Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Fun: Perfect Pairs

Different students enjoy different kinds of books and learn in different ways, so pairing fiction and nonfiction books can be a great way to introduce and reinforce science concepts.

Here’s a pair of books that shows the place of butterflies in our world and encourages students to think about how human actions can help or harm other creatures.

Butterfly Count by Sneed Collard + A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart

In Butterfly Count, a girl joins a butterfly census hoping to see her favorite butterfly—the endangered regal fritillary. She finally spots one in a patch of pristine prairie that was once owned by her great-great-grandmother. Soft, realistic watercolors of prairie grasses, plants, and butterflies quietly illuminate this tranquil tale.


Butterflies fill our world with beauty and grace. But sometimes we do things that harm them. Stunning illustrations and simple, gentle language introduce young readers to some of the ways human action and inaction can affect butterfly populations. More than just a book about our favorite insects, A Place for Butterflies opens readers’ minds to a wide range of environmental issues.

Related Activities
Materials: Lined paper, pencils Have students pretend they are butterflies.

Ask them to write a detailed description of how it feels to go through each life stage.

Materials: Butterfly cut out (poster board), colored markers
Cut a large butterfly shape out of a piece of poster board and laminate it. Use it to create a Venn diagram that compares the sizes, ranges, habitats, and food sources of two butterflies discussed in A Place for Butterflies. [List the differences on each wing of the laminated butterfly and write the similarities on the body.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Behind the Books: Finding a Focus

Boy, I really got sidetracked on research, didn’t I? Before I move on to the next step in the process of preparing to write a book (or article), let’s review the list I started a few weeks ago:

1. Get an idea.
2. Do a little market research to see what’s already out there on the topic.
3. If the idea seems viable, do a ton of research.

So what’s the next step?

4. Focus your topic.

Let’s pause here. I know what you’re thinking, but this really is important and, yes, I really will finish the list—eventually. I promise.

Why is it important to spend some time describing how and why to focus a topic? Well, actually, there are two reasons.

(a) It’s not as easy as you might think.

(b) It’s as important for young writers as it is for me.

Writing about a narrow topic—as opposed to a broad one—allows me (and young writers, too) to include more examples and anecdotes, and they make prose more engaging. Details bring the writing to life.

If I tried to cram everything there is to know about weather prediction into a thousand words, I’d have to be vague and general. This approach would turn my readers off. That’s because what kids (and adults) find most appealing is a book or article that is chock full of clear, specific, relevant information.

So rather than writing about weather prediction in general, I might decide to focus on tornadoes. Then I ask myself: What are young readers likely to take away from a piece ion this topic?

They may not remember exactly how a tornado forms, but they probably will remember that storm chasers sometimes track as many as a dozen tornadoes a day. And they’ll remember where Tornado Alley is if their grandmother lives in Oklahoma or their best friend just moved to South Dakota. So those are the kinds of subtopics I’d probably focus on.

Yep, it’s true. Less is more. Here’s another example.

Not long ago, I was working with a class of fourth graders. One boy decided he wanted to write about the Universe. I gently told him he might want to reconsider his topic and I explained why. He was resistant at first, but I could tell he was thinking about my suggestions.

The next time I worked with the class, he told me that first he had narrowed his topic to the solar system and then Jupiter, but even that was too much. Finally, he decided to write about Ganymede—one of Jupiter’s moons.

Ah, success! His rich, informative report included some of the best and most creative comparators I’ve ever seen. By comparing Ganymede to a variety of things in his classmates’ realm of experience, he gave us all a vivid picture of the distant moon. Bravo!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Morning, Maple!

Those of you who live in Massachuseets will know that this photo wasn't taken today. I took it last week near the end of a snowstorm that dropped 9 inches on Central Massachusetts. But the tree looks so lovely with its snow-draped limbs, that I just had to post it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  • Crickets and katydids have ears on their knees. They’re perfect for hearing the mating songs the males make with their wings.

  • Green lacewings and some kinds of butterflies have ears on their wings. They’re just what these insects need to avoid predators.

