Monday, May 30, 2022

A Link between Moving and Creativity

Do we get our most creative ideas when walking? Some scientists think so. Since the time of the ancient Greek poets, people have known that moving helps us to think creatively. Which begs the question: why do I tend to sit at my desk to do my writing?

The fact is, I come up with some wonderfully creative ideas when I’m walking. But is it the movement or the change of scenery around me that stimulates my mind? And it’s not just walking. I have come up with some of my best ideas while turning the compost pile, planting seeds, spading my garden beds, and raking leaves. Sometimes it’s a matter of just having time away from a project, and letting my mind go into neutral while I do something physical. 

Recently, Barbara Händel, a neuroscientist at the University of Würzburg, wanted to know more about how movement is connected to creativity. What happens in our brain when we walk? she wondered. And are people who don’t move less creative?

What she learned is that movement isn’t necessarily the thing that helps us think more flexibly. Rather, she says, it’s the freedom to make movements without having those movements forced into regular patterns…  which is too often what happens when you focus on a small screen for long periods of time.

She’s not the only one who has looked into this in a scientific way. A few years ago a Stanford study showed that creative thinking improves while a person is walking – and even afterwards.

I'd love to elaborate, but I'm heading outside for a walk!

Friday, May 27, 2022

Spend a Day at a Pond

At the Pond     
by David Elliott; illus. by Amy Schimler-Safford 
40 pages; ages 3-7
Candlewick, 2022

theme: nature, water, animals

The red-winged blackbird spreads his tail and sings his hello morning song…

This book is like a day-long field trip to a pond. Each spread features an animal, or a plant, described in a poem. We meet a family of mallards, a legendary catfish, turtles, and a busy beaver. There are also two insects that most kids will enjoy looking for on their pond visits: dragonflies and water striders. Each poem reveals a bit of the daily life of pond dwellers.

What I like about this book: I admit a bias toward insect poems, but also anything frog. So I truly loved the very short poem about metamorphosis from tadpole to adult. Told in seven words! Also, the fun play on words in the heron poem. And I love how the book ends with the evening song of the blackbird.

I also love the illustrations. The artwork is multimedia, finished digitally, but they are so full of texture I can almost feel the feathers and cattail fluff. And then there is Back Matter! Even the notes about the animals and plants in the book are fun to read. Take his entry on cattails. Most kids think cattails look like hot dogs (they do!) but that hot dog head, writes David, “is a collection of tiny female flowers. Not very tasty, I’m afraid.” Fun, right?

Beyond the Books:

Go on a pond field trip. Look, and listen, and smell the air, and feel the ground beneath your feet. You can do this any time of the year. I visited a local pond in mid-March and Canada geese were jumping from the ice into the water and flapping up a ruckus!

Write a poem or story about an animal that lives in or around a pond. Or write about pond life from the point of view of a plant along the shore.

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 the publisher.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ My Weedy Garden

In May,  my garden was THE place to be if you were a carpenter bee or a bumble bee or any number of small wild bees to numerous for me to name. You see, I let my beds go to "weed." Or rather, I let the wild-growing plants flower while the soil warmed and dried out enough to spade. 

The bees particularly liked the deadnettle blooming in the aisles between the beds and, in some cases, growing up the sides and across the top. Some folks call this a "weed" but I've got a problem with labeling plants that way. You see, deadnettles (in the mint family) are an early-blooming favorite of the local bumble bees.
The only problem I have with weeds is that they grow where I want to plant something else. The problem with labeling them "weeds" is that people forget they are simply growing where you don't want them to be, and take drastic actions to get rid of them.

Still, I did have to reclaim my beds for tomatoes and beans, but even as I pulled out dandelions and other weeds, I left a few for the bees.
This pretty little blue flower is Speedwell (Veronica sp) ~ it seems to attract small bees and flies. I have read that rabbits like to eat it, but there better not be rabbits in my garden!

