Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery. 2017. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Illustrated nonfiction chapter book.
Levels: Grade 4 through adult.
Features: Outstanding illustrations from the wild habitat of the Amazon rainforest, intriguing details backed by impressive firsthand field research, selected bibliography and index. Length: 67 pages, excluding back matter.

 

Overview
To say Sy Montgomery is a master of nonfiction is an understatement. Not only is her writing brilliant—at times poetic—but Sy’s incredible research always yields memorable details I can’t get out of my head. Like these . . .

Did you know that as many as 500 species can be found on a single flower from the Amazon? Or that the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world” because it provides a staggering one fifth of the world’s oxygen? Or that a new species is discovered in the Amazon every three days? That’s only a sampling of what you can expect to learn about this exotic place where “life piles upon life” (12).

I’ll admit it. Previous books I’d read about the Amazon wilderness left me with a haunting sense of dread. An environment that’s home to giant anacondas (up to 300 pounds), fearsome piranhas, and the biggest alligators on earth, the black caimans, didn’t sound like anywhere I’d set up camp voluntarily. Now I feel my perceptions shifting. Though Montgomery never discounts the dangers, her book provides a balanced view, mixing the undeniable danger with a true vision of Eden—an elusive and endangered paradise worthy of our reverence and protection.

As we learn from Montgomery’s words and Keith Ellenbogen’s photos, Eden has some unusual inhabitants: pink dolphins, for instance, thought by some natives to have the power of transforming themselves into humans. And then there’s the Goliath birdeater, a tarantula that weighs in at a quarter pound and has a leg span long enough to cover your face—not that you’d want to check that out.

Center stage, however, goes to the tiny, gorgeous fish—tetra, cichlids and others—sought by aquarium enthusiasts throughout the world. They grow in abundance here, and flourish during the rainy season, when water rises so high that students take boats to school. “Then, in the dry season,” Montgomery tells us, “ . . . the water level drops—sometimes more than thirty feet. Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” (5). Ninety percent. Think about that. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to pluck these small natives from Utopia just to satisfy some aquarist’s whim, just the opposite is true. If we don’t buy them, they die. And the local fishers, called piabieros, must find some other way to earn a living. Cattle ranching. Mining. Logging. Activities that call for burning or harvesting precious forests.

Cardinal Tetra

Wait, though. Could creatures so tiny possibly play a role in saving the most expansive rainforest on the planet? Turns out they could, yes. The problem is, exporting fish is not simple. It’s a complex process rife with uncertainty.

Fish are fragile. They must be collected, tended, and then transported with the care we reserve for the most vulnerable life forms. Everything from locating these shy fish in the first place to keeping them healthy in just-right conditions offers extreme challenges. “ . . . if these creatures are to survive in the wild,” Montgomery tells us, “it’s essential that people around the world care about protecting them” (17). Reading her book is an important first step in building that level of concern.

Amazon Adventure is filled with exquisite photos that capture the surreal colors of the Amazon. Some take us to the treetops with squirrel monkeys. Some plunge us right into water that’s thick with vegetation and “so stained with natural tannins it’s as red as burgundy wine” (10). You’ll feel as if you’re snorkeling with the team of aquarists and veterinarians who’ve signed on to this adventure, hearing the cries of parrots and kingfishers overhead, trying to remain “still as sticks” so as not to scare the fish—and hoping not to panic as you wonder what just brushed against your skin.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery’s book leaves you wanting to visit the Amazon for yourself, or, at the very least, create your own aquarium sanctuary for cardinal tetras. You’ll want to be sure your new pet is from the wild, not farm raised. That way, you could be helping to save the rainforest that literally keeps us breathing.

In the Classroom

1.Sharing the book. Reading the book to yourself first will help you settle on a purpose for sharing: (1) to illustrate fine nonfiction writing that offers both engaging voice and rich content, (2) to inspire students to read the rest of the book on their own, or (3) to encourage further exploration of the book’s primary topics, including the Amazon rainforest, acquisition of aquarium fish, or set-up and maintenance of successful aquariums.

