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Author Sy Montgomery is well known for her engaging texts and passionate stance on animal conservation. Her Scientists in the Field series titles have garnered numerous awards, including a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. Her latest book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, is a compelling biography about the brilliant scientist who revolutionized the livestock industry. At the age of three, Grandin was diagnosed with autism, and her parents were encouraged to institutionalize her. Grandin’s mother adamantly disagreed, though, and set out to discover ways to support her child’s educational, social, and communicative needs. Today, Grandin is a respected advocate for autism and has designed numerous cruelty-free facilities for livestock.
In conducting research for this book, Montgomery visited Grandin at her home, interviewed Grandin’s childhood friends, and traveled to schools Grandin attended. Montgomery’s straightforward and vibrant account of the scientist’s life is filled with personal photographs, design sketches, and extensive quotes, and it concludes with Grandin’s advice for kids on the autism spectrum. In this interview, Montgomery talks about Grandin’s extraordinary life and highlights her work in changing standard practice on “factory farms.”
BKL: When did you become interested in Temple Grandin?
Montgomery: I became interested in her after reading a New Yorker magazine article by Oliver Sacks called “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Her work is really important to me because so many animals are imprisoned on factory farms, having miserable lives. Temple has changed that industry by designing pens, walkways, devices, and entire buildings that create better conditions for cattle, chickens, and pigs. A lot of animal-loving people fear to tread into meatpacking plants, where food animals are slaughtered, but Temple doesn’t hesitate. She understands the minds of these animals in a way that most of us can’t because we think in words. She is a translator between our world, the world of people with autism, and the world of animals. She is a tremendous gift to this planet.
BKL: How did the idea to write about Grandin come about?
Montgomery: Betsy Groban, Vice President and Publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was absolutely fascinated by her and asked, “What about writing a book on or with Temple?” I immediately said yes. My editor, Kate O’Sullivan, and I didn’t know initially how we were going to accomplish this type of collaboration. I didn’t want to be a ghost writer or cowrite, but I did want Temple to be a part of the book. Temple provided all of the sketches and photographs, and she wrote the foreword. She was very much involved. But it’s a book about her—not by her—and in that way it’s different from anything else available.
BKL: How were you able to write about Grandin’s life in a kid-friendly manner?
Montgomery: I don’t have a lot of trouble knowing what fascinates readers in the age group for which I write. I was once a fourth-grader, and I can put myself in their shoes to know what they would like to learn. One thing about Temple is that her sense of humor is that of a much younger person, and that makes it easy for kids to connect with her. For example, she travels a lot and thinks that it’s hilarious when people get sick and vomit on airplanes. That’s the kind of thing a nine-year-old boy would think is funny. I try to go through life astonished at every turn, and kids do, too. Maybe I didn’t find it too intimidating to write about Temple because I am experiencing everything as the reader would.
BKL: The subtitle, How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, creates a positive tone because although it’s a story about a woman with autism, that’s not the total focus of the book. It chronicles her journey in life as well as her efforts to challenge the livestock industry.
Montgomery: At one point, we were going to call it The Girl Who Loved Cows, and Temple Grandin would have been in the subtitle. My editor is the one who put together the notion of loving cows and embracing autism. Many people think of autism as a devastating condition that cuts you off from everything good in life. How can that be a gift? Temple was able to find the gift in it, and she is embracing it. Changed the World speaks to the power that this woman can wield for people with autism and for animals.
BKL: In your book you explain that Grandin thinks in images rather than in words. Is that an aspect of her autism, or is it a unique gift?
Montgomery: It is a gift of autism if you can look at it that way. And Temple certainly views it that way. Many researchers who have written about the human mind say that what makes us unique is language; language allows us to think, and without language we couldn’t think. Temple has proven that wrong because she doesn’t think in language at all. She can use language, but she doesn’t think in it. She thinks in pictures.
BKL: Grandin has said, “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I wouldn’t do it. It’s part of who I am.” That statement is very powerful for kids, parents, and teachers.
Montgomery: These very different brains can embody fantastic gifts that the rest of us might not even be able to dream of. And for students, teachers, and parents, to be able to see those gifts makes all the difference. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a huge battle for Temple to overcome some of the problems of autism. I think it’s a good idea for us to recognize that different minds are going to have distinctive gifts and to support all of those minds.
BKL: Grandin seems to have a keen ability to observe things around her.
Montgomery: She is a fabulous person to watch animals with because she notices stuff instantly, and you can see it, too, once she calls your attention to it. For example, if she goes to a stockyard where the cattle are upset but no one knows why, Temple will say, “It’s that shirt flapping in the breeze that’s hanging on the pole over there.” She also knows that cattle won’t enter a barn when there is a shadow in front of them. It looks like a bunch of holes to them. Or she’ll say that the cattle are completely freaking out because there’s a tiny piece of metal with light glinting off of it. She’ll find those things because they bother her, too.
BKL: Grandin has advocated for the humane treatment of animals, but I also think she has impacted and changed people’s perceptions of individuals with autism.
Montgomery: She went into the livestock industry as an outsider. Not only was she autistic; she was a woman, an easterner, and she was highly educated. All of those things made people not want to let her into that world. And she broke every single barrier. That is such a good lesson for all of us—there are no barriers that can’t be broken. The person who broke the barriers was someone with a condition that many people would say is a disorder or a disease. But it wasn’t a weakness; it was a strength. If we can find the strengths in all of us—no matter what kind of brains we have, no matter what gender we are, no matter where we are born, no matter what we are doing—if we can find that unique strength that each one of us has, just think about what we can accomplish.
BKL: The book’s format is appealing in that you have the narrative about Grandin and then you have inserted sections with facts about autism, brain differences, and factory farming.