  • Cicadas, grasshoppers, tiger beetles, and many kinds of moths have ears on their abdomens. Cicadas and grasshoppers use their ears to find mates. Tiger beetles and moths rely on their ears to help them escape from enemies.

  • A praying mantis has a single ear on the bottom of its thorax. It’s tuned in to the high-pitched cries of the insect’s worst enemy—the bat.

  • A female tachinid fly’s ears are located near the tops of her legs. When she hears a cricket’s high-pitched mating call, she flies over her victim and sprays it with larvae. The young flies burrow into the cricket and devour it from the inside out. Yuck!
Looking for more gross and goofy facts about ears? Check out my new book Now Hear This: The Secrets of Ears and Hearing. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Behind the Books: A Rainbow of Research

Think research is research? Think again.

The more books I write the more I realize that no two projects are every the same. Each one has its own unique challenges.


The Rainbow of Animals series was no exception. It includes six books—one for each color in the rainbow.

Why Are Animals Red?

Why Are Animals Orange?

Why Are Animals Yellow?

Why Are Animals Green?

Why Are Animals Blue?

Why Are Animals Purple?

The first hurdle in researching this series was making sure that there were enough animals of each color to fill each 32-page book. Of course, there are lots of orange and yellow and green animals. But I wasn’t so sure about the other colors—especially purple.

And even if there were enough animals, would we be able to find great book-quality photos of them all? It was an important question. And these concerns led me to do content research and photo research simultaneously. (Usually the publisher handles photo research after I submit the manuscript.)

My other worry was that all red animals would be red for the same reason, and all green animals would be green for the same reason. That would make for pretty monotonous books.

I was relieved when my photo research turned up plenty of animals to choose from for each color—even purple. And my content research went well too.

Sure, lots of green animals blend in with their surroundings. But a male mallard duck’s green head helps it stand out, so it can attract a mate.

On land, red animals are easy to spot. A male cardinal’s bright colors tell females it is healthy. But a coral snake’s red rings warn other creatures that it is poisonous. In the ocean, red animals are hard to see—especially at night. See, there were lots of great stories to tell. Phew!

Once my initial concerns had been allayed, I dove into the project with all my heart. And boy did I learn a lot.

I’ve been observing and studying animals for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I wrote these books that I really considered just how much coloring affects a creature’s ability to survival in its environment. I hope my audience of curious kids is just as fascinated by the information as I was.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Good Morning, Maple!

My husband keeps asking me why I call the tree I’m keeping tabs on “my little maple.” I guess he's right. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Afterall, as you can see, the tree is quite a bit taller than I am. I have to admit, though, that I really didn’t realize just how much taller it is until my husband took this photo.

I always think of the spruce behind it as being MUCH larger. But look at which tree is actually taller. It was a shock to compare the two trees this way.


Usually, I look up at the maple from below—in the summer, when the tree has leaves. From that perspective, the leaves at the bottom obscure my view of the top, so I just don’t see how tall the maple truly is.

Of course, the spruce is much wider and, at least now in the winter, it has a much greater total volume. So as I tried to legitimize my term of endearment, “my little maple,” to my husband, I pointed this out. But then he dared me to compare the tree’s circumference to my own. Hmmph.

Turns out the tree is 35 inches around, and I’m 32 inches. Once again, the tree is bigger than I am.

The tree is probably older too. Our house was built in 1952, but I don’t think the tree was planted then. According to my research, Norway maples didn’t become popular in American nurseries until the mid 1960s. So I’m guessing my maple is about 45 years old.

Most of the time, I’m a pretty analytical thinker. But when it comes to the maple outside my office window, I guess my sentimental side takes over. I’ve looked at the tree logically—it’s taller, it’s wider, and it’s older than me. But I don’t really care. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still “my little maple.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Fun: Readers Theater

Try this fun Readers Theater script with your students. It’s perfect for winter because it accompanies my book Under the Snow, which was recently honored by the Charlotte Zoltow Award committee.

The script works very well with Grade 2, but you can also try it with Grade 3, especially early in the school year, or Grade 1 late in the school year.