One pretty little invader (from the British Isles about 200 years ago) is Creeping Charlie, also known as Gill-over-the-Ground. It's been used as a medicinal herb and, as Christy Mihaly and I note in Diet for a Changing Climate, you can add it to soup. But in our area it grows a little too well, escaping into the lawn and taking over gardens without so much as a how-do-you-do. 

Fortunately, bumble bees and sweat bees seem to like the tiny purple blossoms, so I tolerate it  - but only as long as it takes for me to get to that spot and ... weed it out. 

Chickweed is so green and vibrant you almost want to toss it in a salad. Good news! You can. It's tender and mild and a perfect substitute for sprouts on a sandwich. Birds like it, too. Mourning doves and a diverse crew of sparrows snack on chickweed seeds. Sweat bees and syrphid flies can be found on the flowers as well.

This week take a Weed Walk . What flowers do you find growing in your yard? Are there any bees or flies visiting them? Check a field guide to see if they are edible... and take a bite of the wild side.

Monday, May 23, 2022

There is Fungus Among Us

 Fungi are everywhere, but sometimes you don’t see them because they are small. Or they don’t look like a typical mushroom. The trick with finding fungi – well, with finding anything, really – is to learn enough about them so you know what to look for. And once you know what to look for, you begin finding fungi all around:
  • Growing in the mulch beneath the tomatoes
  • Popping up in the lawn after a week of rain
  • In the tops of downed branches
  • Growing on old logs
  • Decomposing a stump in the yard
  • In the breadbox and pushed to the back of the fridge
Sue: I remember the first time I saw a coral fungus. It looks just as the name suggests: like a bit of coral pushing up from the leaves. Used to finding turkey tails and mushrooms, I had no idea it was a fungus. Now I see it everywhere in the wooded area behind our garden.
Alisha checking out fungi at Highlights
Alisha: One Saturday morning I drove to Austin to meet up with a friend that I’ve hardly seen in the last two years. I parked under a tree and hustled inside for a visit. When I returned to my car, I noticed beautiful polypore mushrooms on the tree. How did I miss them when I arrived? Probably in too much of a hurry. While researching and writing Funky Fungi, I realized there were many specimens of fungi that were there all along, but I never noticed.  

Sue: When we started talking about Funky Fungi, I got a field guide (confession: I had an entire shelf of field guides but not one about mushrooms!) so I could begin to recognize the fungi growing around me. Then I discovered an amazing reference in our library system, The Book of Fungi: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World by Peter Roberts and Shelley Evans. In addition to having wonderful photos, there’s a distribution map for each fungus. It clocks in at 656 pages and weighs as much as a hefty bag of sugar (5#). I don’t own a copy, and I hate to even speculate what the delivery guy mutters every time I request it through the library system.

Sue finds mushrooms in the yard

But here’s the thing. Paging through these books, looking at the photos, reading the descriptions … it’s made me not just more aware of the diversity of fungi, but curious about what I might find outside my door.

Alisha: Last summer my husband trimmed some branches from an oak tree. As I helped him cut them into smaller pieces, I noticed a little waving movement on one of the branches. I stooped down for a closer look. It appeared to be a piece of lichen balancing on the branch like a tight-rope walker. It wobbled from side to side and inched forward a tiny bit – an insect covered in lichens! The insect was using lichen as camouflage, maybe to protect itself from predators, or to sneak up on unsuspecting prey, or both! Before researching fungi for this book, I didn’t know that some insects cover themselves in lichens. But armed with that info, I was ready to discover one in my own backyard. Who knows what else I’ll discover!

