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The nonfiction author discusses her striking choice in subject matter and how to engage young readers with science.
“Science is a verb; science is the doing of. Often, with nonfiction, we provide just the end result of our research, but the coolest part is the doing. Taking readers on the journey with me is the part I love.”
Although she didn’t grow up reading nonfiction, Heather L. Montgomery has become known for her accessible and downright humorous informational texts for middle-graders, which she writes in order to reach disengaged students and explore the fascinating world of science. Her titles include Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other (2020), and we spoke with her recently about her latest work, which focuses on some surprising uses of waste products and research associated with poop.
Links: What attracts you to topics—such as roadkill and poop—that other writers might avoid?Montgomery: It’s perfectly natural to be inquisitive and curious about those topics. As adults we’ve learned to turn away from them. As a teacher, I saw that every time I’d pull out something gross, everybody in the class was engaged. Even now, when I do school visits, that’s the time that everyone reacts with “Ack!” or “Cool!” For a very long time, I thought that the topic of roadkill was off-limits, and I pushed that idea away because I was sure that book would end my career if I tried to write about something that tragic and disgusting. But finally, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I realized there’s this dichotomy between gross and compelling, and I started thinking about what happens when I turn toward this topic, this thing that’s dangerous or tragic or painful or troubling. It became important to me to take a fresh look at things that are hard in life and help young people see what we can learn when we consciously turn toward something. That theme is crucial for young people to learn—through something compelling like roadkill or poop—because it helps them deal with the other issues in their lives, even personal tragedy. Why not poop? It’s one of those things that is all around us, and every time I hike, it’s there. I have these questions that are just in me, and I became frustrated that I never had solid answers. I began to wonder what’s the deeper learning in this matter.
Links: What attracts you to writing nonfiction?Montgomery: Writing nonfiction is all I know. There’s something inside of me that just wants to teach, and I’ve found that I can do that through nonfiction. I’m very selective, which affects how I write. I can’t not teach is the thing—I just can’t do it. I tried not teaching for a while, and it made me sick.
Links: What did you like to read when you were in school? Were there favorite topics that hinted at your future career? Montgomery: I was a fiction reader, and my favorite books were My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins. That idea of a young person surviving on their own in the wild was extremely attractive to me. I wanted to escape into the woods with them. I still love those books, and I spend a lot of time in the woods. I honestly didn’t know that there was nonfiction that I could like. A middle-grade science lover didn’t have many book options when I was a child. There were a few, but it was very limited.
Links: You often begin your books with compelling vignettes. Is that a deliberate choice to draw in readers?Montgomery: My threshold for boring, or what I see as boring, is low. It has to be pretty compelling for me to want to read it. There are experiences that I want to share with kids, but learning to write that way was a challenge. What I didn’t realize is that I can write the way that I teach, and that’s what these books have done. I want to take the reader right there with me.
Links: What’s missing in science trade books?Many of them are about the end product of science. They’re the factoids that come from the scientific research, and that’s not really fair to the kids or the science because that’s not what science is. Science is a verb; science is the doing of. Often, with nonfiction, we provide just the end result of our research, but the coolest part is the doing. Taking readers on the journey with me is the part I love, and I want to show them, “Wow, look at why we came to this result, and look at how we did it, and look at what it took to get this information. Then also look at how we have to qualify that result.” We can provide the context to understand that “fun fact” is just one little snippet of the animal’s world. That’s the crucial piece we’ve been missing. This is an inquiry process, and life is an inquiring process. We want lifelong inquirers. Often, what we miss in the educational system is helping kids understand that knowledge isn’t “being done.” That’s how it comes across to them in science and history. It’s important that we keep digging, remembering that we don’t have all the answers. I want kids to understand the growth process that’s happening constantly.
Links: If you were going to provide a two-minute introduction to Who Gives a Poop?, what would you choose to read to students?Montgomery: A good introduction is the end of the first chapter, “Hunk of Tongue,” because there are these fun, crazy stories about the scorpion who gets its tail broken off and can’t use the bathroom for the rest of its life. There’s another piece that I think works really well, and that’s the end of chapter 3, “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” with this string of fun facts about animal poop. It then turns to my core question, “Who uses poop, and why?,” which drove my whole inquiry.
Links: Explain the footnotes that appear in the book. It’s almost as though you’re talking to the reader and sharing inside information.Montgomery: When I teach, I work with many schools, and, of course, the audiences are all different. I found that I was teaching the same core story or concept, but with every group I would throw in a slightly different set of information. Honestly, these started as three different categories, and my vision for the book was very much a design-heavy piece where the three categories all were handled differently. While teaching, I might pause for one group to add basic scaffolding information or definitions. The second set was fun facts to hook them. And then the third consisted of these little pieces that turned out to be humorous asides from me. After looking at the practicality of all three, it worked to put them in as footnotes. I read Mary Roach’s nonfiction book for adults, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), which describes what will happen when I die and give my body to science. Writing similarly to her came from my teaching, the fact that I realized different audiences need different support material. I decided to let readers select, let them opt into footnotes and endnotes. Endnotes were a great option to add additional content. There are readers who aren’t going to read any of the footnotes, and that’s fine, but there are readers who read the footnotes first, which is awesome. In our digital world, we’re able to click on or hover over something, and this is a way we can do that in a text. I wasn’t a footnote reader or an endnote reader, and I wanted to show kids that they can be fun.
