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'Snakes, Alligators, And Broken Hearts' by Sneed B. Collard III

Jan 5, 2016

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist's Son

by Sneed B. Collard III

Bucking Horse Books, 2015

I don't think that children (or adults, for that matter) wonder as much about the lives of nonfiction writers as they do about writers of fiction. Reading Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts made me wonder why. While Sneed B. Collard III has written eleven books of children's fiction (one under a pseudonym), he has been most prolific in writing children's nonfiction, mostly about the natural world, and historical biographies.

In his latest book, he turns the lens squarely back on himself, revealing in his autobiography (subtitled Journeys of a Biologist's Son) the profound influence of his father on his life and work. The story of Collard's childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s reveals as much about the particulars of his personal life (the child of divorced parents, who shuttled between spending school years in California and summers with his father on the east coast) as it does about the political and historical events of the period.

As a child, Sneed's father was his hero, working his way through college and graduate school to become an acclaimed scientist and professor. He welcomed his son's presence in the lab and on many of his research projects, instilling a love of the natural world in Sneed throughout his childhood. While always conscious, at some level, of his father's flaws (including a serious drinking problem and an inability or unwillingness to follow through on his promises to seek full-time custody of his son) Sneed didn't become fully aware of the depth of his father's problems until late adolescence.

The very brief and cursory glossing over of the lives and relationship of father and son after Sneed finished high school was the only weakness of the book. The two pages devoted to this topic leave the reader wondering how the pair resolved the conflict that emerged towards the end of the story, and what their relationship was like at the time of the elder's death.

Fan's of Collard's fiction and nonfiction titles will thoroughly enjoy reading about his adventures as a child, however. The author's conversational tone is reminiscent of that of a favorite uncle, telling great stories about the trouble he got into in his childhood (replete with many reminders “not to try this at home”). Reflections on the political and social events of the period (and how Sneed's views about those events were colored by his particular circumstances) are critically honest and insightful. Footnotes throughout the book provide additional historical details without detracting from the light and often humorous tone of the narrative.

The layout of the book is also attractive, with doodles of animals, designed by the author's daughter, Tessa, at the bottom of each page, and at the end of each chapter, as well as on the jacket cover. A bibliography of the author's books is provided at the beginning of the book, and a sixteen page photo spread reveals images of the Collard, his family and friends in action. The book concludes with an Author's Note on the subjective nature of memory in autobiography, and a list of acknowledgments.

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Sneed B. Collard III has written more than seventy-five books for young people and is the winner of many awards, including the prestigious Washington Post - Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work. His book The Prairie Builders received the Subaru / AAAS Prize for Excellence in Science Books, and his other titles have been regular features on CBC / NSTA, IRA and other prominent "best of" lists.