Friday, February 26, 2021

Break the Code, Elizebeth!

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars 
by Laurie Wallmark; illus. by Brooke Smart 
48 pages; ages 7-11
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

theme: STEM, biography, codes

Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a cryptanalyst with a stellar reputation, agreed to work with the FBI on their top-secret project.

Once she broke the codes, she uncovered a ring of German spies. Pretty good for someone  who got into code breaking by accident. You see, Elizebeth loved languages. She majored in English, studied Greek and Latin, and wanted to work in literature. Instead, she was hired to look for secret codes in Shakespeare’s plays. She liked playing around with codes, and became so good at code breaking that, during WWI the US government hired her to decode enemy messages. When WWII came around, the US still didn’t have a code breaking unit – so Elizebeth had to create one.

What I like about this book: I like how Laurie Wallmark includes quotes from Elizabeth throughout the book. And the glimpses into her private life – like dinner parties with invitations written in code. And the Back Matter (of course): more information about codes and ciphers with a hands-on “Crack the Code!” activity. There’s also information about modern cryptography (fancy name for code breaking), a timeline, and bibliography. There’s even “front matter” on the end pages. This is a fun book to explore, and each time you do, you’ll find more.

Laurie is one of the authors who contributed to the book, Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep. In it, she says that writing about women in STEM lets her combine your two passions - STEM and equal
opportunities for all. So I had to ask her One Question:

Me: With so many unsung women in STEM fields, how did you decide to write about Elizebeth Friedman?

: I keep an ongoing list of possible women in STEM I might want to write about. With each book, I want to find something that makes that person stand out a little bit extra. In Elizebeth’s case, it’s that unlike most scientists and mathematicians, she wasn’t interested in those fields as a child. Instead, she loved books and studying languages. In fact, she majored in English in college. I thought it would be interesting to discover how a person with her background came to be so accomplished in such a technical field like cryptography.

Beyond the Books: Be a code breaker!

Try your hand at these codes. Back in elementary school I sent many message using the pig pen code. Here are three codes to try.

Send a message in Morse Code. It’s like old-school texting, a code used to send messages through wires or over radio (sound) or using flashing lights (sight). Here’s the secret code. All you need is a flashlight or clicker.

Make up a secret code you and your friends can use. Think about using numbers, letters, symbols (like hieroglyphics or runes…).


Want More? In April, National Geographic's Children's Books is releasing Top Secret, by Crispin Boyer. It's filled with everything you want to know about spies, codes, and classified cases. Plus, there’s lots of hands-on activities. You can “go to” Spy School, learn codes, and check out “tools of the tradecraft.” 

Laurie is a member of #STEAMTeam2021. She's written a slew of books about women in STEM. You can find out more about her at her website.

Today we're joining Perfect Picture Book Friday, an event where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by Blue Slip Media.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Explore Outdoors ~Sit and Listen

 A few times a year I like to just sit and listen to the world around me. My backyard stretches up to a hayfield, so I am usually surrounded by the sounds of nature. But town is less than three miles away as the crow flies, so sometimes I hear sounds from the village: dogs barking, people talking in their backyards.

A couple weeks ago I slogged up the snowy logging road. Half-way to the field, I stopped to listen. I spent five minutes just listening to the sounds surrounding me. This is what I heard: 

wind rattling dried leaves
 a chickadee singing
crows  calling
something - maybe a snowblower - down in town
 If I had stayed longer, I might have heard more sounds.
To record my observations, I made a sound map - a trick I picked up during a Highlights Foundation workshop on Science & Nature Writing.

I cut a cereal box to make a stiff sound map that I could write on outdoors. Then I drew myself at the middle, and an arrow to show what direction the sounds were. I can see now that I should have drawn the nearby sounds (leaves) closer to me, leaving the edge for distant sounds.  
There is something else I should have added to my sound map. Can you tell what I forgot? If you guessed the date, you are right!
How to make your own sound map:
  • Cut a circle from a cardboard box
  • take a sharp pencil with you
  • go somewhere and sit (or if it's very snowy, stand) for at least 5 minutes
  • draw yourself at the center and note direction you are facing
  • write the date, time of day, and location
  • listen
  • note down what you hear and from which direction. closer sounds should be closer to you on the map, with distant sounds farther away.  
 Can you do a sound map in the city? YES! Include sounds from nature as well as human made sounds, machinery sounds, and music.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Butterflies and Spiders ~ Oh my!

