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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

So here’s my maple tree today. Looks pretty much the same as last week, doesn’t it? Until the ice and snow come, the tree won’t change very much. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading. There’s still lots to explore and discover.

Today I’ve included a closer photo of the south-southwest side of the tree’s trunk. As you can see, the tree has some hitchhikers. That greenish gray stuff isn’t moss. It’s lichen.

What is lichen? Good question. It’s not a plant. It’s an unusual partnership between two life forms that have been hanging out for millions of years. And both organisms benefit bigtime from living together.

This particular lichen is a combination of a fungus and an alga (plural algae).

Lichen looks greenish because the alga partner contains chlorophyll. Like plants, algae use the chlorophyll to collect energy from sunlight. That energy combines with water and carbon dioxide in the air to make a sugary food called glucose.

A fungus can’t make its own food, but it’s bigger and tougher than algae cells, so it acts like a body guard. It grows around and between algal cells and protects them from the weather and some hungry critters. When algae live in a safe, stable environment, they can grow faster and make more food. So, like I said earlier, both creatures benefit.

Lichen doesn’t just grow on trees. And it isn’t always greenish gray. It can be red or orange or even yellow. If you start looking for lichen, you’ll see it in all kinds of places. So get outside and start exploring.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m taking a break to get ready for tomorrow’s festivities and a weekend of family fun. I hope you enjoy your holiday too. It’s a great time to stop and think about everything we’re thankful for.

I’ll be back on November 30.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good Morning, Maple

From my window, my maple looks about the same as it did last week. But there’s something on it that’s worth a closer look. See the leaf on the left? In front of it is a little pointy thing. That’s a bud. Next spring it will burst open and a brand new leaf will unfurl.
That bud isn’t new. It began forming last July. In New England, trees start growing buds about 9 months ahead of time because that’s when food (made from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide in the air) is plentiful.

Inside its protective sheath, the tiny new leaf will wait out the winter. But there is chance it won’t survive until spring. If there is a warm spell, such as a significant January thaw, the bud might begin to open and then die when the temperature drops. This bud is fortunate to be high off the ground, but buds closer to the ground are the favorite winter fare of hungry deer.

If I climbed to the top of my maple, I’d see buds that look a bit little different. These thicker, more plump buds enclose flowers instead of leaves. Sorry, but I’m not willing to risk life and limb to get a photo of them. If you’d like to see drawings that compare of the two kinds of buds, take a look at Bernd Heinrich’s excellent book Summer World: A Season of Bounty (HaperCollins, 2009).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fun Friday: Take a Look! Contest

I've already received a lot of entries for the Take a Look! contest, but I'm still looking for the perfect answer.

I spotted this rock at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. Ask your students what they think caused it to split in half.

Email their answers along with their name, address, and age here by December 1. All correct responses will be entered into a drawing to win an autographed copy of an age-appropriate book.

Have you or your students seen something amazing or unexpected in the natural world? Email me a photo and description and it may be used in a future contest.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Behind the Books: When Topics Choose Me

If you look back at this post from November 4, you might ask whether I really "chose" to write about sea lions. Actually, the topic was sort of thrust upon me by the animal itself. And believe me, that’s not the only time an animal encounter was so thrilling that I couldn’t resist writing about the critter in question.

While researching a book in Costa Rica, I was lucky enough to encounter three different kinds of New World monkeys. And, perhaps not surprisingly, my original book project got put on hold. Those monkeys were just too irresistible.

I didn’t bring an alarm clock on my trip, but it wasn’t a problem. Each morning, the loud, low calls of howler monkeys woke me at the crack of dawn. Near the end of the trip, I was able to see these monkeys at very close range.

As I headed off to breakfast each morning, I often saw spindly spider monkeys swinging through the tree tops, looking for their own morning meal. I saw them foraging again in the late afternoon. In the middle of the day, these smart monkeys take a siesta to avoid the hot sun.

But it was a single tiny capuchin monkey that really captured my heart. One afternoon, I spotted the little guy (or girl) climbing up a tree. It had set its sights on a bright red panchira flower, which it plucked with two fingers and then ate petal by petal. I watched that monkey forage in the forest canopy for nearly three hours. It was amazing.

