Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 2

Readers like surprises, such as playful and unexpected word choices. Simply put, they make reading more fun.

Some examples of this include:
—Gross, icky, silly,or sassy words
—Big words, lo-o-o-o-o-ng words
—Internal rhyme
—Puns

Many books make use of these devices, but here are two of my favorites.

The main text of An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston includes a variety of poetic and provocative statements.

“An egg is clever.”


“An egg is artistic.”

“An egg is textured.”

“An egg is giving.”

Most children (and adults) have never thought of an egg in these ways before. It is only after reading the smaller, supporting text scattered across the pages that the full meaning of the main text becomes clear. This sort of mysteriousness makes the book more engaging.

Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock includes a page with the following text:


Each night thousands of herrings release streams of bubbles from their back sides. That’s right: fish farts. Well, sort of. To be true flatulence—that’s the scientific word for “fart”—the gas should come from digesting food. Burt herring FaRTs (Fast Repetitive Ticks) come from air herring have gulped at the surface, not from the food the fish have eaten.

What reader wouldn’t be intrigued by that?

These kinds of examples make us remember a book, so I’m willing to bet you can think of some books with text that surprised and delighted you the first time you read them. Feel free to share examples in the comments.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Take a Look: Fascinating Fungus

Last spring, I met Melissa Techman (@mtechman), an elementary school librarian in Charlottesbille, Virginia, on Twitter. After reading a blog post I wrote about nonfiction voice, she came up with a great idea: Why not have students create nature journals in which they experimented with voice.

According to her plan, some entries would be written in what she called “wondrous first person” and others would be written in “serious third person”. I loved the idea so much that I’ve decided to try the same thing here on my blog.

Last week, I wrote about a fungus I found in New Hampshire in the wondrous first person. Today I’m going to try to write about the same organism in the serious third person, as a scientist would in his or her notebook.

10:13 hours, September 4, 2010
Eagle Mountain Trail, Jackson, NH
Sunny, clear sky, 73 F, gentle breeze
Moist, shady mixed forest with rich understory

About one-quarter mile from the trailhead, the observer noticed a white fungus approximately 3 inches in diameter. It had many spiky projections and resembled a coral. It was growing singly on rotting log that had fallen neaxt to the trail. Later, the unfamiliar specimen was identified as a white coral tooth fungus.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. A housefly dribbles spit onto its food. Chemicals in the spit break down the food. Then the fly can suck it up.
  2. When an archerfish is hungry, it spits at insects to knock them into the water. Then it swims over and gobbles up the prey.
  3. Leeches, ticks, vampire bats, and female mosquitoes all feast on fresh blood. And they depend on proteins in their spit to keep their food flowing.
  4. A giraffe’s favorite food, the acacia tree, has sharp, spiky thorns lining its branches. Luckily, giraffes make lots of thick, mucous-y saliva. The spit coats the thorns and protects the inside of the animal’s mouth.
  5. A komodo dragon’s saliva is deadly. It’s swarming with harmful bacteria that infect wounds made by the lizard’s sharp teeth. If the injured animal manages to escape, the komodo dragon follows the animal until it dies.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 1

Last week I talked about paying conscious attention to the sound of words. But that’s not the only reason it’s important to think about word choice. The truth is that word choice is a very big topic. So to give the topic the space and time it truly deserves, I’ve decided to break it down into several parts and continue writing about it for perhaps a month. Like I said, there’s a lot of cover.

Today I’ll focus on the power of strong, action verbs, or vigorous verbs, as I like to call them. So often when I critique manuscripts from new writers, I see so many weak, passive “to be” verbs that I just want to scream and pull my hair out.

In school, we all learn that verbs are action words. For heaven sake, make verbs do their jobs.
Action verbs bring a piece of writing to life, and they allow a writer to be more specific—always a good thing. All writers should strive to choose verbs that say precisely what they want.

Here’s an excerpt from my book Baboons with the verbs highlighted.

As the sizzling mid-day sun beats down on an African plain, a pride of lions snoozes lazily in the open grass. Not far away, zebras and gazelle graze nervously. A leopard rests on the lowest branch of a lone tree, while vultures fight for the final scraps of an early morning kill. A small herd of elephants slowly saunters by. They are headed toward the river, where hippos lounge in the shallow water. The savanna is quiet and peaceful.

After a busy morning of foraging, a troop of olive baboons naps in the row of trees lining the river. But one rambunctious youngster can’t get to sleep. He climbs down from his safe perch and begins exploring. The little baboon’s movements don’t go unnoticed. A hungry crocodile watches his progress. As the baboon wanders closer and closer to the water’s edge, the croc quietly glides toward him.

