chance to present, discuss the similarities and differences across the books. What has led each animal to become an endangered or rare species? What tools and processes do the scientists and conservationists use to learn about and protect the species? What challenges do the conservationists and scientists face? What did the author and photographer experience during the expedition?
  • Volunteers. Montgomery profiles several of the volunteers who work on Codfish Island. Invite your students to consider the many roles that volunteers serve in local communities. Who are the volunteers? What jobs do they do? What motivates them? You might want to have your students interview several different community volunteers or find opportunities for your students to do a day of volunteer work to experience first hand what it means to donate your time to others.
  • Descriptive Language in Nonfiction. Montgomery has a special talent for vivid description that makes the reader feel present at the scene that she is describing. Select key passages, such as the following, to examine with your students: “Everything is green, alive, and fresh. Ferns are everywhere: tall ferns, short ferns, frilly ferns, leathery ferns, ferns that perch on treetops, ferns that climb high into the canopy, tree ferns. The ground is carpeted with lichen and soft green moss. One kind is called umbrella moss and each plant is small enough to make a parasol perfect for a fairy.” In this passage, you would want to note the author’s use of repetition for impact; her use of specific adjectives, such as frilly and leathery, the use of metaphor and comparison. Make a list of the writing techniques used by Montgomery in her best descriptive passages. Then invite students to try out these techniques in their own writing. A field trip to a beautiful outdoor location may be in order – make sure to bring along clipboards and your favorite writing tools (or maybe your iPads).
  • Native Species. The Kakapo Parrot species has suffered greatly from the introduction of non-native animals to New Zealand. Contact your local conservation agency or do an internet search to learn more about the plants and animals native to your area. How have invasive species affected the natural plant and wildlife balance? Research local efforts to conserve native species and invite a local conservationist to speak to your class.
  • Genre Study. Engage your students in a genre study of the photo essay. Gather a collection of photo essays and guide students to develop a definition for the photo essay. Use the book titles listed below as a starting point and seek out additional titles by these authors. Be sure to make a distinction between a book that is illustrated with photographs and a true photo essay in which the photographs play a major role in communicating the narrative or key concepts of the book. You will find Nic Bishop’s website useful in this process as he describes how he conducts research and obtains the photos for his photo essays. After thoroughly exploring the genre, invite your students to compose photo essays either individually or in groups.
  • Resources. Sy Montgomery shares a website with her husband and fellow author Howard Mansfield. Explore her website and use some of the excellent teaching suggestions included for Kakapo Rescue.
Critical Literacy
  • Local Endangered Species. Use the website of the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (below) to identify endangered species in your area. How did these species come to be endangered? What efforts are being made to preserve the species? Ask students to consider what steps they might take to support the efforts.
  • Photography as Social Action. The medium of photography can be a powerful advocacy tool for social change. Study the photographs in Kakapo Rescue with your students and ask them to describe the emotions that the photographs evoke in them. Provide other examples of collections of photographs that are a critique of society or a call for action, such as Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant families taken during the Great Depression or her documentation of the Japanese Internment Camps (;query=dorothea%20lange;style=oac4;view=admin#hitNum9), Lewis Hine’s photographic protests against child labor (, or Gary Braasch’s photgraphs of the BP oil spill for a current example. ( Ask your student to identify a concern or problem in their local community and invite students to create a collection of photographs that raise awareness of the issue.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal Home Page
Authorwire: The Website of Howard Mansfield and Sy Montgomery
Nic Bishop
Kakapo Recovery
Scott Mouat’s film: The Unnatural History of the Kakapo
World Wildlife Federation
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Species Program
Kids Planet
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Endangered Species Act
NOAA Fisheries: Office of Protected Resources
New Zealand: Natural Environment
New Zealand: History and Heritage
New Zealand Department of Conservation: Kakapo
BooksMontgomery, S. (2009). Saving the ghost of the mountain: An expedition among the snow leopards in Mongolia. Photos by N. Bishop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Montgomery and Bishop accompany conservationist Tom McCarthy on an expedition in Mongolia to track the elusive and rare snow leopard.

Montgomery, S. (2006). Quest for the tree kangaroo: An expedition to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea. Photos by N. Bishop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Montgomery and Bishop visit Papua New Guinea to document researchers’ efforts to track the rare Matschie’s tree kangaroo.

Montgomery, S. (2004). Search for the golden moon bear: Science and adventure in the Asian tropics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Montgomery travels to southeast Asia with a biologist to determine whether a golden bear found in this area might be an undocumented species.
Additional Photo Essays:
Bishop, N. (2009). Lizards. New York: Scholastic.
Bishop, N. (2009). Butterfiles and moths. New York: Scholastic.
Bishop, N. (2008). Frogs. New York: Scholastic.
  • These titles feature information about the animal and Bishop’s extrodinary photographs.
Freedman, R. (2005). Children of the Great Depression. New York: Clarion.
  • A moving collection of carefully chosen archival photographs expands this description of conditions faced by children during the Great Depression.
Sandler, M.W. (2011). Kennedy through the lens: How photography and television revealed and shaped an extraordinary leader. New York: Walker.
  • This photo-essay explores the impact of images in photography and television in the campaign and presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Siy, A. (2009). Cars on Mars: Roving the red planet. Boston: Charlesbridge.
  • A description of the Mars Exploration Rover program illustrated with spectacular photographs of the red planet.
Walker, S. (2009). Written in bone: Buried lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.
  • The author documents the work of forensic anthropologists uncovering human remains for the clues they provide about life in colonial times.
Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.