Growing Up Gorilla (Millbrook Press, 2019) is the gorgeously photo-illustrated true story of how first-time gorilla mom Nadiri learns to mother newborn Yola, despite having herself been raised by humans. Clare deftly guides young readers through a suspenseful yet tender and uplifting narrative chronicling this mother and child's sometimes rocky bonding period, which is so carefully nurtured by an expert team at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Readers of all ages will worry over the gorilla pair's obstacles and cheer for their triumphs while also engaging in the fascinating reality of what it really means to be a gorilla, and to care for one.
Welcome to my blog, Clare, and congratulations on the successful launch of Growing Up Gorilla! I’ve so enjoyed watching your journey with this book. We'll talk more about that in a second, but why don't we start with having you share with our readers just a bit about your background. How long have you been writing for children? And how did you turn the endeavor into a career?
Since 1993. I left the practice of law and started freelancing as a grant writer after my two kids were born. Reading picture books to them inspired me to try writing for them, too. My first picture book, A Tale of Two Rice Birds, based on a folktale from Thailand, came out in 1994.
My second book, Who Wakes Rooster?, was published after the manuscript won first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s children’s picture book category that same year. The judge, an editor at Macmillan, offered me a publishing contract, but the book didn’t come out for another three years after Simon & Schuster bought Macmillan. I followed that editor to Marshall Cavendish for my next book, a biography of Abigail Adams called Partner in Revolution, which was published in 1998. That book got me hooked on research and writing as a career, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Such an exciting start to your children's publishing career — and you're still going strong! Let's take a closer look at the creation of Growing Up Gorilla. What drove you to write Yola and Nadiri’s story? In other words, what aspect of their story most captured your own imagination?
Like much of the Seattle public, I was fascinated by a Seattle Times article about zoo staff helping a first-time mother gorilla prepare for birth by practicing having her pick up a burlap doll and holding it. The question of whether or not Nadiri would instinctively pick up her baby and nurse her was compelling, since she had been hand-raised by humans away from other gorillas for almost a year after her mother rejected her at birth. I had first heard about Nadiri when she was a baby and I was researching and writing a book about another animal celebrity at the zoo, Hansa: The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby. But it was Yola’s personality — outgoing and determined — and the bond the zoo staff helped forge between mother and daughter in the gorilla dens where she was raised from the start that drove the plot and captured this writer’s heart.
How did you go about translating your passion for the story into a narrative that’s just right for younger readers? Did that process pose any challenges?
Kids are naturally drawn to baby animals and to reading nonfiction. Most of my books are written for 3rd- to 5th-graders who are hungry for facts and eager to share what they know in the context of a good story. My goal was simply to present Yola and Nadiri’s story through carefully chosen scenes with as little author intrusion as possible. The lesson that mothering is a learned behavior is presented here as something gorillas have shown us and zoos have learned and are responding to over time. The lesson might apply to humans as well, but I leave that to the readers to interpret. It is not my role to be didactic. I tried to focus on the social behavior and family dynamics of this amazing animal species that shares 97.7% of the same genes as us.
I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to do! While your nonfiction books for kids include a number of wonderful animal stories, you’ve also written some lovely biographies and fun sports-related titles. Besides Growing Up Gorilla, which of your nonfiction works is most special to you, and why?
Thank you for asking that question, Lisa. Here are a few special moments for me as a writer: Researching American history through primary documents from Abigail Adams’s time and discovering a swatch of silk material she’d pinned to her journal from her trip to Europe. During research for my Rachel Carson biography, I Could Not Keep Silent, I witnessed this famous nature writer’s beginnings when I found a story she’d written at age eight about two wrens setting up house among her personal papers archived at Yale University. Finally, after catching Sounders FC fever in 2010 with my Soccer Dreams book, I was thrilled to interview MLS soccer heroes Kasey Keller, Steve Zakuani, Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, and Clint Dempsey. Hard work pays off!
Those certainly are some well-earned writerly moments, Clare! Thanks so much for chatting.
Did someone mention a GIVEAWAY?
To celebrate our mutual love for putting books in kids' hands, Clare and I decided to add a giveaway to this post. The prize is a set of four FREE books — two written by Clare, and two written by me — all of which will go to one lucky winner!
Books in the set by Clare Hodgson Meeker:
- Growing Up Gorilla — see description above.
- Soccer Dreams — a fictional tale about a boy from Kenya who moves to Seattle and helps build a winning soccer team. Sidebars feature real-life game strategies and teamwork tips from the MLS Seattle Sounders FC.
Books in the set by Lisa L. Owens:
- Bigfoot: The Legend Lives On — a fictional story about a boy attempting to unravel the Bigfoot mystery in Mount Ranier National Park. Sidebars feature real-life Bigfoot research, cultural beliefs, and other factual information.
- Heroes of Dunkirk — a look at the World War II military campaign at Dunkirk as told through stories of heroes at the scene. Sidebars include STEM and hero highlights.
We'd love to get the word out to teachers, librarians, parents/families, and anyone with young readers in mind who could really use and enjoy this set of books.
Enter to WIN by leaving a comment on this post anytime between now and 11:59 PM on December 23. At the end of the giveaway period, I'll use an online randomizer to select a single winning entry. Then I'll post the winner's name in this space by December 26 and arrange to mail the books to the winner in early January 2020.
Thank you for reading, and good luck to all entrants!