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Former Morris resident wins award for children’s book on endangered bear cubs

MORRIS -- A former Morris resident has been recognized by the National Science Teachers Association for her recently-published children's book about rehabilitating bear cubs in Eastern Russia.

Lia Kvatum, a freelance writer based in Washington D.C., attended school in Morris though seventh grade, then graduated from Shattuck-St. Mary's Boarding School in Fairbault, Minn., in 1991. Her parents, Ed and Emma Kvatum, still reside in Morris.

Her book, Saving Yasha, is a work of creative nonfiction targeted at elementary school students about an experiment conducted in Russia to try and save three Asiatic black bear cubs, a species found in the far east of Russia.

The main “character” of Kvatum's book is a cub named Yasha, whose mother was killed by poachers.

Scientists Liya Pokrovskaya and Sergey Kolchin rescued Yasha and two other bear cubs they named Shum and Shiksha with the goal of rehabilitating the cubs and, eventually, releasing them into the wild, explained Kvatum.

Over the course of the two-year study, Pokrovskaya and Kolchin spent between six and eight hours each day walking through the woods with the bears, and more than 2,000 hours observing the cubs.

Kvatum stumbled across information about the experiment while exploring the grants database for National Geographic. Kvatum e-mailed Pokrovskaya to ask if she would be interested in having a story done about the experiment and she agreed.

Lia KvatumHowever, Kvatum absolutely could not come to Russia to do any reporting.

“Part of the criteria for the experiment was that there would be no other people involved,” said Kvatum. “This was crucial to rehabilitating the cubs – they needed to maintain a fear of humans.”

While working in Russia, both Pokrovskaya and Kolchin wore special clothing to cover their smell and never talked to or played with the cubs.

However, the scientists had taken numerous photos and even some video of their work, which Kvatum originally thought about turning into a television show.

After trying to sell the story as a magazine article without much support, Kvatum met with her editor and decided to develop it into a children's book using the photos the scientists had taken.

Saving Yasha was published in July 2012 by National Geographic Children's Books and was recently named a 2013 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students in Grades K-12 by the National Science Teachers Association and Children's Book Council.

Kvatum, who lives in Washington D.C. with her husband Kevin and daughter Violet, said she's been surprised at the book's success at each step of the publishing process.

“For a lot of people, most people, and me, it's hard to get things noticed and picked up and done,” said Kvatum. “Every little step was way more than I expected. … I'm really excited.”