Friday, September 22, 2023

Helping Species Survive

The Great Giraffe Rescue: Saving the Nubian Giraffes 
by Sandra Markle
40 pages; ages 9-12
Millbrook Press, 2023

Didn’t we just talk about giraffes a couple of weeks ago? Ah, yes – but those were math giraffes, and these are Nubian giraffes. And they have a problem. “People,” says Sandra Markle, “were destroying giraffe habitats as they dug into the land for its natural resources or cleared it for farms, roads, and homes.” Add to that the threats from oil drilling – well, you can see why giraffes might need a bit of help. 

When oil drillers laid out plans to begin drilling in one part of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, wildlife scientists knew they had to move giraffes to another part of the park to preserve the population. There was only one small problem: to get to the other part of the park required crossing a river, and there was no bridge.

What I like about this book: I like how Sandra Markle sets up the problem (how do you move a herd of giraffes) and then shows how wildlife scientists solved it. Along the way she includes a lesson on giraffe biology, “Nubian Giraffe 101” and plenty of sidebars. Readers learn how interconnected giraffes are with the trees and savanna. The illustrations make you feel like you’re right there in the field with the wildlife scientists and conservation workers.

Raising Don: The True Story of a Spunky Baby Tapir 
by Georgeanne Irvine 
36 pages; ages 8-12
‎San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press, 2022

When a baby tapir is born, everyone at the zoo is excited – except his mom. She wants nothing to do with him. A first-time mother, maybe she was surprised by his birth? wondered the animal caretakers. So they snuggled and fed the cute spotty and striped baby and named him Don.

But how can people teach a young tapir what he needs to know to survive? For one thing, tapirs learn to swim from their moms. Don’s humans got him started in swimming lessons by enticing him into a kiddie’s wading pool. They slowly introduced him to new animals. And bit by bit, Don began to learn the ways of his species.

What I like about this book: I like the honesty about what’s involved in raising a zoo baby by hand. And author, Georgeanne Irvine shares the inside scoop, as she has worked at the San Diego Zoo. I also like that backmatter highlights things families can do to help wildlife.

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 copies provided by the publishers.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Fall Flowers

Happy Fall! Saturday is the fall equinox, and fall flowers are coming into their own. Like this aster...


Asters are composite flowers, being a composite of yellow disc flowers and purple ray flowers. The center disc flowers open a few at a time, from the outside in - you can see their cup shape and the stamens that hold pollen. Sometimes they look like spirals. 

This week take a closer look at the centers of flowers. What do you see?

Friday, September 15, 2023


 I’m always looking for books about math. Here’s one that came out just recently.

The Queen of Chess: How Judit Polgár Changed the Game
by Laurie Wallmark; illus by Stevie Lewis 
32 pages; ages 6-9
‎little bee books, 2023 

Themes: biography, women in STEM, math

Judit Polgár peeked through the door of the “chess room.” Her oldest sister Susan was playing, and Judit wanted to be part of the fun.

She gets her wish when she turns five, and joins her older sisters for five to six hours a day studying chess. Judit loved playing, and even more loved competing. Soon she was winning tournaments, and at the age of 15 became a grandmaster.

What I like about this book: I like how Laurie shows Judit as a ferocious and fearless chess player – and also as a young girl who does other things, too. Chess doesn’t look as exciting as soccer or skating, but for the players it’s an electrifying game of strategy. As a non-chess player, I appreciated that back matter includes a section on the mathematics of chess. Not only do young players learn to recognize patterns and develop spatial reasoning, playing chess helps critical thinking – because players need to think several moves ahead and be able to quickly change their strategy.

We’ve got a couple chess boards on the game shelf, but for some reason I never got the hang of chess. So I had to ask Laurie One Question:

Me: Did you play chess as a child?

Laurie: I did, but only for fun – I never competed. Playing the game didn't inspire my writing, but my knowledge of chess definitely helped me get into the mind of Judit Polgar. 
I think the best way to learn to play is by doing chess puzzles. These are not entire chess games but rather the board is set up with only a few pieces. The goal is to figure out how to get to checkmate by using a limited number of moves. Chess puzzles offer the opportunity to practice the rules of the game and to improve pattern recognition skills.  