Remember to check out our Funky Fungus Fridays over at my author Facebook page, and Alisha’s #FungiFriday posts on Twitter

Check back next month for our Happy Book Birthday celebration! Funky Fungi, 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More is part of the Chicago Review Press “Young Naturalists” series. You can find out more about our book at the publisher’s website. It will hit bookstore shelves next month! But if you can’t wait, you can pre-order it at your favorite local bookstore, or online at

Friday, May 20, 2022

Exploring Shiny Things

For the past two weeks, I've been buzzed by hummingbirds as I worked in my garden. Perhaps it's my pink hat? Aside from the bunch of bleeding hearts blooming near the gate, there sure isn't a lot to interest hummers. But there they were, twin fighter jets zooming right overhead. Fortunately, they reminded me to dig out this book from my to-be-reviewed basket.

Time to Shine: Celebrating the World’s Iridescent Animals
by Karen Jameson; illus. by Dave Murray 
32 pages; ages 3-6
‎Groundwood Books, 2022  

theme: animals, nature

Each iridescent creature knows / just how to rock its sparkly “clothes.”

There are so many animals that shine – and chances are you’ve seen some of them. Perhaps a metallic green beetle scooting across the sidewalk, or a hummingbird with a shiny read throat visiting flowers. Told in rhyme, this book showcases diverse creatures that sport sparkly feathers, scales, shells, and skin.

What I like about this book: I like the layered text. Large text presents the fun, rhythmic language perfect for a read-aloud. Smaller text provides more information, such as an explanation of what iridescence is and more about each of the creatures. Back matter is a great resource for those who want to know more about the science of iridescence and how scientists are studying it for potential uses in technology.

Karen talked a bit about iridescence in insects over at the Second Annual GROG Arthropod Roundtable. But I wanted to know more. She graciously answered One More Question:

Me: I often find shiny green tiger beetles and purple ground beetles – and of course, hummingbirds – in my garden. Can you talk about some of the iridescent animals you have come across in your back yard or neighborhood?

Karen: What a great question! Ever since doing my research for Time To Shine, I'm always on the lookout for iridescent creatures. Hummingbirds and beetles are very common in our backyard, as well as the occasional dragonfly. If we stroll down the pathways near our home, there's a little lake that attracts mallard ducks with iridescent green head feathers. There are iridescent fish in that lake, too, as well as a number of insects with shimmering wings. Strolling in the opposite direction, we'd come across some hilly neighborhoods with a family of wild turkeys. The male's feathers shine with iridescent shades of green, copper, and red. Keep your eyes open when you walk outside. You're likely to discover iridescent creatures in the most surprising places!

Beyond the Books:

Go on a Shiny Scavenger Hunt. Find – and observe/ take photos/ draw these creatures:
  • a dragonfly or damselfly
  • a beetle
  • a hummingbird
  • a snail shell or other kind of shiny shell
  • something with iridescent scales
  • a butterfly 
  • a chicory or other plant that seems to shine
Create iridescent art! It involves clear nail polish, so make sure you do this in a well-ventilated area. Here’s how.

Blow some iridescent bubbles. Here’s a recipe from the Exploratorium.

Karen is a member of #STEAMTeam2022. 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 e-galley provided by the author.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ More Flowering Trees

 Last week I shared a photo of serviceberry. I mentioned it is in the rose family. Here are a couple other flowering trees in my neighborhood that are relatives.

cherry blossoms



flowering crabapple

Monday, May 16, 2022

Writing Begins with a Question ~ by Roberta Gibson

What does it take to write STEAM books for children?

First, it takes curiosity. 
Almost every day, a question pops into my head. Can you grow the seeds inside a kiwi fruit you buy in the grocery store? Do ant larvae make sounds to call to the workers inside the dark nest? What causes iridescent clouds?

Then it takes effort.
Many times other people have had the same question and the answer is a mouse click or trip to the library away. For example, iridescent clouds — which glow with pastel colors like the surface of a soap bubble —show up when clouds are full of small, uniform ice crystals or water drops that diffract light waves. 

eventually one may sprout!
Sometimes the answers aren’t clear, but the questions are too expensive or time consuming to investigate. I recently found a scientific article about Myrmica ant pupae that can make noise by stridulating. At this moment, however, I’m not in the position to test whether the larvae different kinds of ants can stridulate. Perhaps someday I’ll interest an expert in this question. 

