16 minute read

Roland Smith (1951–) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights

Born 1951, in Portland, OR; Education: Attended Portland State University.


Agent—Barbara Kouts, P.O. Box 560, Bellport, NY 11713.


Zoologist and author. Zoo keeper and senior research biologist at Portland Zoo, Portland, OR, and Point Defiance Zoo, Tacoma, WA, for twenty years. Has appeared on national and local television shows, including National Geographic, Audubon, Discover the World of Science, and Northwest Wild.

Honors Awards

Outstanding Trade Books for Children designation, and Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Book, both 1990, both for Sea Otter Rescue; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, and Notable Books for a Global Society, Children's Literature and Reading Specialist Interest Group of the International Reading Association (IRA), both 1996, and Young Readers Choice Award nomination, 1998, all for Thunder Cave; Notable Science Trade Books for Children, National Science Teachers Association/Children's Book Council (CBC), and Children's Choices list, IRA/CBC, both 1997, both for Journey of the Red Wolf; IRA Children's Choice Award, 1998, IRA Young Adult Choice, and Bank Street College of Education Children's Books of the Year designation, both 1999, Nebraska Golden Sower Award, and Florida Sunshine Book Award, both 2000, and Novel of the Year, Jason Project, all for Jaguar; Young Adult Library Services Association honor, American Library Association Roland SmithTop-Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant YA Readers List, and Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Books of the Year designation, all 1999, all for Sasquatch; Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Books of the Year designation, and Children's Literature Choice List, both 1999, both for In the Forest with the Elephants; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Children's Book Award, 1999, and Beacon of Freedom Award, 2002, both for The Captain's Dog; Mark Twain Book Award, 2003–04, Maud Hart Lovelace Award, 2004–05, and Nevada Young Readers Award, and North Dakota Flickertail Award, all for Zach's Lie; nominations for numerous state reading awards.



Thunder Cave, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.

Amy's Missing, YS Press, 1996.

Jaguar, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1997.

Sasquatch, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.

The Captain's Dog: My Journey with the Lewis and Clark Tribe, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1999.

The Last Lobo, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.

Zach's Lie, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.

Cryptid Hunters, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2005.

Jach's Run, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2005.


Sea Otter Rescue: The Aftermath of an Oil Spill, photographs by the author, Cobblehill Books, 1990.

Primates in the Zoo, photographs by William Muñoz, Millbrook Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Snakes in the Zoo, photographs by William Muñoz, Millbrook Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Inside the Zoo Nursery, photographs by William Muñoz, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Cats in the Zoo, photographs by William Muñoz, Millbrook Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises in the Zoo, photographs by William Muñoz, Millbrook Press (New York, NY), 1994.

African Elephants, photographs by Gerry Ellis, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1995.

(And photographer) Journey of the Red Wolf, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1996.

Vultures, photographs by Lynn M. Stone, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.

(With Michael J. Schmidt) In the Forest with the Elephants, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1998.

(With wife, Marie Smith) B Is for Beaver: An Oregon Alphabet, Sleeping Bear Press (Chelsea, MI), 2003.

(With Marie Smith) E Is for Evergreen: A Washington Alphabet, Sleeping Bear Press (Chelsea, MI), 2004.

Z Is for Zookeeper: A Zoo Alphabet, Sleeping Bear Press (Chelsea, MI), 2005.

N Is for Our Nation's Capital: A Washington, DC, Alphabet, Sleeping Bear Press (Chelsea, MI), 2005.

Contributor of photography to National Geographic.


Thunder Cave has been optioned as a television movie by RHI with a screenplay by Smith and Hunter Clarke. Several of Smith's books have been adapted for audio.


Roland Smith is a zookeeper turned children's author who has carved a niche for himself both in nonfiction and fiction with such award-winning titles as Sea Otter Rescue, Journey of the Red Wolf, Thunder Cave, Jaguar, and Sasquatch. Blending action and adventure with accurate scientific detail, Smith's fiction has been praised by critics and applauded by young-adult readers, while his nonfiction works are marked by readability and feature detailed insider information told in an accessible manner. "When you read his books," a Storyworks writer noted of Smith's work, "you almost feel like you're inside the story, seeing through the eyes of his characters."

Born in Portland, Oregon, Smith formed a love of reading and writing early in his life. As he noted on his Web site, he received one of the most memorable presents from his parents for his fifth birthday: "My parents gave me an old manual typewriter that weighed more than I did! It was my favorite possession. I spent hours in my room clacking away on that old typewriter. Of course, when I was five, I didn't know how to spell and I barely knew how to read, but I loved the sound and the look of the letters on the crisp white paper."

