Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Disc Flowers on a Coneflower

 I've been watching pollinators on my coneflowers week after week - butterflies, flies, bees of all types. But I never really thought about the flowers producing the pollen that the bees were collecting.

So a couple of weeks ago I followed a leafcutter bee around. And I noticed that the conehead of my purple coneflowers had tiny pollen-laden stars on the disc flowers.

Okay, a digression: composites have disc flowers and ray flowers. In the coneflower, the ray flowers are the purple petals and the disc flowers are the ones that make up the center cone that looks a bit like a porcupine.

At first, I thought that the pollen was on top of the orange spike of the disc flower.

Then I looked closer...

Turns out each "porcupine quill" is a bracht, and the flowers are next to it. When you look closely (a handlens is helpful) you can see the two-lobed stigma and the star-like anthers.

 According to the Outdoor Learning Lab (Greenfield Community College), the disc flowers mature sequentially, beginning with those on the perimeter and moving toward the center. Only one whorl of flowers matures each morning, and there is only a small amount of nectar - so pollinators have to visit many flowers on one plant and then visit more on another plant. What a great way to ensure cross-pollination! You can read more about coneflowers at the OLL page here.

 This week take a close look at composite flowers you find in your neighborhood. They might be coneflowers or sunflowers, black-eyed Susans or ox-eye daisies, asters or fleabane, or even dandelions and their relatives. If you have a magnifying lens, take it with you.

Friday, August 25, 2023

A Little Night Science

 One day I was walking through town and I noticed a small owl napping in the crook of a branch. The tiny screech owl blended in with the tree and, had I not been looking for leaves and flowers, I probably wouldn't have seen them. I have a fondness for owls, and leave my windows open at night so I can hear their hoots and whooos. So I knew right off I just had to read this book!

Night Owl Night
By Susan Edwards Richmond; illus. by Maribel Lechuga
32 pages; ages 4-8
Charlesbridge, 2023

theme: owls, migration, scientists

In October, Mama becomes a night owl.

Not an owl with wings and huge eyes … but a person who works during the dark hours of night. That’s because Sova’s mom is a scientist who studies owls and other birds, and she needs to be out in the field when the owls are active. Sova wants to be a night owl, too. She draws owls, carries around a stuffed owl, and even creates an owl costume. Not yet, Mama tells her. Scientists must wait. Finally, Sova is old enough to join Mama in her owl research. Together they put on headlamps and walk out to the woods where (eventually) they  capture, measure, and release a saw-whet owl.

What I like about this book: I like the repetition of “scientists must wait” – whether it is for the right time, or for the owls to show up. I love Sova’s enthusiasm for owls, and her creative ways to remind Mama that she wants to be a night owl, too. I can totally see the costume she creates inspiring kids to make their own wings and bird mask. I especially like how the field science is represented: the careful measuring and weighing and banding of the owl – and the gentle release into the night. And of course, there is back matter for curious young night owls-in-training: a page about common northern forest owls, an explanation about how banding is used by scientists, and resources for learning more.

I wanted to know more about Susan Richmond and her writing process so I asked her a Couple Questions:

Me: This is your third picture book I’ve reviewed – and I want to know: when do you know you have a book idea? 

Susan: First, thank you so much for reviewing my previous books, Sue!  I really appreciate it.  
I know I’ve got a book idea - maybe partly at least - when I can’t get it out of my head! Though it often takes a while, sometimes years, before an idea finds its proper form.  For example, Bird Count I originally envisioned as a simple, seek-and-find counting book in verse! Many iterations later, with feedback from both my critique group and my editor at Peachtree, it became a community science adventure packed with birdwatching tips.  Night Owl Night, however, came to me with its complete story arc soon after my own saw-whet owl banding experience.  I had learned and felt so much in a single evening that I believed I could use a similar setting to have my audience do the same. Because I wanted the book to invite inquiry about other species of owls as well, and to teach more about the significance of banding in bird conservation, those refinements came later through additional research.  

Me:  Do you use a dummy and/or storyboard in your writing process? 

