Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Fun: Math and Mapping

Check out this fun and educational activity sheet. It’s a perfect compliment for units on migration. Plus it reinforces math and mapping skills.

For more activity pages, visit my website.


Have a great long weekend! I'll see you on Wednesday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Behind the Books: Getting Organized

Back in December and January, I wrote a series of posts about how a book project begins for me—getting the idea, deciding if I really want to pursue it, the different kinds of research I do, etc. But I didn’t go into specifics about how I organize my research.

This is a question third and fourth graders ask me all the time during school visits. Well, actually, it’s usually their teacher or librarian who asks. But the kids pay close attention to my answer because they are working on their first reports, and many are struggling to sort and arrange the material they’ve collected. Recently, a fellow children’s book writer asked the same question, so I thought I’d attempt to answer it here.

There was a time—not that long ago, actually—when I took all my notes longhand. Then I hunted for the bits I knew I wanted to include in my manuscript and sorted the information using a system of index cards. Sure, it was cumbersome, but there didn’t seem to be a better way.

Remember, I grew up in the era before computers. I typed papers on an electronic typewriter until my junior year in college. Then I switched to a word processing program offered on terminals connect to a mainframe. I had to go to another building to get my printouts.

But those days are over, and when I describe them nostalgically to elementary students, they look at me like I must remember the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth. They’re looking for a twenty-first century solution to their problem, and so I give them one.

For the last few years, I’ve typed all my notes directly into the computer as I read source material, as I interview scientists, etc. Eventually, I end up with 20, 30, 40 or more pages of notes typed single space in no particular order. I save that research file, and then I open a new file and start to cut and paste.

First, I move all the bibliographic information to the bottom of the document. Eventually, I’ll use it to create the sources section or for further reading list, depending on the publisher’s house style.

Then I start moving around the information from various sources, adding page breaks to create visual separations between the material that will be discussed in different chapters or sections of the book. As I’m re-reading the information, I am also tinkering with outline ideas, which I’m writing longhand on a piece of paper. The outline helps me stay on track. Without it, I’m sure all the information would overwhelm me

As I cut and paste, cut and paste, I start to notice redundant information, so I delete it. In some cases, I see statistics that disagree. If no source seems more authoritative or up-to-date than the others, I look for the best possible source elsewhere or I contact an expert and ask for clarification.

Eventually I’m left with perhaps half or one-third as many notes, and that information is lumped into what I expect will become chapters or sections of the books. (No worries if I realize I’ve accidentally deleted too much. I still have a separate file with all my research that I can go back to. Thanks to Word’s search option, it’s easy to find exactly what I need.)

Then I begin writing. During this phase of the process, I usually discover some holes in my research. After all, it’s hard to anticipate everything I’ll need ahead of time. When that happens, I stop writing and do more research until I have the information I need. Sometimes I discover the information I’m hoping for isn’t available. Then I have to rework my outline to work around the problem.

There might be better, more efficient ways to organize research, but this is the system that works best for me right now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

There’s a blue jay that has become very fond of my maple tree, and I’ve been trying to get a good photo of him all week. Unfortunately, the bird seems to be camera shy. It flies away at just the wrong moments.
So instead, I decided to get up close and personal. Basically, I couldn’t resist the urge to play with the macro setting on my camera again.

This morning, I saw two ticks, a downlooker fly (star of last week’s post), a moth that I haven’t been able to identify, and a spider so transparent that I just couldn’t get a picture of it. Bummer.

The good news about the ticks is that they were wood ticks, not deer ticks (which can carry Lyme’s disease). Still, where there are wood ticks, there are probably deer ticks too. So I guess I should be careful if I go barefoot in the yard this summer.

I was pretty surprised to spot for different kinds of creatures on my tree today. It’s amazing what we can see in nature—if we just take the time to look.



Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  • According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Monte Pierce can stretch his earlobes to a length of nearly 5 inches (13 centimeters). Using them like a slingshot, he can launch coins up to 10 feet (3 meters).

  • Know anyone with wrinkly lines on their earlobes? Some scientists say they’re a sign of heart disease. Nobody knows what causes the curious creases. They might form when blood vessels in a person’s earlobes collapse.

  • Most parts of your body will stop growing by the time you graduate from high school, but your ears never stop. Between the ages of twenty and seventy, a person’s pinnas grow about 0.5 inches (1.3 cm).

