Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Got Ants in your Plants?

I do! And I'm not too worried. That's because these ants and plants have a working relationship. A partnership of sorts. 
The peony has extrafloral nectaries on the sepals (the leaf-like things that protect the flower). That nectar attracts ants that, in exchange for the food, protect the plant from flower-chewing bugs. There are other nectaries inside the flower that produce food for pollinators - once the flower opens.

This week, take a closer look at flowers and flower buds.
  • Do you see ants on the plants?
  • Do the ants look like they are collecting nectar?
  • Are the flowers open or still closed buds?
  • Are the ants eating other insects on the plants?
  • Do the ants leave pheromone signals letting other ants know how to get to these sweet treats?
  • Do you see other pest-eating beneficials on plants, such as ladybug larvae or lacewings?

You can find out more about ants and peonies at Illinois Extension and the master gardeners at Penn State. And by observing peony flowers wherever you find them!

Friday, May 26, 2023

When a Whale Dies ...

Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem 
by Melissa Stewart; illus. by Rob Dunlavey
40 pages; ages 4-8
‎Random House Studio, 2023

theme: whales, ecology, food chain

When a whale dies,
its massive body
  silently sinks
through the inky darkness,
    finally coming to rest
    on the soft, silty seafloor.

When I’ve come upon the remains of creatures on my walks, perhaps a cat on the side of a road, I notice the activity surrounding the body. Flies, beetles, wasps – so many other creatures involved in recycling the once-alive animal. But I never once thought about what happens when a whale dies! Turns out it’s a lot like what happens with animals in the forests and fields – only it’s deep, deep in the sea. Hagfish and other sea animals smell the whale and gather for a feast. Crabs scavenge for left-overs and smaller critters scrape the bones clean. 

What I like love about this book: I love how Melissa shows that everything is connected. While zombie worms eat the bones, tiny lobsters dine on the zombie worms. I love how she carefully curates strings of alliterative words. Crabs “scarf up scraps,” others “sift through sediment,” and everyone is “hunting for tasty tidbits.” Rob Dunlavey’s artwork is detailed and brings even the most land-locked reader deep into the ocean. And there is Back Matter where readers can find out more about whale falls and the animals that feed on those whales.

To make sure she gets the facts, Melissa goes straight to the source. I wanted to know more

Me: Why is it so important to reach out to scientists when writing STEM books for kids?

Melissa: Interviewing experts can enrich any nonfiction book, and when a book is about cutting-edge science, like ocean exploration or dinosaur discoveries, it's the only way to be sure the information you're sharing is accurate and up to date.

For Whale Fall, reaching out to experts was critical because so little has been written about these amazing deep-sea ecosystems. And even the scientists who are devoting their careers to studying whale falls and the creatures that depend on them still have many questions. Interviewing researchers wasn't just the best way to get information--it was the only way.

In some cases, illustrator Rob Dunlavey's art shows creatures and behaviors that have never before been represented visually, so he also depended on feedback from our science consultants to get the details right. We really couldn't have created this book without their assistance.

Beyond the Books:

Explore an undersea whale fall with the Nautilus expedition team of 2019. They’ve got a video here. You can also listen to an NPR piece about what happens after a whale dies.

Find out something about one of the animals that helps turn a dead whale into recycled nutrients: sharks, rattails, hagfish, crabs, amphipods, lobsters, zombie worms. 

Next time you come across bones or remains of an animal, think about how they fit into the food cycle. Do you see any insects eating the animal? Or signs of scavenging?

Melissa Stewart is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about her at her website, 

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Tree Watching

Chances are you've watched birds, gazed at stars, admired flowers, and maybe followed a frog or two. But have you ever set out to do some serious Tree Watching? 

 Unlike birds, trees stay in one place doing their ... tree things. Which is good because you don't have to go chasing them through the underbrush just to get a better look at them!

This week, do some Tree Watching. What you'll need: a blanket or chair to sit on and a pair of binoculars. You can watch one tree over a long period of time, or spend time getting to know a number of trees. 

What to do: check out the bark, the leaves, the way the branches ... branch out. Sit next to the trunk and look up. Do you see how the leaves look like lace against the sky? And the shadows cast by one leaf onto the lower leaf? Depending on the tree, you might see flowers or fruits forming. Binoculars might help you find nests, insects, squirrels - wait! is that an owl sleeping in the crook of that branch?
If you want some ideas of ways to tree gaze, check out Rosemary Washington's Tree Watching Project
Want to know why trees make you happier? Here's a review of the research suggesting that being around trees is good for our mental and social well-being.

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Sweet Book about a ... Skunk?

If You Wake a Skunk 
by Carol Doeringer; illus. by Florence Weiser
32 pages; ages 5-8
Sleeping Bear Press, 2023   

theme: animals, nature, communication

Shhh. Tiptoe by. Don’t make a peep.

If you can sneak by quietly, you won’t wake the skunk (who’s sleeping in a cozy spot right behind that tree stump). What? You want to take a peek? You sneezed? 

Using humor and rhyme, Carol Doeringer introduces readers to the behavior of a spotted skunk. They stomp and hiss and do handstands! Skunks use so many ways to communicate their irritation at being woken from a nap, and their intent to share their special perfume. Wise readers will take these warnings to heart.

What I like about this book: The rhyming text is fun, and Carol has tucked lots of alliteration in there as well: “Silly you, still standing there.” “steady stare.” “twitchy tail” – okay, that last is a serious sign we should skedaddle. The book is also addressed to the reader, so it feels as though someone is talking to you, offering advice, and waving their arms in warning: Don’t Wake the Skunk! And there’s back matter about skunks and their defense plus fun facts.

I reached out to Carol the other day and asked: how did If you Wake a Skunk come about?

photo by Betsy Michele
Carol: In intended to write about the striped skunk, which was my – and probably many of our – default image of a skunk. At first, it was just a few stanzas to complete an assignment in Renee LaTulippe's Lyrical Language Lab. I decided to write a mini cautionary tale about the signals skunks give before spraying, using the second person point of view. I giggled as I wrote, recalling how many times I had read The Monster at the End of this Book when my kids were little.  

Me: I remember reading that book, too. But waking up a skunk seems scarier than Grover hiding on the last page! And your book is nonfiction. That took a bit of research, right?

Carol: When I decided to turn my few stanzas into a picture book, my research began in earnest. Reports of the skunk's warning signs sequence varied, so I read widely. That's when I stumbled upon a totally new-to-me skunk, the spotted skunk. Once I discovered this relatively little-known creature, I realized it just had to be the star of the book. First, it delivers much of its warning routine while in an adorable, acrobatic handstand. Second, the Eastern Spotted Skunk is a species considered vulnerable, and in some states is listed as endangered. The handstand routine meant there would be wonderful visuals for the illustrator to play with, and as a nature nerd, I became excited at the thought of introducing kids to the idea that there's more than one kind of skunk.  I didn't end up highlighting the spotted skunk's conservation status in the story or back matter, but I'm fully intending to develop school presentations that bring that into the discussion. 

Me: Do you have any skunk events scheduled?

Carol: In June I'm scheduled to spend a full day with a skunk rescue organization, where I'll film rescue and rehab work with striped skunks, mostly very young ones. I'm told there may be as many as 50 skunks on hand – what a visual that might end up being!  I'll be aiming for footage and interview clips with the rescue staff, working toward getting kids to think about why skunks – with their undeserved bad rap – deserve a place on the planet and to be helped when in trouble. I'll also make a video for the rescue organization, something they can use for fundraising or whatever they like.

Me: I can’t wait to see where that leads. Meanwhile, let’s explore some activities…

Beyond the Books:

Check out Carol’s book trailer over at her blog, Tales from a West Michigan Wood.  

How are you at skunk communication? Can you hiss, stare, and stomp your feet? What about doing a handstand? 

Learn more about eastern spotted skunks. Here’s one resource from the Missouri Department of Conservation

Carol Doeringer is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about her at her website at   

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ a Field Trip to Sapsucker Woods

Last week I walked around Sapsucker woods (Cornell Lab of Ornithology). This is a great time to see trilliums (trillions of trilliums flowering across the forest floor), fiddleheads, mayapples just beginning to bud. The air was filled with the songs of birds and frogs. So today I'm sharing some of the things we noticed. Can you see the robin?

Monday, May 15, 2023

Cover Reveal: The Pie that Molly Grew

 A few years ago I was planting seeds in my garden and musing about the wonderful and yummy fruits of my labor. I started scribbling ideas in my journal … seeds that, over time, germinated and grew and ripened into a book.

Chamisa Kellogg and I are thrilled to share the cover of The Pie that Molly Grew, releasing August 15. We got to chatting on the phone the other day about our book journey.

Me: I have notes in an old “Ideas Notebook” referring to a writing challenge by Susanna Leonard Hill. I think it might have been National Pie Day (Jan. 23 if you’re curious) and Susanna suggested writing a pie story. She tossed out some ideas: the biggest pie, the smallest pie….  Meanwhile I’m thinking of pie diversity: apple, blueberry, pecan, key-lime. I detoured for a brief consideration of pizza (pepperoni, please) … but settled on my favorite, pumpkin. Within seconds a line came to mind and got stuck, like an earworm, until I finally wrote it down: This is the seed that Molly sowed

Words are only half of a picture book. Illustrations tell the other half of the story. So I asked Chamisa about the inspiration for her artwork.

