Growing up, I loved watching monarch butterflies flit in the sunshine. But I never knew they were long-distance travelers.
As an adult I learned that monarchs migrate from across the eastern US and Canada all the way to Mexico.
In other words, a butterfly that flies on paper-thin wings and weighs no more than a grape travels up to 3,000 miles.
I thought, everyone needs to know about this.
I began to mull over possibilities for writing a book. But could I contribute something new? Many wonderful books had been written about monarch migration for children, like this one and this one. My book idea stayed on the back burner.
Then the situation changed. In early fall of 2012, I had signed up to take my children to a monarch tagging event. That day I got a phone call that the event was canceled. The reason? There were no monarchs flying around.
I began to notice news and scientific reports of declining monarch numbers. Milkweed, I heard, that was the problem. Some scientists had concluded there wasn't enough milkweed, the monarch's host plant. The public latched onto this idea.
But then I started hearing that not all scientists agreed. Some had found evidence of a mysterious problem on the fall migration. Monarchs were departing but not arriving in Mexico. Why are they missing? What could be happening to them?
In the summer of 2015 I started digging in with more research. I talked with the person who had called me to tell me the monarch tagging was canceled. I wanted to hear her perspective on how monarchs were doing.
As summer gave way to fall, I visited schools that were raising monarchs or gardening for butterflies, and talked with kids and teachers.
I found instructions on the internet for making a butterfly net. I made a net, headed outside, and taught myself how to catch monarchs.
In late September, the height of the migration here in Pennsylvania, I recruited my youngest daughter and her friend to tag monarchs with me. My middle daughter came along and snapped photos. Our adventure became the opening of the book.
As fall slipped into winter, I phoned up many of the leading scientists who work on monarchs. They shared with me their ideas about what was happening. Some thought it was milkweed. Some found clues that other culprits were involved, like changes in climate or a disease. Some thought there wasn't really a problem at all, and that monarchs were doing fine.
I sorted through these conflicting ideas and arrived at what I believed was the most accurate take-home message:
Monarchs are declining—their numbers in Mexico are clearly down. But we don't know why. Probably there are a lot of causes—from diseases to deforestation of their winter habitat, from milkweed to climate change. The good news is that monarchs have the ability to bounce back quickly, and we can all give them a helping hand.
The book concludes with back matter that gives readers plenty of ideas for how they can help bring the monarchs back.