  • You know that soft, swishing noise you hear when you hold a spiral seashell up to your ear? Some people say it’s the sound of crashing ocean waves. But that’s not really true. What you’re hearing is sound waves bouncing around inside the shell.

  • If your ancestors came from Europe or Africa, your earwax probably forms soft, sticky, yellow clumps. But if your ancestors were Asian or Native American, your earwax probably forms hard, crusty, gray flakes.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my 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, May 19, 2010

Behind the Books: On the Radio

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the release of my new book A Place for Frogs. To learn more about it, you can listen too this radio interview that recently aired on WICN, the NPR station based on Worcester, MA.

Hop-hop-hooray for frogs!


Monday, May 17, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

Now that my tree is fully leafed out, I don’t think the view from my window will be changing too much. But up close, there should be lots of activity.

Birds and insects and spiders should all be spending time hanging out on my tree. My maple is a great place to rest, hunt for a meal, or maybe even make a home.


My previous attempts to capture the little guys with my simple point-and-shoot camera didn’t go so well, but I have some exciting news. Last week fellow writer Michelle Cusolito taught me a new trick. I have a macro setting on camera, and I didn’t even know it.

Michelle patiently explained how to change the setting, and . . . Holy Moly look at the great close up shot I got of this snipe fly on my maple! Thanks, Michelle. You rock!!

Sometimes called the downlooker fly, this relative of the deer fly commonly sits on tree trunks with its head oriented toward the ground. When a helpless victim passes by, the vicious little biter takes a chomp. I’m glad this one didn’t bite me.

I can’t wait to see what other cool close-up views I’ll be able to photograph over the next few weeks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Fun: Even More Talented Third Graders

Here are some more of the awesome poster-size postcards that the clever third graders at Webster Hill School made featuring some of my books.

I can tell that Kate, Adreian, and Kelly put a lot of hard work into this poster showing four scenes from When Rain Falls. Look at the little raindrop “stamp” in the corner. What a great idea!


Shibe, Riley, and Atazjia drew lots of newly-hatched daddy longlegs on a rose stem. The little ones have white bodies and dark eyes, just like they do A Daddy Longlegs Isn’t a Spider. I really like their close attention to detail!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Behind the Books: A Look at Voice, Part 3

Today’s topic is tone—the third and final component of nonfiction voice. How is tone different from style? That’s a very good question. And here’s the answer.

While style (see last week’s post) is the personality of the writing, tone is how the writing makes you, the reader, feel. Does it calm you down or does it rev you up. Does it make you feel joyous or sad, respectful or sassy?

Here are two examples of writing with very different tones.


From my book It’s Spit-Acular!: The Secrets of Saliva
"Spit a little saliva into the palm of your hand. Now take a good long look. What do you see?

Spit is a clear, slippery liquid. It looks a lot like water, but it’s a little slimier, and it’s full of tiny bubbles. If you haven’t brushed your teeth lately, your spit might also contain tiny bits of food. Ew! Gross!

There’s a good reason spit looks like water. Water is its main ingredient. But spit also contains many other things. They help saliva do its job.

The slimy mucus in spit makes swallowing easier. Proteins in saliva start to break down food before it reaches your stomach. Spit also contains salts, gases, and all kinds of yucky germs. That’s something to think about the next time someone hits you with a spitball."


From my book When Rains Falls
"Inside clouds, water droplets budge and bump, crash and clump.

The drops grow larger and larger, heavier and heavier until they fall to the earth.
When rain falls in a forest . . .

. . . scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.

A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in.

Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes."

The first piece is written for grades 3-5 and I want to get them excited about learning, and for them to realize that their bodies and the bodies of other animals are remarkable machines. The tone is sassy, even irreverent.

The second piece is for younger children. My hope that the soothing, comforting tone would make it appropriate for a bedtime story. But the lyricism will also engage children in a classroom setting.

Like style, tone is created through deliberate decisions about sentence structure and word choice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

When I started this blog, the idea was to take a photo of the tree from my office window once a week. After 6 years of looking at the maple every day, I wanted to force myself to pay more attention to its weekly, monthly, annual changes.

At times, I’ve been really surprised at just how much and how quickly the tree does change. In fact, for the past month or so—while the tree was leafing out—I found myself pulled outdoors every day to note the progress. I just couldn’t help myself. It was so wonderful.

But this week, I’m back in the office, and the photo you see was—once again—taken out of my window. I’m still getting used to seeing a tree full of leaves. It’s lovely and lush, and I’ve noticed that it completely changes the quality of the light in the office—especially in the morning. I really like it.