Chamisa: I've been lucky enough to have been around gardens my entire life. My parents are both gardeners, and I spent nearly every spring and summer digging in the dirt and watching things grow. It was a wonder to me then and is still a wonder to me now, the way life springs from a tiny seed. For the art for this book, I wanted to capture that feeling of wonder I felt in gardens as a kid (and also now, as an adult), and I wanted the illustrations to have a playfulness to them.

Me: Turns out we both love pumpkin pie, too. One year my kids planted pumpkins for Halloween, and there were so many that I figured they wouldn’t miss one. I baked it and then used the potato masher to smoosh it. That leaves lumpy bits of pumpkin in the mix, but we loved the texture. Another year I didn’t have quite enough pumpkin for a pie, so I added a left-over sweet potato. No one even noticed!

Chamisa: I've tried all kinds of recipes – sometimes I use kabocha squash or butternut squash instead of pumpkin, sometimes I sweeten with dates instead of sugar, sometimes coconut milk instead of condensed milk. All versions are delicious! Plus, any excuse to put whip cream on something is a win for me!

You can find out more about The Pie that Molly Grew at Sleeping Bear Press website. It will hit bookstore shelves mid-August, but you can pre-order it at Riverow Bookshop or your favorite bookstore.

Chamisa and I have already started our pumpkins! Check back in a month to see how they’re doing. We’ll be sharing more about art, pie, and pumpkins on our social media over the summer.

You can connect with Chamisa Kellogg at her website, and on Instagram at @chamisafe

You can find out more about my books at my website, or follow me on Facebook

Friday, May 12, 2023

These books will Light Up your Life!

Ooh! Two books about things that light up in the dark!

Theme: nature, animals, glow-in-the-dark

Lights On!: Glow-in-the-Dark Deep Ocean Creatures 
by Donna B. McKinney; illus. by Daniella Ferretti 
32 pages; ages 4-8
Yeehoo Press, 2023

Near the ocean’s surface, the first rays of sunrise bathe the waters. Here fish, seals, and turtles swim, splash, and eat in a world lit by sunlight.

But down below, where the sunlight doesn’t reach … where it’s always dark as night, what do the creatures do? Vampire squid and lantern fish carry their own light. Pocket sharks and jellies glow in the dark. Some animals use their bioluminescence to find a mate, others to trick prey, and others to escape from a predator. There’s a lot of action going on down in the deep, dark sea.

What I like about this book: There are flaps! Beneath each flap is a tidbit of information that adds to what is on the page. For example, the spread introducing pocket sharks: lift the flap to learn how this shark got its name. I like the contrast between what’s happening in the upper, surface layers of the ocean and the action in the darkest deep waters. To do that, the book was designed to be turned by the reader. This creates long, vertical spreads. And there’s back matter, where Donna introduces the term “bioluminescence” and gives some fun facts.

I wanted to know a bit more about Lights On! so I asked Donna a couple questions:

Me: Whose idea was it to create the flaps? 

Donna: My editor, Molly Shen Yao, suggested the flaps. I had submitted the story to Yeehoo with that additional informational text positioned as sidebars (text boxes). In the editing process, Molly suggested putting the sidebar material under flaps. I loved the idea and I hope my readers will enjoy the flaps!

Me: Upon opening the book, readers have to turn it so they can get a tall vertical look. How did this come about?

Donna: Editor Molly gets credit for that, too. Because each art spread in the book reflects what's happening above the ocean surface and at the ocean depths, she thought the vertical orientation would give the illustrator more freedom to reflect that ocean depth. I love how the illustrator, Daniella Ferretti, was able to use that vertical space, showing what was happening from sky to ocean depths in each spread. 

Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night 
by Julia Kuo 
44 pages; ages 4-8
‎Greystone Kids, 2022

When it’s dark out, we need light to see.

We might use a flashlight or a lantern to see at night. But some animals make their own light. That light, explains Julia, is called bioluminescence, and creatures make that light using special chemical reactions in their bodies. Throughout the book, she shows fungi, fish, and dinoflagellates that create light. Each spread includes an info-packed sidebar, so there is no need (or room) for back matter.

What I like about this book: The black pages with white print set the perfect stage for a book about dark, though I do wish the sidebar text was bigger. Of course I love that bioluminescent fungi are included! As are fireflies and glow worms (which she points out are neither flies nor worms). And I love the focus on the diversity of creatures that make their own light.

Beyond the Books:

Go on a night walk and look for luminous things. If you’re walking near the ocean, you might see plankton glowing on the water. If you’re walking in a woody area, you might find glow-in-the-dark mushrooms (here are a few), and if you’re in the eastern part of the US you might see fireflies blinking above the tall grass. I once found glow worms in my garden!

