Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Behind the Books: A Place for Frogs

Tomorrow is a very exciting day, and not just because I’m planning a whopper of an April Fool’s joke. It’s also exciting because my brand-spanking-new book A Place for Frogs will be released into the world.

Like A Place for Butterflies and A Place for Birds, it looks at ways scientists and citizens are protecting animals and their habitats. And like the earlier books, it is illustrated by the uber talented Higgins Bond.

I’ll be celebrating with the students at Northwood Elementary School in Northwood, New Hampshire. I’m really looking forward to my visit.

I hope you have a great day too!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

This morning I have good news and bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

It looks like my experiment failed. The buds on the branch I brought indoors last week are still closed up tight. I can’t tell if the branch is drawing water or not. Maybe I should have cut the branch at an angle—the way you do with rose stems.

Maybe I’ll try again next year. With the warm temperatures we’ve been having lately, I think my tree will leaf out naturally earlier than normal this year. I’m waiting . . .

Okay, now we can focus on the good news. There’s LIFE on my tree! I’m so excited.

While I was picking up sticks around the yard yesterday, I took a good long, close up look at the tree. At first, I didn’t see much.

But then, I noticed a little beetle on the south side of the tree. Yippee! Can you see it in this photo?

After I ran inside, grabbed my camera, and took a photo, I started looking closely all around the trunk. I didn’t really expect to see more, but, hey, you never know.

Turns out my diligence was rewarded. The more I looked, the more beetles I saw. There were two on the southeast side of the trunk. One was nestled in a crevice and really hard to spot.
Can you see the one near at the top of this photo? The one at the bottom is much easier to make out.

In all, I found about a dozen beetles. It was hard to get an exact count because they kept crawling around. Hmph!

After taking a few more photos, I came indoors and tried to identify the beetles. They have black bodies and look kind of like lightning bugs, but their heads look a little different and their bodies are fatter. The most noticeable features are (1) the head and thorax are hard to distinguish, and (2) they have reddish stripes along the sides of their head/thorax.

I looked at a lot of beetles and finally decided they look quite similar to some of the net-winged beetles. So I focused in on that group.

Then I can across the image to the left. That’s it! The insect’s genus name is Plateros, but no species name is given.

Apparently, they suck on plant juices and nectar. That raises an interesting question. What are they eating at this time of year? Some species don’t feed at all as adults, maybe these are among them.

The beetles may use my tree as a staging area. Or perhaps they overwintered so deep inside the nooks and crannies of the bark that I didn’t even notice them.

I’ll have to keep watching to see if they stick around.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Fun: a Fabulous Author Visit

I don’t usually blog about school visits, but my recent experience at New Boston Central School in New Boston, NH, was so great that I have to gush—just a bit. This is an example of a school doing everything right.

Kerri Kelley, wife of author-illustrator Marty Kelley, was my primary contact during the planning stages and throughout the day. And she did a sensational job. Seriously. She thought of every last detail.

The library had a nice collection of my books and the kids had been introduced to many of them before the visit. The school bought me lunch, and they even provided snacks. Wow.

But most important of all, the kids were prepared and engaged and they asked fabulous questions. They listened carefully and they saw connections between the information I was presenting with almost no prompting from me. They made my job so easy and fun.
I did the same presentation four times—to two groups of second graders and two groups of third graders (see photos). We talked about my book A Place for Birds and all the cool things about bird anatomy, physiology, and behavior that made me want to write about them in the first place.

They compared their armspans to the wingspans of eagles, owls, and herons. They held bags of sand representing the weights of various birds and learned the reasons birds weigh less than we might expect.

The budding scientists determined their heart rates and compared them to those of various birds. They even figured out how much they’d have to eat every day if they ate like a sparrow—about 100 hamburgers. I bet their moms are relieved they don’t have to do all that cooking!

I’m doing this presentation again next week at another elementary school in New Hampshire. I hope it goes just as well.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Behind the Books: NSTA

Last week, I spent four glorious days in Philadelphia. The weather was perfect, and I was hanging out with some of my favorite people on Earth—science teachers.

