Friday, December 30, 2022

Books that Celebrate Polar Life

 Given the recent temperatures, I decided this is the perfect time to share books about polar life. From North Pole to South Pole, there are a lot of critters that live on ice and snow.

theme: animals, arctic, nature

Polar Bear 
by Candace Fleming; illus. by Eric Rohmann
32 pages; ages 4-8
Neal Porter Books/ Holiday House, 2022

April in the Arctic.
Snow clouds scuttle across the sky. Temperatures barely nudge above freezing.

But this is the time of year when sunshine wakes up the frozen world. This is the time for polar bear cubs to go outside and meet that world. All winter long, mother bear has nurtured her cubs but now it’s time to head out for the long walk to the hunting grounds on the sea ice. But first, Mama bear sniffs the air to make sure it is safe.

What I like about this book: I like the verbs – cubs tumble, scramble, wrestle, squeal. As I read the text I can see those cubs rolling about on the tundra. And I like the adventure of heading to the ice where Mama bear teaches them to hunt seals. But what I love best of all is how the thread holding the story together from beginning to end is the ice. Without ice, how can the polar bears hunt? And what happens to them when a chunk of sea ice breaks off? Mama bear can swim miles, but what about her cubs? Even as Mama bear teaches her children how to survive, the world is changing more quickly than they can adapt.

And of course, there is back matter! This is where Candace gets into the nitty gritty of “it’s all about the ice” as well as sharing cool facts about polar bears. Oh, and did I mention the gorgeous illustrations? I love how Eric Rohmann portrays polar bear expressions.

Ice! Poems About Polar Life 
‎by Douglas Florian
48 pages; ages 7-10
Holiday House, 2022 (paperback)

Sure, the Solstice has passed and we are (technically) headed for longer days. But January and February are cold months here in the northeast. And sometimes, given our crazy climate-chaos-broken jet stream, colder than the north pole! So I thought these poems would be perfect reading for snow and ice days. This book contains poems about life from both polar regions, arctic and Antarctic, where the days can be cold even in the spring. Douglas Florian casts his poetry net wide, sharing observations about penguins and polar bears, caribou and foxes.

What I like about this book: These poems are fun and filled with word play. For example, Florian presents the caribou’s wide hooves as “cariboots” and warns children not to push the musk ox “ox-idently.” My favorite, though, is the ptarmigan. Just like pterodactyl, the p in “ptarmigan” is silent. Florian plays with this, noting that the ptarmigan is a ptimid bird that lives on the ptundra…

I also like that each poem is accompanied by additional information, so readers can learn about the animals. And I really appreciate that the last poem focuses on climate change, with a message that finding solutions is something readers can do. There’s a link so people can explore steps they can take to stop global warming and protect polar creatures. And I also like the illustrations – they are fun, and will inspire kids to make their own drawings of polar animals.

Beyond the Books:


Learn more about a polar creature. Make a few notes about where it lives, what it eats, and whether it builds a home. Then write a story or poem about it.

Make a penguin (or two) from recycled toilet paper tubes. Here’s some directions.

Grab a potato (or that really old kohlrabi at the back of the fridge) to make some polar bear prints. You can find instructions here.

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ Winter ferns

 

In winter, even the palest green stands out against ice and snow, frozen rock. It never fails to amaze me at how a plant can find a root-hold between rocks. I wonder if living on the edge of a stonewall feels as breezy as it looks?

This week check out where plants are taking a toehold, planting down roots, clinging to the edge.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Writing in Season ~ by Lisa Amstutz

Many of my favorite childhood memories are seasonal in nature. Building snowmen and then warming up with hot chocolate. Growing pumpkins. Stomping in puddles. Running through the sprinkler. 

Holiday foods trigger memories as well—Mom’s turkey stuffing, Grandma's apple pie, Great-Aunt Ida's melt-in-your-mouth butter mints. I’m sure you have many delicious memories of your own!
 
These seasonal and holiday memories can be a rich source of story ideas. I've written about some of my own seasonal memories in Applesauce Day, which is based on our family tradition of making applesauce. Finding a Dove for Gramps, a story about the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, grew out of a memory of participating in a bird count with my father. Mining those memories—focusing on what I saw and felt at the time—helped bring the stories to life.

