Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Tapir Scientist, by Sy Montgomery

How do you go about studying an animal that a) is critical to the health of its environment, but b) is shy, nocturnal, and lives in a snarl of tangled bushes, omnipresent mosquitoes and ticks, and suffocating heat and humidity? In The Tapir Scientist, Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop get to find out firsthand, as they accompany biologist Pati Medici and her team out into the field to study the elusive tapir, the largest mammal native to South America.

As an informational text, The Tapir Scientist generally succeeds. It does a great job of showing what life on a field expedition is like: the tedium, the difficult working conditions, the disappointments -- and then the thrill of encountering a majestic animal face to face, and learning information that could help ensure its survival. It also details the place of the tapir in its natural ecosystem, and explains how the lives of the animals intersect with the people who live in the same place. Sy Montgomery is always good for an above-average book -- we loved her Temple Grandin last year -- and The Tapir Scientist certainly is that.

It's instructive, however, to compare The Tapir Scientist with something like Moonbird, another book featuring an author working with scientists in the field. In Moonbird, Phillip Hoose turned the story of a bird into a rumination on the relationship between the human and natural worlds, both honoring and transcending his ostensible subject. I don't think The Tapir Scientist achieves that level of sophistication and depth, or even really approaches it.

I'm also not entirely sold on the design of the book. Nic Bishop is a first-class photographer, and his images are excellent; I think they're often not placed in the best position respective to the text, however. The font choice also seems odd -- I had to stare at the sidebar-style sections for a while to convince myself that they weren't actually printed in Comic Sans, just something uncomfortably reminiscent of it -- and, although most of the important words are defined in the text, there's no end glossary.

In the end, The Tapir Scientist is absolutely a recommend-for-purchase title, at least in this one man's opinion. I don't expect any Sibert love for it, however, and I don't think the Newbery committee will be at all swayed in the book's direction.

Published in July by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

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