At 67 pages, Amazon Adventure is long to read aloud in its entirety, but I would suggest reading all of Chapter 1 aloud (including “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9) as an inviting introduction, then sharing selected short passages from remaining chapters. Use a document projector to view the book’s incredible illustrations. (Don’t miss the comical selfie by photographer Keith Ellenbogen, page 20.) Following this introduction, invite interested students to finish the book on their own, or continue your discussion with a small reading group.

2. Background, Part 1: Fish and Aquariums. Ask how many of your students have (or have ever had) an aquarium. Was it fresh or salt water? Who set it up? Share some stories of preparing an aquarium and stocking it with fish. What’s required? If you have an aquarium of your own, share your experiences. Have you ever lost a fish? Have your students? If so, do you know the reason?

Ask how many students have had tetras, the primary species discussed in Amazon Adventure. Do they know what a tetra looks like? There are numerous varieties, and you can find many photos online, in addition to those in the book. Among those students who have had tropical fish, do they know if the fish were farm raised or caught in the wild? Why is it important to know?

Tip: If it’s possible to arrange a field trip to a local aquarium or pet store that features tetras, this will add enormously to students’ understanding and appreciation for this book. As an alternative—and again, if resources permit—consider setting up an aquarium in your classroom. This offers students a chance to participate in creating an environment that resembles that from which the fish came.

3. Background, Part 2: The Amazon. Start with location: Can your students identify the location and directional flow of the Amazon River? Ask them to try picturing it; then share a map of South America that shows the mighty Amazon and its tributaries. Tip: There are numerous maps of the Amazon basin online, and each provides a slightly different perspective, so view a variety of maps to truly appreciate the size, shape, and ecological impact of the region. And don’t miss the artistic rendition by Sarah Green, opposite Amazon Adventure’s Table of Contents.

Size. How large is the Amazon basin—the area through which the river and its many tributaries flow? Why does the immense size of this area matter so much to human life? This is a good time to share “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9. Compare the Amazon with any river close to your location, considering length, number of tributaries, or any other factors.

Firsthand experience? Have any of your students visited the Amazon or any of its tributaries? Have you? If so, talk about your experiences. Make a list of things you know about the region prior to reading this book and others, then add to your list as you learn more. Look up “Amazon River” online, checking out as many photos or videos as time permits. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who has been to the region, invite them to visit your class to do a short presentation and answer questions.

Further reading . . . Numerous books have been written about the Amazon and various adventures there. Have students assemble a list (looking online or working with your own media center staff) for further reading.

. . . and videos. National Geographic offers numerous videos on the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. You might choose to watch one as a class, then recommend others for students to watch on their own.

4. Nonfiction: More diverse than you think! Though it’s filled with illustrations, this is not a picture book in the traditional sense. The pictures are photos, for one thing—as opposed to the cartoons, paintings, or drawings we expect in a picture book. In addition, the book is divided into seven chapters, each running about ten pages. For these reasons, I’ve chosen to call this a nonfiction chapter book. Do your students agree with that definition?

You will also note that the book contains numerous anecdotes and biographical stories. Sometimes, as in Chapter 6, we follow the hands-on research of a scientist like Tim Miller-Morgan, who searches for parasites among captured fish that have grown listless. Chapter 3 gives us a biographical profile of aquarist Scott Dowd, who now creates eco-environments for creatures at the New England Aquarium, and is as much at home in the waters of the Rio Negro as in Boston. Chapter 5 takes us back stage as dancers prepare for the Festival of the Fish. Other stand-alone sections, like the one on tarantulas or that on ants are primarily factual.

Help your students understand that nonfiction writing at its best (as in this book) comprises several forms. To appreciate the stylistic diversity, you might read just a few paragraphs aloud from Chapter 2: Kingdom of the Cardinals, from Chapter 3: Scott’s Story, and from one of the informational inserts—on the pink dolphins (page 38), the tarantulas (page 47), or the ants (page 56). Talk about how this blend of nonfiction styles enriches our reading experience. Why do our minds enjoy writing that takes multiple forms?

