Friday, July 28, 2023

Curious and Amazing Critters

 Nothing’s cuter than a basket full of kittens – unless it’s a basket filled with books about curious and amazing critters! So this week I pulled out a handful of the animal books languishing in my book basket to share.

Theme: animals, adaptations, science

Not A Monster 
by Claudia Guadalupe Martínez; illus. by Laura González 
32 pages; ages 3-7
‎Charlesbridge, 2023

In the murky waters of a canal, that was at the edge of a ciudad that was once a great empire, sits an egg.

Not an ordinary egg, but a rare egg. The egg of a “water monster” – which, it turns out, is not a monster at all! Sure, with it’s frilly gills and long webbed fingers and toes, it looks like a monster. But it is an axolotl (and thank goodness the author includes a pronunciation guide in her back matter: ak-suh-LAHT-ul if you’re wondering). And this book explores what this marvelous Not-a-Monster creature is, the Aztec origin myth, and how pollution is affecting its habitat.  This poetic book, infused with Spanish words and joyful illustrations will make you fall in love with these smiley-faced salamanders! If I rated books, I’d give this one 6 out of 6 feathery gills.

Line Up!: Animals in Remarkable Rows 
by Susan Stockdale 
32 pages; ages 2-5
‎Peachtree, 2023

Have you ever been asked to line up in a row?

If so, you’re not the only one. Lots of animals do this when they’re on the go. In this book, Susan Stockdale shows how elephants and wolves, shrews and spiny lobsters form up their lines before heading off on a jaunt. Sometimes the line is to keep everyone on the right path. But in the case of hermit crabs, it’s the most effective way to trade shells. Did you know they line up according to size to do their shell swaps? And of course we all have seen lines of ants! (I have a few right now heading to a droplet of maple syrup) Fun rhymes and Susan’s colorful art, plus back matter explaining more about each creature, make this a great read aloud.

Hidden Creature Features 
by Jane Park 
32 pages; 5-9 years
Millbrook Press, 2023

Do you see our adaptations – a tail, a claw, a horn, or beak?

Some adaptations are easy to spot, such as bright colors to warn off predators. Others are not as obvious, and require a closer look. Take, for example, a penguin’s textured tongue. Bristles on the tongue help the penguin hold onto those slippery, silvery fish. This book shows the hidden adaptations of tree frogs, pangolins, owls, and more. What I like are the photos and the invitation to turn the page to discover the creature’s special adaptation.

Fox Explores the Night (A First Science Storybook)
by Martin Jenkins; illus. by Richard Smythe 
32 pages; ages 2-5
‎Candlewick, 2022

Fox wakes up in her dark, cozy den. She’s hungry!

This is a cute story about a hungry fox living in an urban area. She checks out the usual places to find food, and eventually snags a snack. It is also a book about light, and light sources: the sun, moon, stars, streetlights – even flashlights. There’s a lot to explore in the illustrations, and an activity at the back about light and shadows. While the book emphasizes light, a reader can bring up the idea of wild animals living all around us. Part of the First Science Storybook series (there are 9 others in the series). 

Beyond the Books:

Find out more about axolotls at the San Diego Zoo website. Then use the search box to find out information about some of the other animals mentioned in the books: elephant, penguin, pangolin, fox… check out the website here.

Follow an Ant Line. Next time you see a line of ants marching off to work, follow them and see where they are going. If they are coming in through your kitchen window (for example) you can follow them to see where their home is. How far do they wander? What are they carrying? Do they talk with their sisters? 

If you had a special adaptation, what would it be? Would it be something to help you climb a tree? Run faster? Jump higher? See in low light or hear better? Draw a picture/write about your adaptation.

We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday once they resume. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copies provided by the publishers.
Archimedes is taking a break from book reviews for a couple weeks ~ but drop by on Wednesdays for some Backyard Science.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Flower Spiders

 Last week I shared Spider Flowers. This week it's Flower Spiders - more specifically, crab spiders that hang out in flowers.

These spiders are colored in a way that helps them blend in with flowers. I've seen yellow crab spiders and greenish ones; this spider is white with pink designs. The spiders get their name because of their flat, round bodies and the way they hold their legs out to the side like claws. Some even move sideways, just like a crab.

Crab spiders lurk, waiting for something yummy to drop by. They eat bees and flies and even other spiders (especially other crab spiders). I caught one in the act a couple years ago (posted here)

This week take a closer look at the flowers in your neighborhood. Do you see any crab spiders? If so, what color is the spider, and what color/kind of flower is it on? 

