Monday, November 29, 2010

Take a Look: My Maple Tree

Okay, okay, I just can’t help myself. It’s time to take another look at the maple tree outside my office window.

Right now, you can see that the tree has lost almost all of its leaves. I raked them up about a week ago. And as I was doing so, I took a look at my tree and answered a question I’ve been thinking about for 6 months.

Last spring, I took photos of the tree almost every day while it was leafing out. I started documenting the annual extravaganza in mid-April when the buds started budding.

But, really, I should have started the story of leafout earlier. Much earlier. Back in . . . well, back in November. Maybe even October. I’m not quite sure because even though I kept an eye out for the first signs of buds all through the summer, I hadn’t taken a close look at my tree for a while.

So we’ll just say that autumn is when new buds start forming. You can see them in this photo.

Why do buds form in fall? Because after a full summer of photosynthesizing, the tree has an ample supply of food and energy. But as the winter progresses, that supply gets depleted. So if the tree wants the biggest, healthiest buds possible, it will make them when it has the most stored up energy. That’s in autumn.

Now I’m happy because I’ve seen the whole process from bud formation to fully formed leaves. It’s been really amazing to behold. I can’t wait to see it again, so I’ll keep on watching.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. Scientists have measured the heart rates of many different mammals and a few birds, too. What did they learn? On average, the bigger an animal is, the slower its heart beats.
  2. Most animal hearts have an upper limit of about 1.5 billion beats. A mouse’s heart beats very quickly, so it uses up its 1.5 billion beats in just a couple of years. But an elephant’s slow-beating heart can keep on pumping for sixty years.
  3. Blood comes in a rainbow of colors. Some lizards have dark green blood. The bloodlike liquid flowing through the bodies of lobsters, crabs, snails, and shrimp is bluish green. The blood of some sea worms is pink or violet. Squids, octopuses, and horseshoe crabs have bright blue blood.
  4. When an elephant feels hot, it flaps its ears. That releases heat from the blood flowing through them. Then the blood travels to the rest of the elephant’s body and cools it off.
  5. When a dog pants, its spit evaporates, or turns into a gas that rises into the air. As the dog’s tongue cools down, so does the blood inside it. Then the dog’s heart pumps the cooled blood throughout its body.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book Pump It Up: The Secrets of the Heart and Blood. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

In my household, next week is all about family and food, so I'm taking some time off to celebrate Thanksgiving. I have so much to be thankful for this year. I'll see you back here on November 29.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Behind the Books: Novelty in Nonfiction Design

Okay, as promised last week, here are some examples of nonfiction books that make wonderful, innovative use of format and design:

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed . . and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn teaches observation skills, but that’s not what kids will notice. To them, the book is a game. They look for hidden animals alluded to in poems on the left. If they’re stumped, they can turn the gatefold to reveal the same image with everything but the animal opaqued.

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page is also as much a game as it is a reading experience. There is a question and little animal clues at the bottom. Readers can turn the page for some more super-cool paper collage art as well as amazing and entertaining answers. And if all that isn’t enough to win you over, take a look at the rich backmatter. It’s chock full of even more information about the featured animals.
And here are some books that offer innovative approaches to high interest topics:

I’ve mentioned An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long) before on Celebrate Science, but I just can’t get enough of it. The provocative main text raises questions—and even doubt--in the readers mind, but factoids scattered around the spread clearly and concisely convince us that the language of the main text is completely appropriate. In the end, we gain a whole new appreciation for eggs and the array of life that they contain. But it is the gorgeous illustrations, the font choices, and the clever use of white space that make this book to die for.

Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge is much more than just another dinosaur book. The text is full of cutting edge information and the art brings long-extinct creatures to life for readers AND is full of amazing comparisons that really help us see the world from their point of view. Like An Egg is Quiet, this book makes spectacular use of white space to keep the narrative flow of the piece going.

Next Wednesday, I'll be baking pies and mashing potatoes. But stay tuned for more discussion of nonfiction design in December, including a post by a very special guest on December 8.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Take a Look: A Spider’s Perspective

A couple of weeks ago, Kate Narita suggested another great point-of-view idea. Why not also write a journal entry from the spider’s perspective? I liked the idea so much that I’m trying it today.

“I’m really enjoying stretching out in the sun this morning. It’s been such a rainy week. I can finally build a web and try to catch a little bit of grub before I mate and lay my eggs. I better make sure I keep one leg on that thread. If it vibrates, I’ll know something has landed in the web and I better investigate.”

“Oh, what’s that? That shaking was caused by something a whole lot bigger than a bug! And I can see its giant shadow. What’s going on. I’m going to coil up tight and wait it out. I don’t wan to abandon my web if I don’t have to.”

“Oh no! There it is again. I better run for cover. Whatever’s out there must be pretty dangerous!”

Hey, I like pretending I’m a spider. I bet kids will too. It’s a great way to see the world from a completely different point of view. I’ll have to try it again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Fun: Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

Q: Where do young carpenter ants dream of going?
A: Hollywood

Q: Why don’t worker ants ever go on vacation?
A: They heard what happens at the Roach Motel.

Q: What did the ant say to the mosquito?
A: Don’t bug me.

Q: Why did the aardvark jump for joy?
A: He had ants in his pants.

Q: What is an ant’s favorite African animal
A: An eleph-ant.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Behind the Books: Trends in Nonfiction Design

The design of nonfiction books has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Of course, fiction design has changed too, but not quite as dramatically (with the notable exception of graphic novels).

When I entered the publishing industry in the early 1990s, books were pasted up. What does that mean?

Exactly what it sounds like. Get out your scissors and rubber cement and go to town. This process was both tedious and time consuming and no one wanted to make changes to the layout unless it was absolutely necessary.

Forget the idea of “playing” with design. It just wasn’t an option. Photos were few and far between and they were more decorative than anything else. They certainly weren't teaching tools that add to the power of the overall presentation.But as computer technology advanced, desktop publishing software came on the scene. And that changed everything. The software was introduced in 1987 and it really caught on around 1992. Most publishers had fully transitioned by 1996.

At the same time, DK Publishing came up with a startling new format, which they exploited in their huge and hugely successful Eyewitness Books series. These titles were first distributed in the U.S. in 1991. And by the end of the 1990s, they had revolutionized children’s nonfiction.
Now designers and art directors really began to have fun. Format and design and art choices were limited only by their imaginations.

Next week, we’ll look at examples of books that make great use of design and art to delight as well as inform. Sometimes they even invite young readers to participate.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Take a Look: A Scientist’s Description

Okay, so last week I wrote a wondrous first person account of a lovely spider we encountered while hiking on the border of Hudson and Berlin. That means today it’s time for the serious third person description. Let’s see how I do.

10:14 hours, October 16, 2010
Gates Pond and nearby vernal pool, Hudson/Berlin, MA
Sunny, clear sky, 58 F
Old conifer stand with deciduous under story to the west, deciduous forest to the east, limited species diversity

Three photos of a female Argiope spider approximately 5 inches in diameter were taken on the east portion of the trail, approximately 1.5 miles from the trailhead. A male Argiope was also spotted, be he dashes into the vegetation before he could be photographed.

Photo 1. Slightly blurred image. Undisturbed spider perched on her web. Not the second leg touching the web so that she can detect even the slightest vibration.

Photo 2. After disturbing the web, the spider has curled her legs to stay balanced. She is ready to spring into action. Note the pattern of the web’s thread visible at the bottom of the image.

Photo 3. Excellent view of the abdomen as the spider scurries toward the safety of the branch on which her web is anchored.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross & Goofy Body Facts

  1. A dragonfly’s 29,000 eye lenses wrap almost all the way around its head. They help the ferocious flier see what’s going on behind it.
  2. Tarantulas have eight closely clustered eyes—two large ones and six small ones. With so many eyes, you might think tarantulas have excellent eyesight. Think again! They rely on their sense of touch to understand the world.
  3. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles have eyes high up on their heads. They can see what’s going on while most of their bodies are hidden underwater.
  4. Some crabs and snails have eyes on antenna-like stalks that can move up and down and swivel in any direction. What a great way to view the world!
  5. Chipmunks and chickadees, giraffes and goldfish have many enemies. Because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, they can see far to the right and left. That means they can constantly scan their surroundings—without moving their heads.

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, November 3, 2010

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Has Come a Long Way, Baby

Not so long ago—just 10 or 15 years ago—nonfiction for kids was very different. It looked different and it was written differently.

It consisted of big blocks of terse text. The design was uninspired at best, and completely ignored at worst. Occasional images acted more like decorations than as powerful teaching tools that extend and expand the book’s message. The term “sidebar” hadn’t been invented yet. And in books for middle school and high school students, color was a rarity.

Today’s nonfiction for kids is vibrant and fun and, in some cases, even participatory. We’ve come a long way, Baby.

Why has nonfiction changed so much in just a decade or so? That’s a question I’ll be examining here over the next few weeks. The first reason is financial, which is to say that publishing is a business. And publishers make books that they think, they hope will sell. And when times get tough, the stakes increase.

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

But then 2001 rolled around. That’s the year the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. And everything changed. Suddenly educators had to teach to the test. They no longer had much time for creative teaching strategies, and they had to greatly reduce their use of trade books in the classroom.

During the last decade, many schools have eliminated school librarian positions and even closed school libraries all together. At the same time, public library budgets have been slashed.

So with fewer sales outlets and less funding available, successful nonfiction books must really stand out from the crowd. And that means nonfiction authors and publishers have to work harder than ever before if they want buyers to choose their titles.

The resulting changes have affected art and text and designed—creating exciting and dynamic new products. Next week we’ll take a look at changes in design.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Take a Look: A Super Spider

Wow! Wow! Wow! Look at this fabulous Argiope spider. I’d recognize this spectacular species anywhere, anytime. Its size and colorful body and legs are a dead giveaway.

These three shots show the story of our interaction with her. (I know she’s a female because the males are much smaller. We spotted one—probably a potential mate, but he ran away before I could snap a shot. Bummer.)

First, I got as close as I thought was prudent. I wasn’t quite close enough for the macro lens to focus, but it’s still a cool image.  I especially like how well you can see the colors of the spider's legs in this photo.
Then I accidentally shook the web. I backed away a bit for the second image, but you can see that the spider is now very nervous. See how her legs are coiled in. Sorry, spider.
Finally, she had had enough of me. As she ran away, I ended up with a nice shot of her back side. Oh, okay, I should really be scientifically accurate and say it’s her abdomen.

I always like looking for spiders while enjoying the fall foliage. Autumn is the time of year when spiders are most active because they are looking for mates. But this lovely lady was just hanging out on a web built very close to the trail. What a wonderful surprise!