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Reading the World with Becoming a Good Creature

Becoming a Good Creature

Book Cover of Becoming a Good Creature

By Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green 

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-358-25210-8

Formats: 

EBook: Available September 29, 2020 

Hardcover Picturebook: Available September 29, 2020 

Grades K-Up 

Book Review 

“School is not the only place to find a teacher.” This first line of Sy Montgomery and Rebecca Green’s picturebook adaptation of their 2018 adult book How to Be a Good Creature may ring true for many students and their families right now. Learning can happen anywhere, sometimes where we least expect. Montgomery’s gentle memoir provides readers with a new way of looking at our animal companions at home and our animal neighbors in the wild, and the ways such animals can teach us “something important about how to be a good creature in the world.” After sharing her premise, Montgomery describes her interactions with particular animals in her life in chronological order, naming the lessons learned. Emus allowed Montgomery to discover her passion, gorillas taught her to respect others, while a weasel tutored her in forgiveness. Green’s digitally-edited gouache illustrations range from two-page spreads of landscapes to close-up moments. Illustrations portray Montgomery interacting with animals at various stages of her life, along with research artifacts. As Green notes, “I wanted to not only illustrate Sy’s relationship to animals, but also highlight her writing and work. To do this, I painted pages, notes, and photos throughout the book to illuminate Sy’s world, as though she’s communicating directly with the audience through her studies.” The book concludes with a message that will resonate with readers weary of the challenges brought on by the global pandemic: “even in the darkest times, there may be a wonderful new teacher waiting for you, right around the corner.”    

Official Book Trailer for Becoming a Good Creature

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Note our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you! 

Finding Teachers. After reading aloud Becoming a Good Creature, go back to the beginning and read aloud the first sentence: “School is not the only place to find a teacher.” What does that mean? Have students brainstorm what it means in this book, and what it means in their own lives. Who are people in their lives who have taught them how to do things? What have they learned from those people? What have they learned from them over the last six months of stay at home/quarantine and social distancing? Students can share their responses in conversation or via an online application such as Padlet. You can have students write short paragraphs about those experiences and share photographs or create illustrations to contribute to a class book about informal teachers. You could also be proactive about this, and partner students with family or community members who are willing to serve as informal mentors to your students, teaching them new hobbies such as map-reading, baking, fishing, graffiti art, dance, music, etc. This could be a way to guide students towards passions, particularly if you are in a remote learning context. 

Practicing Being a “Good” Creature. After reading aloud Becoming a Good Creature, have students talk about their own experiences with the various concepts that Montgomery mentions, such as respect, patience, and finding common ground, and connect those concepts to their own lives. Is it always so easy to learn these qualities through observation? Is it always so easy to enact these concepts? Students can each choose one quality to focus on, and over the course of the week, they can look for that quality in their daily interactions and/or try to enact it. For example, they can keep track of moments in which they observed people respecting one another, or in which they tried to show respect or received respect. They can notice the people in their lives that feel like family members even if they are not “related” in traditional ways, or the moments when they have witnessed, received, or offered forgiveness. 

Observing Animal Behavior. After reading Becoming a Good Creature, have students observe animals at home and in school, in captivity and the wild. To support students’ observational skills, you might want to share Janet Winterson’s The Watcher, about the life of Jane Goodall or Annette LeBlanc Cate’s Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard. If students have a pet, have them take notes and photos (or draw pictures) at different times during the day. If you have a class pet or a class bird feeder, students can make these observations in the classroom when/if they have in-person learning. Students can also go for walks in their neighborhoods or nearby parks, or make observations in their yards if they have them, at different times of day about different kinds of animals. Finally, you can have students use webcams of different animals in captivity and in the wild, and observe them. See the resources below for some curated animal webcams. Make the choice(s) that works best for your students. What observations have they made that they can connect with the animals in Becoming a Good Creature?  What questions do they have about that animal’s intelligence or emotional life? 

Grades 2 and Up

Duet of Becoming a Good Creature and Humanimal. After students complete a reading of Becoming a Good Creature, give them time to brainstorm the questions they have about animal intelligence and animals’ emotional range. Next, provide them with the opportunity to explore Humanimal: Incredible Ways Animals are Just Like Us written by Christopher Lloyd and illustrated by Mark Ruffle. What more have they learned about animals? What new questions were answered? Students can research individual animals using online resources available to you through your school and local library system, using databases such as Gale in Content: Elementary and Ebsco’s Primary Search. Students can draw or paint portraits of the animals they studied and write “museum cards” detailing what they have learned about the animal’s intelligence and emotional life. Have students (and/or their families) upload their portraits and museum cards to a Google folder or Jamboard to share. You might even choose to use an application like Artsteps to create a digital exhibit of their work. 

