Can stories save the world? Dr Sarah Pye thinks they can!
This week’s blog introduces a series of literary non fiction texts focusing on endangered animals in South East Asia, the conservation work of Dr Wong and the many projects of the author, Dr Sarah Pye in sharing her knowledge and experiences with young readers and students in schools.
It was a humid 2012 day in Borneo. The hotel receptionist had just found out I was a freelance writer gathering fodder for a feature story about wildlife tourism. “You need to talk to Dr Wong,” she said, scribbling a phone number onto her notepad and handing me the phone.
Little did I know that day would change my life.
|Sun bear at the Bornean Sun Bear|
Conservation Centre ©
Dr Wong invited me to visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, not yet open to the public. As I stood on the observation platform watching the world’s smallest bear swinging from a branch 50m in the air, I was hooked. “There are far fewer sun bears than orangutans,” Wong explained. “I have dedicated my life to saving the sun bear.”
I asked what I could do to help.
“Do what you do best,” came the reply.
|Sarah Pye with Wong Siew Te ©|
Those five powerful words have shaped my last decade. Yes, I wrote the article, but I also wrote Wong’s biography (for adults) as a Doctor of Creative Arts degree, exploring how narratives can engage non-scientists in conservation. However, when Saving Sun Bears was published in 2020, I realised my job had only just begun. I needed to reach the next generation.
|Making a mini rainforest | © Jessie Dee|
Stories about iconic animals can evoke emotions like wonder, empathy and concern. They can foster a sense of environmental stewardship and inspire children to become change makers. So, back at the keyboard, I started writing middle-grade children’s books about Wong’s life. There are now six books in the Wildlife Wong series. Each one focuses on Wong’s adventures with a different species: sun bears, orangutans, pygmy elephants, bearded pigs, fig wasps and Sumatran rhinos, but they are innovative in their structure.
But what if kids don’t like reading?
As any teacher will tell you, children learn in different ways. To engage with differing preferences, I decided to include different touchpoints. Each Wildlife Wong books includes a nonfiction narrative (or story); informational text or cool animal facts; sketches and photographs which make it look like a field journal; and experiments which link back to the narrative and engage those reluctant readers. This innovative style led to them being shortlisted for an Australian Educational Publishing Award in 2022.
|Sumatran rhino sketch of baby Mina and her mother ||
© Woon Bing Chang
|Sarah Pye with Pongo | © Jessie Dee|
The next step was extending my reach by visiting schools, so I developed workshops around reading my stories and conducting the experiments. Most recently, I started incorporating the art of puppetry! I now visit schools together with my puppet sidekicks, Luna the sun bear and Pongo the orangutan. The response has been incredible. This August, for instance, we spent 12 full days in schools, directly interacting with over 1,200 students. With the help of technology, many of them even got to meet the real Wildlife Wong!
Tours to Borneo
I’m not done yet! I am excited to announce I have just launched a 10-day guided tour of Borneo for next August, during which Wong will take my guests on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre!
When he said, “Do what you do best”, Wong had no idea it would spawn a doctorate, seven books and a lasting friendship. So, I now ask you the same question: what can YOU do best to help our endangered animals?
Dr Sarah Pye is an award-winning biography and children’s author, an environmentalist and avid traveller.
Editor's note: Sarah and I connected online via a shared passion for animal conservation issues conveyed through story. It was a pleasure to read and review her latest book in the series - Wildlife Wong and the Sumatran Rhino. Read my review!