Speaking of forms, how many ways does nonfiction come packaged? Make a list with your students, based on your nonfiction reading and research. Your list might include any or all of the following—

Biographies and autobiographies
• Memoirs
• Newspaper articles
• Journal articles
• Reports
• Factual summaries (the kind you might see in a museum or art gallery)
• Nonfiction picture books
• Nonfiction chapter books
• Encyclopedias
• Textbooks
• Brochures of all kinds

5. Main message: First line . . . or later? You can’t really blame Sy Montgomery for embedding the book’s main idea right in the title. I appreciate this title because it sets up an important and intriguing contrast: tiny fish versus the vast rainforest. Bam. Just like that, we’re hooked—got to read the book.

What Montgomery does not do, however—and I also appreciate this—is hammer home her main message in line one. Too often we encourage students to do that very thing. That’s one way of going about things, all right, but it’s not always the most effective, and it can lead to formulaic writing: message, support, support, support, conclusion. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Instead of conking us on the head with a thesis sentence, Montgomery opens Chapter 1 by giving us fascinating information about the Amazon. She wants us to care about this special part of the earth. Otherwise, her message won’t matter. We don’t come to the main message (title aside) until page 2:

Luckily, beneath the glassy surface of its rivers live dozens of species of tiny, beautiful fish whose powers may be even greater than those of the mysterious pink dolphin or the mighty jaguar. These shy fish . . . just might be able to save the Amazon.

Talk about this with students. Does a writer sometimes make a wise choice by waiting for the just-right moment to make his or her main point clear? Is this something they might try in their own writing?

6. Creating a powerhouse ending. This message about the mission of the tiny but mighty fish is echoed in the book’s ending (page 67), which you may want to read aloud (and contrast with the passage from page 2, quoted above). Notice that while the ending reinforces the book’s primary message, it does not restate it. The language is fresh and original—and the passage contains quite a lot of new information. What do we learn from this page about writing an effective ending?

Have students review an ending from any current piece of their own writing, asking these questions:

Does the ending reinforce or relate to my main message?
• Does it give readers new information instead of just repeating things I said before?
• Does the ending leave readers with something I want them to remember or think about?

7. Striking facts. Good details are always important or surprising—or both. As you share passages from the text, invite students to record in their writing journals any informational tidbits they find new or striking. Here are a few that captured my attention:

The Amazon is 15 miles wide at the mouth
• It has more than 1,000 tributaries
• Over 80 percent of the plants we eat are derived from plants in the Amazon basin
• Roughly 2.7 million acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed annually
• The cardinal tetra is the most popular aquarium fish in the world
• The black caiman can consume prey as large as a tapir

It’s important for students to understand that not all facts are equally important—or necessarily worth including in their writing. Have students review a piece of their own informational writing, underlining three to five details they have chosen to include. They should ask of each one—

Is this new information, not just something my readers probably know already?
• Does this detail answer a question that a curious person might ask?
• Is this information important to my topic?
• Will readers be excited or surprised to learn this?

The more yeses they can give to these questions, the stronger the detail.

8. Personalizing research. Research can start with reading books or articles—but it shouldn’t end there.

On the back book flap, we learn that author Sy Montgomery has made five other trips to the Amazon—not including the one she made to write this book. That’s dedication. How many of your students have done personal field research to prepare for a piece of writing? If they have never done this, now could be a good time to start.

A trip to the Amazon might be more than most students can take on, but countless research possibilities exist closer to home: visits to museums, aquariums, farms, places of work, theaters, art galleries, sports stadiums, and other places of interest can yield firsthand information that books alone simply cannot provide.

Students who do their own research (in addition to soaking up knowledge from experts) tend to write with more originality and confidence. They know their topics because, like Sy Montgomery, they’ve been there.

9. Voice—and the word choice connection. Voice comes in many flavors—comical, imaginative, awestruck, authoritative, chilling, sarcastic, whimsical, and more. One of the best ways to teach students about voice is by reading aloud, then having them describe what they hear.

If I had to come up with a word to describe Sy Montgomery’s voice in this book, I’d choose assured. She has a no-nonsense way of placing the truth under our noses like a good lawyer slapping down a telling piece of evidence before the jury:

“This huge, ancient rainforest is essential to the planet,” she declares in the first chapter. “Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered ‘the lungs of the world.’ Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year, mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles” (1-2).

