Cover Image: Wild Life

Wild Life

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Member Reviews

Keene Roberts' memoir is part coming-of-age story and part travel narrative. Recounting her unique childhood and adolescent years, the author takes readers back and forth with her between her homes in Africa and the United States. While Roberts' story is, for obvious reasons, intriguing and unconventional (how many kids can say they grew up chasing monkeys?), it's also surprisingly familiar. Many readers will find they can relate to Roberts' school experiences and longings for connection. Written in a friendly voice and moving at a comfortable pace, this memoir often reads like YA and is a quick yet memorable read.
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I love books set anywhere on the continent of Africa, particularly those that revolve around the wildlife sanctuaries, issues with poaching etc. So when I saw this on NetGalley I jumped on it because it sounded really interesting.

Keena Roberts spent her life divided between two locations. Her parents were prominent primatologists who spent large portions of their careers at overseas postings researching baboons and although Keena’s mother returned to the US for her birth, they took Keena back to Africa at quite a young age and she spent a huge portion of her childhood there, firstly in Kenya and then later in Botswana. She was homeschooled or taught herself and also learned a lot about living in a remote location with little in the way of resources and zero luxury. The temperatures were often incredibly oppressive – there was a heatwave that pushed it to 120 and there was almost no way to seek relief. When Keena got older, her parents decided that proper schooling needed to be a part of her life and also they had to both fulfil teaching engagements with their university employer so Keena started school at a Philadelphia private school. The students there didn’t understand her previous life and she didn’t fit in – she spent most of her time living wild and her clothes, hair and everything else was all wrong. She wasn’t interested in what other children were interested in and they didn’t understand the things that interested her.

I’m not particularly brave, so I was pretty fascinated by Keena’s life in Africa, complete with experiences with black mambas, spiders the size of dinner plates, the danger of navigating channels in the Okavango delta in a boat where crocodiles and hippos lurk. For her, it was all normal – as much as walking into the living room and putting the tv on or stepping outside to have a swim in the pool or play on the swings, as I did in my own childhood. It’s when she goes back to Philadelphia that she has trouble – the house doesn’t feel right, so different it is to Africa and her experience coming and going from school means that she doesn’t make many close friends and is often the subject of ridicule and isolation by the other students.

There were parts of this I enjoyed – I don’t like monkeys (or apes, chimpanzees, etc) so I was more interested in the other animals that Keena and her family observed whilst they went about their work in Botswana. Elephants, lions, hippos, etc. I love all of them and reading about them observing them in their natural habitat was really interesting. It was certainly a unique childhood, although also fraught with quite a lot of danger. The book opens with Roberts gleefully recounting the three times she nearly died when she was a baby/toddler and there is also a story in the book where her mother requires her to pilot a boat on her own through rivers where crocodiles and hippos, both of which are known to attack boats and dislodge people from them, inhabit. She’s less than 10 at the time and has her even younger sister with her, which I did find quite disturbing. There’s other rules I guess, when you’re living so remote. Kids grow up quicker and take on more responsibility.

However I did find the book quite circular. Because they spend months in Africa and then return for Keena to go to school, there is a repeat of the same pattern and I did grow a bit bored with this. I know she was treated quite unfairly by her classmates, ostracised and picked on but the stories from when they live in Philadelphia contain pretty much nothing else. Nothing else of her life in America and surely they must’ve done other things? There’s some interesting internal thoughts about how she’s torn between her two places – she’s American, born in America but her formative years were all spent in Africa living a life that is very different to the average American. In America she often feels lost and clueless, but when she returns to Africa it’s like ‘coming home’. But I’m not sure why I didn’t love this – I probably should have, it’s right up my alley, talking about a lot of things that I love to read about. But parts of it were honestly a chore and I could’ve been reading the same thing over and over again, because of the aforementioned pattern it followed. I liked this – but I didn’t connect with it in a way that made it feel meaningful to me, a way where I would remember it as a favourite. It was okay.

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I couldn’t put this memoir down once I started. Roberts, the daughter of 2 notable paleontologists, split her childhood between Africa, in the wild observing primates and the US, trying to fit into a suburban life.
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I love reading memoirs by people who have such a different life experience. Keena Roberts grew up spending half of each year in Botswana at Baboon Camp with her primatologist parents and the other half at school in the Philadelphia suburbs.

I also grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs - so I could relate to that part - but for Keena that was always where she felt less comfortable. Navigating the social structure of 8th grade girls could be more daunting than navigating a boat through a river with crocodiles and hippos. 

Reading about 120 degree days that were so hot the shampoo bottles melted or the time a hyena came through camp and ate all the soap gave me some extra appreciation for my climate controlled home. I also loved getting to experience Keena’s adventures and the way she sees the world. While I am not particularly adventurous and wouldn’t be considered outdoorsy at all - I loved getting to experience a little of that world through the pages of this book. 

Thank you so much to Grand Central and Netgalley for the free copy of this book to read and review.
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The newly released Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs tells the fascinating story of Keena Roberts’ life growing up partly in her parents’ research station in the middle of an African reserve and then part time in an affluent American suburb.

The publisher, Grand Central Publishing, describes the memoir:

    Keena Roberts split her adolescence between the wilds of an island camp in Botswana and the even more treacherous halls of an elite Philadelphia private school. In Africa, she slept in a tent, cooked over a campfire, and lived each day alongside the baboon colony her parents were studying. She could wield a spear as easily as a pencil, and it wasn’t unusual to be chased by lions or elephants on any given day. But for the months of the year when her family lived in the United States, this brave kid from the bush was cowed by the far more treacherous landscape of the preppy, private school social hierarchy

    Most girls Keena’s age didn’t spend their days changing truck tires, baking their own bread, or running from elephants as they tried to do their schoolwork. They also didn’t carve bird whistles from palm nuts or nearly knock themselves unconscious trying to make homemade palm wine. But Keena’s parents were famous primatologists who shuttled her and her sister between Philadelphia and Botswana every six months. Dreamer, reader, and adventurer, she was always far more comfortable avoiding lions and hippopotamuses than she was dealing with spoiled middle-school field hockey players.

