Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Who do you think has a hairier body—a person or a gorilla? Believe it or not, it’s a tie. We both have about 5 million strands of hair sticking out of our skin. A gorilla looks hairier because it’s easy to spot the thick, dark locks that make up a gorilla’s fur. But we hardly even notice the short, thin vellus hairs covering our bodies.

2. Living hair cells divide to create new cells every twenty-three to seventy-two hours. That’s faster than any other cells in your body.

3. While a hair is growing, cells move up and out of your follicle fast enough for the stringy strand to lengthen about 6 inches (15 centimeters) per year. Strong, straight hair grows the fastest, and fragile, kinky hair grows the slowest.

4. In ancient Rome 2,000 years ago, women plucked their eyebrows and used hair-removal creams made from tree sap, donkey fat, bat blood, and other strange ingredients.

5. When scientists view hair strands under a microscope, they can tell whether a person smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol, or takes illegal drugs. They can also tell a person’s ethnic background.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Here We Grow: The Secrets of Hair and Nails. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Behind the Books: Focusing a Manuscript

As nonfiction becomes more creative and more visually dynamic, authors are realizing that structuring the ideas they want to share in a unique, engaging way is at the heart of crafting a nonfiction manuscript. Before we write a single word, we think long and hard about structure (focus and organization) and design (format, layout, and art). These elements must work together to delight as well as inform young readers—not to mention the people who buy books for them.

At the beginning of a project, a topic has limitless possibilities. So authors need to decide what to shine a spotlight on and what to leave backstage. For example, while creating Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, Catherine Thimmesh didn’t focus on the three astronauts aboard the spaceship. Instead she wrote about the many unsung heroes behind the scenes. And that’s what makes the book special.

Authors Susan E. Goodman and Sarah Albee started out with the same topic—poop. But because each of them has different personal interests, the authors ended up writing very different books.

In The Truth About Poop, Goodman chose to include lots of fascinating information about animal poop and the mechanics of plumbing, giving the book a science-y feel.

Albee’s book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, includes information about public-health challenges related to waste disposal in the ancient and modern worlds as well as the ability of societies to deal with the problem. As a result, this self-proclaimed “number one book on number two” provides readers with an excellent introduction to social history. In the end, both books are wonderful, but they are far from identical.

So much has been written about Charles Darwin that it’s hard to imagine creating a ground-breaking book about the famous scientist. But by focusing on Darwin’s relationship with his beloved wife, Emma, and her religious beliefs, Deborah Heiligman produced a masterful ''nonficiton novel" that shows us Darwin in a whole new light.

As Heiligman wrote Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith, she told herself over and over that every detail she included had to be “in service to the love story,” and by staying true to her vision, she created a book became a National Book Award finalist, a L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, a Michael L. Printz Honor book, and the winner of the first-ever YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

For these authors, focusing their topic—choosing the specific nugget that meant the most to them—made their books unique and memorable.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Take a Look: I Mean It!

Recently, my brother-in-law and fellow science writer Peter Fairley sent me this link to some of the most amazing photos I've ever seen. They are aerial images taken all over the planet by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

If they aren't worth taking a look at, I don't know what is.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

Q: Why didn’t the butterfly go to the dance?
A: Because it was a moth ball.

Q: What did the dragonfly call the mosquito?
A: Lunch.
 Q: What happened when the honeybee called its hive?
A: It got a buzzy signal.

Q: How do you keep flies out of the kitchen?
A: Put a pile of manure in the living room.

Q: What’s the different between a puppy and a flea?
A: A dog can have fleas, but fleas can’t have puppies.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Behind the Books: Thinking About Structure

Back in September 2009, I wrote two posts about structure. The first was called Building a Book and the second was called Turning Structure on It Head. I still like those posts, but now I have more to say on the topic.

I’ve been continuing to think about structure. A lot. A whole lot. The truth is that until you have a structure, you don’t have a book. As nonfiction becomes more visually sophisticated, the way authors present the material is just as important as the information itself.

Structuring a book—making decisions about organization, format, design, and art is a highly creative process. And while editors and art directors and photographers and illustrators all play a role in making the final choices about how the book will look, the process starts with the author.

In the last few years, I find that publishers want me to provide much more than just the words. They wan tto understand my complete vision for the book. That’s a lot of responsibility. And that’s why I’ve been thinking about structure so much lately.

Because I’m a writer, writing is the best way for me to solidify my ideas. So I’ve decided to take you along on my journey as I think deeply about structuring nonfiction.

In my Turning Nonfiction on Its Head post, I said that I often begin writing using a traditional structure. But that as I wrote, I was struck by inspiration and then started approaching the material from a different angle.

That’s no longer true. Now I begin thinking about structure from the moment the idea strikes me. I think about it the whole time I’m doing research too.

As I gather information, I’m searching for a unique way to present it to kids. I’m looking for something that is fresh and fun. If the same old same old bores me, I know it will bore kids too. They deserve better than that. Actually, they demand better than that.

I want to surprise kids in some way and make them think and wonder as they read. I want to make them say, “Oh, wow!” How do I do that? You’ll find out in a series of posts that begin next week. In the mean time, why don’t you start thinking about how you make decisions about structure. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Take a Look: An Adventure

Last week I was in Salisbury, Maryland for the Salisbury University Children’s Literature Festival and Green Earth Book Award Ceremony. In between school visits and book signings, some of us snuck off to Assateague Island National Seashore. What a wonderful place!

