Monday, May 30, 2011

Take a Look: Playing with Dirt and Rocks

I recently spent the day at Armstrong Elementary School in Westborough, MA. My visit came in the midst of the first graders unit on rocks and soil, so we had a blast.

First the students put on their thinking caps to decide whether or not some mysterious-looking objects I gave them were rocks or not. They did a great job of practicing their reasoning skills, so it was really hard to fool them.

Then we looked at three soil samples labeled A, B, and C. The students compared them and noticed how they were similar and different. Then I told them where the soil samples came from—a sand quarry, my backyard, and their school playground—and asked them to guess which was which.
Those students paid close attention to even the smallest details , and they picked up on all the important clues. Every single class got the answer right. Hooray!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. A polar bear has white fur, but its skin is black. Dark colors soak up heat from the sun more quickly than light colors, so black skin helps a polar bear stay warm in its chilly Arctic home.

 2. When an anole lizard rests on a leaf, its green skin makes it hard to spot. But when the little lizard moves onto a tree trunk, its skin slowly darkens to match its new surroundings.

3. Frogs and salamanders can breathe through their thin skin.

4. Some frogs shed their skin every week. They stretch out their old skin and pull it over their head. Then they eat it. Mmmm! Delicious!

5. A snake outgrows its skin three or four times a year. When the old outer covering splits open, the snake crawls forward. Its skin peels off in one long piece.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Behind the Books: Art with Heart

Some children’s book creators are writers as well as illustrators. So naturally, they have a lot to say about the type and style of art that appears in their books. But increasingly, writers too are thinking carefully about art choices early in the process. And editors and art directors are eager to hear their ideas.

It’s hard to imagine Sy Montgomery’s Quest for the Tree Kangaroo working as well without Nic Bishop’s incredible photos. And Sarah C. Campbell’s text for Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator cried out to be accompanied by the photos she and her husband Richard P. Campbell used to illustrate the book.

The text of Redwoods by Jason Chin 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 gives readers a peek into the imagination of a boy reading a book about towering redwood trees. The journey begins in a New York City subway car, but transports the boy—and the readers—into a redwood forest where climbing gear magically appears, allowing readers to scale the giant trees and take a look around. It’s not often that a picture book shares fascinating science content and simultaneously promotes curiosity and fosters imagination, but this book does it all.

The energetic, stylized illustrations in The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton (illus. by Tony Persani) and Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Megan McCarthy are delights to behold. The art perfectly compliments the stories and accomplishments of the people highlighted in these picture book biographies.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola and The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (illus by E.B. Lewis) are more serious stories with a special kind of quiet drama. These texts demand soft, watercolor paintings, like the ones created by Nivola and Lewis.

For each of these four picture book biographies, something about the personalities and accomplishments of the heroes attracted the author and compelled him or her to share their stories with a particular voice and cadence. And those choices are reflected in the artwork.

Can you think of other nonfiction books with exceptional or innovative art? I’d like to add them to my reading list.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Take a Look: Yikes!

Here I am reading A Place for Frogs to 100 kindergarteners at the Salisbury Universty Children's Literature Festival. I was worried about 100 wiggly bottoms, but those kids were great. They all stay focused.

What was the secret of my success? Having them particpate the repetitive phrase "frogs can live and grow" on each spread. Thanks to Shelly Rotner for helping me come up with a strategy that worked like a charm!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

Q: What does a wasp wear on chilly mornings?
A: A yellow jacket.

Q: What happens when you eat caterpillars?
A: You get butterflies in your stomach.

Q: Why was the entomologist a hero?
A: He saved a damselfly in distress.

Q: Where do insects go shopping?
A: At a flea market.

Q: Why did the fly fly?
A: The spider spied-her.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Behind the Books: Playing with Layout

Ever since desktop publishing software became available in the early 1990s, the visual appeal of nonfiction books for young readers has grown by leaps and bounds. These programs make it easy to experiment with a book’s layout.

As a result of this new freedom, many books now include multiple illustrations per spread and make clever use of white space. Examples include Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, and Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge.