Want to learn more about creating Readers Theater scripts based on science-themed picture books? Click here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Behind the Books: Firsthand Research

I want to get back to the list of how I start a writing project, but since I’ve already detoured into the world of research, I’ve decided to stay here a bit longer. After all, it’s one of my favorite places. It is for any nonfiction writer. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to know when to get the heck out of Dodge and move on to the next step in the process.

But I digress. What I really want to talk about today is the power of firsthand research. Since authors who write about history don’t have time machines, they must scour libraries and museums for primary source materials—letters, journals, and the like.

But I write about science, so I almost never have to spend time in musty old basements or get blurry-eyed looking through reel after reel of microfilm. Instead, I get to go outside and experience the natural world. That’s the best part of my job!

I love doing firsthand research, especially when it takes me to exotic places like the African savanna or a coral reef or a tropical rain forest. Nothing beats observing animals in their natural environment. This kind of research provides key tidbits of information that are often missing from the authoritative books and journal articles about the creatures.

Here’s an example. When I went to Costa Rica with my husband’s family, one of the animals on my wish list was a three-toed sloth. I was soooo jealous when my husband and brother-in-law spotted one while I was scouting out birds along the river.

But my patience was rewarded, a few days later I saw one, well, actually two. My 7-year-old niece, spotted a female sloth hanging upside-down with a tiny baby clinging to her. It was a wonderful sight, especially since I shared it with my niece. She was completely enthralled. But let’s be honest. So was I.

I blended my observations of the sloth with my husband’s description of his sighting and my general notes about the rain forests we hiked through to create the opening of my book Sloths.

Deep in a Central American rain forest, spindly spider monkeys spend their days chattering as they leap from branch to branch. Above them, toucans call out to one another as they fly among the treetops. Far below, on the forest floor, butterflies flit among the leaf litter. The woodland is alive with sound and activity.

But one rainforest animal remains silent and still. It is the sloth. All day and most of the night, this shaggy-coated creature hardly moves at all. It hangs upside down and does its best to blend in with its surroundings.

Honestly, when work is this much fun, who needs a vacation?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Good Morning, Maple!

The snow keeps piling up outside the window of my office. But my little maple doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Some days it’s bitterly cold. But that’s no problem. Some days the whipping winds chill me to the bone. But the tree doesn’t even flinch. The maple is dormant—just hanging on ‘til spring.

Dormancy in trees is a lot like hibernation in animals. In winter, all the body functions of chipmunks and woodchucks and even some bats really slow down. Their breathing and heart rates are barely detectable, but they never grind to a halt.

Hibernating woodchucks are nourished by a layer of fat they build up in the fall. Similarly, my maple survives on sugary starch that it stored away during the spring and summer. Even on the coldest days of the year, its roots are slowly growing, and it absorbs tiny amounts of water and minerals.

And here’s the cold, hard truth: My maple couldn’t survive without winter’s short, chilly days and long, frigid nights. Its buds won’t open next spring unless they experience a winter chill.

So with that in mind, my tree and I dare Mother Nature to send us her worst winter weather. And as we endure day after day, we’ll remember the words English Romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote almost two centuries ago: “If winter is here, can spring be far behind?”

Friday, January 8, 2010

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Behind the Books: Before I Write a Word

Since it’s a new year, I’ve decided to start a new strand that looks at the process, at least my process, of writing a nonfiction book (or article). I’m not sure how many weeks it will take, but I’m willing to bet that I’ll learn a thing or two. I hope you do too.

Of course, creating a book doesn’t start with the act of writing. There are a whole bunch of necessary steps that come before I write a word, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on first. Let’s get started with a list:

1. Get an idea.
2. Do a little market research to see what’s already out there on the topic.
3. If the idea seems viable, do a ton of research.

There are a lot more items for my list, but I’d like to pause here for a moment to talk about research. I usually start out by doing some Internet searches and reading stacks of books that I’ve ordered through Interlibrary Loan. I may even visit a local museum or nature center if I think that will help, but once I’ve digested all the facts an important last step is interviewing experts.

Science is an ever-changing world, and talking to scientists working on the cutting edge of knowledge is the best, and often the only, way to get the most accurate and up-to-date information.