To a child, everything is new and exciting. Where adults see a messy morning commute, toddlers see something sparkly and surprising falling from the sky. Older kids see snow forts, sledding, and potential snow days. In truth, snow is all of those things; it’s simply a matter of perspective. When you write for children, try to see your subject through the eyes of a child—not your adult lens.

Think back to your own childhood. What memories stand out when you think about each season or holiday? Transport yourself back to that moment. What did it feel like, smell like, taste like? What delighted you—or even scared you? 

Take some time to jot down the answers to these questions, and consider how you could add them to your story. Capturing those sensory details will enliven your writing, and will be sure to delight your young readers as well!

Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 150 children’s books. She specializes in topics related to science, nature, and agriculture. To learn more about Lisa and her books, visit www.LisaAmstutz.com


Friday, December 16, 2022

A Deliciously Rotten Novel

The Decomposition of Jack 
by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb 
208 pages; ages 8-12
‎Katherine Tegen Books, 2022   

As a parent who has scraped up a dead animal from the side of the road with my kid’s help, I knew I had to read this book! Cleverly disguised as a middle grade novel, it is an intersection of roadkill science, cougar migration, and a boy trying to understand his parent’s divorce. 

Jack (called Jack Splat at school) helps his mom with her research, but he’d rather hang with his middle school friends, play video games – anything but scrape roadkill from the road. But dad left, and Jack is now mom’s right-hand field assistant. He tends the roadkill garden, logging observations about each animal’s decomposition into the laptop. And then one day he sees a cougar crouched in a tree just beyond his backyard. 

Impossible, says the state website. Highly unlikely says his teacher. Are you sure, asks his best friend (and Zombie Zoo cartoonist)? See, cougars don’t live in Tennessee. They've been officially declared extinct in the state... and yet something is watching from the tree. Something with large paws and tawny fur. Something strong enough to move a deer carcass from its assigned location in the roadkill garden to the chain link fence bordering the woods.

There are so many things I like about this book:

The descriptions and language. There is no doubt that this tale is set in Tennessee – you can almost smell the pines. And I like Jack’s wry sense of humor; he describes one roadkill location  as a “meatier road.”

I like Jack’s empathy – for his mom, and for the animals they scrape up from the road. He leaves a small memorial for each one: a small stone for a mouse, a smooth stick for a snake. He gives each creature a name, and greets them during his data-collection rounds.

I chuckled at Jack’s imagery. He makes tons of comparisons of things happening in his life to the stages of decomposition. At one point he describes his friend “as happy as a maggot in an eye socket.” That’s sweet music to a bug-lover’s ears.

I love that there is a chapter titled “Science is all around us.” Because it is.

I especially like that there is Back Matter! Kristin provides more context for roadkill science and uses of roadkill. She also points to citizen science projects in case any readers are motivated to participate.

Though a bit heavy on the science, and maybe a tad reliant on the metaphor of decomposition for his life, I found The Decomposition of Jack to be a fun read. I think it will appeal to science-loving kids who are intrigued by ethical and political questions. For example, would a state wildlife agency label a species extinct because it’s cheaper than trying to protect an endangered species? (Inquiring minds up here in the Northeast would like to know, as people have seen evidence of cougars but their existence is emphatically denied.) 

This book pairs well with Something Rotten, A Fresh Look at Roadkill, by Heather L. Montgomery. Throw in Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, Slime, and Nature’s Other Decomposers, by Anita Sanchez for those kids who want to learn about rotting bodies but shudder at the idea of scooping up roadkill.

On the maggot rating scale, I give this book a 5 out of 5.

Beyond the book: There are a number of community science projects on iNaturalist that kids and their adults can get involved in. Go to https://www.inaturalist.org/ and put roadkill into searchbar. 

Thanks for dropping by today. You can find out more about author Kristin Tubb and her books (including this one) at her website. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the author.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ Ice Crystals

Part of my favorite walking road is shaded by a hill. It was so cold last week that, during the middle of the day, ice crystals formed on blades of grass and the midribs and edges of leaves littering the ground. 


This week pay attention to the small bits of beauty 
that make up your world.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Inviting Curiosity, Inciting Wonder, by Kimberly Ridley

In the middle of a packed school assembly for my debut picture book The Secret Pool, a second-grader asked a question I couldn’t answer.

