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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Tapir Scientist, text by Sy Montgomery and photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"Its voice sounds like a person asking a question - as we are, silently while we wait. How many tapirs live in this area? Do any have babies? Do young tapirs grow up to live in the same area where they were born, or do they move far away?"

Oh, I remember having to give a speech in grade four (a very long time ago) and the terror I felt at preparing for it. Most of all, I was absolutely panic-stricken about speaking in front of my classmates. I am convinced it did nothing to help me become a more accomplished, or even more confident speaker. While I often happily speak to groups large and small these days, my memories of that day are all about terror and tapirs. That's the topic I chose. Why?  A random finger point at the T encyclopedia's table of contents? The first topic noticed when I opened said book?  A chance to learn about something new? It is a question that may never be answered.

How I wish that Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop were older than me, and writing the amazing books they share with us today back then. I would have had a much bigger stake in learning about this 'cross between a hippo, an elephant, and something prehistoric', as Ms. Montgomery describes it. I certainly would have been more invested in the research knowing about the scientists who give their lives to better understanding and protecting such creatures of our world.

The Tapir Scientist is one of their latest collaborative projects and follows in the flawless footsteps of previous books about snakes, kakapos, tarantulas, tree kangaroos, snow leopards and cheetahs (that one is coming up soon). This time they are in Brazil's Pantanal, the world's largest wetlands. Here, field scientist Patricia Medici provides leadership to a team searching daily to know more about the tapir.

I ALWAYS begin my reading of the books in the Scientists in the Field series with the intent to skim the text, note the photos and captions, and get an overall feel for the book. I NEVER do that. I end up reading them cover to cover, marveling at the dedication of the scientific teams and being in awe (in this one) of Sy Montgomery's conversational writing style and Nic Bishop's stunning photography. I come away from the reading more informed, more concerned about animals in the wild and full of wonder at those people who give their lives to science and to research.

Sy Montgomery tells her story about the tapir research but also with beautiful descriptive passages concerning the Pantanal itself:

"The Pantanal is a bird lover's paradise. The sky blushes pink with flocks of roseate spoonbills. On the ground, a seriema, a tall bird with a crest of feathers that looks like messy hair, prances by. (It's one of the few birds with eyelashes.) Wading birds with long toes stride across lily pads, and sixty-pound ostrichlike  rheas run instead of fly. At least 470 different kinds of birds have been recorded in the Pantanal, from toucans and macaws to storks as tall as a man."

Nic Bishop is able to capture the team, the tapirs, the setting and the labor of love that is enacted every day as members of the team work so diligently to capture and tag these shy lowland animals. He brings his audience up close and personal with the actions of the team, and allows us a front row seat to the important work they do.

Readers will love to hear about Benjamin, a British school boy whose love of tapirs led him to work toward helping with tapir conservation. . He made a plea to his school pals and their parents:

"I think it's time that the under school supported a charity which helps animals," Benjamin told his audience, "since we are destroying their world and they cannot speak up for themselves." He spoke about tapirs and about Pati's work  in Brazil. Then he showed a one-minute video filmed at Pati's study site."

The kids and parents were hooked, and raised more than 1,600 pounds that year. His legacy of giving lives on, as Pati named one of the tapirs after him. Not many people in the world can say that, can they? Well, Sy and Nic can now say that, too!

Back matter includes a selected bibliography, websites, acknowledgements and an index.

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