The lucky few are questions that beg for an experiment or test. If you are curious about kiwi seeds, save some seeds from a kiwi fruit and try to germinate them. If that doesn’t work out, get some commercial seeds —for a control to show that your method works— and design an experiment. 

I wondered recently what happens when you drop bird feathers one by one from the second floor. Do tail feathers sail differently from wing feathers than soft down feathers? Turns out that wing feathers tend to helicopter. Cool!

I absolutely love this hands-on fiddling aspect of STEAM and youngsters do, too.  

Now here’s the secret sauce:  keep a journal. 
Every time you have an idea, or do an experiment, write it down. Draw illustrations to help you remember what you did and what happened, plus take tons and tons of photographs. 

When the question or idea leads to more and more questions, and if the topic just won’t go away, then the journal entries may grow into a book. 
Nothing is better than that.
Thank you for joining us today, Roberta.  Last year I reviewed Roberta's picture book, How to Build an Insect. We also got together to chat about bugs over on the GROG Blog. You can visit  Roberta's website here and make sure to drop by her wonderful blog, Growing with Science.

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Truth About Frogs ...

by Annette Whipple; illus. by Juanbjuan Oliver      
32 pages; ages 6-9
‎Reycraft Books, 2022

theme: frogs, adaptations, ecology

Who’s hopping?

This is a great introduction to frogs, filled with photos that will make you want to head to the nearest pond to go frog-watching. Annette Whipple answers pressing questions, including: what is the difference between frogs and toads? She shows how frogs eat, where they live, how they make sounds, and their development from eggs to adults.

What I like about this book: I love the close-up photos of legs and eyes and tongues. And the “Leaping Legs” sidebars with cartoony frogs that explain more, from a frog’s point of view. There is great back matter, too: frog-watching tips, a “fact or fiction” quiz, and instructions for a make-it-yourself toad abode.

I caught up with Annette between hops a couple weeks ago, long enough to ask her Two Questions

me: After doing all the research for this book, what’s your favorite froggy fact? 

Annette: When I think about the most amazing thing about frogs I’ve learned, I think about so many froggy facts. Like how scientists have recently been finding more than 100 new species each year. (At the time of this writing, 38 new species of amphibians have been located in 2022. Most of those are frogs!) Or how frogs don’t just eat insects. They eat anything that fits in their mouth – birds, mice, and even other frogs. Or how the Couch’s spadefoot can survive with just one big meal of termites for the entire year but the American toad has been recorded to eat more than 1,000 bugs in a single day. 

There’s such variety in frogs. I think the possible coolest thing I’ve learned is that some frogs like wood frogs and spring peepers are designed to freeze during the winter. The sugar in their blood acts like an antifreeze. When their icicle bodies thaw during the spring--the frog lives to tell about it! 

me: Can you share a memorable frog encounter?

Annette: It happened when I met a group of wood frogs. As I approached a pond with a herpetologist, I heard quacking. When I was about five feet from the pond, the quacking stopped. We stayed motionless at the pond’s edge for several minutes and spoke in hushed tones. Eventually the quacking began again – without a duck in sight. The pond was a preferred breeding ground for wood frogs. Their mating calls sound like duck quacks! I had learned of quacking wood frogs in my research, but it’s always so much better to experience it in person.

Beyond the Books:

Play a game of leap frog. One way is to use carpet squares as lily pads, and leap from lily pad to lily pad. Another way is to line up and have a leaping race. Then there’s the traditional leap frog game. Here’s the rules.

Go on a frog-watch. Ponds are great places to find frogs, but check grassy yards and parks. I’ve even found tree frogs hanging out in shrubs at the edge of a parking lot!