Beyond the Books:

Read more about the life of Judit Polgar at her website here.

Learn the rules of Chess and how to move the pieces. Here’s one site. ChessKid is another place that’s set up for kids to learn how to play (requires that you sign up)

You can play other, non-chess games to increase your powers of pattern recognition. Here are a few: Uno, Clue, Memory Minesweeper, Tetris, and Connect Four. If all you’ve got is pencil and paper, try tic-tac-toe.

Laurie is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. She has written tons of biographies about women in STEM, many of which I have reviewed on this blog. You can find out more about Laurie 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. 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 Blue Slip Media.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Bees are Still Busy

Summer is winding down, and everyone - trees, flowers, animals - is getting ready for fall. The roadsides are filled with yellow and purple flowers, goldenrods and asters, with a few bright orange jewelweed blooms tucked here and there. Berries are ripening and leaving purple splots on the road where they fall.

The bumblebees are busy, too, out slurping nectar and getting pollen all over their legs and faces. Which is great for these late-bloomers that will be going to seed in a couple weeks.

This week, take a few moments to watch the bees - and enjoy the late summer blooms.
  • what color are most of the flowers growing along your roadsides?
  • what kinds of bees do you see?
  • how is the landscape changing as summer comes to a close?

Friday, September 8, 2023

Sloths on a Blog Tour!

The Upside-Down Book of Sloths
by Elizabeth Shreeve; illus. by Isabella Grott 
40 pages; ages 7-10
‎Norton Young Readers, 2023

Theme: animals, prehistoric animals, nonfiction

Slow. Sleepy. Weirdly adorable.

You might think you know a lot about sloths. But hold tight to that branch, says Elizabeth Shreeve. “Because everything you thought about sloths is about to turn …
… upside down!"

 For example, sloths are small. But long ago (like 40 million years ago) they were huge! Nearly as big as an elephant at the zoo! And you know that sloths hang out in trees and eat leaves. But back in the prehistoric times, some sloths took to the ocean to hunt for tasty sea grasses.

What I like about this book: One thing you notice about this book is that some pages feature large text with conversational language, and some have smaller text with sidebars that provide more details and facts. That makes this book useable on two levels: one as a picture book to read to the younger kids (6-7), and a middle grade level for the 8-10 year old crowd. Even with sidebars and fact-features, there’s additional back matter: a timeline of sloth history, an author’s note, and a list of books and web links where curious kids (and teachers) can learn more.

I also loved the way Elizabeth teases readers with facts and then notes that sloths weren’t always like that. “Long ago… they …” – and you have just got to turn the page to find out what they did! So I had to ask Elizabeth One Question

Me: I liked the way you compared present day sloths to prehistoric sloths - and the phrase, "But long ago..." Can you share how you came to that structure for this book?

 Elizabeth: Structure is so important for nonfiction! Otherwise we’re just relaying facts. I was initially attracted to the topic—flabbergasted, in fact!—by the differences between modern tree sloths and prehistoric giant ground sloths. My research files quickly grew full. All I needed was a way to organize and highlight what I’d found. 

After drawings lots of charts, I settled on a structure that pairs and compares the six living species of tree sloths with their prehistoric relatives. The first pairing was easy: size! The smallest tree sloth (the pygmy sloth of Panama) weighs about 7 pounds while the largest ground sloth, Megatherium, reached 8,000 pounds. From there I identified other attributes such as lifestyle, range, diet, behavior…all sorts of intriguing features.  

This compare-and-contrast approach, turns out, ties in well with language arts curriculum (check out the Teacher Guide on my website) and offered a way to structure all the research I’d done, with the refrain “but long ago…” as a repeated nudge to carry the reader through the book.

Beyond the Books:

Can you move as slow as a sloth? And why do they move so slowly, anyway? You can find out in this article from the Smithsonian Institution.

Make a sloth corner-page book mark. Here’s directions – and a video on how to do the origami folds!

Just how big were our prehistoric ancestors? Here's a video comparing modern with ancestor sizes (about 7 minutes long) and here's an article.