Just as the predator is about to lunge, a series of short, sharp barks shatters the silence. It is the alarm cry of a female baboon. She has just awoken and realized her youngster is in trouble. Without a moment’s hesitation, a nearby male races to the ground, scoops up the little one, and carries him back to safety. It was a close call.

You’ll notice that almost all the verbs do some describing. They help set the scene.

But take a closer look and you’ll see a “to be” verb at the end of the first and third paragraphs (marked in red). These were deliberate choices.

At the end of paragraph 1, I wanted to tone things down so the action of the scene in paragraph 2 would be more powerful. I wanted the contrast.

At the end of paragraph 3, I want to bring the anecdote to a satisfactory ending and convey to the reader that we are now about to move on to something new—a more straightforward description of the evolution of baboons and their place in the monkey family tree.

So my verb choices crank up the action when that’s my intent, and then they slow things down when that’s what I want my readers to do. See how powerful verbs can be?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Save School Libraries and Independent Bookstores and Better Prepare Our Kids for those Dreaded Standardized Tests

Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

Let’s start with some background. About 80 percent of all children's nonfiction titles are sold to schools and libraries. This was great in the 1980s and 1990s when teachers were able to find lots of creative ways to integrate children’s literature into their lesson plans.

But then 2001 rolled around. That’s the year the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. And everything changed.

Suddenly educators had to teach to the test. They no longer had much time for creative teaching strategies, and they had to greatly reduce their use of trade books in the classroom.

The result is no surprise. Sales of nonfiction books have fallen significantly over the last decade. And in response, trade publishing houses have reduced their nonfiction lists on average 25 percent (and in some cases as much as 50 percent).

That’s a shame because trade nonfiction titles are meticulously researched and expertly crafted to delight as well as inform. They engage young readers in a way that text books and other standard teaching materials can’t.

Teachers know it.

Librarians know it.

We all know it.

Even the people who write the standardized tests know it.

That’s right. They include passages from award-winning trade nonfiction book on the tests. Students must read the passages and then answer related questions.

I can’t take credit for making this critical connection. Vicki Cobb recently wrote an excellent post about it on the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Children) blog. As she points out, since this material is on the test, the best way to prepare kids is to expose them to as much high-quality nonfiction as possible. Just as it’s better to research using primary resource materials than secondary ones, it’s better to teach with real nonfiction books.

But that’s not the only benefit of using great children’s nonfiction titles in the classroom. These books can also serve as excellent models for the kinds of expository writing kids need to use to answer open response questions on standardized tests--not to mention write book reports and construct critical essays throughout their education.

BUT there’s a problem. We still have to face the reality that teachers just don't have time to vet all the books published each year and decide which ones are most appropriate for them to use.

Think this problem is insurmountable? Think again. Most schools have people who know the body of literature backwards and forwards and can make recommendations to the teachers. School library media specialists can play an important role in helping our kids succeed on NCLB tests. That’s just one of the many reasons we need them in our schools.

Who else do we need? Independent booksellers. They too are intimately familiar with books being published for children. And they know their community and its citizens, so they can help teachers find the best books to share with their students. Independent booksellers are especially critical in communities where school libraries have been eliminated. And sadly, there are many such communities.

So there it is. Just as I promised. Preparing kids for the test—and for life—takes a village. Parents, teachers, school library media specialists, town librarians, and independent booksellers all have roles to play. Each can contribute his or her own expertise to the effort.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Take a Look: Fungus Among Us

“I’d like to be,
Under the sea,
In an octopus’s garden
In the shade.”

That’s what popped into my mind when I spotted this woodland beauty—a Beatles song.

Even though the fungus was attached to a rotting log next to the trail, it looked like it belonged in the midst of a coral reef off the coast of Florida or Hawaii or even Australia.

The fungus was nestled among the birches and beeches, aspens and stripped maples of a New Hampshire forest bursting with biodiversity. Lush mosses blanketed the shady ground and lichen-covered boulders left behind by the Ice Age formed the backbone of a magical place that filled my senses and calmed my mind. It was the best hike I’ve been on in years.

When we got home, I set to work trying to identify the fungus. I thought it would take a while, but I had my answer in just a few minutes. And I wasn’t a bit surprised by its name—white coral tooth fungus.

Isn’t it lovely!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Fun: The Next Step

Last week, I described how to use my books A Place for Frogs, A Place for Birds, and A Place for Butterflies in Reading Buddies programs. But the fun and collaboration doesn’t have to stop when students close the book.