There weren’t many book children’s book publishers exhibiting at this year’s conference, but I did get a nice shot of Charles and Emma (Holt, 2009) by fellow I.N.K. blogger Deborah Heiligman. See it on the top shelf? It's the opne with all the well-deserved award seals! The book was displayed with other Macmillan titles in the Kingfisher booth.

To speak at NSTA, you have to submit a proposal almost a year in advance and then cross your fingers. I was delighted to talk to a room full of enthusiastic teachers about how to creatd fun readers theater scripts from wonderful science-themes books written by April Pulley Sayre, Sneed Collard, Steve Jenkins, and Robin Page, Brenda Z. Guiberson, John Himmelman, and others.

A few weeks ago, I discovered that I’d be doing even more fun stuff at the conference. This year I am very fortunate to have three books (Yup, you read that right. Three!) on the prestigious NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students list. They are Under the Snow, A Place for Birds, and Why Are Animals Blue?.

So I was asked to participate in a roundtable with fellow science writers Sally Walker, Debbie Miller, and Pam Kirby. I edited a book Sally Walker wrote about 10 years ago, and I’ve corresponded with her a few times since, so it was a really excited to finally meet her. I only wish I had thought to get a picture of us together. Drat!

Luckily, I did get photos of some other important folks. First of all, here I am with Cindi Smith-Walters of Middle Tennessee State University. She was a member of the NSTA-CBC committee and one of the biggest advocates for A Place for Birds. She wrote a blurb about it, which appeared in the current issue of the NSTA publication Science & Children.

“Beautiful illustrations and clear, concise text provide a fascinating look at a variety of birds of North and Central America, the ecosystems that support them, and efforts to save them. Included is a list of actions that individuals can take to help protect these amazing creatures. Selected Bibliography, Range Maps of selected species inside front and back cover.”

The blurb for Under the Snow was written by Nancy Chesley of the Maine Math and Science Alliance. I’ve met Nancy several times at science and literacy programs I’ve attended in Maine, but unfortunately, she wasn’t able to attend NSTA this year.

“Under the snow lies a variety of habitats in which animals live and survive during the chilly winter months. This book describes these habitats in delightful lyrics supported by watercolor illustrations that capture the wonders under the snow.”

I never did find out who wrote the blurb for Why Are Animals Blue?, but he or she also did a great job.

“Surprising examples of blue tongues, blue feet, blue feathers, and blue faces demonstrate how color can startle a predator, fool an enemy, or even warm up a body on a cool morning.”

As part of a separate presentation, NSTA’s 2010 Presidential Award winners were asked to put together displays about the books on the list. Let me tell you right now, those teachers did a fabulous job!

Karon Massado from the Elementary Science Cadre Office of Curriculum and Instruction in Wilmington, Delewarwe, did a joint presentation for Under the Snow and The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder by Lark Cassino (Chronicle, 2009).

Would you believe I lost the card for the nice woman from Michigan who did a great poster presentation for A Place for Birds and What Bluebirds Do by Pam Kirby (Boyds Mills, 2009)? I feel terrible that I can't remember her name. If she reads this, I really hope she sends me her name.

Cathy Barthelemy of the Forth Worth Museum of Science and History in Forth Worth, Texas, developed a series of useful activities based on the BCBS 5E (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) Instructional Model to accompany Why Are Animals Blue?. Unfortunately, she had stepped out of the room while I was enjoying the other posters, so I didn’t get a chance to meet her.

NSTA has always been one of my favorite conferences. It leaves me feeling refreshed and renewed and ready to plunge back into my work.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

Saturday was the official start of spring, but I don’t expect to see my little maple leafing out anytime soon. It will probably be more than a month before those buds burst.

But I’m hoping I might be able to get a sneak peek at those little guys.

Lots of people bring forsythia into their homes, where the constant warm temperature forces their bright yellow blossoms to open early. I recently learned that it’s possible to do the same thing with the leaf buds of some trees.

I’m not sure whether maple trees can be tricked by spring-seekers like me, but it’s worth a try.

Yesterday morning, I clipped a small branch with four buds off my maple tree, and I’m conducting an experiment. (You all know how much I like experiments.) I placed the branch in a drinking glass full of water and placed it in the window of my office. Let’s see what happens.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  • You can blink up to five times a second. But most of the time, you flit your eyelids thirty to sixty times a minute. That adds up to more than ten thousand times a day and more than ten million times a year.
  • You don’t blink while you’re asleep, so dust, sweat, oil, and tears don’t get flicked out of your eyes. They pile up in the corners and mix together to form eye gunk.
  • Like the water slowly dripping out of a leaky faucet, your tear glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of tears. Most days, about 1/3 of a teaspoon (1.7 milliliters) of the watery liquid enters each eye. Some of it evaporates. The rest drains into tear ducts, tiny tubes that run between your eyes and nose.
  • Kim Goodman of Chicago, Illinois, can pop her eyeballs almost half an inch (11 millimeters) beyond her eye sockets. Her eyes were measured on the set of the TV show “Guinness World Records: Primetime” on June 13, 1998.
  • Close your eyes and gently rub your eyelids. See those flashes of light? The pressure of your fingertips tricks the light-sensing cells in your eyes. They send messages to your brain that make you see yellowish spots, stars, and circles.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? 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, March 17, 2010

Behind the Books: Snowballing

In a post last September, I described how the text for Under the Snow came to me in a burst of inspiration after months of being stuck. I was pleased with the result, but I didn’t have any major expectations for the book. Over the years, I’ve become used to being a solid mid-list author.

When the book was named a Junior Library Guild Selection, my publisher thought it was a sign of good things to come, and they tripled the first print run. That made me very nervous.

But as is usually the case, my publisher was right. The book received good reviews and a variety of honors, including a nod from the Charlotte Zoltow Award committee.

It seemed that with each recognition came more exposure, and more exposure led to additional honors and awards. You know, the snowball effect. How appropriate!

I was especially excited when the book was nominated for the Maine Chickadee Book Award because that’s where my nieces and nephew live. And I was thrilled when it was named a Selector’s Choice by a joint NSTA-CBC committee. For me, nothing’s better than praise from science educators.

But perhaps the best news of all came a few days ago. That big first print run—the one that made me so nervous—has sold out. Hooray!

Generally speaking, a publisher is pleased if a first printing sells out in a year, but every last copy of Under the Snow cleared out of the Peachtree warehouse in just 6 months. Yowzah!

People have started asking me if there will be a follow up to Under the Snow. And I’m happy to report that there is, indeed, something in the works. Stay tuned. I think you’ll like it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

I awoke this morning to a gray sky and pouring rain. I dragged myself out of bed, trudged into the office, and turned on the computer. But when I looked out the window at my maple tree, my mood instantly improved.

Look carefully at the lower left braches of the tree, and you’ll see why. That blast of red against the dreary landscape brought one of my favorite poem’s to mind:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
William Wordsworth

My heart did leap up, just as Wordsworth describes. But it wasn’t because that I saw a rainbow. I saw—and heard—a sweet little cardinal belting out a series of slurring whistles. What a lovely little melody!

Just like the hawk in my book When Rain Falls, the cardinal had puffed up its feathers to keep water out and warmth in. Despite the rain and the fact that I was still wearing pajamas, I tried to go outdoors and get a closer photo of my little friend. Unfortunately, the noise of the front door startled the bird and he flew away. Thanks to the magic of google images, I've found a photo that shows just how he looked--all puffed hunkered down and puffed out.

Wouldn't a little guy like this lift your spirits?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Fun: Take a Look

I spotted these cool exposed tree roots at White Mountain National Park in New Hampshire last spring. What do they remind your students of?

Have them write a story about what they see in the roots and send it here by April 30. All entries should include the child's name and age. The winning entry will receive an autographed copy of an age-appropriate book.

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

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Behind the Books: Does Story Reign Supreme?

There has been an interesting discussion going on over at Oz and Ends, a kidlit blog maintained by writer and editor J.L. Bell. Back on February 18, Bell quoted Ben Mezrich, the author of the ostensibly nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, as saying:

“The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

Bell agreed with the statement, but plenty of children’s nonfiction writers (including me) had serious problems with Mr. Mezrich’s comment. It’s worth noting that this comment was made after a Boston Globe reporter confronted Mezrich about the accuracy of some parts of his book. Mezrich admitted creating composite figures and adding details that could not be confirmed by the real people involved in the situations and events supposedly chronicled in the book.

Basically, Mezrich made stuff up to create a more engaging story. Furthermore, he didn’t seem apologetic or embarrassed when his dishonesty was discovered. Apparently, he doesn’t see a problem with departing from the facts in a nonfiction book.

Well, I do have a problem with that. And I’m not alone.

If you read through the comments following Bell’s post, you can see how the discussion progressed. In his arguments, Bell kept coming back to the importance of story in a nonfiction work.

I know lots of fantastic nonfiction books for children and adults in which the authors spent years of their lives researching and interviewing to find the golden nuggets that allowed them to build scenes, flesh out their subjects, and create a narrative arc that fortified their presentation. I am the first to salute their efforts.

Books like Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone and Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Wild Trees by Richard Preston are masterpieces that were only possible thorough the persistence of writers determined to gather the facts and tell the truth as it emerged. These authors richly deserve all the acclaim they have received.

But is the power of story really SO critical that authors should consider inventing it when it either doesn’t exist or, even worse, when they are too lazy to do the research required to uncover it? J.L. Bell mentions religious tales, family lore, funny anecdotes, national myths and says “The idea that those stories are true is more important to how we experience and see meaning in them than whether we can prove them to be true."

But I disagree. In those cases, we trust the storytellers and assume they are being honest. If we disprove or even question their sincerity, the story’s power is destroyed. We feel angry and deceived.

We’ve all heard the expression “fact is stranger than fiction”, and we all love strange and wacky facts, especially kids. These facts have power because they are real and verifiable.

With this in mind, I continue to maintain that if a narrative is labeled nonfiction, readers have an absolute right to expect it to be 100 percent fact based, and yes “true” to the very best of the writer’s ability.

Still, Bell’s ideas are thought provoking. Why do we like stories so much? Are children even more enthralled by the power of story than the adult readers Mezrich targets?

I got an answer last week during a trip to Disney World with my nephew and two nieces. On the third day, after experiencing “Kilimanjaro Safari” (which features amazing views of live African animals in a setting that includes as much authentic African vegetation as is possible in South Florida), I had an interesting conversation with my 9-year-old nephew.

As our Jeep ride through the “savanna” ended, he complained, “Why do they have to add fake stories to real rides? They should have just told us more cool facts about the animals instead.”

My nephew was referring an anxious voice on the Jeep driver’s “radio” that periodically warned of poachers ahead and told us to beware. Near the end of the ride, the voice asked our help in herding the poachers so that they could be captured. We never saw these poachers, but we passed through what was supposed to be their camp. Then we passed a mechanical baby elephant swishing it’s trunk through a partially open flap in the back of a truck.

I had the same reaction as my nephew, but I thought the kids might like the action and intrigue. Needless to say, I was thrilled by his response. He cared about the animals for the amazing beasts that they are. He had no patience for the artificial storyline. Hooray!

Now I know my nephew is just one child. I can’t state with authority that all kids or even all 9-year-old boys would react as my nephew did, but I truly doubt that he’s so unique in his way of thinking.

What I do know from school visits and book signings is that many young readers, especially upper-elementary boys, love facts, and that’s why they read nonfiction. For them, being able to prove a nonfiction narrative is true is absolutely critical to their love of the literature. And that directly refutes Mezrich’s statement.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

The next time you walk through a forest, take a close look at the trees all around you. You’ll notice that most of their lower branches have fallen off. But if you look at a tree growing out in the middle of your yard, most of the lower branches will still be there (unless someone has cut them off, which is what happened to my maple). Can you guess why?

In a forest, each tree is surrounded by lots of neighboring trees. And each leaf on each tree is competing for sunlight. The leaves on the trees’ top branches get plenty of sun, but leaves closer to the ground have access to much less light.

A tree growing on its own in the middle of your yard doesn’t have this problem. The entire tree gets lots of sunlight, so all its leaves can make food all day long.

Over time, the leaves on lower branches of forest tress shrivel and die. And since the main purpose of a branch is to hold leaves, the branches die too. Then they fall off. As a result, the tree can use its precious energy to support the parts of the tree that are absorbing sunlight and producing sugary food.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  • Chemicals in a pig’s saliva help it attract mates. Perfume companies have tried adding these chemicals to their products, but they don’t seem to have much effect on people.

  • Know anyone with a pet gourami? When these fish are ready to have young, the male finds a clump of floating plants and builds a foamy nest out of air bubbles and sticky saliva. The female lays her eggs in the nest and then swims away. It’s up to the male to protect the eggs until they hatch.

  • How does a female Eurasian swift build her nest? First, she gathers grass and feathers, roots, and bits of string. Then she uses spit to glue the materials into a rocky crevice or under the roof of a building.

  • A female song thrush builds a cup-shaped nest in a bush or tree. She cements the materials together with wet mud and saliva. Then she lines the inside with a smooth layer of mud.

  • The large, gray, paper nests of baldfaced hornets, yellow jackets, and paper wasps are truly spit-acular. These insects mix chewed wood fibers and saliva to make a pulpy material. Then they build it up, layer by layer, to create the perfect home.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts about saliva? 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, March 3, 2010

Behind the Books: An Irresistible Beginning

Whether a book has 500 word or 50,000 words, it’s the first few sentences that make all the difference. That’s true for both fiction and nonfiction. With TV and video games and all kinds of activities vying for a kids’ attention, children’s book authors have to hook their young readers right away.

Book beginnings haven’t always been so critical. When I teach writing classes for adults, I often encourage students to choose any shelf in the children’s section (middle grade novels work especially well). I tell them to read the first page of the first book on the shelf and then look at the copyright date. I ask them to repeat this procedure for the second, third, fourth, etc. books on the shelf. By the time they are half was through the shelf, they are usually able to make a reasonable guess about a book’s year of publication based on the style of the beginning.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, book beginnings were more leisurely. Most of the time, an author introduced a story’s setting and the characters quite thoroughly before getting to the action.

But things are different now. Kids have come to expect action and intrigue and fascinating facts right there on the very first page—the very first paragraph—the very first sentence. This is more critical today than it was even five or ten years ago.

When I first started out writing, a meaty question was often enough considered enough to whet a reader’s appetite. But most editors won’t settle for that kind of beginning anymore. Maybe it’s because they’re just sick of it.

These days, when I write about an animal, I sometimes start with an image that builds a portrait of the creature. This works especially well when the animal has some unusual features. For example, when I wrote an article on seahorses for National Geographic World, I could have started with something like:

The seahorse is an unusual ocean animal. It’s a fish, but it doesn’t look like one.

But I wanted to draw my readers in, so I started like this:

A seahorse has a head like a horse, a snout like an anteater, a pouch like a kangaroo, and a tail like a monkey. But it’s a fish. Its delicate body seems to be a curious collection of spare parts.
One of my favorite ways to begin an article or book is with a you-are-there scene that pulls readers into the animal’s world. This is especially effective if the animal lives in an unfamiliar place, like the African savanna or a tropical rainforest.

Here’s an example for my book Baboons:

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.

Creating a scene like this is hard work. In fact, I’m not sure how successfully I could have written this kind of scene is I hadn’t witnessed it myself when I was on safari in Kenya. For more about the importance about firsthand research, see this post.

The point is you have to grab your reader’s attention and interest right away. One of the best ways I know for doing that is by making them relate to the animals and worlds I’m writing about.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

Bark is the skin of a tree. It protects the stems, or trunk and branches, of a tree from heat and cold, disease, insects and other animals, disease, fire, and drought.

In maples, young trees and newer growth on older trees have smooth bark (top photo). The trunk of middle aged and older trees is rough, ridged, and wrinkly (bottom photo). Sometimes it’s a darker color too.

Like your skin, hair, and nails, the bark of a tree is made mostly of dead cells. Cells on the surface are always sloughing off, and cells below them move up to take their place. A layer of tissue at the bottom of the bark is constantly cranking out new cells.

As a tree grows, the diameter of its trunk and branches will increase, but the bark does not get thicken very much over the years. The bark of a mature tree is about 2 inches wide.