I took a half dozen photos of the tree this morning because the wind is blowing hard, so the pattern of shadows on the trunk keeps changing. This is something that I probably wouldn’t have noticed a year ago. But watching the changes from moment to moment is really fascinating. The shadowy shapes in the image I’ve posted are beautiful. They’re definitely worth preserving with a photo.

Happy Monday, Everyone!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Fun: More Talented Third Graders

Webster Hill School rocks! The third graders, their teachers, and the amazing school librarian Mrs. Gargula welcomed me with an assortment of beautiful handmade, poster-size postcards with drawings by and notes from the kids. I especially like the special attention the students gave to the “stamps”.

This first one was created by Katherine, Kadajah, and Micaela. In honor of A Place for Butterflies, it shows the colorful insects flitting through a field of flowers. Butterflies are very special at Webster Hill. Students raise monarchs every year and release them in the fall, just in time to migrate to Mexico for the winter.
Timmy, Ethan, David, and Maxime created this poster and note after reading A Place for Frogs. I love the frog sticking out its giant red tongue to catch a tiny insect.


Sage, Jonah, Wayne, and Dylan focused on A Place for Birds. Looking at that flock of gray birds cruising through the middle of the words. They suggested that I write a book about tigers. Maybe I will.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Behind the Books: A Look at Voice, Part 2

I’m going to pick up right where I left off last week—with a discussion of voice, which as three components: point of view, style, and tone. Today’s post is about style—nope, not fashion sense. If you want advice on that, you’ve come to the wrong place.

In nonfiction writing, style is the personality of the writing. It is created through deliberate choices in sentence structure, word choice, and point to view. When I think about what style to adopt, I think about the function of the passage.

Sometimes a piece should be formal and authoritative. But most of the time, a fun, conversational style is better. Here are two examples that are great for comparing because they convey almost the same information, but using very different styles.


From the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
"The outer auditory canal, which measures about 3 cm (about 1.25 in) in length, is a tubular passageway lined with delicate hairs and small glands that produce a wax-like secretion called cerumen. The canal leads from the pinna to a thin taut membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane, which is nearly round in shape and about 10 mm (0.4 in) wide. It is the vibration of the eardrum that sends sound waves deeper into the ear."

From my book Now Hear This! The Secrets of Ears and Hearing
"When you look at the opening to your ear canal, it’s hard to imagine what’s inside. That dark, little tunnel is about half as long as your pinky finger. At the far end, sound waves crash into your eardrum—a thin, skin-like membrane that separates your outer ear from your middle ear.

"Soft, sensitive skin lines the surface of your ear canal. Just below the surface, dozens of small sacs called cerumen glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of icky earwax. The gummy goo oozes through tiny tubes and seeps into your ear canal through pit-like pores.

"If your ancestors came from Europe or Africa, your earwax probably forms sticky, yellow clumps. But if your ancestors were Asian or Native American, your earwax probably forms crusty, gray flakes."

The encyclopedia is straightforward and informative, but most people wouldn’t want to read pages and pages of information written in this style. That’s okay, though, because that’s not how we use the encyclopedia. It’s a reference that is used to snatch small bits of knowledge and then move on.

My passage is longer, but it’s more lively and engaging. It’s fun to read. And it’s full of amazing details that will fascinate young readers. The comparisons are relevant to my audience’s every day experiences, and the text contains vivid, memorable images.

That’s what style is all about.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

It’s been another exciting week for my maple tree, so I’ve been taking photos every day. By Wednesday, the leaves were really opening up. And I noticed something interesting. Each bud had produced four new leaves. I never realized that before.

I guess I wasn’t the only one to notice the lovely new leaves. Can you see those little red dots on the leaves on the right? They’re insect eggs. I’m not sure what laid them, but I was really looking forward to watching them.

Then disaster struck.

We had a couple of really windy days. I mean REALLY windy. We’re talking 50 mph gusts. Even though I noticed a lot of small branches falling off trees in the yard, including the maple, I wasn’t worried about the four buds I’d been watching. I should have been.

It turns out, one of the buds snapped in the wind, and all four of the leaves attached to it blew away. It was the leaves with the tiny red eggs. I guess I’ll never find out what pops out when those eggs hatch. Bummer.

As you can see, all the leaves are fully outstretched now. It looks like leafout is officially over. That means it’s spring!