Thursday, December 31, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts


  1. A tiny, monkeylike creature called the tarsier has the largest eyes compared to its body size. But the biggest eyes of all belong to the giant squid. Its volleyball-sized eyes are a hundred times larger than yours!

  2. A praying mantis has super-sharp eyes. The hungry hunter uses them to spot the slightest movements up to 60 feet (18 meters) away.

  3. The eyes of hawks and eagles see eight times more clearly than the sharpest human eyes. They have two foveae and five times more cones. A golden eagle can see a rabbit from 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away. Just imagine having eyesight like that!

  4. Tyrannosaurus rex may have had the best eyesight ever. Some scientists say the fearsome dinosaur may have been able to see thirteen times more clearly than a person.

  5. Giant clams can have thousands of eyes, but they’re very simple. They can sense light and motion, but they can’t form images.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy facts about eyes? Check out my new book The Eyes Have It: The Secrets of Eyes and Seeing. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Behind the Books: Taking a Break

Starting today, I’m taking a break from blogging so I have more time to relax and enjoy the holiday season. This year is special for us because my brother in law and his family will be winging their way here from British Columbia to spend a week with us.

We’re going to have a lot of fun. I hope you do too.

I’ll be back on January 4, 2010. See you then.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

When I first began thinking about this observational strand of my blog last summer, I decided to take a photo of the maple tree each Monday morning when I woke up at 6:25 a.m. I figured that if I did it right away, I wouldn't get distracted by other things. After all, mornings are a busy time around here.

That plan seemed perfect in July. But by mid-September, I knew I was in trouble. By then, the days were no longer starting at 5:30 a.m. or even 6:00 a.m. And I knew the darkness would only deepen as our side of the world continued to tip away from the sun.

What would I do? Well, ur, cheat—just a little bit. For the last couple of months, I've been taking some of the Good Morning, Maple photos on Sunday—the day before I post them.

But I didn't cheat today. I snapped the top photo just moments after I stumbled out of bed. The flash makes the sky look darker than it really was.


I took the bottom photo at 7:00 a.m., just after my husband left for work. The play of the light off the new fallen snow makes the sky seem lighter than it really was.

See why I cheated. Photos taken in the early morning light just aren't realistic—at least not with the digital camera I have.

Why am I suddenly confessing? Because today is the Winter Solstice. That's big news around this house where nobody likes to rise before our friend the sun.

From now on, each day will stretch a little bit longer. We won't really notice the difference at first, but we’ll know it's happening.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little bit better about everything.

Happy Solstice to you all!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

Q: Why is it hard to fool a fish?
A: Because you can’t pull its leg.

Q: What do whales have that no other sea animals have?
A: Baby whales.

Q: What did the shrimp yell when it got stuck in the seaweed?
A: Kelp! Kelp!

Q: What did the beach say when the tide came in?
A: Long time, no sea.

Q: What do sharks like to eat with peanut butter?
A: Jellyfish.


For some more serious information about ocean animals and ocean habitats, check out these books: Extreme Coral Reef!, How Do Fish Breathe Underwater?, and Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Behind the Books: My Writing Partner

This is my ever-ready, ever-reliable writing partner, Princer—a.k.a. Princey, Little Guy, and Mini Munchkin. My husband rescued him from the mean streets of Cambridge after someone abandoned him. He was scrawny and mean, but my husband loved him anyway.

The first time I met Princer, he bit me—hard enough to draw blood. For some reason, my husband didn’t take that as a bad omen. He kept on dating me and eventually married me, and over time, Princer and I learned to tolerate each other.

When we moved into our house, Princer started to mellow. He had more room to run around, and he had nearly constant companionship—me. He hasn’t bitten or scratched me in quite a while now, and sometimes he even sits in my lap while we’re watching TV.

For the last couple of years, Princer has been spending a few hours a day sitting on my desk (as you can see in this photo). Sometime she watches me intently, and sometimes he naps.


Whenever I read my writing aloud to check the cadence, Princer perks up and pays attention. If he starts to yawn, it's a sure sign that the piece needs more work.

But sometimes Princer purrs. That’s when I know all is well.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

Last week, John Lechner, the very talented author-illustrator of The Clever Stick and the Sticky Burr stories, had this to say on his blog:

“Many people stop looking at trees after the leaves fall off, but this is when I think trees become the most interesting.”

I love this statement. Not only are leafless trees interesting, they are truly beautiful. Look at the wonderful shape of my maple. The branching seems random and yet it is nearly symmetrical. The result is a lovely giant teardrop shape.

As I contemplated this over a cup of steaming tea last week, I couldn’t help but wonder about the physiological purpose behind the tree’s overall shape and branching pattern. I knew there had to be one. There are no coincidences in the natural world.