Make some glowing water with this simple experiment from PBS

Donna B. McKinney is a member of STEAM Team 2023. You can find out more about her at her website

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copies provided by the publishers.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Dandelions (and the bugs that love them!)

We're going on a dandie hunt (sung along to the tune of Going on a Bear Hunt). You do have dandelions growing in your neighborhood, don't you? But we're not just looking for dandelions - we're looking for the insects that hang out on them. Dandelions may not be the best source of nectar and pollen for bees, but they are an early source of food for insects. Which is why I consider them "pretty yellow flowers" and not "weeds."

This week, take a close look at the dandelions growing in your yard, along the sidewalks, in gardens, and at the park. Then look closer. You might see:
  • carpenter bees
  • wasps
  • flies of all kinds
  • miner bees
  • honey bees
  • bumble bees
  • spiders
  • butterflies
  • slugs

... or even something else! Spend some time watching them. Draw a picture and jot down some distinguishing characteristics of the critter you find. For example: that tachinid fly in the bottom left corner. See those short antennae? The white patch on its butt? The way it holds its (single pair of) wings out at an angle? 

If you'd like to grow some flowers for bees and other pollinators, check out the list I have in this post from a few years back.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Spring Books Bring Trees & Frogs

Trees are leafing out and frogs are singing. Spring is bringing new life to woods and wetlands, and I’ve got two fun books to share for the season.

theme: life cycles, trees, frogs

A few years ago I reviewed a book by this author/illustrator team. I am so happy to share this new book about how the world’s tallest trees grow up.

Rise to the Sky 
by Rebecca E. Hirsch; illus. by Mia Posada 
32 pages; ages 5-10
Millbrook Press, 2023 

What is the tallest living thing? It’s not an elephant or a giraffe or even a blue whale.

You can probably guess, but you have to turn the page to confirm that it’s a … tree! But not just any tree. In this book, Rebecca Hirsch highlights eight of the world’s tallest trees – trees that grow at least as tall as the Statue of Liberty. That’s about 305 feet tall or, comparing to whales, about 3.8 Blue whale-lengths.

Rebecca shows how tall trees begin as small seedlings, sprouting from old stumps or growing from seeds. She tells how they breathe, move water and nutrients, and rise up, up, up to the sky.

What I like about this book: The text is fun to read and easy for young children to follow. And the back matter tells more about how trees grow, what phloem and xylem are, and how long tall trees can live. Rebecca also includes a couple hands-on activities at the back. But wait! There’s more! Mia Posada’s cut paper collages add amazing texture to the pages, making me want to stay and explore the illustrations. And, there is a great vertical book-turn to give these giant trees the space they need to Rise!

Where there’s trees, you might find tree frogs. At least in my neck of the woods. 

One Tiny Treefrog: A Countdown to Survival 
by Tony Piedra, illus. by Mackenzie Joy 
‎40 pages; ages 4 - 8 years
Candlewick, 2023

Ten tiny tadpoles grow in their eggs.

This is a fun count-down book that shows the lifecycle of a red-eyed treefrog.

What I like about this book: I love the expressive tadpole faces, the illustrations, the fun language – and the notes that identify the different animals by common name and scientific name. There’s also a fun book-turn so you can see the tadpoles plunge “plink, plink, plink” into their new, watery home. And I love that there is back matter! One section tells what it takes to become a red-eyed treefrog, with some additional “survival” notes about the different stages. A great book for any frog-loving kid.

Beyond the Books:

Create some cut paper art to show some of the nature you see outside. You might use watercolors to paint paper to use for your collages, like Mia Posada does, or snip your colorful bits from old calendars and magazines. 

Sit outside or open a window and listen to frogs. Don’t think you have any? I’ve heard tree frogs when standing in a restaurant parking lot in downtown Ithaca, NY.

How tall are the trees where you live? Here are some ways to figure out tree height.

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copies provided by the publishers.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Violets in the Lawn

Violets abound in my yard. They grow companionably next to the dandelions and creeping charlie, thrusting their blue (and sometimes pink, magenta, nearly white) flowers up through the thatch and leaf detritus. They are an early source of nectar for butterflies, and pollen for bees. And the flowers taste yummy in salad.

The other thing about violets - and the reason I let them grow wildly in my yard and along the edges of my garden beds - is that their leaves are caterpillar food. Greater Fritillary caterpillars are picky eaters and eat only violet leaves! But they are late night diners, hiding during daylight hours, so you might never see them. I haven't. But I have seen plenty of fritillaries fluttering around my garden.

This week look for violets - in your yard, in a park, growing along the sides of sidewalks. 
Notice the colors of the flowers. How many shades of blue and purple do you find? What about yellow and white?

And here's another thing you'll notice: each flower grows from a stem that comes directly out of the ground, and they seem to be nodding (well, at least mine do).