Susan: This may sound strange, but my dummy/storyboards are really in my head.  My artistic skills are very untrained, so I rarely try to sketch my ideas on paper.  Then, when I think the book is approaching a satisfying draft, I paginate the manuscript.  I’ve heard that some editors/agents don’t like to receive paginated manuscripts from authors who aren’t illustrators, but for me it’s a necessary step.  It allows me to “see” spreads and page turns, including potential “cliff hangers,” to be sure the story has  enough visual and plot interest.  Paginating also helps me with pacing and ensuring the book will “work” within a picture book format. 

Beyond the Books:

You can watch trailer for Night Owl Night, and download activity kit (a fun migration maze included!) at Susan's website.

Make an owl puppet out of a paper bag – and tell your own owl stories. Here's how.

Learn to talk like an owl. Here are some great resources from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and the American Bird Conservancy.

Bake an Owl pizza (no owls will be harmed in this activity!). You’ll need to make a pizza crust and have pepperoni and olives on hand for toppings. Here’s directions

Susan Edwards Richmond is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about her at her website.  Here’s where you can find my reviews of her other books, Bird Count and Bioblitz!: Counting Critters

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, August 23, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ what pops up after rain

Last week when I walked over to the garden to check the rain gauge (9/10 of an inch) I noticed a couple mushrooms had popped up. So I decided to take a 5-minute nature break, which edged into 10 minutes, and then longer because I kept finding cool things under the pines and out behind the garage. 
It was a Great Day for Fungi! And for the things that nibble on them. Here's a few of the fungi, and one saprophytic plant that I discovered. Next time it rains, go on a fungus-looking walk in your neighborhood.



Lichens. Who doesn't like lichens? They grow on tree bark, old picnic tables, rocks... in and around moss. Some are crusty and some are like flat leaves.



Coral fungi look just like ... corals! Some come in fantastic colors. Those growing under our trees are white, sometimes yellow.

These are Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) - a plant that uses fungi to get its food from the surrounding pine trees. They have scaly stems and many nodding flowers. They range in colors (reddish to white) though ours look a lot like bleached pinesap!

Sometimes I'm just curious about what eats the mushrooms. I don't know, but it would be neat to catch fungus-nibbling squirrels, slugs, insects in the act of dining.

Even though I co-authored Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More with Alisha Gabriel, I am still learning about mushrooms and lichens and other things in the Kingdom!

What will you discover about the Fungi in your neighborhood?

Friday, August 18, 2023

If you Burn a Forest Down...

Devastating wildfires have been in the news all summer, from Canada to Hawai’i, too often with deadly consequences for people and wildlife living in the path of flames. After a fire, people might choose to rebuild their homes and communities. But what about the forest? 

The Glorious Forest that Fire Built 
by Ginny Neil 
32 pages; ages 6-8
Amicus Ink, 2023

theme: ecology, wildfires, nonfiction

I am the forest. I am the fire, with flames whirling round. I swallow the forest…

When a fire consumes a forest, not much is left but black ground. But seeds fall, fungi sprout, flowers bloom, brambles and berries begin to grow, and animals move in. In this book Ginny shows the process of succession, from meadow back to forest.

What I like about this book: I like the cumulative way the story builds, adding one thing at a time to create a new forest where trees once stood. Succession is a process, and it happens bit by bit. Ginny tells a tale using rhyme and a familiar structure that kids will recognize. I like that it’s told from the point of view of the forest, and that once the trees have grown tall, there’s the realization that change is a constant in the environment. And I like the back matter, with a timeline of forest succession. 

What I like Best: This book ends with actions kids can take to protect forests from fire and a warming climate. In her author’s notes, Ginny admits that writing about fire when so many people have been affected is difficult. “The long view reveals that they also give much back to the land that they have ravaged,” she writes. She explains that the combination of fire suppression and climate change has contributed to the huge, catastrophic wildfires we’ve been seeing most recently. 

I wanted to know more about Ginny's writing, so I asked her  
A Couple Questions:

Me: What inspired you to write about fire succession?

Ginny: As a teenager, I spent my summers at a great camp in Virginia. The leader, John Ensign, took us on forest walks and one day he pointed out to us that hardwoods are the air conditioners of the earth. I began to wonder what would happen if they disappeared. That was a very early seed for the book.

