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Life on the Deckle Edge

Nature Author Heather L. Montgomery on Snakes and More...

Author photo by Sonya Sones
I'm thrilled today that Alabama author and SCBWI Southern Breeze Assistant Regional Advisor Heather L. Montgomery has come out of the woods for a spell to spend time with us! What a great way to kick off a month of guest nature writers for children.

Heather's newest books are RATTLESNAKES and GARTER SNAKES in Capstone's
Wild About Snakes series. Her other books explore how to stay safe in an earthquake, what soil is made of, why teeth fall out, and mummy secrets! She's written many articles appearing in Highlights, Science World, Know Fun for Kidz, and Fandangle, and in professional publications as well.

But wait - there's more! Heather runs Dragonfly Environmental Education Programs, bringing folks of all ages and nature together. She helped develop McDowell Environmental Center in Alabama and currently serves as its Education Coordinator.

Heather, where do we start? Your have a B.S. in biology and an M.S. in Environmental Education. In LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS by Richard Louv, we read how current generations of children are experiencing "nature deficit disorder." I am passionate about this subject, as my own childhood included hours of unsupervised meandering in nearby woods and parks. Tell us a little bit about your own experience in the natural world as a child, and about how you decided to include outreach as part of your career path.

I grew up climbing trees, catching crabs and trying to figure out just how things in nature worked. One summer working as a naturalist at a state park I discovered I could do what a I dearly love - and get paid for it. Not with big bucks, but with memories that I hold dear - a thirteen-year-old seeing a waterfall for the first time, a mother bravely holding a salamander for her son, a professor learning to canoe and becoming enveloped in the magic that can be found in water. It wasn't until later that I discovered I could reach even more people through writing.

Tell us about your life as a writer. Did you write when young? Have you always wanted to write books?

I didn't want to write until I was 35. At that point I realized: BOOKS CHANGE LIVES! And that's what I'm all about. The power to open eyes through the written word astounds me. My article in Highlights For Children will be read by a child in India and might inspire her to find life thriving within a rock in her back yard (yes, things actually live inside of rocks - too cool!). To inspire a child, I could not hope for more than that. Connecting to nature, grounding ourselves in the soil, the creatures, the photosynthesizing miracles, those things are crucial to our well-being as humans.

What marks on the "publication" trail have been particularly important to you?

Writer's workshops, conferences and critique groups have been pivotal to the development of my career. Early on I was fortunate enough to attend a Highlights Founders workshop on nature journaling that helped me connect on a personal level with an editor. Discovering that editors are people too was pivotal! A course from the Instutute of Children's Literature provided me with much needed basic guidance. A third key event was a manuscript winning first place in a contest sponsored by the Southern Breeze Region of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That boosted my confidence, convincing me that this writing thing was real.

I love the fun details you include in your books. Your recent book for Capstone, WHAT'S INSIDE A RATTLESNAKE'S RATTLE, now has company on the bookshelf with your two latest books in their Wild About Snakes Series, GARTER SNAKES and RATTLESNAKES. You have a great sidebar story in the latter about a rattlesnake and a pack rat which actually over-wintered together in the same den! I imagine that rat made a quick exit at the first hint of spring. What other surprising snake facts did you learn during these projects?

Yes, we should take lessons from animal's abilities to co-exist. Believe it or not, those scientists hypothesized that the snake and rat were helping each other. The snake provided protection and the pack rat opened and closed the door (bits of plant matter stuffed in the opening) to regulate moisture and temperature in the den.

Just one surprising snake fact? That's hard. Here it goes: Dissecting a rattler to get vital descriptive details for my manuscript, I discovered it had only one lung - one very long, skinny lung. There's no room for more.

Do you have a system for doing research, or does it vary by book/article?

It varies from project to project, but one of the critical early steps is to find a content expert with whom I can work. These wonderful folks help me understand the ins and outs of the topic and give me superb access to the front lines of scientific research. Besides it is fun! I got to interview a Russian scientist about the baby mammoth found frozen in the tundra, a physicist about how a cat laps milk without making a mess and an Australian biologist about why the wild dolphins in his area were "walking" on the water.

What about your writing habits - strict schedule or all-nighters? In your office at the computer or out on a tree branch? ;0)

I do my nature journaling in a tree, under a water fall or in a cave. That stocks my bank of information, observations, and sensory details. I do my writing at a boring old desk (although I occasionally escape to a cabin in the woods). Because I also do significant volunteer work and continue my work as an environmental educator (something that is good for my sanity), my writing schedule is more erratic than I would like. My goal is to work exclusively on my writing until noon every day, but I am easily distracted...

I'm not sure if there's a "generosity gene," but you also devote time and energy to nurturing the writing and illustrating ambitions of others through SCBWI Southern Breeze. You're a terrific Assistant Regional Advisor! What does SCBWI mean to you?

SCBWI enabled me to become a professional writer. I am where I am because of the generosity of other writers, particularly my critique group buddies and the volunteers of Southern Breeze, SCBWI (especially Jo Kittinger, Donna Bowman and you, Robyn). When I give of myself to organizations such as these, it bounces back multiplied.

What advice do you have for aspiring children's authors?

At a recent SCBWI conference, agent Stacey Barney challenged us to "read like a writer." She was right; we need to read lots, but also to read critically in order to dissect, absorb and grow.

Any works-in-progress you'd like to tell us about?

I'm excited about my manuscript on bugs with bad behaviors. They are rude and they are crude. Those bad boys just can't seem to mind their manners! The research has been so much fun that it is agony to exclude some of these cool creatures from the book.

Leave us with one fun fact that not many people know about you (pretty please?)!

As a high school senior, I won the "Most Polite" award. I think they mistook "shy" for "polite".

Ha! Thank you for your dedication to our wild places with their creatures great and small, to young readers, and to fellow creators of books and articles for children. We'll let you get back to the woods now - I know that's where you want to be!

Learn more about Heather's writing, presentations, and environmental education work at
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