Links: Your gift for wordplay and colorful images shines in phrases such as “fecal fun” and “slippery side of the digestion tract,” and you even described the colors found in scat as similar to the “sequins on a prom dress.” How do these come to mind?Montgomery: They come naturally; they get added later; they get drawn from every aspect of my world. I don’t naturally talk that way. Because the topic of Something Rotten was so tragic, I had to have some balance. My mind went to these playful things, and that approach just carried on to Who Gives a Poop? Every poop book has so many puns that they just come out. This happens when you focus on a topic deeply. I’ve also trained myself to see a whole new world. One of my favorite things is this little magnifier called a loupe. I spend my life looking at the world through this, which distills things and helps me focus, and in doing so, it frees the brain to connect. The language play comes from that training, from looking narrowly at a topic so closely that you don’t even recognize it—thus the sequins on the prom dress. It’s refreshing to take a new look at things that we’ve seen before, which is something I want kids to be able to do.
Links: Describe the origin of the clever chapter titles.Montgomery: You mean you like “Hunk of Tongue?” Typically, I work hard on a chapter for a very long time, and something arises out of that that I can’t let go, and that’s when I know that that’s the title. I want to reach those kids who don’t know that reading’s for them. Many times those kids get to fourth or fifth grade, and they’ve read all these really cool picture books about animals, and then they’re aging up, and they don’t want to carry around books that look like a kiddie book. I wrote these books with one boy in mind, Cody, who couldn’t find anything suitable in the library. He told me, “Miss Heather, there are just no books for me.” I think of him every time I write a title: What is going to catch Cody?
Links: Discuss your writing journey.Montgomery: I had this fantastic career as an environmental educator. I ran this center where school groups would come to this camp and stay for a week, and we were in the mud and the muck and catching stuff, so my heart was in teaching kids outdoors. I loved it. And then I left that because I got married and couldn’t find something to fulfill me and allow me to teach in that way. I did a lot of different things for a period of time. My husband and I don’t have children, but we go to the bookstore, and every time when he was ready to leave the bookstore, he’d find me in the kids’ section, and he said to me one day, “I know you aren’t buying that many gifts. Why are you always in the kids’ section?” and I said, “I don’t know. It’s where the best books are.” I realized that I could teach kids and share my passion through writing. I knew that I’d connected to nature through books as a kid, and I thought at first that I had to write fiction because that was my model.
Links: How do you maintain the focus of your chapters, given that they take so many different directions from your main topic, poop?Montgomery: It comes down to having a question I really care about. There are so many things I can teach, but those core questions—What else can we do with poop? What’s its value? Why do we think that this thing is waste, so much so that we give it that term “waste”—guide me. It’s knowing what the guiding question is before I let myself write, or else I will go in too many directions and hold that stuff precious when it doesn’t really belong in the book. I dive really deep into the research, and I have a ton of material amassed, but then I ask, What is this story? What is the content of the story? But mostly, where can it take us? These are the actual facts, but what’s the takeaway? I have to understand that before I can write the chapter and figure out which pieces belong. I’m very intentional in not starting in the same place, because it’s boring. I didn’t want this book to have a bunch of chapters about the same elements, such as the nutrient cycle of poop. That gets old. I wanted to make sure that there was a distinct flare for each chapter introduction. Taking readers with me on the journey usually works best.
Links: Talk about the in-the-moment approach you use to put readers right in the scene with you and the other scientists featured in the book.Montgomery: That’s the narrative part that we find so compelling. I don’t want to leave the good stuff out. If we focus solely on the result of what scientists learned, it isn’t as interesting. I kept hearing these editors ask for narrative and story, and I resisted because I thought science is fact, not story. Then I found myself teaching kids by using story. One day it hit me that the process of science is a story, and why do we not give that to kids? I didn’t read nonfiction when I was younger because I never saw the diversity in nonfiction. When we booktalk nonfiction, we almost always booktalk in terms of topic. Teachers are likely to suggest another spider book to a kid who likes one spider book. But that’s not the way for me to discover a new nonfiction book. It’s all about some other element for me. Here’s an example: a long time ago I wanted to write middle-grade nonfiction before I had much writing experience, and I asked a librarian for funny middle-grade nonfiction. She put Georgia Bragg’s How They Croaked (2011), all about the awful deaths of the awfully famous, in my hands. I read that book from cover to cover. What did it for me was what I call “voice,” the humor in it and the approach. We haven’t realized that kids might connect to a different element other than topic. Now I can say, “Hey, can you give me a book like that? I really appreciated the humor.”
Sampling MontgomeryIn addition to the following titles, many readers will be eagerly awaiting her upcoming picture book, What’s in Your Pocket: Discovering Nature’s Treasures, which looks into the pockets of great scientists and conservationists when they were children—and at what happened when they emptied their pockets upon arriving home. She’s also working on a science-process book.
Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids. Illus. by Stephen Stone. 2018. Charlesbridge, $14.99 (9781580898164). PreS–Gr. 1.Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves. 2019. Lerner/Millbrook, $31.99 (9781541528987). Gr. 3–5.Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill. Illus. by Kevin O’Malley. 2018. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781681199009). Gr. 4–7.Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other. Illus. by Iris Gottlieb. Oct. 2020. Bloomsbury, $17.99 (9781547603473). Gr. 4–7.
Barbara A. Ward teaches courses in children’s and young adult literature at the University of New Orleans. Terrell A. Young teaches courses in children’s literature to graduate and undergraduate students at Brigham Young University. Deanna Day teaches literacy and children’s literature for Washington State University.
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