One of the true masters of nonfiction book design is Steve Jenkins, who often works with his wife Robin Page. Books like How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Never Smile at a Monkey, What Do You Do with a Tail Like This, and Move! are all about animal adaptations. The fun, innovative design of these books couple with the brief, clear text is irresistible. Jenkins does a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into clever categories to create books with a game-like feel.

A current trend in science-themed titles for the picture book crowd is layered text. Books like Beaks by Sneed B. Collard III, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre, and my own book A Place for Butterflies feature two kinds of text that serve different purposes and that is distinguished visually by size and font.

For the most part, a larger, simpler text provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. These books are perfect for the Reading Buddy programs popular in many schools, and they also work well as family read alouds.

Can you think of other nonfiction books with innovative, eye-catching designs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Take a Look: The Sparrow’s Perspective

Last fall, I wrote several posts about the same experience in nature from different points of view. Initially, I wrote from the “wondrous first person” and “serious third person” points of view. Later, I included a couple of entries written from what I imagined to be the perspective of the creature I observed.

This week, I’m giving that third point of view another try, focusing on the house sparrow I observed collecting nesting material at Clinton Elementary School.

“Oh, wow. That grass down there looks perfect for my nest. It’s dry and just the right length. I better stop and collect some."

“Hey, there’s even more here than I realized. I bet I can get as much as I need to stuff that hole until it’s almost full. Then it will be perfect for my eggs.”

“I’m lucky to find such a big field of grass so close to my nest. Most of the land here is buildings and sidewalks and parking lots.”

“Okay, full load. I better head back to my nest. If that hawk stays away, I might be able to gather all the grass I need today. Then I can line with some feathers and lay my eggs.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Fingernails grow about 1 inch every eight months, but some grow faster than others. The nail on your middle finger grows the fastest. The nails on your thumb and little finger grow the slowest.

2. Fingernails grow more quickly during the day and in the summer. And they grow faster on whichever hand you use most—probably because lots of muscle flexing really heats things up.

3. At 28 to 31 inches apiece, Lee Redmond, a woman from Salt Lake City, Utah, has the world’s longest fingernails. Her tremendous talons drag on the ground.

4. Monkeys use their fingernails to pick dead skin, insects, and dirt out of their friends’ fur. It’s the perfect way to stay clean and build trust.

5. Think you cut your fingernails more often than your toenails? Nope, it’s not your imagination. Fingernails really do grow faster—usually three times faster.

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.

Next week is school vacation here in Massachusetts, so I’ll be taking a break. Have a great week!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Behind the Books: Does Your Book’s Format Match Its Message?

In the past, nonfiction writers often left all the design decisions to the editor, art director, and illustrator. But that’s no longer true. In many cases, authors now participate in conversations about a book’s design—format, layout, and art. Why? Because today’s most celebrated titles feature a synergistic relationship between the text and the look of the book.

When it comes to design, format is a good place to start. Format includes the size and shape of the books. Does it have pop-ups or gatefolds or other special features? Clever decision-making here can make for some great unexpected surprises. This could be as simple as using a tall, thin trim size for a book about trees, as Carin Berger does in The Little Yellow Leaf to all kinds of fancy features and devices.

Many spreads in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley include tiny inserts with excerpts from a journal kept by the famous writer’s daughter. What’s Up, What’s Down by Lola Schaefer includes vertical spreads that contribute tremendously to the storytelling, and well placed gatefolds in Schafer’s Just One Bite: 11 Animals and their Bites at Life Size! give readers an accurate sense of the featured animals’ scale.

My favorite title in this category is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mind. Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed . . . and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn. 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 not. 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.

Can you think of other nonfiction books with formats that directly contribute to the storytelling? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Take a Look: A Scientist’s Description

Last fall, I wrote several posts about the same experience in nature from three different points of view--wondrous first person, serious third person, and the perspective of the creature I had described in the first two posts. Not only was it fun, it was illuminating. So I thought I’d try it again.

Last week, I wrote about a house sparrow gathering nesting materials from the wondrous first person. Today I’m going to try to write about the same bird in the serious third person, as a scientist would in his or her notebook.

12:20 hours, April 14, 2011
West parking lot near retaining wall, Clinton Elementary School, 100 Church St., Clinton, MA
Sunny, clear sky, 62 F, gentle breeze
Declining downtown area of a small, working-class town

Along a retaining wall adjacent to the school lawn, I observed a female house sparrow collecting blades of dry grass in her beak. For several minutes, she hopped up and down cement steps along the wall in search of bits of grass that would meet her needs. Given the time of year, it seems likely that the female was using the grass to build a nest, but no nest was observed.

Each time the female returned with an empty beak, she landed on a wrought iron fence, looked around, and called several times before dropping to the ground to collect more grass. During my 30 minutes of observation, the female gathered three loads of dried grass from a patch on the edge of the lawn.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Fun: A Letter from a Fan

A few weeks ago, I spend a fantastic two days at Rochester Memorial School in Rochester, MA. The students in one of the third grade classes sent me a heaping packet of thanks you notes. This one is definitely worth sharing:

Dear Ms. Stewart,

Thank you for coming in and teaching us about birds and telling us why they're so interesting. The tiny rocks in bags to show us how much they weigh is what I call ingenious. It was so inspiring to me that I thought about writing a book myself. The armspan comparig was also very cool.

My favorite bird that we talked about was the blue heron. But if I had to choose a bird we weren't talking about, it would have to be the turkey buzzard because they're always swarming above my rooftop. If you can find out why, please write me back. Thanks again. Bye!!

Your #1 fan,

Well, Jenna, That's a great question. You've been doing some great observing.

I bet you can solve the turkey buzzard mystery yourself. Try asking a librarian to help you find a book that tells you what sorts of things make turkey vultures swarm. Then you can try to figure out which of those conditions is happening near you house. Good luck! And keep on asking questions about things you notice around you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Behind the Books: Organization Includes More than You Think

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been discussing the role of structure and design in crafting nonfiction. This week my topic is organization.

Any good nonfiction title includes:
• An inviting introduction that engages the reader and gives clues about what’s to come.
• Thoughtful transitions that link key points and ideas.
• Sequencing that is logical, purposeful, and effective.
• A satisfying ending that wraps everything up, yet leaves the reader with something to wonder about.

Books that do an especially good job with these four criteria include Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery, If Stones Could Speak by Marc Aronson and Mike Parker Perason, and Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinski.

Some books take organization a step further. For instance, some books arrange information in a way that creates a circle story. In other words, the ending brings readers back to the point where the book began. Examples include Redwoods by Jason Chin, Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns, and my own book Under the Snow.

In Mosquito Bite, Alexandra Siy features dual storylines. One story line describes a child’s encounter with a mosquito while playing hide-and-seek at dusk. This story is illustrated with black and white photos. The second story line, illustrated with stunning, full-color micrographs tells the mosquito’s side of the story. In the end, readers probably still won’t like mosquitoes very much, but at least they’ll understand why the pesky insects bite us—they can’t lay their eggs without a dose of protein from mammalian blood.

Can you think of other trends in organization or related ideas I haven’t considered? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Take a Look: It’s Spring

During a recent school visit in Clinton, MA, I saw the first undeniable sign of spring. As I ate my lunch in the warm sun, I watched a hard-working little house sparrow gathering materials for its nest.

The bird returned again and again to a patch of loose, dry grass where the school lawn met a retaining wall. The picky homemaker hopped up and down a series of cement steps along the wall until it found a few perfect blades. Each time it bent its head to pick up a new piece, I was sure the other pieces would fall out of its beak. But they didn’t. The bird managed to hold onto them all.

After a few minutes, a dozen or so crisscrossing blades stuck out of the sparrow’s beak, like the whiskers on a cat. Then it flew away.

Upon returning, it landed on a wrought iron fence next to the retaining wall and surveyed its surroundings. After a few cheery chirps, the sparrow dropped to the ground and began gathering more grass.