So I did some research, and here’s what I discovered.

Tree branching has a lot in common with the branching of rivers and streams within a watershed, lightning bolt branching, the distribution of plant roots underground, and the branching of blood vessels inside your body. And it’s no accident that the collection of tiny tubules in your lungs looks a lot like a maple tree tipped on its side.

Branching allows water, nutrients, gases, and other materials to be collected or distributed efficiently over large areas. A tree’s leaves need to be spread out over a large area so that they can collect plenty of sunlight or photosynthesis. Similarly, roots spread over a large area can absorb more water and minerals from the soil. But once the tree takes in these materials, it needs a way to move them from one area to another.

A tree contains two transport systems—the xylem and the phloem. The xylem carries water and minerals from the roots up the trunk and out the branches to the leaves. The water combined with carbon dioxide from the air to make sugary food. Then the phloem carries the food from the leaves back to the rest of the tree.


It turns out the shape and distribution of the tree’s branches and roots maximizes the efficiency of moving materials from top to bottom and bottom to top. Pretty cool.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. Mice and rats find mates by sniffing out scent signals given off by other members of their species.

  2. Dogs and cats mark their territories with strong-smelling pee. The scent warns other animals to stay away.

  3. Many mammals are born with their eyes and ears closed. The babies use their noses to sniff out their moms.

  4. You’ve probably seen a snake’s tongue. It’s always flicking in and out. With each flick out, the tongue collects tiny particles from the air. With each flick in, the tongue rubs the particles into two tiny holes on the roof of the snake’s mouth. Those holes contain sensors that smell and taste.

  5. Spiders and scorpions don’t need a nose. They detect scents in the air with sensors on their legs.

    Looking for more gross and goofy facts about noses? Check out my new book Up Your Nose: The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Behind the Books: Slithering Snakes

Back in November, I wrote a series of posts about how I get ideas for books. I thought I could finish up the strand before Thanksgiving, but it turns out, I have a little bit more to say. So here is my final post about book ideas—at least for now.

Many of the books I write are based on ideas I develop myself. I usually write these manuscripts on spec (speculation), send them to editors I know, and hope they fall in love and decide to publish them.

But sometimes an editor comes to me with an idea. Near the end of 2007, an editor from National Geographic Books for Young Readers asked me to write a leveled reader about snakes. I said “yes” immediately. After all, I’d always wanted to write a book for the revered National Geographic Society.

But after I hung up, I started to realize the ramifications of what I’d done. I’d agreed to write a book about snakes. Snakes. What was I thinking? Sure, I’m a nature lover, but here’s the truth: Snakes really creep me out. Always have. Always will.

I’ve encountered my fair share of garter snakes. I’ve seen a cottonmouth or two. And I even spotted a deadly fer-de-lance in a Costa Rican rainforest. But my most memorable snake encounter happened in the Galapagos Islands.

While hiking across a large expanse of volcanic rock with two herpetologists (scientists who study reptiles and amphibians), I noticed a sudden movement on the ground. I looked down expecting to see a cute little lizard scuttle by. But instead, I watched in horror as a large brown snake slithered right over my hiking boot.

I couldn't help myself. I screamed.

I expected my hard-core scientist companions to look at me with disgust, so their reaction stunned me. The mild-mannered researchers actually whooped with joy.

It turns out my little “friend” was a Galapagos snake, a rare species the scientists had never seen before—even though this was their seventh trip to the Islands. Good golly, I was practically a hero in their eyes.

But let’s get back to my problem. I had to write a book about snakes—my least favorite creatures. What choice did I have? I dug in and started researching.

It turns out snakes are more interesting than I ever imagined—from the way they move and swallow prey to the way they mate and have young. In the end, the project turned out to be a lot of fun. And I was able to craft an engaging, age-appropriate manuscript that I knew kids would love. Then the folks at National Geographic did what they’re know for—came up with stellar images that perfectly illustrated my text.

Snakes still give me the willies, but my effort truly seemed worthwhile when my nephew read Snakes! and gave it his ultimate form of praise. “Cool,” he said.

And so it is.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

Look at my maple. Do you notice anything different? If you look closely, you’ll notice a little bit of white stuff stuck in the crotches and there’s some ice frozen to a few of the outermost twigs.
Those are telltale signs of a weekend full of excitement. The first snow!

The storm started late Saturday afternoon and raged all through the night. It began slowly, but after dinner, we enjoyed the big, beautiful, gloppy flakes plunking down all around us. That’s what happens during late autumn (Hard to believe, but it won’t officially be winter for 2 more weeks.) and early spring storms. During these storms, the air isn’t too cold, so not all of the water is frozen. That makes the snowflakes clump.

