by Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mention my 6-year-old son’s obsession with Kate Messner’s new book Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Capture an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem.
It started with this:
Hey, @KateMessner, my 6yo wants to tell you: "Holy Bagumba! TRACKING PYTHONS is really good." He especially likes that you put in "the ripped shirt and the ripped pants and that you included more about other invasive species like the goats and the brown tree snakes."
— Carol Hinz (@CarolCHinz) February 9, 2020
And then it escalated to this:
Last night I finished reading TRACKING PYTHONS aloud to my 6yo for the second time. Then put it under his pillow and slept with it there so I couldn't take it back to work with me. 😂🐍📚❤️
(I had to move the pillow to get this photo.) pic.twitter.com/YZVkdhtf89
— Carol Hinz (@CarolCHinz) February 16, 2020
I’m thrilled each and every time one of my kids enjoys a book I’ve worked on. For much of last fall and winter, this same kid requested the picture book A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Seo Kim, on repeat. So why is this same kid now completely smitten with a middle-grade work of nonfiction? I mean, doesn’t he know that the book wasn’t made as a read aloud and that he’s not even in the target age range for the book, which is grades 4-8?
I’ve been puzzling for a while now about what makes Tracking Pythons so enticing to him (and hopefully to many others), and while the cool snake on the cover is definitely where the appeal starts, I think what keeps him engaged is that the book makes him feel like he’s right there with the scientists, tracking the pythons in the wilds of South Florida and examining them in the lab.
Messner made several trips to Florida and shadowed scientists from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida as they worked, which enabled her to include lots of great sensory details as well as photos and videos of the scenes she describes. Yes, videos! Thanks to Kate’s video skills and our great digital team, the book includes QR codes that take readers to actual videos showing the scientists in action—searching for a snake hidden in tall grass, removing a snake from a bag in the lab, flying above the swamps of South Florida on a telemetry flight, and releasing a couple of the snakes we’ve “met” in the pages of the book back into the wild.
My son didn’t know a thing about invasive species before we read this book, but he now has a good understanding of what invasive species are and why they’re a problem. He’s also quite fond of Burmese pythons—Messner explains why the scientists need to control the python population in South Florida, but she does it in such a way that readers can also admire just how majestic these creatures are. If my son had his way, he’d gather all the pythons in South Florida, put them on a plane (yes, snakes on a plane!), and return them back to their native habitat in Southeast Asia.
So what do readers who are not related to me think of the book? In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “Scientists wrestle 100-pound snakes, wade through swamps, perform delicate surgery, and fly in small planes searching for Burmese pythons hiding and multiplying in southern Florida. The baleful python on the cover will draw readers in, and Messner’s recurring descriptions of the snake-catchers in action will keep them engaged. . . . This fascinating example of field biology holds its own against the exemplary Scientists in the Field series. Who knew that snake science could be so adventurous?”
School Library Journal says: “Messner’s well-written and -documented book will fascinate any nature lover, but younger readers who love snakes will be thrilled.”
And Booklist says: “Messner’s compelling photo-essay gives an inside look at the researchers’ hot, dirty, grueling (and often frustrating) work and offers an extensive bibliography for further research.”
Are you ready to venture in to the tall grass of South Florida and start tracking pythons alongside the scientists? Here’s your chance: