Monday, January 31, 2011

Take a Look: Backyard Visitors

Lately, what I’ve been looking at outside is a whole lot of snow. And lots of snow means lots of shoveling.

But the good news is that fresh snow can reveal many hidden secrets, like who is visiting our yard at night while we are asleep.

The other morning when I headed outdoors, I saw these little beauties. They are the first raccoon tracks I’ve ever seen in my yard. So I decided to follow them. I discovered that the poor little fellow probably founds his jaunt among our snow-cleared pathways frustrating.

He was originally trotting down the road. He turned into our driveway and then pranced up our side walk only to discover . . . BOOM! Our back door was a dead end.

So he had to turn around and go back down the sidewalk and into the driveway. Then he chose a different path. Big mistake. That one hit a dead end at our front door.

So he headed back down the path to the driveway and then decided to do something radical. He climbed up a snow bank and trodded off into the woods. I hope he eventually found whatever he was looking for.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Fun: Bugalicious

My nephew and this giant stick insect seem to be having a meeting of the minds.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Behind the Books: Life in a Wetland

As I was saying last week, in my opinion, there is more than one kind of narrative nonfiction for children. Human-story based narratives are currently very popular, but it’s fun to consider the alternatives.

One of my own favorite books is Life in a Wetland. I really enjoyed writing this book because (1) the research was absolutely fascinating (well, except for all those mosquito bites) and (2) because my editor allowed me to try something a little bit unusual. At 72 pages, the text was long enough to create an extended narrative view of the Everglades that (I hoped) would make readers feel like they were right there in southern Florida.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“A doe and her white-spotted fawn wade through the sawgrass in search of the plants’ hardy reddish-brown flowers. The deer also munch on the spike rush, water hyssop, and marsh mermaid plants growing among the sawgrass.

 “As the deer feed, they are serenaded by the gentle chorus of oak toads and the harsh oinking call of pig frogs. But the smallest Everglades frog remains silent. The grass frog spends its days clinging to sawgrass, but sings for a mate only at night. When it spies a hungry snowy egret overhead, the tiny grass frog drops into the water and swims to safety.

“The frog’s narrow escape doesn’t discourage the egret. A moment later, it sets its sights on three crayfish lodged in the dense sawgrass. The egret quickly grabs the invertebrates, swallows them whole, and flies off in search of more prey. In its haste, the bird doesn’t even notice a cluster of pearly white eggs clinging to a nearby blade of sawgrass.”

I love how I was able to transition from one creature to the next, showing how they all interact. That’s what an ecosystem is all about. I guess the reviewers at Booklist must have liked it too, because they gave the book a starred review. Maybe I’ll write another book like that one of these days.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Take a Look: Fantastic Forests

I’ve spent most of my life in New England, and I know many local woodlands intimately. I can tell you which rotting log is home to a spotted salamander and when and where you’re likely to find timberdoodles or ovenbirds. So it was a big treat for me to spend time in a forest where I was clueless.

The trees were different.

The ferns were different.

Moss was . . . everywhere.

The MacKenzie Bight forest on Canada’s Vancouver Island is a truly enchanting place. But don’t take my word for it, take a look for yourselves.

Here’s an image of a striped maple in one of my favorite New Hampshire forests. It’s a lovely, richly diverse New England woodland.

Now compare that to this forest.  Doesn’t it look like a place where you might find some frolicking fairies? I love the shapes of the trees and all the moss hanging from them.

And this New England forest seems downright stark and boring compared to . . .

. . . this lush, lovely landscape. Amazing.
The wide world is a wonderful place, and there is so much to explore and discover. Where’s the best place to get started? Your own backyard.

Follow an ant just to see where it’s going.

Pick up a pebble and imagine how it’s spent the last million years.

Listen for bird calls and try to identify the birds making them.

You’ll be amazed by the treats you can find right outside your door.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. When you are sitting still, you inhale about twenty times a minute. A sparrow breathes twice as fast.
  2. Think your friend is the world’s best belcher? Think again. An average cow burps two hundred times more gases than a person. Every year North America’s cattle belch about 50 million tons of gases into the air.
  3.  People burp gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. But cattle burp mostly methane, the main ingredient in natural gas. Some people use natural gas to heat their homes. Believe it or not, the methane from ten cows could heat a small house—if only we knew how to collect it.
  4. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Charles Osborne of Anthon, Iowa, had the hiccups non-stop for sixty-eight years. They started in 1922, when he was twenty-eight years old, and continued until 1990. For all those years Mr. Osborne hiccupped twenty to forty times a minute. That’s more than 430 million hics!