On Sunday morning, the lawn was blanketed with snow, but most of the driveway was covered with a thick sheet of ice. Yikes!

Here’s what my maple looked like yesterday morning. Isn’t it lovely? Our backyard is ringed with trees, mostly large evergreens. Their boughs hung low to the ground, creating a true winter wonderland.

Yesterday afternoon was fairly warm, so I thought all the snow would melt. But there's still a nice coating on the ground right now. Let’s see how long it sticks around.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Fun: Take a Look

For those of you who entered my Take a Look contest, today is a big day. It’s the day I announce the winner. And it’s the day I explain what caused this rock at Mount Wachusett in central Massachusetts to split right down the middle.

I received more than 100 entries from students all over the world, and they had all kinds of possible explanations.

Many of you thought the rock had been hit by lightning. Nope.

Some thought it was actually two rocks that just happened to be side by side. Nope.

Others suggested that the rock broke after rolling down a hill. Nope.

Quite a few of you said the rock might have been hit by a bomb or missile or other kind of weapon. Nope.

One of you thought the break might have been caused by an earthquake. Good guess. But nope.

A whole heap of you blamed erosion, which is so, so close, but not quite right. Erosion is when a rock is slowly worn away by the action of wind, water, or glaciers.

This rock, which is made of granite, has been sitting on in the same spot for a very long time (probably since the last ice age), and it definitely has felt the effects of erosion. See how its edges are rounded? See how some material seems to have been chipped away from the side of the rock facing us? Those are telltale signs of erosion.

But the crack is the result of a slightly different process called weathering. It happens when a rock is broken down by plant roots growing into cracks and crevices, repeated freezing and thawing, acid rain or snow, or other natural causes.

You see, my big hint was the location of the rock. Central Massachusetts has cold, icy winters. And over time, ice that formed on the rock froze and thawed, froze and thawed. Each year it cracked the rock a little bit more. Until finally the rock split in half. Rock may be tough and strong, but it's not indestructible.

Six contest entries had the correct answer. So I printed them out, folded them up, and put them in a bowl. Then my husband chose a winner.

Drum roll please . . . and the winners are Ravi and Anika Bajpai, who entered the contest together. Their entry even included a fantastic drawing. I was hoping that I could include it here, but I can't figure out how to incorporate a MacPaint drawing.


So Ravi and Anika will be receiving a signed copy of my book A Place for Butterflies.

There will be a new Take a Look photo contest after the holidays. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Behind the Books: Edublog Awards

December 8 is the deadline for this year’s Edublog Awards nominations, so that’s what today’s post will be all about. My picks are below.

You probably won’t be surprised to see them leaning toward the kidlit community. A lot of children’s writers care deeply about education and often discuss topics that will interest a wide variety of educators.

Best Individual Blog: Classroom Book of the Week
Kate Narita is a former teacher and really understands how to write activities that are practical, meaningful, and fun. Each week, she posts a full range of Multiple Intelligence activities related to a recently published children’s book. The blog alos includes interesting interviews with children’s authors.

Best Individual Tweeter: @KateMessner
Kate Messner is a middle school English teacher and the author of three fantastic books (with more on the way). She really understands how to unite the worlds of children’s literature and teaching. At NCTE, she participated in a panel that focused how to pair fiction and nonfiction titles to enrich classroom experiences by reaching out to students who learn in a variety of ways. She is also leading the effort to get more authors in more classrooms for less money via Skype, and check out this article she just wrote for School Library Journal. It discusses how to make Twitter part of your PLN and provides ideas for convincing skeptical school administrators that Web 2.0 really can enhance student learning.

Best Group Blog: I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids)
Twenty-two award-winning children’s authors post about all aspects of their writing and research, including details that can help students learn to conduct research more effectively and secrets to writing compelling nonfiction texts. During the month of October, the blog discussed a variety of innovative ways to use nonfiction titles in the classroom.

Best New Blog: Classroom Book of the Week
See explanation above. Kate Narita started her blog in September, but its usefulness to teachers is already apparent. Go take a look.

Best Librarian/Library Blog: Fuse #8 Productions
This blog, which was recently picked up by School Library Journal, is a tremendous resource for teachers and librarians. Written by Betsy Bird, a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, it employs a lively, conversational style and regularly includes book reviews and general information of interest to children’s librarians and other educators. Betsy makes excellent use of visuals and videos to keep the content fresh and fun.

Hope you'll take a look at my nominees and then head on over to the Edublog Awards website to vote. Or you can nominate some of yoru own favorites.