If you said the snow leopard, good guess. Find out more about this exotic, endangered creature in the following exquisite book . . .

Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia
by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Nic Bishop

2009. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  

Ages: Upper elementary and middle school–but adults love this book, too.

Genres: Though essentially an informational text, this beautifully rendered book combines elements of photo journalism, history, geography, and documentary style narrative.
Traits:    Look for spellbinding, meticulously chosen detail, Montgomery’s signature voice that brings all her informational texts to life, and sentence fluence that will give you hundreds of examples to share with students.

It’s always hard to sum up Sy Montgomery’s books because they’re as rich and satisfying as the research from which they grow. Let’s just begin by saying that biologist and writer Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop are a team made in heaven. They have collaborated on other books (Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, The Tarantula Scientist, The Snake Scientist and Kakapo Rescue–award winners all), and have now perfected that collaboration like a fine dance. Bishop’s photos are nothing short of stunning, but in addition, they perfectly complement Montgomery’s expansive, often funny prose. So many photos in informational books are “filler,” a way of filling up space. There’s no filler here. With every one of Bishop’s photos, you find yourself pulled in, saying, “I’ve got to read about that!” From lighting to composition to up-close detail, this guy knows his stuff. (The snow leopards are undeniably gorgeous, but I’d put that photo of the yaks, page 62, right over my fireplace if I could.) Then there’s the dazzling look of the whole book. In addition to the photos per se, you’ll find artsy graphics (brilliantly chosen fonts), subtly shifting background colors, creatively spliced sidebars, and whole “mini chapters” on such intriguing and varied subjects as Genghis Khan (Did you know he was a conservationist?), camels (They do spit, but they can go seven months without water, See p. 45), the dinosaur remains for which the great Gobi Desert is famous, and steps for constructing your own ger (pronounced “gair”), a portable and highly weather-proof circular structure built from poles, ropes, and camel felt. In addition, you’ll find the skillful blend of genres typical of Montgomery’s work. Underlying the book is the search for the elusive “ghost,” the endangered and incredibly beautiful snow leopard. This animal, we learn, can thrive in altitudes with only half the oxygen needed by humans, on a landscape virtually treeless, composed primarily of rugged rock, with only enough vegetation to support the ibex, an animal three times the leopard’s weight–and its primary prey. But along the journey, we’re treated to all sorts of interesting facts about the leopards themselves, the land in which they live, and the culture of rugged people who have learned to survive in the harsh but majestic environment of Mongolia. Forget the TV show. These people are true survivors–and are bound to make all but the heartiest among us feel a bit wimpy.  

In the Classroom

1. This is a lot of book to read in its entirety (72 pages, including author’s and photographer’s notes), but chapters are relatively short and generously illustrated, and there are only 15. Read them all if you can (over several sessions), or plan your sharing as a kind of “guided tour” of the book, so students get to see the various parts that make up this captivating whole: the “on the trail” narrative of the hunt itself, stories of pursuing previous leopards (named Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow for their collars), the remarkable photos, and of course, the informational inserts on assorted topics.

2. The book has two topics, really: snow leopards and Mongolia. You might begin with the latter. Ask how many students have heard of Mongolia, what they know about it, and whether they can locate it on a map of the world. Take time to do find Mongolia on the map, and share the “Fast Facts” on page 4. Make a list of “impressions” your students have about life in Mongolia: How do the people there make a living? What are their homes like? What do they eat? Compare these first impressions with things you learn as you go through the book. Talk about the snow leopard, too–before showing the cover of the book. How many of your students know what this animal looks like–or how it hunts, how it lives? Is it endangered? Have any of your students seen one in a zoo? Since even trained scientists and naturalists have trouble spotting them in the wild (many Mongolians have never seen one, either), it’s almost a sure bet that neither your students nor anyone they know has ever seen one in the wild. What does this tell us?

3. Plan to share this book with the help of a document projector. You are NOT going to want students to miss even a single one of these photos. But in addition, you may want to discuss the overall presentation. Hundreds of design decisions go into composing a book with so many features. As you go along, talk about what your students notice and what they like. Are there any design features they might incorporate into their own writing?

4. This book is so packed with detail that a person might read it three or four times and still not take it all in. So integrate a little lesson on note taking with your reading. Ask students to keep a reading response journal in which they write down the three most interesting things they learn each time you read a portion of the text aloud. Discussing these responses in writing circles will help students recall and internalize details–and also sharpen note taking skills.

5. If you look this book up on Amazon, you’ll find that it’s recommended for students in grades 4 through 8. After sharing three or four chapters, ask your students whether they agree with this assessment. Could this book also appeal to adults? What elements of a book make it appealing to a particular audience? Should readers take recommendations like this literally–or decide for themselves whether a book is right for them?

6. Chapter 15, “How to Save a Ghost,” is really a persuasive plea to do something to save the snow leopards. The group (Montgomery, Bishop, and scientist Tom McCarthy) never does spot a leopard on this particular journey–nor do they find out exactly how many leopards live in the valley they explored. Is this important? Is their journey still a success? Have students write a response to author Sy Montgomery’s comment on page 69: “Protecting an animal is like loving someone. It’s not something you do and then finish. It’s a long-term promise, honored over and over, one step at a time.”

7. Talk about the nature of research that goes into a book like this. Kick off this discussion by reading the Author’s Note on page 71 and “A Note from the Photographer” on page 72. Is this “research” as we usually think of it? What particular difficulties did this author need to overcome in order to gather the information she needed? How did the photographer prepare for this journey? Brainstorm a list of writing topics for which your students could do their own field research. Discuss reasons that field research gives writing such authenticity. Consider doing research projects that involve at least an element of field research.

8. We learn that there may be as many as 7,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild (p. 3)–or there may be “only half that many.” About 600 currently exist in zoos, and for most of us, these will be the only snow leopards we ever have a chance to see. Still, zoos are controversial. Some see them as a last chance for endangered animals to survive and bear young–while others feel that animals like the snow leopard belong only in their native habitat. Based on what they learn from this book, have students write a persuasive essay arguing for or against keeping snow leopards in zoos.

9. Ask students to write individual or class online reviews of Montgomery’s book. Reviews should include important features of the book, particular strengths they notice, and a suggested audience (e.g., other readers their own age, readers of all ages, adults, and so forth).

10. National Geographic has videotaped snow leopards. If you can locate a copy of this video, share it with your class and discuss it in light of the book.

11. Consider further research on the snow leopard or any other endangered species. How many endangered species currently exist in the U.S.? Throughout the world? Are humans the primary cause of the current rapid decline in populations of other creatures? What is the evidence for this? What difference does the loss of just one species make to our environment as a whole? Write about this.

Coming up . . .

Think paragraphs have to be formulaic? One main idea–right up front-followed by three (yawn!) obligatory details and (sigh!) a summary sentence?? Escape the formula!  Learn to LOVE the paragraph as one of the most overlooked and undervalued strategic devices available to a writer!! That’s coming at the end of this week. And please don’t forget to invite your friends to visit Gurus. As soon as our visitor numbers hit that magic 200 mark, we’re sending SOMEONE OUT THERE a copy of Creating Young Writers, 3rd edition.