  5. When a dragonfly hatches, the first thing it does is drop into the water. As it crawls among water plants, it takes in oxygen though gills in its rear end. If an enemy gets too close, the little insect shoots water through its gills, blasting itself out of harm’s way.
Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Storytelling

When people talk about the new nonfiction, or narrative nonfiction, they are usually thinking of books with real people in real situations and settings. The episodes or events the authors describe have been crafted, based on meticulous research, into a series of scenes that help us get to know the human “characters,” and through them, the historical events or scientific endeavors in which the living, breathing people participated.

Authors who excel at this kind of writing include Elizabeth Partridge, Russell Freedman, Jim Murphy, Sy Montgomery, Loree Griffin Burns, Kadir Nelson, Barbara Kerley, just to name a few. I love the books written by these authors and eagerly await their next titles.

Another category of children's nonfiction that relies on storytelling includes books that describe the typical daily routine and behaviors of a single animal or a host of animals living and interacting in a specific environment. The authors of these books aren’t writing about exactly what a particular real-life creature did on a specific day. They are creating a sort of montage that provides a view into the world of the animal or the overall workings of a habitat.

The written piece is generally based on observing the animal in the wild over a period of time or spending many hours exploring a specific habitat. Because animals don’t always cooperate with an author’s needs, parts of the narrative are also based on reviews of the scientific literature or discussios with scientists or nature lovers who have their own observational experiences.

I have written many books using this strategy and people sometimes ask me why. I guess it’s because I’m much happier spending hours exploring the natural world than interviewing living people or scanning microfilm with newspaper articles from a hundred years ago. But that’s just me. Thanks goodness there are lots of different kinds of writers.

Anyway, in either case, we authors have the same goal in mind--to present information in a lively, accessible way. We want readers to be engaged and well as informed. And most of all, we want kids to gain a deeper sense of the world around them.

Next week I’ll share what I think was my most successful use of narrative nonfiction to paint a picture of a rich and diverse ecosystem—the Florida Everglades.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Take a Look: Inside a Tree

This year I am challenging myself, and you my readers, to take a look. This Monday strand invites us all to look at everyday things more closely and in new ways. It also urges us to look at things we might not have considered in the past. And that is just what I did during my recent trip to Victoria, British Columbia.

When we cane across a snag with a rather large opening at the bottom, I decided to climb inside and see what I could see. It turns out I needed a light, and my camera flash was the only one available. So as I lit up the inside of the tree, I also took some pictures of what my flash showed me. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
My fun-loving brother-in-law (who is also a science writer) saw the humor in the situation and decided to take a few pictures of me crammed inside the tree hole.

Thanks to his forethought, you can all get a better idea of just what I was attempting to take a look at. Thanks, Peter.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Behind the Books: Evolution of a Genre

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the elements of nonfiction writing here and on the I.N.K. and CYNSATIONS blogs, but I’ve never looked at some of the reasons that today’s nonfiction is so much better than it was in the past and why it’s getting all the time. So that’s my topic for today.

You’ve probably heard terms like creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and narrative nonfiction. Ask ten nonfiction writers to define these terms and you’ll probably get ten different answers. But what all those answers will have in common is that they result in more vivid, more engaging writing.

You will often hear me say “It’s a great time for nonfiction!” That’s because people are experimenting with the genre in ways they never have before, and the results are amazing.

Most literary historians say that the new nonfiction, which I’ll call narrative nonfiction, developed in the adult writing world in the 1960s and 1970s. The elements it espoused began to make their way into children’s nonfiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with books like The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery (photos by Nic Bishop) and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley (illus. by Brian Selznick). These books included such storytelling techniques as narrative arcs and tension and conflict.

By the mid-2000s, the growth of the Internet made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free. So books with everything a kid ever wanted to know about giraffes or kangaroos or the Battle of Lexington and Concord were no longer required purchases for libraries. Publishers and authors looked for ways to be more creative in their offerings.

As picture books biographies gained in popularity, authors began integrating scene building into their manuscripts. The also used primary source materials to create fully-developed “characters” and find quotations that could be used as dialog. And (gasp) authors even dared to take a point of view.

Some incredibly innovative and ground-breaking books became available just last year—when three of the five National Book Award finalists in the young people’s category were nonfiction titles, including Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.

Charles and Emma was also the winner of the first-ever YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, received a Michael L. Printz Honor Award, and has been named as a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, in the Young Adult Literature category!

Deborah has been so bold as to call Charles and Emma a nonfiction novel. Indeed, the masterful writing reads like a novel. And yet, as a result of the author’s diligent, meticulous research, we can be confident that everything Heiligman writes is 100 percent true.

Another one of my favorite recent book is Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone. It won the Sibert Award and was a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Sections of Almost Astronauts are written in the first person, relating the author’s experiences with her subjects--something I rarely see in books for young readers.
I can hardly wait to see what awaits us in the future. It really is a great time for nonfiction.