When I came home, I started researching New World monkeys, and discovered the group was a lot more diverse and complicated that I’d ever imagined. There are more than six different species, from the pygmy marmoset, which is small enough to fit inside a teacup, to the woolly spider monkey, which can weight as much as thirty pounds.

I was hooked. I wrote a proposal, sent it out, and soon enough New World Monkeys became a book.

And what happened to the book I was supposed to be working on in Costa Rica? Well, it’s still not published, but it’s getting there. Right now, it’s scheduled for publication in 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

Last week, when I said the maple tree had lost all its leaves, I was overstating things a bit.

The truth is there are still about thirty leaves left on the tree. Those leaves have turned brown, but I guess their petioles (the little nub where a leaf stem attaches to a tree branch) didn’t get the message that they were supposed to break free.

I wonder how long those leaves will stay on the tree. Guess we’ll find out.

Seeing those last holders-on reminds me of a children’s book I love: The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger Greenwillow, 2008). The story’s protagonist is an oak leaf that hangs onto its tree long after all its friends take the plunge. It feels lonely. Around midwinter, it notices a red oak leaf still attached to a nearby tree. Finally, the two leaves agree to float to the ground together. Lovely story. Amazing art. If you haven’t seen this book, check it out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. Most people pass wind about fourteen times a day and give off enough gas to fill a 1-liter soda bottle.
  • What causes the popping noises you sometimes hear when you fart? The walls of your anus—the hole at the end of your digestive tract—vibrating back and forth. The loudness of the fart depends on how fast the gas rushes out and the tightness of the muscles around your anus.
  • Ever heard the saying: “Whoever smelt it, dealt it”? It’s not true. The farter usually smells the stench last. Because gas blasts away from the culprit’s body, the stinky scent takes a while to reach his or her nose.
  • Some snakes hiss when enemies get too close. Others shake their rattling tails. But Sonoran coral snakes and western hook-nose snakes let out a fart that can be heard from up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) away. That’s enough to spoil any predator’s appetite!
  • How do herring find one another after the sun goes down? They fart. The blasting bubbles of gas sound like a high-pitched raspberry as they shoot though the water. Other herring can hear the noise, but larger fish can’t.
  • Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Behind the Books: Stealing Ideas

    If you’ve read my last couple of Wednesday posts, you know that many of my book ideas come from things I observe or experience—often in the natural world. But I admit that once I stole an idea.

    Hold on, hold on. I’m no criminal. Here’s the back story.

    A few years ago, my nephew (Shown here with his sisters on Halloween. He's a zombie.) thought insects were way cool. I recommended all kinds of books for him to read, and he gobbled them up (the books, not the insects).

    One day, he asked me for a book about insects “that were still growing up, just like me.” It seemed like a reasonable request, but guess what—I couldn’t find much. That’s when I decided to try to write a book myself.

    But I didn’t tell my nephew. I didn’t want him to be disappointed if the book never happened. That’s why, technically, it was stealing.

    I called my editor, and she liked the idea. So I did some research, developed an outline, wrote a few sample sections, and sent them out. It wasn’t long before I had a signed contract in my hands.

    I could have told my nephew at this point, but I decided not to. I wanted to surprise him. So, technically, it was still stealing.

    When Maggots, Grubs, and More: The Secret Lives of Young Insects came out, I showed it to my nephew. He liked the title. He liked the cover. He like the information. But I didn’t see a little light bulb go off in his brain, and I was a bit disappointed.

    He didn’t even remember asking me for a book about juvenile insects. And while he still liked insects, they were no longer his passion. (After all, two years had passed.)

    But he was thrilled when I told him how I got the idea for the book. In fact, he was stunned that I’d really listened to him, and he was honored that I had taken his idea seriously—and that, just that, made my day.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    So here it is—the maple tree without any leaves. By Friday, they had all drifted down to the ground. On Saturday, we raked them up. Now the tree is ready for winter.

    But we are having warm, sunny days here. It's supposed to be in the high 60s F today. Imagine that. Nobody told the maple trees, or any of the other trees.

    But winter will be here soon enough. And I think we'll see some suprising changes in my maple tree along the way. Stay tuned. The show isn't over by any means.

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    Friday Fun: Word Search

    Check out this fun and educational word search. It’s a perfect compliment for units on animal classification, animal adaptations, animal communication, as well as predators and prey.

    Interested in more science activity pages? Visit my website.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    Behind the Books: More on Choosing Topics

    The idea for Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses began percolating in my mind while I was in the Galapagos Islands. Here’s an excerpt from the journal I kept during that trip.

    I tightened the strap on my facemask, took a deep breath, and fell backward over the edge of the boat. Down, down, splash! The chilly ocean water stunned my body.

    Even though it was February, I had expected the water to be warmer. After all, I was just off the coast of Floreana, one of the Galapagos Islands. These islands, which straddle the equator, are about 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador.
    After a few minutes, my body adjusted to the water. I dove down and started looking around. Empty shells littered the sandy bottom. Fish with bright stripes, spots, and splotches swam lazily by. What a quiet, peaceful world!
    Suddenly, a strange noise startled me. As I turned toward the sound, my heart began to race. A large, chocolate-colored creature darted toward me at top speed. An instant before impact, the animal altered its course slightly, gliding just inches below my body. I was shocked, but the sea lion was thrilled. It was playing one of its favorite games—chicken.
    My new playmate copied my every move. When I dove, it dove too. And when I turned, the sea lion followed me. Soon, I was out of breath, but the sea lion kept on going. It used its powerful front flippers like oars and steered with its smaller back flippers.

    As the graceful animal flowed effortlessly through the water, it spun in circles and twisted its agile body this way and that. When playtime was over, the sea lion swam to shore and flopped down on the beach.

    Soon, I was out of breath, but the sea lion kept on going. It used its powerful front flippers like oars and steered with its smaller back flippers. As the graceful animal flowed effortlessly through the water, it spun in circles and twisted its agile body this way and that. When playtime was over, the sea lion swam to shore and flopped down on the beach.

    After an experience like that, how could I not write about sea lions and their kin?

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Wow, what a difference a week can make!

    In hindsight, I wish I'd taken a photo of the tree every morning last week. As recently as Friday, about three-quarters of the leaves were still on the tree. But then rain and wind knocked most of them to the ground.

    I wonder if my maple will be totally bare by next Monday. Stay tuned to find out.

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    Friday Fun: Five Gross & Goofy Body Facts

    1. Like the water slowly dripping out of a leaky faucet, your never-ending trickle of spit really adds up. In just one day, most people produce enough saliva to fill between one and two 2-liter soda bottles.
    2. Love the sweet taste of honey? Guess what you’re eating? That’s right—spit! To make honey, bees roll thin, runny flower nectar around in their mouths. As the nectar warms up, the mixture gets thicker. Chemicals in the bees’ saliva break down the sugars in the nectar, so the honey is easy to digest. Bee spit also helps to keep the sugary liquid fresh for a long time.
    3. Has a grasshopper ever spit on you when you picked it up? The insect’s bitter spray is a mixture of saliva and partially digested food. Yuck!
    4. Sometimes a gila monster eats just a few large meals each year. A chemical in the lizard’s saliva helps to control the amount of sugar in its blood between feasts. Scientists are using the chemical to develop a new drug for patients with diabetes.
    5. Scientists have found two amazing chemicals in the spit of short-tailed shrews. One chemical could be perfect for treating throbbing migraine headaches, and it might also help reduce wrinkles. The other chemical could help lower blood pressure in patients with heart disease.

      Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Behind the Books:Choosing a Topic

    “Where do you get your ideas?” That's a question people—both children and adults—ask me all the time. So I thought I'd answer it here, in case you're curious too.

    If you read this post, then you know that I write what I care about—not what I know. One of the things I’m most passionate about is the natural world. But the world is a pretty big place, so how do I narrow things down?

    Most of my ideas come from things I read or experiences I have. Go here to see a video about how I got the idea for When Rain Falls. It was a combination of an experience I had (getting stuck in the rain while hiking) and something I saw (a documentary film
    called “Microcosmos”).

    Next week I'll share the exciting travel adventue that led me to write the book Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses. Stay tuned.

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Hooray! Look at those beautiful colors. They’re just in time for Halloween.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Friday Fun: Readers Theater

    Check out this fun Readers Theater script that you can do with your students. It’s perfect for grade 2, but also works well now—early in the school year—for grade 3. If you teach first grade, try it with your students in the spring. Besides being fun and building fluency, the content makes it a good resource for units on weather, the water cycle, habitats, and animal adaptations.

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

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Behind the Books: Choosing a Favorite

    Whenever I do a school visit, one of the questions kids ask me is “Which of your books is your favorite. I never feel completely comfortable answering this question.

    Sometimes I say my current work-in-progress is my favorite. After all, if I hope to complete it, I have to stay enthusiastic about it. This is an honest answer.

    Other times I make a joke about not being able to choose a favorite—just like parents can’t choose a favorite child. We love them all in different ways and for different reasons. This is an honest answer too.

    The truth is that my ideas about favorite books are a bit mercurial—always changing. My current book really is my favorite when I’m working on it. But when I stand back and look at my body of work objectively, it's hard to pinpoint one or even two or three favorites.

    When I am less objective, I begin to remember the story behind the stories. I think about what else was happening in my life as I wrote them. I think about reviews and book signings and letters I've received from young readers. I think about the place each book has occupied in my life and my career and my heart. In these sentimental moments, I can clearly identify two books that really mean a great deal to me.

    One is my first published book, Life without Light. It’s a favorite because it was my first. I learned so much while I was researching and writing it, and when I was trying to sell it. That book is all about my orad to becoming an author and the path to publication.

    Sadly, Life without Light went out of print about a year ago. But I have to admit, it was time. In the 10 years it was available for sale, so much research was done about creatures that live in Earth’s dark, hidden ecosystems that the book was completely out of date by the time it went out of print. Some people have asked if I’ll update it or write a sequel. Right now, I don’t really think so. But you never know.

    My other favorite is A Place for Butterflies, my first picture book. That book is like the Little Engine that Could. It sold slowly at first, but the honors and awards have steadily piled up and up and up. This is very gratifying to me because the book’s message is very close to my heart.

    The book, beautifully illustrated by the very talented Higgins Bond, is a collection of eleven stories about things people—both scientists and citizens—are doing to protect butterflies and their habitats. The book came out in 2006, just before people began to become re-energized about environmental issues. And the book has ridden the wave of enthusiasm to thrilling heights.

    At this point, the book can stand on its own. I no longer actively look for opportunities to speak about it or do book signings. But every now and then I get a potent reminder that the book is still making its way into new young readers’ hands and that it is still making an impact.

    Last summer, Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, Massachusetts, created a StoryWalk trailside exhibit that honors the book. I was thrilled by the news because the exhibit gives families a chance to do several important things simultaneously—read, enjoy time together, and learn about the magic and mystery of the natural world.

    Where will The Little Book that Could take me next? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Last week I noticed that the sugar maple I’ve been observing in the front yard seems to be holding onto its green coloring longer than the Norway maple out by our driveway. Because our front yard faces south and gets a lot of afternoon sunlight, I was thinking that the light and the warmth associated with it was delaying the leaves' color change.

    But this week I’m not so sure about that hypothesis. Look at the Norway maple outside my window now. There are hints of yellow here and there. But there is a lot of brown on those leaves.

    Brown, brown, brown. That’s what's supposed to happen to leaves in other areas of the country. But here in New England, we are supposed to see brilliant yellows and fiery reds and bright oranges. And I do see colors like that on other trees, but not on my maple. For some reason, it’s not showing off this year.

    I’m not sure why my maple’s leaves are only giving a half-hearted performance. But I’m going to keep watching and investigating. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Friday Fun: Five Gross & Goofy Body Facts

    1. A chameleon’s eyeballs can rotate in almost any direction, but they don’t always move together. One eye can look up while the other looks down. One can stare straight ahead while the other glances backward. That makes it easy for chameleons to scan their surroundings for predators and prey.
    2. Tough, clear scales protect a snake’s eyes. When the snake molts, or sheds its skin, the eye scales pop off, too. Luckily, there are new ones waiting underneath.
  • When a male razorback sucker rolls his eyes at another male fish, he’s saying, “Back off, punk. This is my stream!” When a female yellow-bellied slider turtle rolls her eyes at a male, it means, “Hubba, hubba! You look like a good mate.”
  • Looking for a tasty treat? In some countries people snack on cows’ eyes. After removing the vitreous humor, lens, cornea, and iris, they boil what’s left. Then they stuff the eyes with coleslaw, beef, or cream cheese. Sounds yummy!
  • Whirligig beetles and four-eyed fish are the only animals that can see clearly above and below water at the same time. What’s their secret? Their eyeballs are divided in half. The top half of each eye watches for predators and prey above the water’s surface while the bottom half keeps an eye on the watery world below. What a great trick!

    Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book The Eyes Have It: The Secrets of Eyes and Seeing.

  • Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Behind the Books: DON’T Write What You Know

    I know lots of things. I know how to make my husband a sandwich just the way he likes it. I know how to wash windows so they don’t streak and how to make “hospital corners” when I change the sheets on a bed. I even know how to clean a toilet and sort my trash properly at the transfer station (a.k.a. the dump).

    But I certainly don’t want to write a book about any of these chores. I’d be bored, and so would my readers.

    That’s why it really bugs me when teachers tell kids to write what they know. I write books about science because I love it. I am passionate about the natural world, and I want to share its wonders with children.Look at your favorite book, the best piece of writing you can think of, and I guarantee you’ll see the author’s passion shining through. It’s what fuels great writing.

    That’s why I tell kids to write what they care about. This generates description of fire trucks and reports about Barbie dolls and BMX racing. Now I couldn’t care less about any of these topics, but I do care about teaching kids to enjoy writing. And I want them find ways to communicate ideas successfully.

    When kids (or adults) write about whatever inspires or excites or intrigues them, they will be motivated to share their passions with their readers. And that will make the writing better. I guarantee it. Give it a try.

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Mid-October is supposed to be the peak of the foliage season her in New England. So my husband and I hiked over a mountain to see what we could see. This is what we saw when we looked up. Beautiful.

    This is what we saw when we looked down. Lovely.

    But this is what I see out of my window this morning.
    My Norway maple, the most prominent feature of our small front yard, is still green, green, green. Why is it lagging behind the trees we saw in the woods over the weekend?

    Let’s go outside and investigate.

    Hey, wait a minute! Look at this Norway maple in our side yard.
    It’s a bright, cheery yellow. Shouldn’t it be just as green as my Norway maple in the front yard? What’s going on?

    Here’s a closer view of “my” maple tree from the same angle that I photograph it out my window.

    It reveals one yellow leaf out of about a hundred. At least it’s a beginning, right?

    Now let’s go around take a look at the other side of “my” maple. Here’s a shot I took from our driveway.
    It’s kind of hard to see, but there are a lot more yellow leaves on this side of the tree. Hmmm. I wonder why.

    So here’s what we know.

    1. My Norway maple in the front yard is still mostly green.

    2. The other Norway maple in the side yard is completely yellow.

    3. The part of my Norway maple that faces the side yard has considerably more yellow leaves than the part of the tree that faces the street.

    I’ve developed a hypothesis. Have you? Let me know in the comments below.

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

    Q: What did the hawk order at the ice cream shop?
    A: A milk snake.

    Q: What do you get when you cross a young bird with a puff adder?
    A: A chick who is good at math.

    Q: What did the pit viper say as it slithered around the rat snake?
    A: Ex-scutes* me.

    *Scutes are the scales that line the bottom of a snake’s body and help it move.

    Q: If a snake went to school, what would its favorite class be?
    A: Hiss-tory

    Q: What kind of snake never skips dessert?
    A: A piethon

    For some more serious information about snakes, check out my book Snakes!

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009

    Behind the Books: A Big Announcement

    As some of you know, Celebrate Science isn’t the only blog I write for. Once a month, I post to I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. I.N.K. began in January 2008, as the brainchild of Linda Salzman, who assembled 22 award-winning children’s book authors who are passionate about nonfiction.

    In July 2009, author Vicki Cobb had a vision for our future that excited us all. She imagined the body of our work becoming a one-stop-shop for educators in search of a quick, easy way to find quality nonfiction books to meet their teaching needs. By aligning all our books to the National Education Standards and creating a website with a database, we could help teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers create classroom libraries that perfectly match the topics they cover throughout the school year.

    Most classroom materials written to State or National Standards are designed to meet test requirements, rather than to stimulate kids’ natural curiosity, fire up their imaginations, and inspire innovative thinking. Recent studies have shown that many students, especially boys, prefer nonfiction to fiction. If kids are exposed to creative, well-written nonfiction, they are significantly more likely to become lifelong readers. In addition, assessment tests mandated by No Child Left Behind require that students be skilled in reading and writing nonfiction. Kids need great books to serve as models of good expository writing, and the books in the INK Think Tank database fill the bill.

    The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity as we worked to turn Vicki’s vision into a reality. Today, we are launching the site, INK Think Tank: Nonficiton Authors in Your Classroom. Go take a look. It’s something I know you won’t want to miss.

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Today I’m going to be speaking at the Massachusetts School Library Association conference, so I took this photo yesterday. I know that’s cheating a little bit, but I have to hit the road before it’s fully light out.

    Since it’s October, I thought the leaves of my maple would be showing some hints of color. But not yet.

    I guess the tree is a little bit like me. It wants to hold onto the last vestiges of summer for as long as it can.

    I can’t wait to see how the tree looks a week from now.

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

    1. Want to know how an elephant feels? Just look at its ears. When an elephant feels calm or safe, it holds its ears flat against its body. But when an elephant is angry or frightened, it holds its ears out straight.
    2. A fennec fox lives in the desert, but staying cool is no problem. On hot afternoons it releases body heat through the thin skin on its enormous ears.
    3. In the chilly Arctic large ears could freeze and fall off. That’s why a polar bear has small ears covered with thick fur. When the bear goes swimming, lays its ears flat against its head so water can’t trickle in.
  • A whale’s earwax builds up in layers year after year. When scientists find a dead whale, they can tell how long it lived by counting the layers of wax inside its ears.
  • How can you tell the difference between sea lions and true seals? By looking at their ears. Sea lions have small flaps of skin covering their ear canals, but you can see straight into a true seal’s ears.
  • Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book Now Hear This: The Secrets of Ears and Hearing.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    Behind the Books: Gross and Goofy Body

    Hey, guess what? The first six books in my Gross and Goofy Body series are now available. Here are the titles:

    The Eyes Have It: The Secrets of Eyes and Seeing
    Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas
    Up Your Nose: The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts
    Pump It Up: The Secrets of the Heart and Blood
    It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva
    Now Hear This: The Secrets of Ears and Hearing
    And here’s a series description:
    The lively, conversational tone and blend of photos and cartoon-style art make Gross and Goofy Body a perfect blend of fun facts and serious science learning. These titles are irreverent enough to captivate young readers, yet authoritative enough to win the praise of teachers, librarians, and parents.
    There will be twelve titles in all. The other six are schedule for release in 2010.

    Originally, I had no intention of creating such a large series. I just wanted to write a single book.

    It all started when I read an article in Natural History magazine in 2004. It was about all the amazing ways animals use spit—to build homes, to attract mates, to heal wounds. I was fascinated and knew kids would be too.

    So I did a ton of research, wrote some sample spreads in a fun, irreverent voice and sent them to a few publishers. Over the next few months, the rejections piled up.

    “Great idea, but not right for us.”

    “There are too many gross books on the market.”

    “The information is too educational.”

    “Is spit really interesting enough to support a whole book?”

    I couldn’t argue with most of these comments, after all every editor is entitled to his or her opinion. But I could address the last comment. All I had to do was write the whole book.

    So that’s what I did. But the editor still had her concerns. Drat!

    So I put the manuscript, It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva, on the back burner.

    But a funny thing happened. I had mentioned my book idea to a lot of people—adults and kids. And they kept asking about it. They also kept sharing whatever gross, goofy, weird, or wacky body facts they came across.

    I wrote all these facts down in a notebook. I didn’t know why I was doing it, but I kept on writing them down.

    Then one day I realized I could probably write a series of books. Maybe even one for each body system. I sat down to make a list, and I ended up with twelve solid titles.

    Hmmm. Could I sell a whole series?