I don’t usually include direct quotations from scientists in books, but I like sprinkle them liberally throughout my text when I write a magazine article. There are three great reasons to do this:

Excite readers, add fun

Here’s an example from my article "Body Science: The Art of Anatomy," Odyssey, November 2001.

“[Even] if you have a love for this, you may be turned from it by disgust in your stomach; and if that does not deter you, you may be afraid to stay up at night in the company of corpses quartered and flayed and horrible to behold.”—Leonardo da Vinci

Show the humanity in your topic

Here’s an example from my article "Something’s Fishy," World, National Geographic Society, July/August 2002.

“If a predator tries to eat a seahorse, it often spits it right back out. It’s too crunchy.”
—Dr. Jorge Gomezjurado, seahorse expert at Maryland’s National Aquarium on Baltimore

Put things into perspective for readers/bring authority to a piece
Here’s an example from my article “What Dinosaurs Left Behind,” Highlights for Children, April 2007.

“They [boys] had just the right amount of imagination to see this stuff and recognize it for what it is.” —Dr. Rich McCrea, dinosaur track expert University of Alberta in Edmonton

Your students probably won’t interview experts for the pieces they write. But they might enjoy interviewing older relatives and writing stories about the history of their families. Why not give it a try?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Good Morning, Maple!

One of my favorite holiday cards this year came from my friend Susan Frey, Director of Education for the Walden Woods Project and major force behind the World Wide Waldens program. Ever since I received that card, I’ve been thinking about Henry David Thoreau.

Most people know that Thoreau’s famous cabin was on the shores of Walden Pond (sketch by his sister, Sophia). But they think the site was deep in the woods, far from the hustle and bustle of life in town. In truth, the cabin was 1.5 miles from his parents’ home in heart of Concord (and Thoreau visited often, conveniently arriving just before dinner.)

Thoreau didn’t have to go far from home to find what he was looking for—as well as something he never expected to find. What exactly was Henry looking for at Walden Pond? In chapter 2 of Walden: or, Life in the Woods, he says,

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Thoreau was a smart guy. Maybe even a genius. He was a superb naturalist, a compelling writer, and a philosopher ahead of his time. But he was also human, and he had a heaping dose of Yankee practicality. So even though the lofty ideology expressed in the statement above is clearly at the heart of the classic text we all read today, it’s not the real reason he built his little house (though it is the reason he spent more time there than he originally intended—but more on that in a moment.) Simply put, the man was looking for some peace and quiet.

The Thoreau household was a busy place in 1845, and Henry was trying to complete his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Borrowing a phrase that Virginia Woolf later made famous, Thoreau needed “a room of one’s own.”


Walden Pond turned out to be the perfect spot for a retreat. Not only did it provide the solitude Thoreau longed for, the natural setting sparked the “experiment in living” idea that developed into his most famous book. Tranquility and serendipity—not bad for a 150 square foot cabin that cost $28.12 to build (photos of cabin reproduction at Walden Pond State Reservation).

Thoreau ended up staying at his cabin for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. After completing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he spent his time exploring his surroundings and contemplating their place, and his own, in the wider world. Only then did he begin writing the first draft of Walden.


Thoreau came away from his Walden Pond retreat with far more than he expected, and I am now having a similar experience as I pay closer attention to the maple tree outside my office window. In September, I started out with a modest goal—to photograph the tree every Monday morning and “write something about it” on this blog.

At the time, I wasn’t sure what I’d write, and I wasn’t sure if I could come up with something new and interesting week in and week out. Well, I underestimated that little tree—and maybe myself too.


Four months into the project, I can’t wait to greet the tree each morning. Even though I took last week off from blogging, I snapped a few shots of the tree anyway. I now have a long list of tree-related topics that I’m hoping to explore. It seems like every time I learn something new, it just leads me to generate even more questions.

If I hadn’t started this project, I might have lived alongside this tree for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years without really knowing much about it. What a shame that would have been!

Thank goodness that little tree—and this blog, too—inspired me to watch and wonder.

And so for 2010, I have the same lofty aspiration as Thoreau—to live more deliberately and focus on the essentials of life. Here’s hoping it’s a wonderful year.