Anita Silvey’s latest book, Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall (National Geographic, June), offers an in-depth look at the life and work of the famed scientist and conservation advocate. This is the latest picture book biography from Silvey – whose oeuvre includes Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot (Clarion, 2010) and I’ll Pass For Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (Clarion, 2008). Silvey is also well known for her critical work on the history of children’s literature, and was previously publisher of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin and editor-in-chief of the Horn Book. Silvey also teaches courses on publishing and children’s literature. Her next project is a biography of songwriter and activist Pete Seeger entitled Let Your Voice Be Heard (Clarion, spring 2016). Silvey spoke with PW about her research, getting fact-checked by Goodall herself, and writing for children.
Was the research and writing process behind this book different from your others?
For my first book, which was about the Civil War, I was just pulling scraps of material: a photo here, or newspaper article there. The process was different this time around, [because] there was so much information. Goodall wrote so many books herself, and there are hundreds of thousands of interviews. I talked to people who worked with her at National Geographic so I got a personal, inside story. The challenge for me was how do you take all the material that’s out there and get the essence of it?
Talk about the research that you did for the book. Did you come across something that surprised you about Goodall?
What I didn’t see about her life was that by the time she was 31, which is remarkable in many ways, she was an established scientist and was taken out of the wild, natural world which she loves, to be an advocate for Gombe [National Park in Tanzania, the site of Goodall’s research], for animals, and for all she does. I saw her out there with the chimps, but 50 years of her life were spent in quite a different way. What I knew of her was something that happened very early in her life. In the book, we get a well-rounded picture of her; it was important to me that we see her whole life.
Goodall wrote the foreword for your book. Did you get to meet her, or talk to her about the book while you were working on it?
We exchanged emails, she’s traveling around the world extensively. She and the [Jane Goodall] Institute saw it in manuscript form and final pages. To have the expert on the subject vet your book twice gave me a great sense of her work ethic. [Even at a fine level of detail, Goodall would add] about chimpanzee behavior, “This is the word I would use.” She went into small detail: “Why’d you call it a British robin?” “If I call it just a robin, for American children, it’s a different animal.” After the process was over, everyone’s looked at it that understands it and as a writer I can feel good about the science there.
There have been a number of recent children’s biographies of Goodall; was there a part of her life you wanted to represent in the book that you felt hadn’t been addressed?
Because this is recent, we had information on what happened at her 80th birthday celebration, and I could give a large overview of everything she’s done. The other thing I knew I’d have was the immense databank of National Geographic photos. I knew early on the wide range of photographic material I would pull from. My photo editor came up with things that quite honestly I didn’t know existed. The album in the back [Gombe Family Scrapbook in the back matter] was something that just recently they pulled together and many people hadn’t seen. I knew we would be able to illustrate it in a visually appealing way to children. I’ve received feedback from people that it’s a beautiful book, and a huge part of the book’s appeal is the wide range of photography.
Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall by Anita Silvey. National Geographic, June ISBN 978-1-4263-1518-3