Not only was the landscape incredibly beautiful, it is home to an amazing array of wildlife. I saw tricolored herons and little blue herons, and egrets. I saw ducks and turkey vultures and tiny deer. I even saw a giant ball if tiny fish circle-gliding through the shallow water.
But the highlight of the trip was the wild horses. My host, Patty Dean, said the horses are usually easy to spot. But not when I was there. Perhaps the cold, rainy weather was to blame.

After much looking, I finally spotted one off in the woody scrub. Author-illustrator Shelley Rotner and I jumped out of the car and set off on an adventure. We had no idea how close we could get to the animal, so we snuck slowly, carefully toward it, trying not to frighten the animal. We knew it might flee at any moment, so we snapped photos with almost every step.
Finally, I had to make a decision. If I wanted a full view of the majestic animal, I was going to have to walk into the muddy swamp. Would my foot get sucked under? Would I lose a shoe? Should I risk it?

Of course, I should. That mud was cold and smelly. Really smelly. But it was totally worth it.
I thought about trying to touch or pet the horse, but I remembered what guides had told me about swimming with sea lions when I was ion the Galapagos Islands. "It’s fine if they touch you, but don’t touch them. Remember, they are wild animals. They might seem calm and friendly, but they could bite at any moment.” I didn’t want to disrupt the week with a trip to the emergency room, so I kept my hands to myself.
Can you believe I got this close to a wild horse? It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Right now, you have about 100,000 hairs sticking out of your scalp. About 85,000 of them are growing. The rest are either taking a break or getting ready to fall out.

2. You lose about a hundred hairs every day. But you probably don’t even notice. That’s because new hairs start to grow right away.

3. Some people’s head hairs stop growing after just two years. Their hair never even reaches their shoulders. But in other people, hairs keep on growing for seven years or more.

4. How long do you think your hair would grow if you never cut it? A Chinese girl named Xie Qiuping asked herself that question in 1973, when she was thirteen years old. Today, her hair is more than 18 feet (5 meters) long. That’s more than three time longer than she is tall!

5. When a hair stops growing, it rests for ten days to three months. Then it breaks and falls out, and a new hair starts growing.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Here We Grow: The Secrets of Hair and Nails. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Behind the Books: Cut and Paste

When I’m doing research, I enter all my notes into a single computer file. By the time I’m ready to start writing, that file might be 20, 30, 40 pages long. That’s when it’s time to cut and paste.

I save my original file exactly as it is—with all my references and citations. Then I create a copy of the file and go to work. First, I use cut and paste to create clumps of related information.

Let’s say I’m writing a book about giraffes. I’ll create one clump of information about how giraffes raise their young. Another clump will include all the information I’ve gathered about what giraffes eat. A third could focus on where they live, and a fourth might contain details about how they escape from enemies.

Once I’ve placed all the notes into clumps, I read each clump and delete redundant information. This is also a good time to do a bit of fact checking. If one source says giraffes eat snails, but all the others say they eat leaves from acacia trees. Well, I have to wonder about those snails. I can go back to my original file, and decide how reliable it is. Maybe it’s wrong, or maybe it is more up-to-date than all the other sources.

Next, it’s time to move those clumps around—more cutting and pasting—to decide how the piece will be organized.

Finally, it’s time to write the text and cobble all those clumps together with transitions. It’s like putting together a big puzzle. I love puzzles, so for me, this final step of creating the first draft is a whole lot of fun.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Take a Look: You’re Welcome

One of the great things about school visits are the wonderful, handmade thank you notes that often come afterward. Take a look at these works of art. They were created by the students at Gill St. Bernard's School in Gladstone, NJ

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Fun: A Very Special School Visit

I've been spending a lot of time at schools this year, but last Friday was a special treat. I was at Pownal Elementary School in Pownal, Maine.

Pownal isn't just any town in Maine. It's where my brother and his family lives. And Pownal Elementary isn't just any school. It's where my two nieces and nephew spends their days. So I was really looking forward to my day there. And it was even better than I imagined.

First, my niece drove with me to the school and acted as my tour guide.
Here she is in front of the bulletn board at the front entrance of the school . There's my name in big letters.

As I traveled down the halls to the room where I'd be setting up, I noticed a theme--my books! K-4 students had read an assortment of my books and done special projects.

The kindergarteners made a bulletin board showing all the animals that hibernate Under the Snow. And each is shown at the proper relative distance from the surface. The kids were so excited to show it to me.

The first grades made fish and hung them from the ceiling. In the background, notice that the kids voted on which of their books was my favorite. A Place for Fish won.

The second graders made beautiful watercolors depicting what animals do When Rain Falls. They chose watercolors to match the style of the art in the book. They made similar paintings to accompany Under the Snow and wore them as costumes while performing a Readers Theater I wrote to accompany the book.

The third and fourth graders created designed their own special game of Who Am I? using animals from my books. I was so impressed. The also created the wonderful bulletin board at the entrance to the school. (See photo above.)

Some of the fifth and sixth graders shared Keynote reports that they had created on topics as wide reaching as snowboarding, buffalo, and owl habitats.

Thank so much to the teachers and students for such a fun day!