After I married, we took our family out west to Colorado and drove through areas that had just been burned. I was intrigued to see bits of green poking up here and there – another seed.
Ten years ago, I retired from full time teaching and began writing. By 2017 I had a manuscript in progress called “This is the Forest that Wind Built” but in 2020 the news was all about forest fires and I remembered that trip to Colorado. I turned my focus to thinking about what happens to a forest after a fire. 

Me: How did revising/revisioning help you clarify the story you were writing?

Ginny: I think you finally know you are a writer when you recognize the importance of drafting. There were 42 drafts of The Glorious Forest that Fire Built, maybe more. 

I've learned to trust my gut. I will get a certain feeling when something is as good as I can get it and that's when I need to put my pencil down. 

This story started in 2017 with these lines, "This is the forest the wind built..This is the field that is home to forest the wind built...." About draft ten, fire made an appearance, but this manuscript still had a long ways to go...First lines were, "These are the flames that danced bright and hot..."

In 2021, on my 20th draft, I tried writing it in first person and suddenly I knew I was closer to saying what I wanted to say. The first three lines were almost word for word what is currently in the book, but the rest was a mess.

Ten drafts later, my agent Lisa Amstutz began helping me refine it, but it was pretty close at that point. We were just tweaking meter and rhyme.

This amount of drafting is pretty normal for me. I'm not sure how it is for other authors. Sometimes, I don't even know what I want to say until I have tried it a lot of different ways.  I do not like first drafts, but I can also spend too much time agonizing over every single word in a rewrite. I am trying to find a happy medium.

Me: Thanks for sharing your process, Ginny.

Beyond the Books:

Go for a forest walk. What do you notice about the temperature when you are walking beneath the trees? What do you hear as you walk in the forest? What kinds of plants do you see? What does your forest smell like?

Draw a picture of one of the trees that lives in a wooded park or forest near you. If you can, do a bark rubbing, collect a leaf, take a photo.

You can learn more about forest fires and succession here.

Ginny Neil is an award-winning teacher, a master naturalist, and 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, August 16, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Contrasting colors

One of the things that attracts me to gardens is color. Bees are attracted by color, too! They appreciate yellow and orange and blue and purple flowers. So whenever I walk by a garden, I take a peek at who's visiting the blossoms. This time I was rewarded with a contrast in colors: the bright green of the bee against the brilliant purple of the coneflower.
This week as you walk by gardens, look for contrasting colors. It might be a brilliant pink flower against bright green leaves. It might be tiny black bees on white daisy blossoms. Or it might be colorful bees - or butterflies - and their blooms.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Spider in the Garden

 I see lots of crab spiders in the flowers, and wolf spiders running through the mulch. But the other day I found this Nursery Web spider hanging out on top of a lupine leaf. I couldn't quite look it eye-to-eye, but I got close... so close that I could see the silk coming out of its body.

This week pay attention to the spiders hanging around on the plants nearby. They might be hunting, waiting in ambush, or spinning a web. What do you discover by looking close?

The book review is still on vacation, but drop by next Wednesday for some more backyard science.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Pie That Molly Grew ~ Blog Tour next week!

 Join me and a few of my friends between August 15 - 28 as we talk about pumpkins, pie, and pollinators.

Aug 15 - at Vivian Kirkfield's blog for a Book Birthday & giveaway
 Aug. 16 - we'll join the STEAMTeam at Maria Marshall’s blog, The Picture Book Buzz

Aug. 18 - at Carol Baldwin’s blog & a giveaway!

Aug. 23 - with Kathy Halsey on the GROG blog

Aug. 25 - over at Beth Anderson's blog

Aug 28 - with Lauri Fortino at Frog on a Blog

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Garden Cats

 A couple weeks ago, while counting pollinators for the Great Sunflower Project, I noticed this handsome caterpillar clinging to a stem in the fleabane. I was attracted to its stripes - beautiful colors! But when I asked my lepidoptera friend what it was, she said "what color are the spiracles?" Those are the tiny breathing holes on the side. I have no idea, because I can't find this sneaky cat now!

This week take a closer look at the caterpillars hanging out on the stems and leaves of plants around your yard. You might discover unexpected beauty!

Book reviews are on vacation for a couple weeks ~ see you next Wednesday for some more backyard science exploration.