Hold a Jumping Contest with your friends. Can you leap like a frog? Some frogs can jump 20 times the length of their bodies – how far would you have to jump? Draw a chalk starting line, or lay a rope on the ground, and on “GO” have everyone do their best froggy leap. Then measure the distances. Here’s more frog-jumping activities.

Learn to speak like a frog. Listen to some frog recordings (here and here) and pick up some tips on how to sound like a frog.

Annette is a member of #STEAMTeam2022. 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 e-galley provided by the author.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ Spring Natives


Last week the shadbush were blooming. These native are in the genus Amelanchier (am-uh-LAN-sheer) and go by a number of names: serviceberry, shadblow, juneberry, saskatoon - and more. If you look closely you see that they are related to apples, pears, and others in the rose family (they have five petals). 

Look closer and you can see that the local bees are busy collecting pollen. Bees aren't the only insects that depend on serviceberries. A whole bunch of caterpillars feed on the leaves - brimstone moth, grey dagger, red-spotted purple and white admiral, as well as other insects. Not to mention that deer and rabbits browse the leaves and tender twigs. And at least 35 species of birds will nosh on the berries when they ripen. Catbirds, robins, thrushes, orioles - those are a few of the local birds that will be plucking fruits from the trees around here.

What flowering trees do you see in your neighborhood this week?

Monday, May 9, 2022

In which I learn more about bumble bees…

 I love watching bumble bees in my garden – and around my yard. Especially in the spring, when the queens emerge from hibernation and begin seeking a nesting place. Bumble bees are generally so intent upon their own business that, unless you intrude, they ignore you. So you can follow them from dandelion to dandelion. Better yet, when they are busy working on a flower, you can sneak up close and watch (though they seem to sense whenever I’m about to snap a photo and buzz off).

I enjoy watching bumble bees so much that I took the Bumble Bee Short Course for Community Scientists through Ohio State University this spring. I grabbed a brand-new spiral notebook, sharpened a couple pencils, and showed up to virtual class every Friday afternoon for six weeks.

After watching bumble bees for so many years, you’d think I’d know a lot more than I do! But it was fun to review bumble bee biology, and learn how to identify the bumbles in the northeastern US. Now I’ve got the Bumble Bee Watch app on my phone, so maybe identifying them will be a bit easier… at least one can hope. We also learned about endangered bees and some conservation measures. 

Here's the cool thing: the sessions are recorded. Not only that, there’s a bucket-load of bumble bee resources and a list of scientific papers and books all on the website at the OSU Bumble Bee Short Course.

This summer you’ll find me counting bumble bees (and other pollinators) for the Great Sunflower Project, as usual. But I’ll also be taking photos to submit to Bumble Bee Watch and iNaturalist whenever I come across bumble bees that aren’t camera-shy.

Get to know the bumble bees living around you:

Follow a bumble bee around. 
  • What color of flowers does she visit? 
  • How long does she stay on one flower? 
  • How many flowers does she visit before she flies away home? 
Take photos or sketch the bumble bees that live in your neighborhood. If there is a museum or university close by, see if they have a collection of local bumble bees that you can look at.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Freaky, Funky Fish!

Last spring was a tough time for new book releases, what with libraries, schools, and book stores unable to host public events. So this spring I’ve been sharing some STEAM books that I feel are worth another look. 

Freaky, Funky Fish: Odd Facts about Fascinating Fish 
by Debra Kempf Shumaker; illus by Claire Powell
32 pages; ages 4-8
‎Running Press Kids, 2021

theme: fish, animal adaptations, rhyme

Fish have fins and gills and tails.

To be a fish, you have to have certain characteristics: scales, gills, maybe fins. But not all fish are alike. Debra shows, in rhyming text, the different ways fish are adapted to survive in their world. Some fish zap, some sing, some produce copious amounts of slime – and one even has a see-through head!