If you are lucky enough to discover a crab spider dining, watch quietly without disturbing them. What did it capture?

Friday, July 21, 2023

Everything is Connected, sometimes by dust

A River of Dust: The Life-Giving Link Between North Africa and the Amazon 
by Jilanne Hoffmann; illus. by Eugenia Mello 
48 pages; ages 5-8 with interest for older kids
‎Chronicle Books, 2023  (July 25)

theme: ecology, nonfiction, air

Millions of years ago, no ocean lay between us. You and I were one.

Even though the continents are now separated by miles of ocean, the dust of the Sahel travels across Africa and the Atlantic Ocean to reunite with its ancient home in the Amazon basin. The combination of lyrical language and richly colored illustrations take readers on a journey of thousands of miles. 

What I like about this book: Ecologists often say that everything is connected. In this book, Jilanne Hoffman shows how small particles from a thin slice of land between the Sahara and the savannah are essential to the plants and animals of the Amazon. I like how she infuses the text with a sense of longing: When I reach you, we become one once again.  And there is enough Back Matter to satisfy even the most curious minds.

After reading A River of Dust I knew I needed to talk with Jilanne.

Me: Your back matter provides tons of information - and just as many questions - about how dust and climate are connected. How long did you spend researching this topic before you knew you were ready to write the book?

Jilanne: My initial research spanned about six months, starting with the information provided on NASA’s website, and then using JSTOR, the amazing online journal database. I wrote the initial rough draft, which was way too much like a travelog, within the first six months. That version contained no reference to plate tectonics, and it had no back matter. I wanted to put the narrative in place before shaping what turned out to be an overwhelming amount of information. 

Over the next three years, I followed dust trails everywhere, and discovered the man I call “the grandfather” of dust collection, Joseph Prospero, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami. He’s been collecting the dust that crosses the Atlantic for decades, and he kindly reviewed sections of my back matter. He even sent me a pre-published paper describing the history of research involving African dust transport. I followed his trail of journal articles, and then branched out to study everything from the effects of phosphorus and iron in plants and animals to how drought in the Sahel affects the quantity of dust that ends up in the Saharan Air Layer (a 2 to 2.5-mile-thick layer of the atmosphere starting a mile above the surface of North Africa). 

some of the research papers I read...
I followed trails of scientists who used data from NASA’s earth observation satellites (including CALIPSO) to model how rainfall, or lack thereof, affects climate in the short and long term and more! But eventually, I was able to shape the research into “Questions for Curious Minds,” that included plate tectonics, too! After all, the book is also about separation and reconnection. 

After the book was acquired, I kept researching because: 1) I wanted to lean more into plate tectonics so the narrative could come full circle; 2) I needed to respond to the fact checker questioning specific flora and fauna choices in each biome; and 3) I wanted to respond to a sensitivity reader who pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned how human inhabitants have altered some of the soils in the Amazon over thousands of years. There’s also the question of how much phosphorus comes from burning vegetation from Southern Africa, not just North Africa. So once again, I delved into journal articles discussing  anthropogenic sources of phosphorus and soil studies, and found that while the soils in certain Amazonian corridors, usually along rivers, have been purposefully enriched by human activity, the majority of the soils in the Amazon have not. But the amount of phosphorus provided by burning vegetation is still—ah—up in the air. 

And as we went into final, I found a new study suggesting that a larger proportion of the dust crossing the Atlantic may come from a spot in the Sahara to the west of the Sahel’s Bodélé depression. It’s a difficult analysis. So I decided to include a sentence about that, and we changed the title to include North Africa, not just the Sahel. Writing about science is a race to stay current!

Me: Wow! That is a lot of work! Not only does dust blow from Africa, but you mention that dust from the Gobi Desert feeds the trees of the Sierra's. Where does this river of dust end up?

Jilanne: Yes, the Gobi Desert is also a major source of a river of dust on Earth, especially in the spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The dust causes significant air pollution (like all dust storms) in northern China and Mongolia and even further south while spreading across the North Pacific and spilling over the Western United States. A study conducted by UC Merced researchers suggests that the Gobi provides 18-45% of the dust deposited in the Sierras, depending on location. The remainder of the dust originates from California’s Central Valley. The Los Angeles Times likened the whole process to the way a dirty sponge gets rinsed out by rain and snow along the western slopes of the Sierras. 