Where does this kind of voice come from? Read the passage—or any others you like—aloud to students and ask them to describe the voice they hear, then try to put their finger on what they think contributes to that voice. Here are some things I noticed—and your students might too:

• Montgomery is unflinchingly honest, even when the message is bleak (and potential destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pretty troubling news)
• Her statements are direct and strong (she doesn’t say the rainforest is kind of important to many people—she says it’s “essential to the planet”)
• She’s confident—thanks to her hands-on research, reading, and interaction with experts
• Her word choice is impeccable—and let’s get specific about that . . .

Montgomery reminds us that the forest is huge and ancient. Who are we to destroy such a thing? It’s the lungs of the world. If we like breathing, that ought to matter to us. Words like vanish and destroy go beyond powerful. They deliver a slingshot direct hit.

As you share other voice-filled passages aloud, talk about specific words that strike a chord with us as readers. Ask students to identify other factors that contribute to voice. Have them review their own writing to identify a passage where their own conviction comes through loud and clear—and perhaps another where it does not. Can they revise to make the weaker passage more forceful?

10. Organizational genius. The book as a whole is brilliantly organized (It’s so good, in fact, that you probably didn’t even think about it), and you may wish to spend some time talking with students about that. Why? Because organization is one of the biggest challenges young writers face. Many students storm through the stage of gathering information, then look at the results the way they might eye a cluttered closet someone just asked them to straighten up.

Here’s a lesson in organization that demystifies the process and works well with a small group. (This is harder to do with a whole class unless each student has a copy of the book, but you can adapt the lesson to another, shorter piece of writing to which everyone has access.) It takes just four simple steps:

1. Help students see chapters or subsections as organizational blocks. Hold on—isn’t that obvious? You might be surprised how many students have never even thought of this. But once they see it, it makes both reading and writing easier. Have students ever divided their own writing into chapters or sections set off by subheads? If not, have them try this with any piece that runs three pages or more. It’s simpler to organize information when you take it chunk by chunk. It’s like labeling shelves or drawers.

2. Go through Montgomery’s book chapter by chapter, asking, “What’s the main message of this particular part?” For example, Chapter 1 introduces us to the Amazon, using a combination of description and fact to place us right at the scene. In Chapter 2, we go on a treasure hunt for tetras, getting right into that pristine red water, and learning how quiet we must be to let the fish approach. In Chapter 3, we get Scott’s story . . . and so on. When you finish listing the chapters and their purposes, look at this informational “map.” Why is it important for some things to come before others? Why do some pieces fit better at the end?

3. Think about what’s missing. You can be sure Sy Montgomery had more information on the Amazon and on tetras than she included in this book. The problem is, as a writer you can never share everything. It would be like bringing home each and every item from the grocery store. We have to make choices when we shop—and when we write. Montgomery doesn’t tell us what the researchers had for lunch, for example, nor does she recount every conversation. Thinking about what a writer might have omitted teaches students to separate important information from trivia. Writers always need to ask, “Do my readers need to know this? Will they care?”

4. Cut and re-order. Time for students to look at their own writing. Have them go through a current draft to identify the message of each section or chapter (or paragraph). Can anything be cut? Good! Pitching trivia is a first step toward great organization (just like cleaning the closet). Next, have them ask whether putting things in a different order would make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. For example, background information (like Montgomery’s description of the Amazon) should go right up front.

11. Organizational sleight of hand. Sy Montgomery pulled off two organizational tricks in this book that made me tip my writer’s hat. And you may want to point both out to your students.

First of all, she found a way to include information that didn’t fit neatly into one of her chapters. The sections on the seven deadly plagues (page 18), pink dolphins (page 38), tarantulas (page 47), and ants (page 56) would have interrupted her narrative flow about finding, preserving, and shipping tropical fish. Yet, this was not information Montgomery wanted to omit. So, what to do?