“Why are the yellow-spotted salamander’s spots yellow?”

I froze. I didn’t have a clue, despite the many hours of research I’d done on vernal pools and the salamanders and other animals who depend on them. The question hadn’t occurred to me. 

The second grader and her 400-plus schoolmates waited for an answer. I stared at the sequined rainbow glittering over a blue unicorn on her t-shirt, glanced at the gymnasium clock.

“I…don’t…know,” I stammered.

Silence.

But in that pause, mercifully, a lightbulb went off. 

“Let’s see if we can find out.” I said. 

When we gathered at the end of the day to celebrate the creative nonfiction stories the kids had written in my workshops, they were exuberant. Not only about what they had accomplished in their writing, but that they had found the answer to the second grader’s question. The salamander’s spots are yellow to warn predators such as raccoons that they’re poisonous. When a predator attacks, the yellow-spotted salamander oozes a bitter toxin from glands in its skin.  

Who knew? 

In the hundreds of school programs I’ve done with my children’s books since, I always write down kids’ questions on a big flip chart if I don’t know the answers, and we follow up later in the day. I also tell them that scientists might not yet have discovered the answers to their questions. This thrills them.   

As the author of nonfiction science and nature books for children (and their grown-ups) I think this is my most important job: to invite curiosity and incite wonder about the astonishing world right outside our door. It’s also my passion.

All of my books, including my latest, The Secret Stream arise from my own curiosity, often stemming from questions I’ve carried since I was a kid myself. Where does my favorite brook begin and end? What are these small, wriggly creatures clinging to the rocks underwater, and how do they not wash away in the current? Do fish live in here, and whose paw prints are these in the mud? 

As for wonder, I stumble upon it at every turn as I observe, interview scientists, and read mountains of material for each book. Researching The Secret Stream, I fell in love with our smallest waterways all over again—not to mention the extraordinary creatures who inhabit them. For example, I’ve become smitten with caddisfly larvae, who protect themselves from fish and other predators by building exquisite “cases” around their bodies with pebbles and grit or plant materials stuck together with their remarkable silk.   

Again, who knew?

We walk or drive by these amazing beings and places every day, often without a clue. But this is where wonder resides. All around us. Every day we have abundant opportunities to reconnect our kids and ourselves with the rest of the teeming, surprising and still vibrant world around us. That’s why I want to invite curiosity and incite wonder with my books and school programs. 

When I recently told a friend about my mission, however, he was skeptical.

“You can’t incite wonder,” he said. “Wonder is soft and childlike.”  

I beg to differ. To me, wonder is a birthright and a survival skill. There’s nothing soft about it. Wonder is clear-eyed, wild, and necessary. Which brings me to the words of Rachel Carson, my heroine since I learned as a kid that she once summered in my home state of Maine. 

photo: Jean Fogelberg Photography
Carson wished for every child to be granted at birth “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

At the end of my school programs, I ask students if they want to help the wild places and creatures in their communities. Hands fly up, a resounding “yes.” And so I invite them to tell some-one at home at least one cool thing they’ve learned in our time together. This sharing, I tell them, will ripple out and inspire other people to learn about and together care for their patch of the planet.

This is how we incite wonder. This is how we cherish the intricate, fragile, and mysterious web of life that connects and sustains us all, every living being. This is a way to live in joy.

Kimberly Ridley is a science writer, essayist, editor, and children’s book author who writes about nature, science, health, and the environment. I reviewed her newest book, The Secret Stream here. You can find my review of her first picture book, The Secret Pool here, and my review of  Extreme Survivors, Animals the Time Forgot here. To learn more about Kimberly Ridley and her books, check out her website at www.kimberlyridley.org.


Friday, December 9, 2022

When a Stream Tells a Story

The Secret Stream 
by Kimberly Ridley; illus. by Megan Elizabeth Baratta 
40 pages; ages 6-8
Tilbury House Publishers, 2022

theme: streams, ecology, animals

My life begins when gray-bellied clouds fling down rain that seeps underground, filling crevices in soil and stone until… out I spill from a spring in the heart of the forest.