Me: Are there any citizen/community science projects that encourage people to collect dust falling onto their rooftops? This is a hot topic (so to speak) because the smoke from Canadian wildfires left lots of dust and ash on my roof - which came down in the rain. I usually collect rainwater to water plants, but not this stuff - it was black!

Jilanne: Yes, “ash rain” is a big problem during fire season! You don’t want to be collecting that! 

A variety of citizen science projects collect and analyze dust around the globe. But from my understanding, they tend to be adult-oriented. One recent project was spurred by the enormous dust transported from North Africa in 2021 to Europe. Citizen scientists collected dust samples on snow in the Pyrenees and French and Swiss Alps and found differences related to mineral content, particulate size, amounts on south vs. north-facing slopes, etc. and recorded their findings. The results have not yet been published. 

Other citizen science projects focus more on specific contaminants that can be found in dust, including lead. Breathing air that contains heavy metal particles is especially concerning for children and their brain development. But all sorts of contaminants and even viruses hitchhike their way around the globe on the vehicle of dust, so there’s really no way to avoid it. Wearing a filtration mask during fire season or Spare the Air days may become more the norm in the future as our world heats up. 

Me: Thank you for joining us today. Jilanne has created a downloadable educator guide that includes a group of cross-curriculum activities, including one that asks kids to monitor and report on the air quality where they live. And the guide offers a wonderful “Simon says” PE activity that involves throwing “dust particles” in different directions, depending on the time of year and wind direction name called out by the teacher. You can find it at her website here.

Beyond the Books:

You can monitor the air quality in your area using the AirNow website or app. Sometimes the air quality changes throughout the day, so you might want to check a couple times a day. Are there times of the year when air quality is worse or better? 

Make a simple dust monitor. All you need is some graph paper (I use centimeter ruled), an index card (or panel of milk carton), Vaseline, and a few common supplies. Then tie them to a tree or tape to a lamp post or the outside of a window. A perfect way to collect wildfire dust and pollen! Here’s how to make the card

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

We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday once they resume. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Spider Flowers

 Last year I planted some of these flowers. They are called "spider flowers" and cleome, and grew as tall as me (five feet tall, if you must know). 

I planted them for the hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, butterflies and bees - you can see where a leafcutter bee has snipped out a bit of petal. And I planted them for their color and their fragile beauty. You may recall a post from late September in which, while looking at the seed pods, I wondered whether they would re-seed.

Yes, they do - but only where I didn't want them. Did the seeds grow in the flower bed? No. Did the seeds grow where I planted lettuce this year? Of course! Plants growing where you don't want them is the definition of "weed". But instead of calling them "weeds," I referred to them as "volunteers." Rather than yank the seedlings out, I let them grow a couple of weeks and have been transplanting them around the garden: to the flower bed, in amongst the tomatoes. I can't wait to see the birds and bees and butterflies visit this year's blooms.

This week, look for "volunteers" growing in your garden and yard. Did they come from seedpods of last year's plants? Did they fly on the wind? Were they dropped by birds or carried by ants? How do plants take root in a new place?

Monday, July 17, 2023

Waiting for Pie

Way back in May I transplanted my pumpkin seedlings. In the intervening weeks, those tiny seedlings have been growing. 

I keep looking for pumpkins, but it takes an entire summer to grow a pie! Here’s where they are right now. Most of the yellow flowers are male flowers – they are the ones that produce pollen. But there are a few female flowers here and there. 

As the pumpkins grow, so do the leaves – shading them from the sun. New England Pie pumpkins take about 100 days to grow from a seed. That’s more than three months, so with luck I might see ripe pumpkins about the time The Pie that Molly Grew hits bookstore shelves. 

Here's the cool thing about pumpkins: you can eat the entire plant. Yep, those  shoots, tendrils, leaves, flowers – even immature fruits – are edible. And tasty, too. Last summer I learned that young leaves and shoots can be stir-fried. Just remember to peel the outer prickly skin off first. And some folks use leaves to make soup. I’ve had squash-blossom fritters before, but you can also toss the flowers into salads or quesadillas (remove the stamen and any sepals or stem).

The Pie that Molly Grew releases August 15th with a blog tour! So you may find me chatting with other bloggers about pumpkins, gardening, pollinators … and pie. You can pre-order autographed copies from Riverow Bookstore, located in historic downtown Owego, NY.