Montgomery: I like to include sidebars to provide additional facts in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of storytelling. We read to please ourselves with stories, but we’re still hungry for facts. I felt that autism disorder needed to be addressed early in the book but that the information shouldn’t occur in chapter 1. I wanted readers to first become interested in Temple and to identify with her, even though she experiences the world in a very different way. I also wanted readers to know in chapter 2 that Temple’s story comes out just fine. Here is this powerful person who, even though she had a very dispiriting start in life, was able to make a change in the world. Chapter 3 delves more into what autism meant to Temple. What did it mean to her life? So the first sidebar, in chapter 3, is “Autism Disorder: A Few Fast Facts.” In all the other chapters, I put in sidebars where I thought the reader needed factual information without interrupting the narrative of the story.
BKL: Tell me about the photographs in the book.
Montgomery: Temple sent me a selection of photographs and let me choose the ones I wanted. A lot of the pictures are black-and-white snapshots. There’s a photograph on page 23 that’s a little black-and-white Polaroid, which isn’t anything like digital color photos of today. It’s a really cool thing for kids to see a picture of Temple’s mother in front of their Christmas tree. It’s neat to see a picture of the house where Temple grew up or a photograph of Temple with her baby brother. The lowest-quality photo, but one that we had to include, is of the UFO Temple made out of a Dairy Queen ice-cream cup.
BKL: The bibliography and list of resources are extensive. How did you select what to include?
Montgomery: Temple and I worked on those together and wanted to include a lot of sources. We realized that children are going to be reading this book, but librarians, teachers, and parents are going to look to it for additional information.
BKL: The statistics about factory farms included in one of the sidebars are pretty distressing.
Montgomery: That information is going to blow kids away. I think it’s going to blow adults away, too. Ten billion food animals in the U.S. are raised by being confined in tiny crates and cages. If you love animals, then factory farming is not OK. If Americans realized this, we’d stop it now. Temple will ask people if they think it’s OK for a female pig to spend most of her life in a tiny box. Overwhelmingly, people will say that is horrible. But that’s the way it is.
I’m not trying to turn every kid into a vegetarian, but I do hope that by writing this book, it will create more pressure on agribusiness to treat animals like thinking, feeling creatures who love their lives like we do. Temple couldn’t believe that presidents of companies that were raising chickens would say, “We treat our birds very well. We feed them good food.” But the chickens were confined in these tiny, horrible boxes, and when they were sent off to slaughter, they were picked up by their wings, which were then broken, and thrown into a truck. Kids will see that this is inhumane treatment of animals.
BKL: Why did you write this story for children rather than adults?
Montgomery: I want to give Temple and those [activists] who follow after her an informed public to support the work that they do. That’s why writing about this for kids is so important. I love writing for adults because you get to use a lot of different words and write longer stuff. It’s artistically very satisfying. But if you want to change the world, you have to write for kids. That’s where the change is going to come.
BKL: What do you hope readers take away from your biography of Grandin?
Montgomery: One, that they can do anything. Two, to look for the hidden strength in themselves and in others. Three, there are many different kinds of minds in humans and in nonhumans that need to be respected. Overall, I think this book is about compassion for humans and nonhumans alike. I hope that this book inspires kids who are on the spectrum. And I hope that Temple’s story inspires kids who care about animals to realize the conditions that many animals face.
Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon. Illus. by Dianne Taylor-Snow. 2002. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9780618131037); e-book, $18 (9780547349664). 599.53. Gr. 5–8.
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. Illus. by Nic Bishop. 2010. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9780618494170); e-book, $18 (9780547529257). 639.9. Gr. 4–7.
The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans. Illus. by Eleanor Briggs. 2001. 64p. Houghton, paper, $7.99 (9780618494903). 599.756. Gr. 4–7.
Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. Illus. by Nic Bishop. 2006. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9781618496419); paper, $8.99 (9780547248929); e-book, $8.99 (9780547529882). 599.2. Gr. 5–8.
Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition among Snow Leopards in Mongolia. Illus. by Nic Bishop. 2009. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9780618916450); paper, $7.99 (9780547727349). 599.75. Gr. 4–7.
Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Southeast Asia. 2004. 80p. illus. Houghton, $17 (9780618356508). 599.78. Gr. 5–9.
The Tarantula Scientist. Illus. by Nic Bishop. 2004. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9780618147991); paper, $7.95 (9780618915774); e-book, $7.95 (9780547530055). 595.4. Gr. 4–7.
Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World. 2012. 160p. illus. Houghton, $17.99 (9780547443157). 612. Gr. 4–8.
Following are suggestions for connecting Sy Montgomery’s Temple Grandin with the Common Core State Standards for Reading Informational Texts.
In the Classroom: Discuss the writing style Montgomery uses to tell the story of Grandin’s life and compare that with how she presents information through sidebars found throughout many chapters.
Common Core Connections
RI.4.7. Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on websites) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
In the Classroom: Develop a list of traits that could be attributed to Grandin, such as perseverance, strength, and creativity, and discuss how those were illustrated in the biography. What are some of the same traits students have attained?
RI.5.1. Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
In the Classroom: Explore websites such as http://www.animalhandling.org to compare and contrast the information presented in Montgomery’s book about Grandin with the information found on the websites. Learn more about Grandin by visiting her websites, http://www.templegrandin.com and http://www.grandin.com. What can students learn about autism and animal welfare by viewing these sites?
Common Core Connections
RI.6.8. Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.
In the Classroom: View one of the designs that Grandin created, such as the cattle pen or the dip vat system. Read more about these designs, and explain how they assist in keeping animals calm.
RI.6.1; RI.8.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis.
Cyndi Giorgis is a professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
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