Here are two great activities the buddies can do together after reading the books.

Create a See-Saw Book*
Have each book-buddy team create a see-saw book that compares two of the butterflies discussed in A Place for Butterflies. If the students decide to focus on monarchs and Karner blues:

On the first left-hand page, they might write: “Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves.”

On the facing right-hand page, they could write: “Karner blue caterpillars eat wild lupine.”

The next page would read: “Both kinds of caterpillars eat plants.”

Subsequent pages should continue to compare the two species—size, habitat, range, etc. The students can use webs to help them organize their thoughts.


If You Were a Bird*
After the buddies read A Place for Birds, ask them to pretend they are a bird.

Have younger buddies write a paragraph describing what it feels like to learn how to fly.

Have older buddies describe how it feels to soar through the sky and include details of what they see as they fly over their town or city.

When the buddies are done, they can share what they’ve written.

*The activities described here can be used for any of the three books in this series.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Behind the Books: Every Word Counts

When I was in high school, I took all the standard English courses. In college, I took quite a few literature courses that involved reading great books and writing papers about them. And then I went to journalism school and learned a whole new kind of writing.

In traditional journalism, paragraphs are short and succinct. Quotations from experts cement the story together. The beginning is critical. It must grab the reader’s attention. But the ending doesn’t really matter too much. There’s a good chance it will get cut at page make up. And even if it doesn’t, most people never read that far. To this day, I still have trouble with endings.

Newspaper writing is about being fast and thorough, about getting both sides of a story. And above all else, it’s about being accurate. If we misspelled a person’s name or the name of an organization or company, we got an automatic F.

A few of the classes I took in grad school focused on feature writing. Features are the longer, more in-depth pieces that run in a newspaper’s Sunday magazine section and in most monthly publications. They take longer to research and write, and they may include some creative elements, such as a scene-setting introduction or occasional wordplay.

I loved writing features, and the instructor told me I had a good ear for language. She wasn’t the first person to say that. Teachers had told me that all through school, but I never really knew what they meant. I did ask a couple of times, but their explanations didn’t help much.

Finally, when I joined a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) critique group in 2001, I met a poet named Susan Richmond. She made the same comment, and I asked the same question.

But Susan’s answer wasn’t the same at all. What she did was remarkable. She took the time to deconstruct a piece of my writing and show me exactly what she meant.

Even though I was unconscious of it, my brain was often making very deliberate word choices. As a result, some sections of my prose were a bit lyrical.

A whole new world opened up to me as Susan explained that certain combinations of sounds and syllables are especially pleasing to the ear—it’s a matter of physics. Susan thought that if I paid more attention to word choice, my writing would become even more lyrical.

And so I did.

And so it has.

Now, when I go to schools and talk to kids about writing. I tell them to pay close attention to the words and phrases they string together. The truth is every word counts.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Goodbye, Maple

Exactly one year ago tomorrow, I wrote the first blog entry about the maple tree right outside my office window. And every week since (except during vacations), I’ve written something about it. I’ve watched it change through all four seasons.

I’ve documented its leaves turning bright yellow and then falling to the ground. I’ve written about its snow-covered branches, the springtime transformation of buds to leaves, and even the plethora of tiny creatures that call my tree home. And now, after a year of observation, it’s time to say good bye.

Of course, the tree will remain the dominant feature of my front yard. And who knows, maybe I’ll even write something about it from time to time. But my year-long observation, my experiment to see just how much it really changed over time is, well, it’s over. I learned a lot about my tree, and I really paid more attention to its role in my yard and the critters that depend on it for food and shelter. It has been challenging at times, but mostly it’s been fun and informative.

So what’s next for my Monday blog strand? Next week I’ll be starting a new stand called Take a Look. It will encourage us all to look more closely at the natural world in our yards and beyond, and I’m hoping it will force me to explore the winter world of New England more than ever before.

As much as I love the woods in winter, cold days and decreasing daylight bring out the bear in me. They make me want to hibernate. But this year, I’m determined that things will be different.

Oh, the places we’ll go. And the things we’ll see. I can hardly wait to get started. The natural world is such a wonderful place.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Fun: Science Reading Buddies

Reading Buddies is a popular program in which first or second graders, who are just learning to read, are paired with students who are few years older. By working together, both students improve their reading skills.

They also develop cooperative learning behaviors, such as taking turns, listening, sharing knowledge, and praising one another’s efforts. In addition, the program fosters friendships across the grade levels, creating a stronger sense of community in schools.