The Upside-Down Book of Sloths is on a Book Blog Tour! Here's a list of the stops so you can catch up with 'em: 
Sept 5: at Erin Dealey's blog  
Today - right here! 
Sept 12: answering Six Questions with Mary Boone 
Sept 15: chatting with Beth Anderson about how educators can use Sloths in their classroom 
Sept 20: at Maria Marshall's blog with the STEAM Team group.  

Elizabeth 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. 
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.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Explore Outdoors ~ Shadows in the Flowers

Usually when I go walking, I look for insects in the flowers. But last week I found something just as interesting: shadows! The sun was just at the right angle to make shadow of the flowers stamens.

This week, look for shadows in the flowers blooming in your neighborhood.

Friday, September 1, 2023

This Giraffe teaches Math

Giraffe Math
by Stephen Swinburne; illus. by Geraldo Valério 
40 pages; ages 4-8
Christy Ottaviano Books (Little, Brown & Co), 2023

theme: giraffes, math, interactive

Do you like giraffes? Do you like math? What if you put them together?

Twiga, a young reticulated giraffe, acts as a tour guide to the world of giraffes – and math! From their ossicones to their hooves, tongue length and spot pattern, we learn about the wonderful way giraffes have adapted to their environment. And we get lots of cool facts, like a single hoof is as big as a medium pizza! (I really should not write reviews before breakfast!)

What I like about this book: What a fun way to make math concepts accessible. Take the first spread about height: there’s the facts (13-20 feet tall), a comparison to other animals (including a third-grader), and an introduction to triangles. How do triangles figure in giraffe math? So glad you asked. Imagine a thirsty giraffe at a watering hole. With long legs and a not-quite-so-long neck. They spread their legs and bend their neck… and if you look at them from the front, they look like a triangle. What sort of triangle depends on how tall they are. You can see how math just sort of worms its way into a book about giraffes. I mean – there’s a whole spread about patterns!

I also like the artwork. The illustrations were created with paper collage, acrylic paint, and color pencil and they positively invite children to take a closer look! There is also back matter, with information about the giraffe’s lifecycle and where they live in Africa (and a range map), a glossary, some metric conversions, and a pop quiz to see what you remember. There were no questions about pizza!

I wanted to know more about Steve’s writing, so I asked him a Couple of Questions:

Me: Why - and when - did you decide to write the book from the giraffe's point of view? 

Steve: Twiga was in my first draft of the manuscript. Right from the start, I heard this voice, this narrator, a giraffe that wanted to tell its own story. Who better to introduce readers to fascinating facts about giraffes and their relationship to other creatures than the animal itself. I wanted the book to be a kid-friendly guide to giraffes, and I realized that a friendly, welcoming giraffe named Twiga would be the perfect tour guide to the world of giraffes. Of course, Twiga means giraffe in the Swahili language. 

Me: What about kids who love giraffes and hate math? (That would be me!) I want my math sneaked up sideways on! I don't want to know it's even there...

Steve: It’s SO ironic that a guy who disdains math, hated math in school, has an aversion to arithmetic, writes a book with MATH in the title. Thank goodness, Twiga is there to help me with the numbers. I was a kid who hated math in school and I wish I had had this book that uses a giraffe’s gentle voice and lots of cool natural history to ease me into understanding some early math concepts like measurements, shapes, percentages, etc. It’s like the song says, “Just a teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way!” So for the kid who hates math, my advice is let Twiga be your guide to some very cool giraffe facts with just a smidgen of math.

Me: Yes! I wish I had a Twiga to help me learn some math. Thank you, Steve. Now let’s go…

Beyond the Books:

Learn more about giraffes. You can find books at your library, and get lots of great information from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation – where you can even adopt a giraffe! They even have a downloadable workbook with all sorts of activities.

If you were a giraffe, what sort of spot pattern would you have? Draw your own unique spot pattern. Then, if you want to, head over to this page to see how well you do spotting the differences between real giraffe coat patterns.

Not all giraffes are born with spots! Just recently a spotless giraffe was born in a zoo in Tennessee. Check out this article from NPR.

Steve is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about him at his 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 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.

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.