Answer: Give these topics their own space apart from the main text. Don’t you love it? This strategy is highly effective because it gives us, as readers, a little break in the ongoing rhythm of the book. Like hearing a new song on the radio. We welcome the change of pace and we devour the horrifying (but irresistible) details: “Wrapping twenty feet of muscular coils around its prey and squeezing it to death, this giant snake [the anaconda]can eat anything it wants, including jaguars—and people” (18).

The second trick is even better. That anaconda you just read about is part of a section called “Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon—In the Dark.” Why the dark? Because these seven deadly creatures are often under the water, invisible to unsuspecting waders, swimmers, or snorkelers. The “plagues” include the stingray, the giant catfish, the piranha, and other creatures most of us aren’t eager to meet in person. (No wonder our adventurers shudder when something bumps a leg or arm!) But—Montgomery has a surprise in store . . .

Just a few pages later (27-29), we’re treated to “The Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon Debunked (Sort Of).” What??!! In this section Montgomery pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind each myth. Maybe these critters aren’t quite as deadly as we’ve been led to believe. Take the anaconda. We learn that although these big snakes are capable of eating people, there are no documented cases of this happening. Ever. See? Now you can relax on your next jungle hike.

I love surprises, so have to say, I enjoyed that gotcha moment. Well played.

12. Further research—and argument. Montgomery’s book raises many possibilities for further research on such topics as—
Mining, ranching, and forestry in the Amazon region
• Preservation of the Amazon and other rainforests
• The role of this or any rainforest in preserving life on earth
• Predictions for the future of the Amazon rainforest
• Impact of economic advancement on indigenous people of the Amazon
• History of the Amazon region
• Famous explorers (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt) who have visited the Amazon
• Impact of Amazon species on modern medicine
• Rate at which new species are discovered

Any of these or dozens of related topics make outstanding subjects for further informational writing. In addition, the book touches on many issues that affect our lives. Students might consider any of the following topics as a basis for argument writing—and likely they will think of others on their own:

How important is it to stop or slow down deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
• Is tourism a boon to the rainforest economy—or a threat to the ecosystem?
• To what degree are we here in the U.S. affected by this rainforest so far away?
• Should people be free to use the resources of the Amazon as they see fit?
• Should tropical fish like the cardinal tetras be farm raised—or taken from the wild?
• Does the simple act of buying a tetra caught in the wild truly influence the future of the world’s biggest rainforest?
• Can the Amazon recover from damage already done?

 

About the Author . . .

Visit Sy Montgomery’s home page, and you’ll discover she has been chased by a silverback gorilla, “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo,” bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, and embraced by a Giant Pacific Octopus. Her daring research throughout the world has led her to write numerous books for young readers as well as adults, including three of my personal favorites: Birdology, The Soul of an Octopus (a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. The Good, Good Pig is an international bestseller and a book I’ve given as a gift countless times.
Sy is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Build Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (from the ASPCA for Humane Education) and numerous other honors. Her work with man-eating tigers, subject of her book Spell of the Tiger, was made into a National Geographic documentary that Sy both scripted and narrated.
A graduate of Syracuse University, Sy Montgomery has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and universities. The New York Times described Sy as “equal parts poet and scientist.” The Boston Globe called her “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

To learn more about Sy and her books, please visit symontgomery.com and bluereef.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
I’m delighted to announce that our new book, Teaching Nonfiction Revision, co-authored with best-selling nonfiction writer Sneed Collard, has gone to press. It’s due for release August 31, and is available for pre-order from Heinemann now:
http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Sneed and I had enormous fun writing this book. Our goal was to make revision both fun and productive for students in grades 4 through 8–and beyond! It’s adaptable for nonfiction writers of any age. Lessons and strategies are based on Sneed’s extensive experience as a successful writer of nonfiction, complemented by my own work as a teacher, writer, editor, and journalist. As you can likely tell from the cover, it’s light and fun–and we hope you’ll love it!

Sneed on Assignment

My friend, colleague, and frequent co-author Jeff Hicks will review the book in our very next post. Jeff brings his considerable expertise as a teacher and writer to bear–and I cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you, Jeff. Until next time . . . Give every child a voice.


 

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