Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sy Montgomery on Temple Grandin

March 3 - Today's post contributed by Sy Montgomery

To people who know my work, writing TEMPLE GRANDIN-- a biography for young readers of the brilliant autistic woman who designs humane handling facilities for food animals--may have seemed like a major departure from my usual offerings.  

I write for both adults and children, and all of the books I had written—to date there are 17 of them, two more coming out later this year, another next—have been about animals. My work usually involving adventures in swimming with pink dolphins in the Amazon or seeking giant tarantulas in the rainforests French Guiana or trekking into the Altai Mountains of the Gobi in Mongolia searching for snow leopards. Of my kids books, my best known as in the Scientists in the Field Series I developed with a photographer for Houghton Mifflin. The first of these involved Nic and I working in a pit with 18,000 snakes. You get the picture. 

Like most people, I work where I am most happy and comfortable--and that’s among animals. It doesn’t bother me much that this often entails fishing leeches out of my socks and underwear at the end of the day, or that my bed might be invaded by ants or my sleep interrupted by rats running over my head. That suits me much better than a cocktail party. I am much more at home with animals than with most people.

That’s not the only reason I write about animals, of course. I write about animals because I feel their lives matter—much more than much of humanity understands or is willing to admit. I write about animals because I find everything about them—their senses, their powers, their minds –absolutely fascinating. I’ve always been drawn to minds different from my own.   

And this was what had drawn me to Temple Grandin nearly two decades before I would ever imagine writing a book about her. 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 his periodic column, Neurologist’s Notebook, in The New Yorker in 1993. She was of special interest to me because she was using her unusual mind to help a group most people would rather not think about: the 10 billion animals on American factory farms whose meat, milk and eggs harvest for food. She is famous for designing humane slaughter houses. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years—ever since I read ANIMAL LIBERATION by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. But I am well aware that most Americans are not, and I am so grateful somebody is finally doing something to make these creatures’ lives and deaths less horrific and more humane.  

So after that first story in The New Yorker, I kept up with Temple’s career and enjoyed her own excellent books for many years.

Now fast forward to an awards ceremony in 2010. I’m fixing to give a speech (awkward), wearing panty hose and a skirt (REALLY awkward) and sitting with well-dressed editors and higher-ups from my children’s books publisher at a luncheon. It’s there I learn that Temple’s publisher, Harcourt, has merged with Houghton Mifflin. One of the top folks at Houghton, who I like and admire very much, has met Temple. She thinks a kids’ book on Temple would be great and that I should write it.

My beloved editor at Houghton, a good friend I’ve worked with since my first children’s book, published in 1999, sitting at the same table, gasped in horror at the suggestion. She’s a vegetarian like me. A book on a woman who designs slaughterhouses! And for children! What could be more horrible?

But to her shock, I immediately decided to write the book.

This was a perfect book for children, and perfect for me to write. Because 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 were 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.   

I love writing for adults, since you can use more and all kinds of words. But I love writing for kids because that’s how you change the world. Not just because kids are tomorrow’s leaders. Kids are TODAY’S leaders. An educator and researcher from Unity College once told me that 70 percent of the environmental news parents receive comes to them not from newspapers or TV—but from their kids. Children’s choices drive many marketplace and home decisions, from whether to buy an SUV versus a hybrid to whether to recycle. Children’s voices are incredibly powerful. Adults are always mounting letter writing campaigns and creating fund-raisers and attending protests, and these are often ignored. But who can ignore such a thing led by a kid?

Kids call ‘em like they see ‘em. They’re not about to accept the world the way it is because that’s the way it always was. 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 whine 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. Because of her autism, she could easily imagine the life of a farm animal, or just about any other animal, for that matter. A diagnostic feature of autism is language difficulties. To this day, Temple thinks not in words, but in pictures. Animals don’t think in words, either. And autism gave Temple another window into the minds of animals as well. Another feature of autism is the senses are ratcheted up. A flapping flag or flashing light that most people, lost in the wordy narrative of their consciousness, might not even notice, would completely distract Temple. This also happens with animals. Most people don’t see this. They don’t realize the reason the cow is terrified of entering the barn is someone has left a hat on the post that’s flitting around in the breeze. But Temple sees this instantly.

So I was thrilled to be able to write this story for kids. As I saw it, this would be a book about creativity and about compassion—for people with differences and for animals, for all of animate creation.  There was only one thing I was worried about. Meeting Temple. Not because she has autism. I knew that wouldn’t be a problem at all. What worried me was that she was famous. And while many famous people are humble and kind—E.O. Wilson, the imminent scientist and conservationist, brilliant founder of sociobiology and great author immediately comes to mind here—famous people can also be incredibly self-centered and snotty.

And at the time I was researching this book, Temple’s fame had reached a fever pitch. She had recently been Time magazine’s 100 people who changed the world. A biopic on her, starring Clare Danes as Temple, was being filmed. She’d been honored by everyone from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. She would have certainly had a right to be impressed with herself--and quite unimpressed with me! What if she wouldn’t give me the time I needed? What if this project seemed like such small potatoes she didn’t want to bother with it?

But I shouldn’t have worried. Temple and I hit it off instantly. She is probably the least snobby person I have ever met. She is also extremely upfront, another gift of her autism. She was on the phone with a restaurant chain one day, talking with multimillion dollar clients, and just told them outright there was no way they could honorably buy so-called “bob” veal for their chain. “It’s just hideously disgusting!” she told them forcefully into her cell phone. (That’s the sort of thing I would say at a dinner party, causing my husband to want to dive under the table.) 

I’m nowhere near as brilliant as Temple, but I found to my delight that we are much alike. We both feel most comfortable around animals, and if we can’t be with animals, we like talking about animals. And this is exactly what we did when I flew to meet her where she lives and works in Colorado. We didn’t stop for three days. Except to laugh. I found we share the same sense of humor. She plans to donate her brain to science when she dies…so I bought and mailed her a Jell-o mold in the shape of a human brain. (Jell-o is one of her favorite foods and one of the few she could eat in college.) There’s even a recipe with it to make the Jell-o a lifelike gray color (you use the watermelon  flavor and add canned milk.) She loves the thing!

When our time together was at an end, I told Temple how grateful I was for the time she’d given me. And she told me how glad she was I was writing her story for kids. “You really get it,” she said. And then she gave me a great compliment, which felt to me as warm and loving as a hug. “Sy,” she said, “I think you’re a little autistic yourself.”    

I’m so honored to have been able to write this book about this incredible woman. I’m humbled to have been able to bring the message to kids that people who are different have a great deal to offer. But I think the greatest gift this book has brought me is Temple’s friendship. I’ll treasure it forever. 

Editor's Note:     
Sy Montgomery's list of accolades is as long as that of Temple Grandin's.  You may read about Sy Montgomery's awards, honors and accomplishments on her website's "About Sy" page.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! As I've mentioned to you, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World was my favorite nonfiction book for 2012. What an inspiring woman she is!

  2. "I love writing for adults, since you can use more and all kinds of words. But I love writing for kids because that’s how you change the world."

    Hear! Hear!

    I'm a true fan of Sy and of this book. And in a perfect strike of synchronicity, I'm celebrating Nonfiction Monday and the SB&F Prizes on my blog this week ... with a TEMPLE GRANDIN giveaway! Please feel free to stop over and enter. Here's a link:

    Happy Reading!