It's never too cold - or snowy - to read about bugs! I say this as a person who, even in winter (or maybe especially in winter?) discovers ladybugs wandering over the keyboard and boards a jumping spider somewhere behind the book case. Not to mention the temporary guests: wasps and spiders who come in with the furnace-bound firewood. They warm up and begin exploring and next thing you know I've got to get my net out to do a bit of insect control.

The Truth About Butterflies 
by Maxwell Eaton III 
32 pages; ages 4-8
Roaring Brook Press, 2020

Each page introduces facts about butterflies in a fun way. Maxwell Eaton highlights butterfly diversity, shows strategies for survival, and gives a guided tour of the stages of butterfly life. Dialog – from humans, pets, birds, and butterflies (even the pupae have something to say) – add humor and occasional facts. Plenty of text boxes add context.

What I like about this book: It’s a fun approach for kids. And I know I’ll be listening harder for butterfly voices this summer. I like that the section about human impacts include positive action kids can take to make their homes a better place for butterflies. There’s a butterfly file at the back with tons of info about behavior and suggested reading for larvae (kids) and adults.

Jumping Spiders (Creepy Crawlers in Action: Augmented Reality series)
By Sandra Markle
32 pages; ages 8-12
Lerner, 2021

Six chapters introduce the jumping spider’s world and give a close-up introduction to these fascinating spiders. We get to know the spider on the outside as well as the inside  - did you know they have “book lungs?” Jumping spiders spend a lot of time hunting, so Sandra Markle takes us along on a hunting expedition (from the spider’s point of view). We learn about the life cycle of the jumping spiders and how males dance to attract a mate. Back matter includes more information about jumping spiders and their relatives.

This book is part of a brand new middle-grade series that also includes locusts, mosquitoes, praying mantises, stick insects, and ticks. Sure, there are tons of books about bugs - but these books go way beyond the pages. Readers with smart phones can download the appropriate app and, when they come upon the Augmented Reality icon, scan it to watch the spiders - and other arthropods - “come to life.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Explore Outdoors ~ Snowy Trees


After one of the snowstorms, my eye was drawn to the snowy limbs of trees. It accented the structure of the trees. The snow was light and powdery, so it didn't weight anything down. Over time, some was blown off by wind, pushed off by birds landing, and melted off in the sun.

And then there was this one, looking more like someone had dumped a load of feathers on it from above.

 How does snow collect on the trees in your neighborhood?


Friday, February 12, 2021

BLOG Tour ~ The Leaf Detective

Today we're joining the Blog Tour for Heather Lang's newest book. Even though there are no leaves on the trees in my neck of the woods - except the dried and brittle beech leaves that rattle in the wind - there will be leaves soon. And what better way to spend a brrr-y winter day than on a rainforest adventure?

The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest 
by Heather Lang; illus. by Jana Christy 
48 pages; ages 7-10
Calkins Creek, 2021

theme: biography, STEM, trees

Meg loved how leaves burst into the world and unfurled. She admired their different shapes, colors, and textures.

Meg had been a leaf detective since she was a young girl. Even though most people thought there was no room for a woman in science, she went to university and conducted research in the rainforest. But trying to study leaves – especially those high in a rainforest canopy – is hard to do from the ground. Meg needed top find a way to get into the treetops. 

What I like about this book: I like how Heather Lang highlights Meg’s problem-solving skills – those that led to getting up into the canopy and those that helped her understand canopy ecology. And I really like how Heather brings Meg’s voice into the story through quotes from her articles and writings. One of my favorites: “We had already been to the moon and back and nobody had been to the top of the tree.”

Last week I posted a bit from Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep. Heather is one of the authors who contributed to that book, so this week I asked her One Question raised in the book.

Me: How did you dig through your passions and experiences and personality to come up with the way you chose to tell the story of Leaf Detective?

Heather: I began my work on The Leaf Detective with a deep passion for our natural world. I’m in awe of its sounds, smells, sights, mysteries, and wonders. Every time I encounter stories about how we are destroying nature, I feel a sense of dread and desperation. We’ve already lost more than half of our forests. I knew from the outset I wanted to write a book that was both a biography and a science book about the rainforest.

Heather & Meg, on the canopy walk in the Amazon
As I researched Meg Lowman, I was struck by the depth of her connection to trees—a connection that grew from profound respect, appreciation, love. And when I met Meg in person for the first time, I could literally feel this connection. It floated across the table and filled me up. Afterwards, I thought a lot about my own connections to nature, friends, family, animals, and other passions. I examined and questioned those special feelings of being inextricably intertwined. I marveled over how we are all interconnected on this planet—from ants to trees to humans.