    In Keena’s funny, tender memoir, Wild Life, Africa bleeds into America and vice versa, each culture amplifying the other. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Wild Life is ultimately the story of a daring but sensitive young girl desperately trying to figure out if there’s any place where she truly fits in. 

I pre-read the book this month to see if it would be a good read-aloud for my youngest three kids (ages 8, 12 and 16), and I think all three are likely to really enjoy it. While the kids are old enough that they read on their own most of the time (especially the older ones), we tend to enjoy having family read-alouds this time of year when it’s colder outside and it can make for cozy afternoons together. This book is the perfect fit for that kind of read-aloud, like a family movie that kids and adults alike enjoy together.

The book is composed of 24 chapters, each one being about right for a reading session. Chapter titles include A Dead Chicken and an Offer of Marriage, One Hundred Cases of Beer and a Man Eating Crocodile, and High School Water Hole.

The book starts when Keena is a young child, heading off to the wilds of Africa with her family as her parents embark on a long-term research project studying the social structure and communication of baboons. She generally grows up there, while coming “home” to an American house periodically that feels uncomfortable and alien to her.

Keena and her younger sister, Lucy, were homeschooled throughout their childhood in Africa, other than brief periods when they returned home and the girls were enrolled in school. However, once Keena reached high school age her parents decided she needed to be in school and the family lived a traditional life during the school year before Keena could escape to Africa again in the summers.

Keena’s life in Africa was pretty extreme, and it makes for good stories. She was one tough kid. Despite the sometimes terrifying and physically challenging ordeals of life in the African bush, though, Keena found American schools to be far more inhospitable and scary. She writes of being bullied for being the “monkey girl” throughout her years in school, and how she studied the popular students the same way she studied baboons in order to figure out ways to try to blend in and avoid as much bullying as possible.

The book is appropriate for younger kids for the most part even though it is marketed as a Young Adult book. There is occasional swearing and there are some scary situations, especially with animals. Keena occasionally writes about drinking beer during her childhood, though it would hardly seem fair that a child could be expected to be adult enough to drive a truck on a rescue mission, work all day doing animal research, care for her own serious injuries and help maintain a camp for over ten years but be seen as too young for a beer. Her parents come off as brilliant scientists and loving parents, but pretty soundly misguided at times. Occasional animal violence is described which may bother sensitive children.

The book ends as Keena embarks on her college life at Harvard, with an epilogue telling a bit more of what happened after she grew up.

Kids are likely to like Keena, who loves adventure and books but has no clue how to fit in with popular crowds or dress in style. It’s also interesting reading how her parents homeschooled her in a place with no internet, library or traditional resources. This is not a main focus of the book, but it was interesting when it was described.

Actual journal entries from Keena’s childhood are included in the text, which also adds to the appeal for kids.

The book is currently available in hardcover and as an e-book. You may be able to order it through your local library.

All in all, this is a fun memoir that reads like a modern adventure tale with a homeschooler as the heroine. Keena definitely comes off as a strong female lead!

I’m planning on starting it with my kids this afternoon and will report back on their thoughts.

If you read it, please comment with your thoughts!
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Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs by [Roberts, Keena]Keena Roberts is a girl divided. Some of her time is spent in Botswana on an island camp, but she also spends time at a Philadelphia private school. While in Philadelphia she is inundated by preppy school rules and hierarchy. This is the same girl that can sleep, and cook at a campsite and lives close to a baboon colony so her parents could study the animals.

This girl who enjoys dreaming and going on adventures isn't sure how to fit in with spoiled kids. She would rather be in Botswana where her primatologist parents taught her how to make bread and to carve bird whistles from palm nuts. 

This is a wonderful touching memoir by Keena Roberts. It shows how this girls America life influences her life in Botswana and vice versa. It is very funny at times but yet has its tender moments. It tells the story of a girl, coming of age, who is trying to find where she fits in. I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys nature and travel. This is a fun, educational book. 

I was given this book by NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
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Keena is just your everyday student in a Philadelphia private school. Except that she spends half the year living in a tent in a nature park in Botswana with her parents who study primates.  Which one is a more Wild Life?

Growing up home schooled in Kenya, Keena has bush skills. Using elephant poo as soccer balls and shooting snakes are no problem for her. At eight, her family moves back to Philadelphia from January to June so her parents can teach college and renew their research grant. From June to December, they live in Botswana among the animals. It is a rude awakening for Keena when she first arrives in the States. Her tribal dance to a popular African song, Gorilla Man, only leads to laughs from her “ballerina” classmates and being called Gorilla Girl for years. She really doesn’t understand what type of girl she should be to fit in with these strange humans so she vows to quietly observe them like her parents do their baboons.

Keena’s story is a real-life Mean Girls. She has all the charm, and the confusion, of a young Lindsay Lohan. It is great fun to go on the adventure with her from the wilds of Africa into an even stranger teenage life in Philadelphia. Wild Life would be a great gift for a child or teenager who doesn’t feel like they fit in school—and isn’t that most of us? However, it is also a great read for adults. 5 stars!

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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I featured this book on my blog for Nonfiction November . . . I'll provide details directly to the publisher in the next step of this process.
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