Soon thereafter came reading skills and a love for books. After graduating from high school, Smith attended Portland State University, studying English and biology. A work-study program led to part-time work at the Portland's children's zoo, which he thought might provide some interesting material to write about. Instead, the program led to a more-than-twenty-year career in zoo keeping, first at Portland's main zoo, and then at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, where Smith became general curator and assistant director, as well as senior research biologist.

While at Point Defiance, Smith became involved in a project to reintroduce the near-extinct red wolf into its native habitat of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Functioning as species coordinator and studbook keeper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Team, he helped oversee the breeding of the last pairs of the endangered wolf, which were brought to Washington State for that purpose. Once enough litters of new wolves had been born, they were then placed back into the wild, bearing radio transmitters in collars to help with tracking. This successful project served as the basis of one of Smith's most popular nonfiction titles, Journey of the Red Wolf.

Working in Alaska to help save endangered animals from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill led to another title, Sea Otter Rescue. Such work led to appearances and interviews on local and national television shows, such as National Geographic, Audubon, and Discover the World of Science. Additionally, in his professional capacity, Smith authored numerous professional papers and presented them at meetings and conferences of scientific organizations as well as to the general public.

While working as a zookeeper and research biologist, Smith never lost his love of writing, and he spent time early each morning teaching himself the basics of the writing craft. He also read voraciously, up to four books a week, and was a steady consumer of how-to writing books and other information about the publishing world. A chance meeting with well-known children's writer Dorthy Hinshaw Patent led to the publication of his first title in 1990, Sea Otter Rescue. Smith's long-time dream finally became a reality.

With color photographs by the author, this first book provides readers with an "in-depth view of the special care given to 342 sea otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill," according to Booklist reviewer Deborah Abbott, who went on to note that the book "reflects the complexity of the operation, which was exacerbated by the geography." Smith recounts in detail how the sea otters were affected by the oil spill, and how they were cleaned and taken care of. "With the environment a top priority of the 1990s, this is an especially useful resource," concluded Abbott. A writer for Kirkus Reviews felt Smith's book is unlike "many perfunctory treatments of current events" in that it is written and photographed "by an expert with in-depth knowledge of the Valdez oil spill and its effect on wildlife." The same writer continued, "Smith is an experienced zoologist whose writing and color photographs are both clear and immediate, involving readers in the fate of the sea otters by describing individual animals as well as general rescue operations." The reviewer for Faces: People, Places, and Cultures found the book "fascinating."

With his first book, Smith created a space for himself in children's literature: eco-books told from an insider's perspective. He has continued to mine this rich vein in more recent nonfiction and fiction titles. Approaching his new career in a pragmatic manner, Smith realized that he had to find new topics or new ways to talk about old topics in order to be able to ultimately support his
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family with words. Sticking with nonfiction at first, he contracted behind-the-scenes zoo books with Millbrook Press and Cobblehill Books. In 1992 his Primates in the Zoo and Snakes in the Zoo were published, followed by Inside the Zoo Nursery in 1993, and Cats in the Zoo and Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises in the Zoo in 1994.

Reviewing the first two titles, Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin wrote that "Smith's conversational tone" will help make the books "especially appealing to middle graders." Zvirin noted that both books "supply excellent perspectives on how the animals are cared for in a zoo environment." Karey Wehner wrote in School Library Journal that the texts for both Smith's "New Zoo" series books "are straightforward, well organized, and contain some interesting anecdotes." Wehner predicted that "Smith's titles will appeal most to youngsters who want to know the nitty-gritty details on zoo routines."

With Inside the Zoo Nursery Smith uses the rescue of a newborn baboon as a dramatic narrative thread to connect information on zoo medical facilities. Horn Book critic Elizabeth S. Watson noted that the author creates "an extremely readable and engaging text that provides excellent information about the complex procedures followed in a zoo nursery." Ruth M. McConnell, writing in School Library Journal, called the book a "clear, competent presentation, illustrated with captivating, full-color photographs of the baby animals."

Publication of these early titles and their reception by reviewers and readers encouraged Smith to leave zoo keeping behind and make writing his full-time profession. Other nonfiction titles have followed, including several books for the Lerner "Early Bird Nature Series": African Elephants and Vultures. In 1996 he published Journey of the Red Wolf, in which he recounts the efforts to save the rare red wolf from extinction. In a Booklist review, Ellen Mandel commented, "Smith delivers behind-the-scenes details about the species-saving effort, generously illustrating his fascinating account with intimate color photographs." Employing dramatized fact, the author recounts the arduous task that confronted the team of men and women who labored to save the red wolf. Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, found Smith's fictionalizing technique somewhat confusing, noting that it is "not always clear what really happened." Barbara Murphy, on the other hand, wrote in School Library Journal that "Smith's straightforward style conveys firsthand knowledge."