When I sat down to start writing Meg’s story, the words came tumbling out as a love poem to trees. And that tribute to trees became the foundation for a lyrical biography about a quiet girl, whose true love for nature and plants shaped her and led her to become a pioneer in tree canopy science and ultimately a tree protector.

Beyond the Books: Be a leaf detective!

In the winter, what leaves do you find still attached to trees?
Draw what they look like, or take photos. Do they stay attached all winter?

In the spring, find a limb you can easily observe and collect information on how fast the leaves grow. You might want a camera, or a ruler. 

In the summer, compare leaves of different trees. What do you notice about the leaves? Are the edges nibbled? If so, what’s eating the leaves?

In the fall, compare how different kinds of leaves turn colors, and the way they move when they let go of their twig.

Heather Lang is a member of #STEAMTeam2021. You can find out more about her at her website.  When the valentine story contest is over, we’ll rejoin Picture Book Friday, an event where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Explore Outdoors ~ Look at the Earth from a Different Angle












Every month, when I get my copy of National Geographic, the first thing I turn to is the front-of-the-book section called "Proof". Recently it's been all about looking at the Earth from every possible angle. I kept that in mind last month when I walked up to our hayfield. I was "looking" for animal tracks and seed pods - none of which I found. But I did find plenty of thin weeds poking out of the snow. And I wondered: What would they look like if I viewed them from ground - er, snow - level?

 What do you discover when you look at the Earth from a different angle?

Friday, February 5, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Comes from the Heart

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children's Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing 
by Melissa Stewart 
190 pages
National Council of Teachers of English, 2020

Back in 2017, award-winning author Melissa Stewart was a featured panelist at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. The panel was called “The Secret of Crafting Engaging Nonfiction” and Melissa shared the platform with Candace Fleming and Deborah Heiligman (also award-winning authors) and moderator Alyson Beecher. A couple questions were raised that session: what fuels their work,  and why did they dedicate years of their lives to a single manuscript?

“As we compared our thoughts and experiences, we came to realize something critically important,” Melissa said on her website. “Each of our books has a piece of us at its heart.” It’s that personal connection that keeps nonfiction authors working on a story. 

Other writers shared similar thoughts, and what began as a nebulous thought grew into a book filled with essays – and heart from 50 nonfiction writers. They write about choosing topics that fascinate them, about finding the focus for their books, about their personal connection to what they write. 

“…there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts…” writes Laura Purdie Salas. If you’ve read any of her books you know that she’s a master of lovely, lyrical language that seduces you into wanting to know more about leaves, water, rocks.

Many teachers and students have the impression that writing nonfiction is all about pulling together research and then “cobbling together a bunch of facts.” But the truth is, Stewart continues“the topics we choose, the approaches we take, and the concepts and themes we explore are closely linked to who we are as people – our passions, our personalities, our beliefs, and our experiences in the world.” Put facts through those personal filters and you get the secret sauce for nonfiction books that engage readers and make them want to learn more.

The cool thing about this book: it contains a treasure trove of ideas for things to do in the classroom – or homeschool – to help young writers develop their own “secret sauce” for writing nonfiction. Things like idea boards and other cool things I’m going to try in my own writing.

For nonfiction writers, not only does this book share secrets of the soul, it’s a great resource if you’re looking for mentor texts. As for me, I’m keeping my copy of this book right here at my desk because I know I’ll be referring to it now and then. And also to remind me to share more from it over the course of this year. 

Find out more about this book and the contributors here at Melissa’s website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Explore Outdoors ~ Mandalas in the Snow


 A few weeks ago my friend shared photos of her kids creating nature art on a canvas of fresh snow. They created a mandala. They started with a circular design, then expanded outward, incorporating symmetry.

To make your own winter mandala, gather bits of stuff you find outside: twigs, dried leaves, milkweed pods and other pods, stems, dried flower heads, needles, pinecones, stones…. 

Begin small. Some people start by putting something in the center, then creating a circle around it. But there is no single "right" way to design your nature art.

Here are some other ways to create winter mandalas:
  • Make a mandala for the birds (and squirrels) using chopped nuts, raisins and other dried fruits, sunflower seeds, and bird seed. Then watch and see who comes to visit.
  • Create a mandala out of snowballs, icicles, your boot tracks.