Do you remember your first discovery? The first jar you filled with pond water, murky and dotted with microscopic creatures? The first chrysalis you spotted, taut and full with a butterfly ready to bust through the seams? The first seed you planted, its little green cowlick of a self pushing through the soil as if by magic?
Though Missoula author Sneed B. Collard III made his first childhood discoveries in nature several decades ago, he still carries on with the enthusiastic energy of a child, discovering sea creatures that illuminate, crabs that come into the world in tiny pools of water trapped in plants, and tree-high plants that live off the mist from clouds. Unlike many authors who spend a great deal of time exploring the landscapes of their minds, Collard is out there in the world, seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching—gathering the fodder for the books he writes for children.
“I was lucky enough to travel internationally with my family as a kid. Seeing all those places blew my mind. I always figured I’d have an exciting life and had a lot to share from these childhood experiences,” says Collard, who has written more than 30 children’s books that focus on nature, science, and the environment.
Educated as a marine biologist, Collard brings science and natural exploration to life for children in his books. “I grew up in Santa Barbara in a family of scientists. Asking questions and being curious about the world around me was second nature,” he says. “We lived by a canyon and I spent my time after school hiking and exploring with friends. There was never a dearth of things to do, adventures to have, discoveries to make. I was a lucky kid.” As an adult, he hasn’t found a dearth of subjects to write about, either. His latest two picture books, Leaving Home and Butterfly Count, offer kids a glimpse into the worlds of many specific species.
In Leaving Home, we meet the spider who relies not on its legs but on the wind to leave home: “[When spiders are ready to leave home], they climb on top of a log or other high place and release long, light strands of silk. With luck, breezes catch these silky ‘balloons’ and tug the spiders into the sky. Most ballooning flights are short, but some can last for days and carry the spiders to heights of 18,000 feet before they touch down in new scampering grounds.”
We meet the remora who leaves home by sticking to a host fish, using a special suction cup on its head to do so. “Some remoras pay for their rides by picking off harmful parasites from the host’s skin, mouth, and gills.” We also meet the elephant, the hedgehog, the shark, the flying lizard, and several other common and less common species to learn how they leave home. Like people, these creatures are born, grow, and leave home. Some leave early, some late. Some can’t wait to leave, others are loathe to make the rite-of-passage leap. Some return; others do not.
Butterfly Count, as much fiction as nonfiction, is the story of a girl who takes part in the North American Fourth of July Butterfly Count. Following in the footsteps of her deceased grandmother, Nora Belle searches for butterfly species, especially the regal fritillary, a species that had not been spotted in the prairies of her home since her grandmother’s time. As we follow the girl on her hunt, we learn about various butterfly species, where and how they live, and the dangers of extinction.
Like all of Collard’s picture books, these stories are simple, but not only do they offer information about species and behaviors, but on a higher level they also raise issues of appreciating the natural world and respecting it in all its diversity.
In conjunction with writing his children’s books, Collard spends a good amount of the year traveling to schools. “I want to turn kids onto learning,” he says. Collard makes presentations to school groups ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade that can include slide shows, question-and-answer sessions, and discussions on how to observe and think like a writer. “Kids know when you are preaching to them, which I try to steer clear of doing though I do try to weave lessons into the presentations,” he says. “With the older kids, I might start a discussion on global warming or how, more specifically, human interference has increased water temperatures, causing some coral reefs to die. Bringing up the way humans can and should be responsible in nature invariably starts a discussion rolling.” Collard says that as a result of his travels, he has developed a sixth sense when it comes to people. “A lot of times, I can tell if an adult grew up in the country or the city. Kids in Montana, for example, just have a certain knowledge about animals and plants and man’s place amongst them. They may have a deeper sense of appreciation for their surroundings than a kid who grew up in an urban center. It’s just something they know without having to be taught.”
If writing books and traveling to schools is not enough, Collard spends much of his time following the kernels of his ideas. He has traveled to Lizard Island in Australia, for example, studied undersea creatures at Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod, and is soon off to perambulate the deep sea floor in Florida as well as shadow scientists who specialize in bio-luminescence, primate research, cleaner fish, and tree-high plants in Costa Rica.
“People often ask me as a writer, if I worry that I might run out of ideas. To me, that seems absurd,” he says. “I find that the more I write and learn and discover, the more ideas I have. Everything interacts. You don’t have to hunt too far to find fascinating species and behaviors. There are whole worlds out there under water, in the prairie grasses, on islands, in trees, forests, rain forests just waiting to be discovered.”