See you next month with some funny stories from the pumpkin patch.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Books for the Beach, Backyard or ....

 When folks ask, “hey, would you like to review this book?” very often I answer Yes without taking into account the books Already Piling Up in my book basket. So this week I’m sharing three books I think would be fun to take on a road trip, or just to the park to read with kids – or to enjoy for yourself while drinking something cool and refreshing as you rock in a hammock slung between two shady oak trees. Because, really, who doesn’t love reading a fun picture book now and then?

It just so happens that all three were published by Charlesbridge this year.
Theme: Fossils, Math, STEAM

Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones 
by Susan Lendroth; illus. by Bob Kolar
(Board book)

Here we go digging for dinosaur bones, dinosaur bones, dinosaur bones….

In this book, young paleontologists will join scientists as they head out on a fossil dig – and you might find yourself singing along to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” Short sidebars on each spread tell more about fossils and the scientists who find them. And at the back there’s suggestions for acting out the song – great for getting kids moving after reading the book. 

Susan Lendroth and Bob Kolar teamed up on an earlier book, Hey-Ho, to Mars We'll Go! which I discuss over at the GROG. I love their light-hearted way of making science fun and accessible. 

Lia & Luis: Puzzled! (Storytelling Math) 
by Ana Crespo; illus. by Giovana Medeiros
32 pages; ages 3-6 

Lia and Luis receive a package from their grandma. Inside there’s a puzzle … with a secret message.

I am a sucker for secret messages – I mean, who among us has never sent a note in code? But this secret message is the sort of puzzle that must be solved by putting the pieces together. As with any spy novel – or mystery show – there is a time crunch. The twins are trying to put puzzle pieces together while their mom is trying to get them dressed and ready to leave. 

What clues are in the puzzle? Why is mom in such a hurry? And what’s the best way to do a puzzle anyway: corners or edges? Colors or design? What I love about this book (and others in the series) is that there are activities at the back to explore the math concepts – in this case, geometry and sorting. And what I like about this book in particular is the inclusion of Brazilian Portuguese words. Want more Storytelling Math? Check out this post over at the GROG.

by Philip Bunting 
40 pages; ages 2-5 

Wombat. Twobats. Threebats. Morebats.

From youngbats to oldbats, no bat is left out of this silly love story. It is a fun way to play with words, with rhymes (stinkbats and winkbats) and opposites (roundbats and squarebats) and even some compare and contrast (fruitbat and cricketbat). 

This book would be great to pair with Wombat, by Christopher Cheng or Abi Cushman’s not-so-serious guide: Wombats Are Pretty Weird.

Beyond the Books:

Dig for Dinosaurs. Bury some plastic dinosaurs in a sandbox or part of the beach and let kids dig them up while singing “this is the way we excavate, excavate, excavate ….”

Make your own message puzzle. Glue a drawing or photo onto a sheet of cardstock. Once it’s dry, write a message on the back side. Then cut it into puzzle pieces and put it into an envelope, and give it to a friend. You can also do this with extra-large postcards.

Play with animal words and see where they take you. For example, bluebird might lead to truebird or redbird or …. And what about bigfoot (which may or may not be a real animal?) or meercat? 

We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday once they resume. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copies provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ My, What a Long Tongue You Have!

 Have you ever watched a butterfly (or a moth) up close as it slurps up nectar from a flower? If so, you've noticed that it has a very long ...

... tongue! 

Skipper: The better to get into those tubular clover flowers, my dear!
Actually, butterflies - and moths - don't have tongues. What they have is a proboscis, a long, straw-like tube that comes in handy when you're trying to drink sweet stuff out of flowers. Imagine having your mouth extended into a long tube! 

And then imagine tasting with your feet. Though, to be fair, moths and butterflies can sense aromas with their antennae - and a good part of "taste" is what we smell. 

This week, check out butterflies and day-flying moths visiting flowers in your neighborhood. 
Try to get close without bothering them, and check out their proboscises (and yes, that is the plural!) Here are a couple of moths I've seen tasting flowers in and around my garden: 
Hummingbird moth on teasel

Virginia Ctenucha moth (say "ten-OOCH-ah")

Friday, July 7, 2023

These Books are For the Birds!

