Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behind the Books: Cybils Awards

The nominees for the 2010 Cybils Awards were announced last week, and I was thrilled to see three of my books in the list. I’ve already blogged about two of the titles, A Rainbow of Animals and A Place for Frogs, but I’ve never gotten around to the third book, Ants.

Ants is a Level 1 National Geographic Reader, and it was nominated in the Easy Reader category. It’s the first time I’ve had a book recognized in this category, so I’m really pleased.

When my editor suggested this book to me, I was excited (ants are so cool) and a little bit intimidated. After all, there are some wonderful books out there on this topic. I’m talking authors like E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler and Mark Moffett. Luckily, they write for adults, and I write for kids. (At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.)


Believe it or not, there are more than 10,000,000,000,000,000 and alive right now. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, and they live almost anywhere you can think of. Ants thrive wherever they go, adapting as needed to their ever-changing world.

My main goal in writing this book was to share the wonder of ants with kids. These little creepy crawlies are part of a large, diverse group with an amazingly sophisticated social system. I wanted to show kids what makes ants special and completely fascinating.

As I was writing, I kept thinking back to my trip to Costa Rica. My eight-year old niece (seen here with a bunch of ants) was so excited by the huge leaf-cutter ant colony we saw in the tropical rain forest. Their nest was a mound as big as a hill. It was just incredible. We also saw cecropia ants protecting the trees they are named for. Those little guys are really hard workers!

After learning so much about ants, you might wonder if I have a favorite. I do. It’s the Dracula ant, which gets all its nutrients from a single source—the blood from ant larvae. How cool is that?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Take a Look: Good Morning, Maple

I was planning to write a wondrous first person description of a really cool spider I recently saw while hiking,but it looks like that will have to wait.

When I began this new strand, I mentioned that I might revert to writing about the beloved maple outside my office window, and that time has come sooner than I expected. It was a dry, hot summer here in Massachusetts, and we’ve all been wondering if that would affect the fall foliage. Because I took weekly photos of my maple for a whole year, it’s easy for me to make comparisons.

To be sure, some years the autumn leaves seem more fiery than other years. And this year, it seemed to me that the oranges and reds were much more dominant than usual. And it turns out, that wasn’t just my imagination. My photos provide irrefutable proof.

Here are photos of my maple tree last year on October 19 and October 26.

On October 19, the tree is just beginning to show hints of yellow.


By October 26, nearly all the leaves are bright yellow. Some leaves have brown areas near the center.














And here are this year’s photos of the same tree on the corresponding Mondays, October 18 and October 26.

On October 18, about one-quarter of the leaves are orangy-red. Some are yellwo around the eddges with red in the center and along the veins.
Now about 80 percent of the leasves are red or orangy-yellow.

Wow, these photos show two very interesting things:

1. The leaves on my tree started donning their bright colors a little earlier this year, and the colors are lasting a little bit longer. I wonder when the leaves will wither and fall off?
2. Last year the leaves were predominantly yellow, and this year they are much more orangey red.
I never really realized the same tree could turn different colors from one year to the next. I guess that explains why autumn seems more ablaze with color this year. Pretty amazing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fun: A Perfect Pair

The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer + A Place for Frogs by Melissa Stewart
The Salamander Room
is a gentle tale with an important message. A boy finds a salamander in the woods and asks his mom if he can keep him. Instead of saying “no,” she asks him questions that require him to think about what the salamander needs to survive and, ultimately, to realize on his own that he cannot create an adequate home for the salamander in his bedroom. Lush, shadowy paintings perfectly capture the mood of the boy’s increasingly elaborate plans for transforming his room into a suitable habitat for the little amphibian.


Clearly written and richly illustrated, A Place for Frogs provides a gentle introduction to the environmental hazards frogs face and promotes environmental stewardship by providing concrete examples of how scientists and citizens are working together to protect frogs and their habitats. Pointers on how youngsters can help frogs in their area are included.

Discussion Questions
Ask students what the books have in common. [They are about protecting amphibians and their habitats.]
How are the books different? [One is a story with people as characters. The other provides information about how people’s actions can help and harm frogs.]
Discuss what makes one book fiction and one nonfiction.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 5

As far as I’m concerned, there’s one more important instance where choosing the right words can make all the difference. Sensory details can really bring a piece of prose to life.

Why is appealing to the senses so powerful? Because they are how we experience and interpret the real, 3-D word we encounter every day. Sights, sounds, and especially smells can instantly transport our minds to a place, an event from 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. It can enliven and enrich a new experience or something we read in a book. Here are a few of my favorite examples. They happen to be from adult books.

From Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
“Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming musky-barnyard, humanlike scent. [Then we heard] a high-pitched series of screams followed by a rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chestbeats . . . The three of us froze until the echoes of the screams and chestbeats faded. Only then did we creep forward under the cover of the dense shrubbery to about 50 feet from the group. Peeking through the vegetation, we could [see] . . . furry-headed [gorillas] peering back at us.”



From The Outermost House by Henry Beston
“I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly plowed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, . . . the morning perfumes of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows on summer afternoons.”

See how these sensory details allow you to draw on your past experiences, and in so doing help take you to the place and event the author is describing? How do you think you or your students can work sensory details into a work-in-progress?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Take a Look: A Scientist’s Description

Back on October 4, I used a wondrous first person voice to describe this incredible fungus. I was blown away by it, and just had to take a photo. Today I’m going to use a “serious third person voice” (as Mrs. Techman and I have dubbed it) to describe the same fungus.

This description will be more precise, but less engaging. As we saw from Michelle Cusolito’s comment, one benefit will be the ability for other curious folks to find the fungus.