This is the story of a headwater stream told by the stream itself! The stream narrates its journey to the lowlands, sometimes burbling, sometimes tumbling over a jumble of boulders. Along the way, it introduces us to the animals that live in its waters and beneath the stones of its streambed, and those living along the banks. We meet nest builders and lodge builders and occasional visitors large and small.

What I like about this book: I like the first-person narrative. When we meet streams in the wild, we can hear them murmur and gurgle, but who knew they had stories to tell? I like the internal rhymes, and the onomatopoeia and verbs that give this story splash and dash! I like how some text tells the story while other text explains things such as how animals see underwater.

And of course, there is back matter! An author’s note dives into what headwater streams are, and the ecosystem they create. There’s a great section called “Cast of Characters” that explains more about each animal living in the stream ecosystem. A glossary and “how to protect streams” sections round out the book. This is a wonderful resource for kids – and adults – who want to explore the streams where they live.

Beyond the Books:

Explore a stream, or a creek. Each has its own personality, based on how large or small it is, and the type of environment it runs through. What plants and trees grow alongside your stream? What birds, insects, and other animals do you notice visiting the stream? You might find tracks in the mud showing who visits at night.

What lives in the stream? You might see small fish, frogs, crayfish, or even a muskrat. Look for insects on the water’s surface and along the streambed. Look under rocks to see who’s hiding there – and then replace the rock when you are finished. Draw pictures of some of the animals you meet.

Listen to the sound of your stream. Try recording your stream at different times of the day, at different seasons of the year. Listen to the animal sounds while you’re sitting quietly. What do you hear?

Kimberly Ridley will join us on Monday to talk about how wonder and curiosity inspire her writing. Today we're joining Perfect Picture Book Friday, an event where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review pdf provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Explore Outdoors ~ Colors of the Season

 Last week I was out walking and the bright splash of red against green caught my eye.

 
 Right now the greens are bright, the leaves crisp, the berries shiny. But soon - maybe by next week - they'll be covered by a blanket of snow, or exposed to icy winds. By spring, they'll be mouse-nibbled and winter-weary.

What plants sport reds and greens in your neighborhood?



Monday, December 5, 2022

Geology in Action at Fagradalsfjall volcano, Iceland by Leslie Barnard Booth

Most of my ideas for picture books are inspired by questions my children ask. My debut nonfiction picture book, A Stone Is a Story, was inspired by a question my older daughter, then age 7, asked one evening at dinner.

“Where do rocks come from?” 

On its face, this question might seem simple, but it’s not! It led to a fascinating dinnertime conversation about Earth’s formation and structure, the rock cycle, and deep time. In fact, Earth’s rocks have always been here. They have been here since Earth formed. But they don’t stay the same. They are continually transforming. They melt, harden, break apart, and recombine as they move through the rock cycle. 

That’s why it was so wonderful, when, in 2021, I got to see rock transform right before my eyes. 

Summer in Iceland

USGS, public domain
That summer, my family traveled to Iceland for my husband’s work. For 3 months, we lived in a small cabin on a wind-whipped hill along a fjord in northern Iceland. During our stay, we learned that the nearby Fagradalsfjall volcano was erupting – and that it was possible to hike to a nearby ridge to see it in action. 

Known for its geothermal pools and bathing culture, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world. Iceland sits along a seam in Earth’s crust where two tectonic plates meet. These two plates, the Eurasian Plate and the North American plate, are slowly drifting apart, causing magma to well up between them. This magma sometimes erupts at the surface as lava. We decided that before we made the journey home, we had to see this geological phenomenon firsthand.

Fagradalsfjall 

To view the Fagradalsfjall volcano, we drove several hours to the Reykjanes Peninsula. We parked in a roped-off field among many other vehicles. People from all over the world had come to Iceland to see this natural spectacle, and many different languages swirled around us as we walked toward the stark, treeless mountains looming ahead. Together we marched, locals and tourists, young and old, up a ridge marked with stakes by Icelandic authorities. 

photo of Leslie's older daughter standing at the edge of the Fagradalsfjall lava flow. 
photo by Leslie Barnard Booth

We finally came to a fresh lava flow made up of still-steaming black rock, and we thought we must be close! But after several hours of hiking, we still hadn’t glimpsed the volcano. My daughters were getting tired. The mist had thickened around us. We were damp and cold. We kept hiking up, only to hike down, and then straight up again. We started to wonder if the volcano would even be visible today. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the sky wasn’t clear enough. Maybe this whole torturous trek was in vain!