Grades 6-Up

Duet of Becoming a Good Creature & Scientists in the Field. Read aloud Becoming a Good Creature to your middle school students, and then have them read one of Montgomery’s nine Scientists in the Field Series books. The books are available in ebook and print format, and can be accessed digitally via Overdrive. As they read, have students track their new learning and questions, to share in small groups in-person or virtually. Additionally, have students examine how Montgomery’s writing about the scientist and their work is similar to or different from her outlook in Becoming a Good Creature.  

Anthropomorphism or Anthropodenial? How do scientists study and consider the intelligence and emotional life of animals? Is Montgomery anthropomorphizing animals in writing about them the way she does in Becoming a Good Creature? Is Green doing so in her illustrations? Or, is the larger problem that we are in anthropodenial, failing to see the intelligence of animals?  Have your students investigate the ways in which scientists are currently conducting animal research. Partner with your school librarian to find sources, but you can also start with the resources listed below. Invite local veterinarians, animal shelter staff, and university researchers speak to your students over Zoom to share their experiences and understandings of animals’ intelligence and emotional landscapes. Have students demonstrate their learning on the tension between and the meaning of these two words in whatever format makes sense, either in written or spoken words, illustrations or photographs, in the genres of their choice.

Further Explorations 

Online Sources 

Sy Montgomery’s Official Website

Rebecca Green’s Official Website 

Curated Column on “Animal Emotions” from Psychology Today 

“Crying Elephants and Giggling Rats- Animals Have Feelings, Too – The Conversation, 2018

“A Journey into the Animal Mind,” Atlantic Magazine, March 2019 

“Yes, Animals Think and Feel. Here’s How We Know,” Book Talk, National Geographic, July 2015  

Animal Webcams

San Diego Zoo Live Cams

The Smithsonian National Zoo

Explore.Org Animal Cams

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Houston Zoo Webcams

Cornell Bird Cams

Audubon Bird Cams

Books

Animal Emotions Series, Enslow Publishing 

Cate, A.L. (2013). Look up! Bird-watching in your own backyard. Candlewick Press.

Lloyd, C. (2019). Humanimal: Incredible ways animals are just like us. Ill. M. Ruffle. What on Earth Books. 

Montgomery, S. (2018). How to be a good creature: A memoir in thirteen animals. Ill. by R. Green. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Scientists in the Field Series, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

Winterson, J. (2011). The watcher. Schwartz and Wade.

(to find Sy Montgomery’s books for intermediate and middle grades) 

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.

Comments

  1. The use of anthropomorphized animals in picture books has a long and distinguished tradition. It is a literary device, meant to encourage identification with characters who are obvious stand-ins for children. I would be very hesitant to suppose that these characterizations are meant to suggest non-scientific ideas about animal intelligence.
    The use of animals to promote the idea of forgiveness makes me deeply uncomfortable for a number of reasons. It is often a religious idea, generally interpreted through a Christian lens. When dealing with children we want to be careful to not suggest that they necessarily need to forgive unforgivable deeds or life conditions.

    • Mary Ann Cappiello Mary Ann Cappiello says:

      Hello, Emily, and welcome back to a new school year! As always, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. In the teaching invitation to which you refer, I am trying to position students so that they can consider the human emotions that we have intentionally and unintentionally projected onto animals in contrast to the ways in which we deny animals an emotional life in the face of scientific research.

      There are different uses of anthropomorphism in fiction, one of which is animals as human stand-ins. Another way is to center a wild animal as the protagonist, presented with thoughts and emotions by the writer. But I’ve also had great conversations in class about nonfiction books about animals, where we consider whether the writing has gone “too far” and presented an animal emotion not backed up with evidence of research. The teaching idea links to an NPR story about current research on animal intelligence and emotions and the interconnectedness of the two, which I found fascinating and something that middle schoolers would be really interested in exploring. I think the contrast is intriguing. We are used to projecting human emotions and traits onto animals for entertainment. But the scientific evidence is showing that many animals do have an emotional landscape.

      I hear your important concern about forgiveness. The book is an adaptation on her adult book that focuses on life lessons she has learned from particular animals. In the case of forgiveness, Montgomery shares that she forgave a weasel that was in her henhouse. She doesn’t say whether or not the weasel ate any of her chickens. She admired the bravery of the weasel, and recognized on that cold, snowy morning (which she does identify as Christmas morning, for a religious context) that it was only determined to survive by eating what he could. For that, she could forgive it.

      I think – I hope – that middle schoolers can have a rich conversation about the specific teaching idea combined with your important questions and concerns.