A 1996 trip to Burma (present-day Myanmar) with fellow zoologist Michael J. Schmidt led to a book on the plight of the Asian elephant, In the Forest with the Elephants. Focusing on the Myanmar Forest, where a third of Asia's remaining 35,000 elephants live, Smith and Schmidt tell the story of Won Lin and his elephant, Toe Lai, who have developed a working partnership in harvesting wood. These techniques of partnership may ultimately not only save the dwindling population of elephants, but also the forest. Patricia Manning, writing in School Library Journal, called the book an "informative and rich cultural experience," while Horn Book contributor Mary Ann Burns concluded that a "strong ecological theme runs throughout the book, which documents this complex enterprise and relationship between humans and nature."

Moving to fiction, Smith's first novel, Thunder Cave, recounts the adventures of young Jacob Lansa, the half-Italian, half-Native American son of a biologist. When Jacob's mother is killed, his stepfather wants to send the boy off to relatives, but Jacob has a better idea: he goes to Kenya to find his biologist father, who is doing field research on African elephants. There Jacob hooks up with a Masai trying to bring rain to his drought-ridden country, an experience that helps the boy understand his Hopi roots. Jacob also battles poachers who threaten local elephants with extinction in his adventuresome quest to find his father.

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"Sparkling detail and vivid realism are keys to Thunder Cave's success," noted Thomas S. Owens in a review for Five Owls. "A boy wanting a dad, elephants eluding capture, and an African exploring tradition combine to create a guaranteed, feel-good thriller." Sutton commented in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Thunder Cave "is precisely the kind of book people are thinking of when they ask for a 'boys' book.'"

As with his nonfiction, Smith plays on ecological themes with his debut novel. He also approaches fiction with the mind of a scientist: for the early drafts of Thunder Cave he consulted over 2,000 index cards with bits of information ranging from plot twists to facts about Africa.

Smith reprises his protagonist Jacob Lansa in Jaguar, as the boy follows his dad to Brazil, where the biologist is setting up a jaguar preserve. Jacob's journey upriver to join his father is beset by danger and violence, and once again he comes face to face with those despoiling nature for their own selfish gain. Booklist reviewer Kay Weisman noted that, "While Smith's ecological message … comes through loud and clear, the book's strength lies in strong characterization … vivid local color, and high adventure." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called Smith's sequel to Thunder Cave a "first-rate adventure about greed, mutual dependence, and family," while Janet Woodward commented in School Library Journal that "this fast-paced adventure and survival tale blends enough action, suspense, and legend to keep readers interested until the end."

In The Last Lobo Jacob tracks his missing grandfather from the nursing home the elderly man quietly left to the Hopi village of Walpi, in Arizona. Grandfather is happy in the village, surrounded by relatives and friends, and Jacob decides to stay with him for a time. While there, the teen soon becomes involved with trrying to save the area's last remaining lobo, or Mexican wolf, from hunters determined to earn a bounty for killing the creature. Frances Bradburn, in her review of the novel for Booklist, called The Last Lobo "another exciting outdoor adventure."

Smith tackles the Sasquatch or "Bigfoot" legend in the aptly titled Sasquatch. Again, a father-son relationship is at the center of Smith's adventure novel in which Dylan must keep his somewhat erratic father in line after his mother leaves for Egypt. The job is made more difficult when the boy's father joins a team hunting the Sasquatch on Washington State's volcanic Mount Saint Helens. Dylan joins another team shadowing his father's group, but soon begins to wonder if his father is crazy after all; the Sasquatch may be more of a reality than he has ever imagined. Booklist critic Lauren Peterson dubbed Sasquatch "a first-rate thriller," while Elaine E. Knight concluded in School Library Journal that with its "exciting climax set amid Mount Saint-Helens's eruption, this fast-moving, suspenseful story provides lots of action and appeal."

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In Zach's Lie Smith tells the story of Jack Osborne, a thirteen year old whose family must enter the witnessprotection program after his father is arrested for drug trafficking. The family take on new names, something that Jack, now named Zach Granger, finds difficult to do. He also finds it hard to adjust to their new home in a small town in Nevada. Trying to hide from drugcartel assassins, the family must keep quiet about its past life. However, when Zach has his diary stolen and begins to see incriminating lines from the book appearing on the classroom blackboard at school, the information soon leads the criminals to Zach's family. "The reader will be caught up in a vicarious fear for the family's safety," according to Phyllis LaMontagne in Kliatt. Debbie Carton, reviewing the novel for Booklist, believed that "Zach's well-depicted emotional turmoil about his once-beloved father lends depth" to the story. A critic for Publishers Weekly concluded that "readers are sure to be caught up in Zach's suspenseful adventure."