Older buddies see themselves as role models. They take pride in mentoring younger students, and they can see that their younger buddies look up to them. That can lead to a stronger sense of self worth, especially among children who are struggling academically or socially.

In a world where state assessment tests mandated by No Child Left Behind legislation have forced schools to focus on reading and math—often at the expense of science education—Reading Buddies provides a unique opportunity for teachers to sneak science into their language arts curriculum.

In the last decade, science-themed picture books with layered text have become an increasingly popular. These books include two sections of text—short, simple text in large type conveys a general idea or science story with narrative appeal and longer sections in smaller type presents additional details. These books are perfect for Reading Buddies programs.

In my award-winning books A Place for Frogs, A Place for Birds, and A Place for Butterflies, the large, simple text running across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own.
On each left-hand page, the text describes something people are doing (often accidentally or without forethought) to harm frogs or birds or butterflies.

The large text on each right-hand page explains a simple way that people can stop or reduce the effect of their negative behavior. The repetitive endings add lyricism to the text and help reinforce the idea that we can work together to save our world’s wild life and wild places.


The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details about the history of the problem and solutions that are occurring right now. By reading an entire spread, students gain a clear understanding of the effect their actions can have on the natural world.

Overall, the books are honest and also optimistic. Their structure invites younger buddies to read the larger, simpler type, while older children can focus on the more detailed sidebars. The buddies can then look for the animals in the stunning artwork created by Higgins Bond and discuss what they’ve just learned before moving on to the next double-page spread.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Behind the Books: More Struggling with Academic Texts

Back on June 9, I wrote this post after reading an article that really bugged me in Science. I received such fantastic feedback from readers here and on the I.N.K. blog (where I cross posted) that I decided to edit the post and submit it to Science’s Letters to the Editor section. I didn’t really think it would get published, but it never hurts to try, right?

A few weeks later, the Letters Editor contacted me and said she’d be running my letter in the August 13 issue of Science. Yippee!

I was out of town on August 13, and when I returned, my email in-box was crammed with responses to the letter. Most were written by scientists who thanked me for my letter and said the completely agreed with my point of view. Some said they tried to write in a clearer, more lively way now than when they began their academic careers.

But a few letters pointed out a problem I hadn’t considered. These scientists said that when they tried to use language that was accessible, and engaging, their papers were rejected by the journals as not being written in a suitable way. When they grudgingly added jargon and made the sentences more complex and then resubmitted their reports, they were accepted. Hmmph.

Those scientists are frustrated. They want to see changes in academic langauge, but the “gatekeepers” are thwarting their efforts. It hadn’t occurred to me that the journals themselves might be preventing changes that the scientists desire. If that is indeed the case, then I truly hope that at least a few editors of academic journals read my letter and are currently mulling over my concerns.

Change happens one step at a time. I hope the journal editors will take that first important step.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. Most of the time, you inhale about 1.6 gallons (6.1 liters) of air a minute. That works out to 96 gallons (363 l) per hour and just over 2,300 gallons (8,706 l) per day. That’s a lot of air!
  2. No one knows why, but experiments have shown that your lungs work hardest in the late afternoon. Between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., lungs take in 15 to 20 percent more air than at any other time of day.
  3. Most scientists think that people—and other animals—yawn when they’re tired or bored. They say yawning sends a quick shot of oxygen to the cells. But that doesn’t explain why yawning is contagious, so researchers are still looking for answers.
  4. Most people can hold their breath for about a minute, but the world record is 15 minutes and 2 seconds. It was set by Tom Sietas of Germany on August 9, 2007.
  5. After an insect molts, or sheds its skin, it gulps extra air. This stretches the new outer covering before it hardens so the insect has more room to grow.

    Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read
    this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Just like you, my maple tree and I will be taking Labor Day off. But we'll be back on September 8th.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Behind the Books: Welcome Back

Now that the school year has begun, I’m back to blogging three days a week. It’s been a very busy and productive summer for me, so I’m glad I took a break from Celebrate Science. But I’m also glad to kick things into high gear.

The start of school has always been an energizing time of year for me. It’s the time when I look back at what I’ve accomplished over the summer and look forward to what’s coming up in the next few months. I have several new book projects in the works and all kinds of speaking engagements too, including New England Reading, Massachusetts Science Teachers, Maine Science Teachers, a SCBWI program in Providence, RI, a school visit in South Lancaster, MA, and that’s just between now and Halloween.

I also have lots of great ideas for the Behind the Books strand of my blog, so stay tuned. I can already tell it’s going to be a great year.