Becoming a Good Creature
Illustrated by Rebecca Green
“School is not the only place to find a teacher.”
Becoming a Good Creature is a short, picturebook version of naturalist author Sy Montgomery’s collection of short stories How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir of Thirteen Animals (2018). Told in the first person, this memoir narrative recounts episodes from Montgomery’s childhood and young adulthood, when she sought to understand and learn from animals. The book begins (and ends) with Sy learning from dogs and their senses. “I wanted to understand the sounds of my neighborhood, both wild and tame,” she says. “But nobody could show me how—until [my dog] Molly.” Inspired by the dog, Sy travels the world—from the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi to the oceans of Costa Rica—to engage with animals and their environments. “I would go to the places where animals lived. Each would be a new teacher and I would write their stories.” Connecting the various episodes—at home and abroad—is Sy’s curiosity about animals and gratitude to all her animal teachers “for showing me a world more surprising, more alive, and far more glorious than I could have ever imagined.” The episodes are grouped under 11 precepts for young naturalists—”Find good teachers,” “Discover your passions,” “Respect others,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Wait patiently,” “Make your own family,” “See for yourself,” “Love little lives,” “Learn forgiveness,” “Find common ground,” and “Trust tomorrow”—that set the tone for the story. Illustrating its key message that “School is not the only place to find a teacher,” the idea of human-animal kinship is amplified by radiant watercolor illustrations, showing the girl Sy observing or interacting with animals.
Becoming a Good Creature’s key use for climate literacy instruction is in challenging the assumption about a disconnect between humans and animals (see anthropocentrism, speciesism, anthropodenial) and its advocacy for the need to learn from other species (see animal teachers, animal elders, human-animal kinship). A mini-handbook on how to become a naturalist, Becoming a Good Creature stresses the need to actually observe animals and learn from them. This helps open up conversations about what it means to understand an animal’s place in the ecosystem (see biodiversity) and how young children can begin to imagine themselves advocating for the Rights of Nature: the idea that all beings have the right to be themselves. For example, in the “Respect others” episode, Sy describes an encounter with a gorilla in which she bowed to it, learning to “respect my animal hosts and their homes” (see natural habitats, habitat loss) The longest “Don’t be afraid” episode features Sy watching tigers, lions, swimming with piranhas and diving with sharks—”none of [whom] ever hurt me”—which directly addresses fear-based ecophobia and disconnect at the heart of many environmental problems today. Other episodes—especially “See for yourself” (on hyenas) and “Love little lives” (on spiders)—are offered to challenge stereotypes and unexamined assumptions about certain animals as evil or disgusting, reminding the reader that “what everyone says is not always true” and that “little lives matter as much as big ones.”
Montgomery ends the book with a letter that gratefully acknowledges “all the creatures who have been my teachers, wild and tamed, named and unnamed, animal and human.” This and that can open the door to researching about other naturalists and on how animal teachers and animal teaching(s) can be done inside the classroom. Incorporating a fish or a rabbit, or a non-traditional classroom pet like a chick may help bring home the notion that students can start building habits of observing and learning from animals. I highly recommend this text to teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to empower young people to recognize how learning from animals and respecting them as our kin is important for the future of this world and can protect and save animals from abuse, habitat loss, and even extinction.
©2023 ClimateLit (Rae Quintero)
Topics: Animal Cruelty, Animal Elders, Animal Teachers, Anthropocentrism, Anthropodenial, Biodiversity, Climate Literacy, Ecophobia, Extinction, Gorillas, Habitat Loss, Habitats, Hyenas, Kinship with Animals, Lions, Naturalists, Piranhas, Rights of Nature, Sharks, Speciesism, Spiders, Tigers