Every morning the birds wake me up: robins and mourning doves, jays and crows. Loudest of all is a tiny phoebe, its feathers still ruffled from sleep. So when I discovered these books nesting in my book basket, I knew I had to get them out to sing their “good morning” songs.

themes: birds, animal behavior, family

Finding Family: The Duckling Raised by Loons 
by Laura Purdie Salas; illus. by Alexandria Neonakis
32 pages; ages 5-10
Millbrook Press, 2023 

Perched on the edge of a northern lake, a nest of dried mud and grass cradles two eggs.

If all goes well, those olive-colored, black-splotched eggs will hatch into baby loons. But one stormy day, when the loon parents return to the nest, they find broken shells and only one single chick. The chick grows and changes and soon it’s clear this chick is not a loon chick. It’s a mallard duckling! Now, mallards and loons are not related. They aren’t good friends – more like enemies … and yet these parent loons and duckling create a family. Throughout the book, Laura Purdie Salas contrasts how loons and ducks behave – and how this young duckling learns loon behavior.

What I like about this book: This is an engaging story to begin with, and I love the way Laura shows how the duckling learned loon things – diving for food, eating fish – and still did its own ducky things. I like that she asks questions: what made loons raise a lost duckling? How did the duckling learn loon behaviors? Will the duck ever find a mate? And I like how she emphasizes the importance of family. Plus there is Back Matter! Laura tells about the true story and presents a Venn diagram comparing loons and mallards.

How Birds Sleep
by Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski
40 pages; ages 4-8
‎minedition (Astra), 2023

It’s dusk. Unless you’re an owl, it’s time to get ready for sleep. 

As the sun sets, birds all over the world are getting ready to snooze. Some settle in bunches, perched in a line on a tree branch. Others hang upside down. Some nest in trees, while others snuggle together at the end of a tunnel in a termite mound. And some never land, sleeping in the air as they glide.

What I like about this book: The illustrations are luscious, done in shades of blue that evoke night. Each bird is identified by common name, scientific name, and a location – which makes it easier for curious naturalists to find out more about a bird that piques their interest. And the language is perfect for a go-to-sleep book, with nests described as cozy and safe, or pillowy-soft, or waves rocking the birds to sleep. Yaawwn! Just don't fall asleep reading!

Swoop and Soar: How Science Rescued Two Osprey Orphans and Found Them A New Family In The Wild 
by Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp 
54 pages; ages 5-12
Persnickety Press, 2022

High above the dark blue water, a sharp-beaked osprey hovered in the morning sky.

Father osprey is fishing for his chicks. But when a storm knocks down their tree, the baby birds need help. That help comes in the form of Janie, a raptor biologist who has rescued many ospreys. Her idea: foster the osprey chicks with a pair of osprey that had lost their own. This book follows the story of how Janie Veltkamp helped create a new osprey family, and shows the chicks, Swoop and Soar, growing up in their new nest. 

What I like about this book: In addition to Swoop and Soar’s story, Janie tells what it’s like to rescue ospreys and reintroduce them into habitats. There’s a section all about Ospreys where readers can learn more about osprey adaptations, where they nest, and why they became endangered. There’s even a list of how you can help the ospreys.

Beyond the Books:

What sorts of things would you learn if you were adopted by a different animal (or an alien)? Think about the way you find food, what you eat, the way you might play together. Then check out this video of the loons with their adopted duckling.

How do you sleep? Do you make a nest? Or snuggle in with others? One thing that you can do to help birds sleep is to make sure you turn of outdoor lights at night.

What makes a family? One book shows loons adopting a duckling, and another shows how a wildlife rehabilitator was able to help osprey chicks bond with new parents. Draw a picture or write a poem about what makes the people – and animals you live with – your Family.

We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday once they resume. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's 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 copies provided by the publishers.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Milkweed visitors

 I started growing milkweed in and around my garden for the Monarch caterpillars. It turns out that lots of things love my milkweed. Over the seasons I spy skippers, honey bees, fritillaries, a variety of native bees, ants, the Monarchs (of course) and other butterflies, and even hummingbirds who hover long enough to check out the flowers. There are milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles, ladybugs, and crab spiders that hang out under the leaves waiting to snatch an unsuspecting fly.
And then there's this beetle - a daylight firefly that doesn't light up the sky, and who is nibbling milkweed buds.

This week choose a flower that's in bloom and watch the insects that visit it. How many different kinds of insects do you see? And do any birds drop by? Are there spiders lurking on the blossom or hiding in the leaves?