10:46 hours, September 4, 2010
Eagle Mountain Trail, North Conway, NH
Sunny, clear sky, 74 F
Moist, shady mixed forest with rich understory

About three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, two unusual white and tannish-beige fungal fruiting bodies were observed. They were 3.5 to 4 feet above the ground on a snag—a dead tree that is still standing.

The smaller structure was about the size of the observer’s fist.

The larger structure was about a foot across and approximately 8 inches from top to bottom. It consisted of two lobes. Each lobe was made up of a series of tiers and appeared to grow from the bottom up. Each tier consisted of 12-15 long, triangular structures that were tinges with the darker color (tannish-beige) along the edges.

At the top of the larger structure, a thin, transparent film resembling the exterior of a soap bubble ran between the second tier of the fruiting body and the tree. The film appeared to be pulling away from the tree as the entire structure shifted, likely due to the presumed weight of the lobe and the force of gravity. It would worth returning to the site to monitor the progress of the fruiting body over a period of time.

Later, the observer identified the unfamiliar species as a white coral tooth fungus.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. A great white shark’s sense of smell is about ten thousand times better than yours. The scent-sensing cells inside its snout can detect a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
  2. A giant anteater’s prodigious proboscis is forty times more powerful than yours. It can catch a whiff of ants and termites from several miles away.
  3. A polar bear’s nose is even better. It can smell a dead seal from 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.
  4. Many birds can’t smell very well, but kiwis are scent-sational sniffers. They shuffle through the forest with their beaks to the ground, searching for the earthy aroma of worms and other small creatures.
  5. A vulture can pick up the scent of a dead animal from high in the sky. Then it circles lower and lower, zeroing in on the offensive odor.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? 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, October 13, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 4

Meaningful comparisons enrich text by associating something that is unfamiliar with something that they know well. Similies and metaphors are powerful because they can help a reader envision a place or understand a challenging concept with ease.

Here’s an example from my book The Eyes Have It! The Secrets of Eyes and Seeing.


Imagine being able to grab one of your eyeballs and pop it out of your head. How would it feel? How large would it be? Would the world look any different without it?

To find out what an eyeball feels like, peel the skin off a grape. Close your eyes and gently pinch it. Then roll it around in your hand. Your eyeball feels just like that grape—soft and a little bit squishy.

But your eyeball is bigger than a grape. It’s about the size of a SuperBall. Packed inside, more than two million parts work together to peek, peer, and probe your surroundings.

Here are some other books that make superlative use of comparative techniques.

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz contain text like this:

If you swallowed like a snake . . .
you could gulp a hot dog thicker than a telephone pole.

If you scurried like a spider . . .
you could charge down an entire football field in just two seconds.

Comparisons like this really help kids get a sense of how the animals all around us experience the world, and how thye have amazing adaptations to help them survive in their habitats.

I especially like Actual Size (and its companion Prehistoric Actual Size) by Steve Jenkins because it's full of visual comparisons. Kids can compare the size of their hands to a gorilla's hand. They can see just how large an alligator's head really is. Kids will probbaly never get up close and personal with the animals in these books, so here's their chance to really get a sense of the each creature's true size and scale.

Can you think of other examples? If so, please list them in the comments section for everyone to see.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Fun: What Do Scientists Do?

Click here to see how one class of fourth graders in Florida answered this question. These students did a great job. I especially love their drawings.

Enjoy the long weekend. Join me back here at Celebrate Science on October 13 for a discussion about how comparisons can enrich nonfiction prose.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 3

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how my friend Susan Richmond helped me understand the underpinnings of lyrical text. In a nutshell, the anatomical structure of our ears combined with the physical laws of sound wave transmission combine forces to make certain combinations of sounds and syllables are particularly pleasing to our ear. That’s why devices like alliteration, rhythm, and repetition can give a piece of writing a magical quality.

Here are some examples of lyrical books that focus on natural history topics.

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre
The sun is rising.
Up, up.
It heats the air.
Up, up.

Wings stretch wide
to catch a ride
on warming air.
Going where?

Up, up.

Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights by Debbie S. Miller

The sun’s arc drops lower as the top of the world angles away from its source of heat.

White sky and earth create flat light, and it is hard to see where land ends and sky begins.



Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart
In the heart of winter, a deep layer of snow blankets fields and forests, ponds and wetlands.

You spend your days sledding and skating and having snowball fights.

But under the snow lies a hidden world.

Can you think of other books with beautiful lyrical language? If so, please share them in the comments section.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Take a Look: Another Fungus

Have you ever seen pictures of a koala clinging to the side of a tree? That’s what this fungus reminded me of when I first saw it. Isn’t it amazing? I’ve never seen anything like it.

It was clinging for dear life to a snag (a dead tree that is still standing up), absorbing nutrients all the while.

A closer look at the fungus revealed even more treats. The fruiting body (what you see here) looks sort of like a ghostly waterfall frozen in place.

And take a look at the top. There is some sort of transparent film running between the fungus and the tree. It seems like, thanks to the power of gravity, the weight of the giant fruiting body is pulling the entire structure away from its anchoring spot on the dead tree. I wonder how long that might take? Weeks? Months? Years? Will the harshness of winter accelerate the process?

When we got home, I did a quick Google search and realized that this fungus is closely related to the one I described last week. Even though this fungus looks quite different, it is also a kind of coral tooth fungus. How cool is that?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Fun: Supporting Science with Literature

It's a rainy day here in Massachusetts. That makes it the perfect time to read When Rain Falls with your students. As a follow up activity, share following poem by Aileen Fisher:

How brave a ladybug must be.
Each drop of rain as big as she.
Can you imagine what you’d do,
if raindrops fell as big as you?

Then ask your students to write a story that answers the question in the poem.