    While I was pondering that idea, I received some great news. Before I tell you what is was, you need a little background.

    When I said I put It’s Spit-Acular on the backburner, what I meant was that I stopped submitting it. But I didn’t just stuff it in a drawer and forget about it. No way. I entered it in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Nonfiction Research Grant contest.

    And guess what? I won.

    That gave me the courage to start sending out the series proposal. And not long after that, I received an offer from Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish. Hooray!

    I used the SCBWI grant money to subscribe to a medical research database at a nearby teaching hospital. The articles from that database formed the foundation of my research, but some of the most gross and goofy facts and ideas in the books came from my notebooks.
    Some people say it takes a village to raise a child, and that may be true. It certainly took a village to gather the all cool facts and figures in my twelve Gross and Goofy Body books.

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    I’m already starting to pay more attention to my tree, and that’s exactly what I was hoping would happen. This morning I decided to look at it from a different point of view.

    When I lie on the ground, I see the tree—and the world—a little bit differently. See all that sunlight filtering through the leaves? Pretty cool, isn’t it? Believe it or not, it’s even more beautiful than it looks in this photo. For some reason, the camera can’t capture the light as it truly looks.

    Want to see for yourself just how amazing the view is from the ground up? Go lie down under your favorite tree and take a look. Then try taking your own photo or make a drawing. You might even want to describe what you see in words.

    It’s fun to look at things in a whole new way.

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Friday Fun: Take a Look!

    I spotted this rock at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. Ask your students or children what they think caused it to split in half.

    Email their answers along with their name and address here by December 1. All correct responses will be entered into a drawing to win an autographed copy of an age-appropriate book.

    Have you or your students seen something amazing or unexpected in the natural world? Email me a photo and description and it may be used in a future contest.

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Behind the Books: Turning Stucture on Its Head!

    When I begin writing a new book, I usually start off using one of the traditional structures I discussed here. But somewhere in the back on my mind, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking.

    I’m plotting, scheming, wondering—how can I make the ordinary into something extraordinary? How can I surprise and delight my readers? How can I give them something special that will make my book and it’s content—after all, it’s always about the content—more appealing and more memorable.

    That’s the question. That’s the challenge. That’s the puzzle to solve, and I love solving puzzles.

    I’m not the only author asking these questions. With the Internet now being the place kids go for straightforward information, all nonfiction authors are looking for fresh, innovative ways to convey important true ideas. Here are some great techniques some authors (and illustrators) have used recently:

    Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman is a circular story. It begins with a frog jumping off a fern and ends with a frog (presumably the same little critter) jumping onto a fern. In between, we are treated to a chain reaction of events that involves many different creatures living in the bog.

    My own books A Place for Butterflies and A Place for Birds feature layered text. What is layered text? Multiple levels of text, usually distinguished visually by size and font, on each double-page spread.

    In my books, the larger, simpler text that runs across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own. The repetitive endings add lyricism 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 to round out the presentation. By reading an entire spread, students gain a clear understanding of the effect their actions can have on the natural world.

    Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy uses photos and text to interweave two storylines. One features a group of children playing hide-and-seek, and the other gives us a close-up look at a mosquito’s life cycle and behavior.

    Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealred . . . and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn is a feast for the eyes and ears. Playful poems offer clues about barely-visible animals doing their best to conceal themselves. Kids love searching for the mystery creatures. Some they’ll spot, and some they might now. But no worries, all they have to do is lift a gate-fold to view the same photo with the background obscured so that the animal is easy to see.

    How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
    This book is all about animal adaptation, but the content is presented as a fun, innovative Q & A format. Some spreads ask a thought provoking question, such as “How many ways can you snare a fish?” The following spread provides brief, clear descriptions of how a variety of animals accomplish the task. Jenkins and Page did a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into categories to create the book’s game-like feel.

    Team Moon by Catherine Thimmesh
    This book perfectly integrates text, photos, and design to create a stunningly beautiful book that is rich in information. Dozens of books have been written about the moon, but this one is special because it looks at the hundreds of people behind the scenes. The author did extensive research to gather their stories and did and excellent job bringing the uncelebrated heroes to life.

    Wow, I'm feeling inspired. Time to go to work.