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.
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.
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|
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.