In Cryptid Hunters, Smith tells of the field of cryptozoology, or the study of animals that may or may not really exist. Creatures like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot are examples of the type. When cryptozoologist Tobias Wolfe takes his orphaned niece Grace and nephew Marty to hunt for a rumored dinosaur in the jungles of the Congo, they find themselves hopelessly lost. Worse, the devilish Dr. Blackwood is also after the dinosaur for his own purposes and will stop at nothing. While trying to locate the elusive dinosaur and avoid Dr. Blackwood, the orphans also untangle a hidden family secret. Todd Morning wrote in Booklist that "the action is nonstop" in Smith's "well-paced jungle adventure."

Smith has also written historical fiction, but with a naturalist's eye for detail. In The Captain's Dog, he treats the Lewis and Clark expedition from a dog's point of view, telling the story from the perspective of Seaman, a Newfoundland pup who becomes the companion of Meriwether Lewis. "The canine's perspective, both fresh and original, is most effective," a critic for Publishers Weekly noted. Helen Rosenberg, in her review of the title for Booklist, called Smith's book a "marvelous piece of historical fiction."

As Smith noted in his Web site, "My writing led me to animals and my work with animals led me back to writing. It's funny how things work out. I spent over twenty years working with animals. Now I'm going to spend the next twenty years writing about animals … as well as a few other things"

Biographical and Critical Sources


Appraisal, spring-summer, 1993, pp. 105-106.

Booklist, September 15, 1990, Deborah Abbott, review of Sea Otter Rescue: The Aftermath of an Oil Spill, p. 158; October 15, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Primates in the Zoo, p. 427; October 1, 1994, p. 323; May 1, 1996, Ellen Mandel, review of Journey of the Red Wolf, p. 1504; May 15, 1997, Kay Weisman, review of Jaguar, p. 1576; April 15, 1998, Lauren Peterson, review of Sasquatch, pp. 1446-1447; October 15, 1999, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Captain's Dog: My Journey with the Lewis and Clark Tribe, p. 429; December 1, 1999, Frances Bradburn, review of The Last Lobo, p. 696; May 15, 2001, Debbie Carton, review of Zach's Lie, p. 1754; February 1, 2005, Todd Morning, review of Cryptid Hunters, p. 962.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1995, Roger Sutton, review of Thunder Cave, p. 359; February, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Journey of the Red Wolf, p. 20; January, 2005, Krista Hutley, review of Cryptid Hunters, p. 227.

Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, February, 2005, review of Sea Otter Rescue, p. 47.

Five Owls, September-October, 1995, Thomas S. Owens, review of Thunder Cave, p. 18.

Horn Book, January-February, 1993, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Inside the Zoo Nursery, p. 99; March-April, 1998, Mary M. Burns, review of In the Forest with the Elephants, p. 237.

Kirkus Reviews, November, 1990, review of Sea Otter Rescue, p. 71; January 1, 1993, p. 68; May 15, 1997, review of Jaguar, p. 808; March 1, 1998, p. 344; December 15, 2004, review of The Cryptid Hunters, p. 1208.

Kliatt, July, 1997, p. 11; March, 2004, Phyllis LaMontagne, review of Zach's Lie, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1999, review of The Captain's Dog, p. 83; June 25, 2001, review of Zach's Lie, p. 73; February 14, 2005, review of Cryptid Hunters, p. 77.

San Diego Union Times, July, 19, 1998.

School Library Journal, November, 1990, p. 133; December, 1992, Karey Wehner, review of Primates in the Zoo, p. 130; June, 1993, Ruth M. McConnell, review of Inside the Zoo Nursery, p. 126; May, 1995, pp. 122-123; August, 1995, p. 138; May, 1996, Barbara B. Murphy, review of Journey of the Red Wolf, p. 126; June, 1997, Janet Woodward, review of Jaguar, p. 128; March, 1998, pp. 191-192; April, 1998, Patricia Manning, review of In the Forest with the Elephants, p. 154; June, 1998, Elaine E. Knight, review of Sasquatch, p. 153; June, 2001, Vicki Reutter, review of Zach's Lie, p. 156.

Science Books and Films, December, 1995, p. 271.

Storyworks, September, 2000, "Meet Roland Smith," p. 14.

Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 2004, Michael Levy, review of Cryptid Hunters, p. 320.


Roland Smith's Home Page, http://www.rolandsmith.com (May 17, 2005).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Paul Anthony Samuelson (1915– ) Biography to Bessie Smith (1895–1937) Biography