I can hardly wait to see what awaits us in the future. It really is a great time for nonfiction.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Take a Look: Victoria, British Columbia

Over the holiday break, we took a trip that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. We visited my brother-in-law and his family in Victoria, British Columbia.

I’d never been to the Pacific Northwest before, and I was mesmerized by the bald eagles, the angry sea, the long, narrow fjords, and the giant trees. Especially the giant trees. One of my favorites was this sequoia. It had me at hello.

The bark was sooo soft. Yup, that’s right soft. Almost furry.
And look at how tall it is! I love the pattern of branches up there.
Thanks to a big old nor’easter blizzard, we had trouble flying back home. But we decided to make the most of it. When we were waylaid in San Francisco, we decided to stick with our trip’s tall tree theme and visit Muir Woods. The giant redwoods were absolutely gorgeous. Everywhere we looked the towering trees reached up, up.You know that maple tree I’m so fond of in my front yard? Now it seems downright puny.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Cats don’t like to take baths, so they use their tongues—and a little bit of spit—to keep themselves clean.

2. When a mouse licks its wounds, a protein in its saliva battles harmful bacteria that have snuck into the cuts.

3. A spitting cobra uses its saliva to stay safe. When an antelope or wildebeest gets too close, the snake lifts its head and showers the larger animal’s face and eyes with painful spit. That’s enough to send any animal running!

4. Know what camels do when they get angry at one another? They spit in each other’s faces. Llamas and alpacas do too. Maybe they need to learn some manners.

5. A yellow-bellied sapsucker drills holes in trees and drinks the sugary sap. A chemical in the bird’s spit prevents trees from sealing the wounds, so the sapsucker can get all the food it needs.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Behind the Books: A is for Art

Just as the English alphabet wouldn’t be complete without the letter “a,” picture books just wouldn’t be the same without artwork. Most of the time, art consists of beautiful drawings or painted illustrations. But some great books are illustrated with photos.

There are many differences between a picture book and an early reader, but one of the most important is the role of the art. In an early reader, the art supports the text. It shows the action of the story so that if a struggling reader stumbles over a word, he or she can look to the art for clues. Picture book art is very different. It adds a whole new layer to the story, sometimes introducing subplots. Neither the art nor the words can stand on its own. Both elements contribute equally to the storytelling.

The role of art in nonfiction and fiction picture books is no different. The art brings the story to life, and often enhances and expands upon the written words. Many books accomplish this deftly, but today I’m going to discuss two of my favorite recent examples of imaginative illustration techniques that make the books truly special.

Redwoods by Jason Chin
 Jason Chin and I have something in common. We both read The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, loved it, and wanted to bring the beauty and wonder of redwood forests to life for young readers. But while I wracked my brain for creative ways to do this, Jason Chin had his light bulb moment and sat down to get the job done. The result is his amazing book, Redwoods.

The text is clear and straightforward and full of wonderfully detailed information about the trees and the microhabitats they support. But the art holds the magic.

The illustrations “show” what the boy reading a book about the trees is imagining. Though we start out in a New York City, we—along with the boy in the book—are transported into the forest where climbing gear instantly appears, allowing us to scale the giant trees and take a look around.

It’s not often that I encounter a book that shares fascinating science content and simultaneously promotes curiosity and fosters imagination, but this book does it all.

The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton (illus. by Tony Persani)
Like Redwoods, the text in this book is clear and simple—just right for the picture book crowd. It tells the story of two brothers that worked hard for many years to create a new kind of paint that is now used in all kinds of ways. The story is great, but the storytelling is even better and that’s because the art adds so much.

In the beginning of the book, the fun, stylized art is black and white, but as the brothers make progress, the artist introduced muted colors.

The intensity of the colors grows and grows until it reaches a crescendo at the climax—when the brothers see their day-glo paints brightly and lusciously displayed on a roadside billboard. Just fantastic! Readers can’t help but cheer as the brothers realize their dream.

Can you think of other nonfiction picture books with imaginative illustrations that add a whole new dimension to the presentation?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Take a Look: Backyard Wonders

I’ve talked about the maple tree outside my office window—in the front yard. But I’ve never blogged about any of the trees in my side yard or backyard. Until now.

During my holiday break, as I was cooking dinner one night, I noticed lumps of white stuff at the base of the pine tree in my backyard.

This was several days before last week's big snowstorm, so I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I turned the soup I was making down to simmer and ran outside with my camera in hand.

Here’s a close-up look at what I saw. The white “lumps” were masses of foam. They looked like soap suds.

Here’s an even closer view.
Where was it coming from? It turns out the same foam was running down the side of the tree. Can you see it?
I’ve never seen anything like this before, but it I guess the tree’s sap must have somehow been reacting with the heavy rains we’d been having all day to form the white sudsy froth. How mysterious!