What I like about this book: Let’s just start with the cover and all those unusual fish. Then there’s the end pages – a wonderful place to explore a map of the oceans (where the fish are) and a “fish inventory” that categorizes fish into groups and gives each a funkiness rating on a scale of 1-5.

These illustrations are so fun! Claire captures the essence of fishiness while imbuing them with character and personality.

And there is back matter! That’s where you will find out more about fish and how they use those funky adaptations. For example, just how do fish sing if they have no vocal cords? Not to worry; Debra shares their secrets. There are resources galore, including links where you can watch – and hear – some of these freaky, funky fish in action.

Beyond the Books:

Learn more about fish. Here’s a great collection of fish photos.

Create your own funky fish. Ideas for fishy crafts here, and a bunch more here.

You can listen to the fish sing! Check out the recording that’s in this article. And then hop over to this video to find out more about how fish talk to each other.

If you haven't already, check out Debra's post  from Monday about what inspired this very fishy book. And keep your eyes peeled for her newest book, Peculiar Primates that should hit bookstores in October. Debra is a member of #STEAMTeam2022. 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 the publisher.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ A Story Grows over Time

 The change in seasons takes time. Sure, the snow can start melting sometime in March, and the first daffodil leaves push up like fat, green spears. 

Gradually buds fatten and you wait. And wait. And keep going out to see if this is the day.

Until one morning you forget, and later you notice that - BLOOM! that brownish end-of-winter spot is now a splash of color.
So then you take a look inside to see if anyone is there.


But it looks empty.

And just when you are ready to go back inside to make hot soup, you notice a dark spot. So you look closer. 

This month, spend time observing a patch of flowers that are getting ready to bloom. Or a patch where you have planted some seeds. 
Document the progression from emergence to bloom. 
Check out who visits, who hangs out, who gathers pollen, who nibbles the petals and leaves.
This is how nature writes her stories. Slowly. And then - BLOOM!

Monday, May 2, 2022

Inspired by Wonder ~ by Debra Kempf Shumaker

photo by Yanka Photography

As a kid who grew up on a dairy farm, the natural world fascinated me. From spotting bugs, frogs, and other creatures dart around our fields and marsh, to watching a calf be born, to hearing the serenade of crickets on summer nights, nature filled me with awe.

I also loved reading—about anything and everything, especially the weird and the strange. The Bermuda Triangle, mysteries in history, strange and fascinating creatures like Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster ... I wanted to learn the truth. But if the truth was still unknown? That was OK too. Sometimes it was more fun knowing that the mystery still existed. And maybe someday, I would find the answer.

That sense of wonder, awe, and mystery is what draws me to writing about STEM topics. 

A trip to Disney years ago planted the seed for my debut picture book—Freaky, Funky Fish: Odd Facts About Fascinating Fish.

Walking around the aquarium, I became intrigued by the many fish named after animals. I initially wrote a fiction picture book about goldfish who imagined being other animals to escape a hungry cat. While that book never sold, years later I remembered the huge variety of fish species when I decided to try my hand in writing a rhyming picture book with a science connection. As I dug deeper into research, I was fascinated by how strange some fish looked or acted. A fish with a transparent head?! A fish that coated itself in snot?! Why? How? Awe, wonder, mystery. . . definitely.

Thankfully Running Press Kids felt the same. Freaky, Funky Fish was published in May 2021.

Which lead to my follow-up book—Peculiar Primates: Fun Facts About These Curious Creatures—coming out in October. This book highlights fun and fascinating ways primates have adapted to survive in their habitats—like big noses, colored butts, teeth flossing, and poisonous bites. 

I hope these books plant a sense of awe and wonder in kids. Science and nature can be cool! And who knows, maybe the readers of today will become the scientists of tomorrow that find the answers to the many questions (and problems) in our world and universe. 

Thank you for joining us today, Deb. On Friday I'll be posting a review of  Freaky, Funky Fish - drop by and check it out. You can visit  Debra's website here.