Growing Up Gorilla by Clare Hodgson Meeker
Dreamwalks welcomes the ever-talented Clare Hodgson Meeker this month!
We’re joining Clare’s blog tour celebrating her newest book that just came out with Millbrook Press
“With fewer than one hundred thousand western lowland gorillas left in the world, every gorilla birth is important.”
Janet: Welcome, Clare. I just finished reading Growing Up Gorilla: How a Zoo Baby Brought her Family Together. I was immediately drawn in by the dramatic moment when the female gorilla, Nadiri, gives birth at Woodland Park Zoo. The staff was ready to help in any way they could, drawing back to allow her the space she needed, and stepping in only when necessary. The infant animal care specialist, Harmony Frazier, and the rest of the gorilla-care team were forced to step in when Nadiri neglected her newborn. But the team’s goal from the outset was to help Nadiri bond with her infant, Yola. The team worked tirelessly over the next few months, knowing the importance of that fundamental relationship and what it meant for the infant’s future. Zoos are handling baby gorillas very differently than they used to. Do you want to talk about the innovative ways the team used to help Nadiri connect with Yola?
Clare: The gorilla care team tried several new approaches to helping Nadiri bond with her baby, beginning even before the birth. During the last few months of Nadiri’s pregnancy, the gorilla keepers helped her practice picking up and holding a baby using a burlap doll as a substitute. When the first-time mother walked away from her baby minutes after the birth, the keepers set up a special den to care for infant Yola in the gorilla dens and right next to Nadiri’s den so that Nadiri would be able to see, hear, and visit with her baby several times a day. Being surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the other gorillas from birth was important for Yola so she would grow up knowing how gorillas act and communicate with each other. This is how young gorillas learn basic skills – by watching and imitating the other gorillas around them. Finally, the keepers spent several months patiently encouraging Nadiri to get comfortable being around Yola using her favorite foods as rewards for coming close and touching her baby. Getting a mother gorilla to bond with her baby after initially rejecting her was a rare accomplishment in the zoo world.
Janet: The story of the male silverback gorilla’s interest in the new arrival was surprising and touching. Can you tell us about Leonel?
Clare: Leonel, or Leo was the adult male silverback in Nadiri’s family group. The role of a silverback, which refers to the thick, silvery colored hair on an adult male gorilla’s back, is to lead, protect, and keep the peace in the family. But Leo’s personality and behavior did not fit that description when he came to live at the Woodland Park Zoo at the age of 30. He was shy and did not interact very much with Nadiri and her half-sister, Akenji. Most gorillas are social animals and benefit from each other’s company like humans do. What surprised everyone was that though Leo was not Yola’s father, as soon as she was born, the keepers noticed he took an immediate interest in her. At first, Leo calmly watched her from a distance. Gradually, he came closer and would stand next to the metal gate surrounding Yola’s den and calmly stick his finger through the bars to touch the baby who was in the arms of her human caretaker. The keepers saw his curiosity about Yola as a positive sign not just for the baby, but also as further encouragement for Nadiri to reach out to Yola. Eventually, Leo’s protective instincts towards Yola and Nadiri showed he could assume the silverback role and became a hero in the eyes of the keepers.
Janet: The book has terrific color photographs at every stage of Yola’s progress. These ‘family photos’ engaged me in the bonding story as I headed for the last chapter, “A Family at Last.” I also appreciated the informational sidebars sprinkled throughout the book which allowed me to dig deeper without pulling me away from the central story. Especially the one “Comparing Gorilla and Human Development” on page 23. I’m sure parents, educators, and librarians will appreciate these sidebars. Knowing you, you did an enormous amount of research. How did you choose which research to use?
Clare: I love the research part of writing these true animal stories, but I always have to keep in mind the age of my readers and not let the facts get in the way of telling the straight-ahead story. This story raises certain issues that make good topics for discussion like surrogacy (substitute parenting), the need for human intervention in zoo infant animal care, and the differences in the behavior and development of gorillas and humans during the first year of life. Turning them into sidebars helps readers think about these topics in addition to the story. And hopefully, the choice of photos and illustrations highlight the scenes on the page and make the story come alive for kids of all ages.
Janet: What excited you the most as you worked on this book?
Clare: When I first started researching and outlining the book, I didn’t know whether Nadiri was going to successfully bond with her baby or not. Progress was slow for the first few months as Nadiri had to get comfortable being around a needy baby and gain the confidence to be able to reach out and care for her. Meanwhile, Yola was developing quickly, and her outgoing and adventurous personality had begun to show. Yola’s name means “Firefly” in the West African Hausa language where her great-grandfather was born. It was Yola who sparked a maternal instinct in her mother and a protective instinct in Leo. Learning that was most exciting.
Janet: Is there anything else you would like to say about the book before we end?
Clare: I would like to thank the Woodland Park Zoo staff for sharing their experience and insights about these amazing animals with me so I could share this compelling story with children around the world. With less than 100,000 gorillas left in the wild, one of our closest primate relatives is in danger of dying out and every gorilla birth is important. People learn best through the power of story. In the words of the renowned author and Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. And only if we help, shall all be saved.”
Janet: Thank you so much, Clare, for stopping by Dreamwalks on your blog tour to share your newest book with us.
Praise for Growing Up Gorilla: How a Zoo Baby Brought Her Family Together from Kirkus Reviews
“Readers learn about gorillas in general and also how staff at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo managed two rare coups: getting a mother gorilla to bond with her rejected baby and incorporating baby Yola into the zoo’s existing gorilla family. . . . Will provoke ‘content grunts’ in nature lovers.”—You can read the review here.
Find the other Blog Tour stops here
Clare Hodgson Meeker is an award-winning author of 12 children’s books, including the 2016 Junior Library Guild selection, Rhino Rescue! published by National Geographic Kids, the Smithsonian Notable Book Lootas, Little Wave Eater, and her new 2019 nonfiction chapter book Growing Up Gorilla published by Millbrook Press. Clare teaches writing in schools and writing for children to adults. She is also a founding member of the band The Righteous Mothers.