I remember seeing this photo, by Boyd Norton, in Anna Merz’s obituary in 2013 and thinking, “Gosh! There’s a story there that young readers would love!”
And now, nine years later, after a trip to Cornwall (where Anna Merz grew up), another to the sanctuary she founded in Kenya, more than 20 interviews and probably 200+ emails, Anna Merz’s story is becoming a book! In May 2023, “How to Raise a Rhino,” will be published by Bedazzled Ink Press. https://www.bedazzledink.com/childrens.html#/
I love non-fiction, particularly biography, and I want young readers and their parents and teachers to love it too. Good non-fiction tells a story, just like fiction. Indeed, for me, the fact that something is true makes it even more engaging. Adventure! Discovery! Intrigue! It’s all there in good non-fiction.
For example, here is the opening of Anna Merz’s story:
A slow-moving convoy drove away from the bright lights of Nairobi, towards the snowy peaks of Mt. Kenya to the northwest. The armed men in the lead truck held their rifles at the ready. Their eyes constantly scanned the vicinity, prepared to shoot to kill to protect their cargo. The third and last truck carried more armed men dressed in the same khaki uniforms of the Kenyan Wildlife Department. And a veterinarian.
Between them, a pick-up truck carried a large wooden crate.
Wedged next to the crate sat a little, brown-haired woman.
The woman shivered in the cold night air; she worried about the creature in the crate; she knew an attack could come at any moment. She was cold. She was anxious. She was scared.
She was ecstatic.
This was Anna Merz and the crate held her dreams. Anna had created a vast sanctuary where black rhinos could live safe from poachers. All she needed was rhinos to fill it. These first black rhinos would have babies and those babies would have babies and in this way the population of black rhinos might slowly recover.
This is all factual, but it does, I hope, make you feel like you are there in the moment with Anna, and curious enough about what happens next to turn the page.
What would you do if faced with the realization that an animal was going to go extinct? Would you step up?
I believe that biographies about non-famous people can get young readers thinking about what role they might play in the world.
Take Anna Merz, for example. She was not a celebrity. She was not rich. She didn’t use social media. She spent her life nursing wild animals back to health and having adventures in Ghana. Thinking to retire in Kenya, she learned that black rhinos were almost entirely extinct. She decided to do something about that. Her decision, to build a black rhino sanctuary, blossomed into something that both changed her life and had worldwide impact.
Along the way, she learned that each rhino has a personality; some are curious, others are timid, but they are not all the aggressive, stupid beasts people think they are. When Anna, who became known as Kifaru Mama (Rhino Mama), raised Samia, a rhino abandoned at birth, she loved that creature more than any other being in her life. Samia was rambunctious, sometimes knocking Anna in her exuberance when she was young, she was also perceptive (sitting quietly by Anna when Anna felt bad or sad), she was funny (sneaking into the house when Anna was in the bath and trying to join her there), and she was brave (protecting Anna against other rhinos if she felt there was a threat).
This is the story I set out the tell, nine years ago. I hope Anna Merz’s adventures inspire young readers to pursue their passions, no matter what they are.
Meanwhile, if you know any teachers or school librarians (or if you are either of these) let them know that, if they are trying to incorporate more non-fiction in their classroom, I am available for a visit, in person or by zoom. I talk to students about their own non-fiction writing, what went into my stories or more generally about how and why they might become interested in the genre.
Please share this newsletter. I am looking to communicate with parents of middle-grade readers, book sellers and librarians, especially school librarians. If you know anyone like that who might be interested in learning more about Anna Merz and her unique, life-changing relationship with Samia the rhino, please spread the word.