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Spotlight on Science Writers: Sy Montgomery

A select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Sy Montgomery and Temple Grandin with cows. Photo Credit: Matt Wittmeyer. All rights reserved.

Sy Montgomery on Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World:

At the first mention of my writing a book for kids about Temple Grandin, my beloved editor was horrified. Like me, she loves animals so much she gave up eating meat years ago. "Temple Grandin?!" she said in disbelief. "Doesn't she design slaughterhouses?"

Why would I write a book about her? It was a good question.

All my books are about animals. Researching my 20 titles for adults and kids, I've tracked tree kangaroos in the cloud forests of New Guinea, worked in the largest snakepit in the world with 18,000 red-sided garters, and swum with pink dolphins and electric eels in the Amazon. One of my books is about our pet pig, Christopher Hogwood, who grew to 750 pounds and lived till his natural death (in his sleep) at age 14.

Why would I want to write a book about someone who designs new ways to kill animals?

I write about animals because I am fascinated by their lives: their senses, their skills, their bodies, their minds. I feel their lives matter—much more than some people understand or are willing to admit—and I want to stand up for their lives. And I also write about animals because I'm drawn to minds different from my own.

These are precisely the reasons why I was drawn to Temple Grandin when I first started reading about her more than two decades before I'd start writing my book about her.

I read my first article about Temple in 1993. Oliver Sacks, a neuroscientist whose work I have followed with great interest for a long time, wrote a story about this brilliant autistic woman in The New Yorker. She was of special interest to me because she was using her unusual mind to help a group that most people—and ironically, most people who love animals—would rather not think about at all: the 10 billion animals on American factory farms whose meat, milk, and eggs people harvest for food. She is famous for trying to better the lives of these animals by creating more welcoming, less scary, more comfortable places for them to live—and even designing calm, humane places where they will die.

Though at first it seemed like an odd match, this was a perfect book for children, and perfect for me to write. Here is a book about a famous person who—far more than overcoming a disability—has actually found the gifts of her unusual mind, and is using those gifts to help animals. And kids are the best audience I could hope to reach with this message: that the world needs the gifts of all kinds of minds. That includes the minds of people with autism and other differences labeled disabilities and the minds of animals.  

Kids know animals matter, and they are brave enough to speak up for them. Tell an adult about factory farming, and chances are he’ll complain that you’re ruining his enjoyment of his hamburger. Tell a kid and she’ll stop eating hamburgers—and start urging her family and friends to do so as well. Or—and this could change even more lives—start imagining ways to battle the cruelty that plagues the mammals and birds whose flesh, milk, and eggs provide our food.

That’s what Temple did. With her humane designs, she may have improved the quality of life for more individual animals than anyone else in the world.


Sy Montgomery and Temple Grandin. Photo Credit: Matt Wittmeyer. All rights reserved.

And by the way, Temple and I hit it off instantly. We both love animals, and we talked nonstop about animals for three days from the moment I arrived in Ft. Collins to interview her for the book. When I finally had to leave, I told Temple how grateful I was for the time she’d given me. She was glad, too. "You really get it, Sy," she said to me. "I think you’re a little autistic yourself.” I took it as the compliment she meant it to be.

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, author, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator who writes for children as well as adults. Among her award-winning books are Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Spell of the Tiger, and Search for the Golden Moon Bear. She has made four trips to Peru and Brazil to study the pink dolphins of the Amazon; and on other expeditions, she was chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Zaire; bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica; undressed by an orangutan in Borneo; and hunted by a tiger in India. She also worked in a pit crawling with eighteen thousand snakes in Manitoba. Her latest book for adults, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. The Soul of an Octopus and The Octopus Scientists are both finalists for this year's AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

Her book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, was the winner for the 2013 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Middle School Science Book category.

Going Further

  • Book/Author Resources
    • Sy talks about her book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, in this video.
    • Sy reads a passage from Temple Grandin in this video clip from SB&F.
    • You can visit Sy's website to learn more about her and her other books.
    • Watch an interview with Sy at Reading Rockets.
    • filmed a video interview with Sy about writing biography and Temple.
    • Sy has two books that are finalists for the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books that you might find interesting: The Octopus Scientists is a finalist for the Middle Grades prize and The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the World of Consciousness is a finalist for the Young Adult pirze.
  • Temple Grandin
    • Visit Temple Grandin's website. Pay special attention to the bold-faced questions to find quick, direct summaries on her thoughts about a given topic. This gives you the gist of her clear, direct style of thinking and speaking.
    • Temple also has a site specifically relating to her work with livestock.
    • This video from The Connecticut Forum features Temple sharing a funny story about her cowboy shirts.
    • Watch Temple's TED Talk where she speaks about the gifts that autism has brought her and the world.
    • See Temple's ideas being implemented in this Video Tour of Beef Plant Featuring Temple Grandin. WARNING: The entire 10-minute video, produced by the Glass Walls Project of the American Meat Institute, does show the animal being killed (no blood or squeals, but life is lost) and then processed humanely, in a way Temple designed, approves of, and is proud of. The first five minutes do not include this footage, but watching the entirety of this video may not be right for everyone.
    • You can see Temple on her struggles and 'yak yaks' in this clip from NBC News.
    • You might also enjoy the 2010 HBO biopic on Temple Grandin. It is available on dvd and streaming online. The film has won many awards, including Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie.
  • Animal Behavior and Welfare
    • In this blog post, you can read about how, in 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule change that would make chimpanzees be unusable for some scientific research. A version of this rule, with some exceptions, became law in 2015.
    • Certified Humane sets humane standards for farm animals and conducts inspections on farms and in slaughterhouses.
    • The Animal Welfare Institute is dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people.
    • Killer whale moms live long past menopause, apparently to support and protect their adult sons. Learn why in the Science Update, Orca Momma's Boys.
    • Listen to the Science Update, Fish on Acid. You'll learn why fish in acidified waters exhibit strange and often reckless behaviors.
    • In this Science Update, hear how promiscuity-related genes in finches may exist to solely benefit males.
  • Autism
    • Listen to the Science Update on Monkey Pay-Per-View to hear how scientists are figuring out what monkeys will pay to watch in order to gain a better understanding of human autism.
    • The Centers for Disease Control gives information relating to Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    • Autism Today is the largest online service for news on autism research, resources, and books.
    • Autism Speaks is an autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.

Related Educator Resources

  • This Science NetLinks lesson accompanies the book and focuses on the work of Temple Grandin and about being different and thinking differently.
  • Sy's Teacher’s Guide to the Temple Grandin book includes pre- and post-reading activities and a discussion guide and questions.
  • Dr. Rose Cherie Reissman, Director/Founder of the Writing Institute, has written about how to use Temple Grandin with Common Core.
  • This lesson helps students understand that all species have some capacity for communication.
  • This lesson, Pets: Oh Behave, helps students develop an understanding of how innate and learned behaviors and the environment determine behavior.
  • This lesson explores the contributions made to science and society by another naturalist, Jean Craighead George.
  • In The Beagle Brigade lesson, students develop their understanding of animal behaviors and the interaction of innate abilities and learned behaviors.
  • This lesson uses the conflict between ranchers and wolves near Yellowstone Park to explore the relationships between living things and their environments, and the effects of physical and human forces on the natural world.
  • Sy has two books that are finalists for the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books: The Octopus Scientists is a finalist for the Middle Grades prize and The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the World of Consciousness is a finalist for the Young Adult prize. You can also see other commended titles in the article.


This article originally appeared on Science NetLinks.