So we sat. And ate lots of Nutella. My younger daughter seemed to perk up. “Let’s go a little farther,” she said. “To where those people are sitting.” She pointed to some people on a ridge in the distance.

A Rock Is Born

Once again, we hiked down, then up again, toward that distant ridge. That’s when we heard the roar of the volcano, and saw its fiery light flashing through the mist.

Fagradalsfjall volcano. photo by Berserkur/Wikimedia Commons

We made it to the place my younger daughter had pointed out. We sat among people from all over the world, and watched as bright orange lava fountained into the air and poured downslope, scabbing black as it snaked into the valley, where it pooled and steamed and hardened, turning to rock.

As we made our way back down the ridge, my older daughter picked up a rock at the edge of the lava flow. Very recently, this rock had been a liquid. It had been magma flowing deep belowground, then lava surging into the air, and now it was a hard gray fragment she could hold and admire. And just like that, she held in her hand the answer to her question.

Photo Credit: Kristal Passy Photography

Leslie Barnard Booth is a member of STEAM Team 2023. Her book, A Stone Is a Story will hit bookstore shelves next summer.  You can learn more about her book – and find educational resources on the rock cycle and geology – at her website, lesliebarnardbooth.com



Friday, December 2, 2022

Crunch! Slurp! Yummy Bugs!

Bugs for Breakfast: How Eating Insects Could Help Save the Planet 
by Mary Boone 
208 pages; ages 9 and up
Chicago Review Press, 2021

Mary Boone got interested in breakfasting on bugs back in 2013, when the United Nations issued its report about using insect protein to feed the world’s growing population. Then, while traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia, she had the opportunity to snack on fried grasshoppers at a local market. She was hooked, and wanted to learn more… and just about a year ago her book Bugs for Breakfast hit bookstore shelves. Somehow, my copy burrowed down into the hidden depths of my book basket… 

Here's what I like about this book:

1. Mary introduces the topic of entomophagy (eating insects) in a way that makes sense for kids who might be interested in trying out some cricket snacks – and for those who want to know why moving from conventional animal protein to insect protein makes environmental sense. She writes in a conversational way, tossing in the occasional joke (watch out for cricket legs caught in your teeth!) and points out that many people around the world incorporate insects – from mopane worms to cicadas to beetles – into their daily meals.

2. One chapter compares insect farming to conventional livestock farming. For example, the amount of land (space) and time required to produce 490 pounds of beef could be used to produce 1.3 million pounds of edible insect protein. Cattle require a lot more water to convert grass to meat than crickets do – and cows produce tons more methane than insects. Lest you wonder, yes, insects fart.

3. You’ll find nutritional information and recipes, along with the assurance that you’re already eating bugs. Yep, the USDA allows a certain amount of “bug parts” in food. Not only that, some foods rely on insect by-products – like the bug shellac used to make shiny chocolate coatings on certain candies.

4. There’s a whole chapter devoted to answering the question of whether incorporating insects into your diet can help save the world. The short answer: yes. And there’s a hands-on guide for how to raise your own crickets.

I had One Question for Mary ~

Me: How have you incorporated entomophagy into your diet? And do you think it has made a difference in your corner of the world?

Mary: I'm a big fan of cricket powder -- much more so than whole insects. I use it in smoothies and I sub it for some of the flour when I make cookies or banana bread. Do I use it all the time? No. It's expensive. Right now, most cricket farms are really small and labor intensive. When we get to a point where farms can scale up and they're able to automate some of the production, I think prices will come down and cricket protein will become more appealing to more people. Is what I'm doing making a difference? I think so. Every time I share a cricket-powder cookie or chips or bread with someone, I like to think I'm getting them to consider their own diets and opening their eyes to the whole issue of farming and sustainability. It's baby steps, but that's how most movements begin.


Mary Boone has written more than 60 nonfiction books for young readers. You can find out more about her, and download a teacher’s guide, at her website 

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the publisher.