Friday, May 31, 2024

For Plants It's All About The Soil

 The Soil in Jackie’s Garden
by Peggy Thomas; illus. by Neely Daggett
32 pages; ages 5-8
‎Feeding Minds Press, 2024

theme: gardening, compost, pollinators

This is the soil in Jackie’s garden.

For those of us who garden, everything begins with the soil. And so it is with this book. Even before seeds can grow, we have soil. And worms. In this cumulative story, Jackie and her friends sow seeds, nurture plants, harvest fruit, and recycle scraps in the compost bin to ensure that the cycle of growth continues.  

What I like about this book: With it’s “house that Jack built” structure, this story is fun to read and will have kids repeating some lines before long. In addition to the story, Peggy Thomas tucks extra information into text boxes: explanations of xylem and phloem, a closer look at root tips and leaves, how plants breathe. Readers will see the garden through seasons of growth, ripening, and harvest. And then there are the close-ups of compost critters – one of my favorite spreads. Back matter contains more information about the soil cycle. 

While I love books that include the occasional vertical spread, I found that having an entire book open that way was difficult for me to hold on my lap. But if you’ve got kids who lay on their tummies to look at books, this format makes perfect sense!

Beyond the Books:

Watch how a seed grows. You’ll need bean or pumpkin seeds, a clear glass jar or plastic cup, paper towels, and an old t-shirt. You can find instructions under “Watch pumpkin seeds sprout” at Patricia Newman’s lit links.

Make some compost. But if you don’t have room to build a compost pile in your yard, you can make compost in a plastic soda bottle. Here’s how. When I did it I used newspapers, banana peels, apple cores, orange peels, egg shells, carrot peelings, and dried leaves.

Plant a bucket garden for pollinators. I use five-gallon buckets, but you can use smaller containers – even a plastic waste basket will work. You’ll need to drill some holes in the bottom for drainage and fill with potting soil. Here’s how to create a $5 bee garden.

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.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Fungus Among Us!

Last week I had the marvelous opportunity to share science fun with a student at our local elementary school. She is passionate about mushrooms, and had checked out my book, FUNKY FUNGI (written with Alisha Gabriel). The school librarian asked whether I could spend half an hour with her exploring mushrooms. So of course, I said YES!

I shared around 50 photos of mushrooms and coral fungi and staghorns and lichen that I'd found in my garden, yard, and nearby woods. Then we dissected a portobello mushroom from the local grocery store, following the directions listed in the activity from FUNKY FUNGI. We had So Much Fun! 

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I went walking through the woods again and I added a few new fungi photos to my collection - check them out. 

What Cool Fungi will You Find this Summer?



Friday, May 24, 2024

The Den that Octopus Built

The Den That Octopus Built 
by Randi Sonenshine; illus. by Anne Hunter 
32 pages; ages 4-8
‎Candlewick, 2024

theme: ocean, octopus, homes

This is the ledge of sandstone and lime, 
layered with shells cemented by time, 
that shelters the den that Octopus built.

Octopuses build dens. Not only that, they decorate around the outside – sort of like creating a garden. (Wait… isn’t there a song about that?) This octopus also decorates herself with shells to keep safe from predators, and nurtures her eggs that she keeps safe in her den.

What I like love about this book: I love the way Randi Sonenshine works “cephalopod” into her verse. Because, if kids can toss out long words like brachiosaurus, then cephalopod should be a piece of cake. I also like the way that the end of the book is a new beginning. And I especially like the back matter, where Randi discusses why octopuses is right (not octopi) and tentacles are not. She also talks about octopus suckers, smarts, and their short (not-so-sweet) lives.

I loved this book so much that I just had to reach out and ask Randi a Couple of Questions:

Me: In your author notes you mention that you were inspired by Rita. 

Randi: Yes, I was very fortunate to get an up-close and personal meeting with Rita, the resident Giant Pacific Octopus, at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
meet Rita!

Me: What did you learn from her? and how did you learn it (I imagine observation, but...)

Randi: My encounter with Rita allowed me to experience a lot of what I learned in my research through all of my senses. I watched her incredible powers of transformation in action: she went from a pale smooth, pinkish-purple to a highly textured bright rusty-red as she swam up for our visit. Her texture and color became even more pronounced when I was feeding her and she was “feeling me out” for the first time. It's hard to describe what I felt and sensed during that first “handshake,” to be honest. Feeling her suckers, which were smooth and cool, but not clammy, while looking each other in the eye/eyes was mind-blowing! This sounds a bit corny, but otherworldly is the best way I can describe it. There was a definite sense of cognition on an almost-human level, like a mutual acknowledgement and understanding.  I could sense her intelligence, and that's not something I could have learned from all of my reading, watching, and interviewing. 

Randi shaking hands with Rita
Me: What else can you share about your research for this book?

Randi: I learned so much fascinating information in my research, that I begged for another two pages of back matter. Alas, I didn’t win that battle, but I was able to include a section on hard bottom/cold-water reefs and the need for conservation efforts. I became especially interested in this topic when I interviewed Dr. Danny Gleason, a professor and researcher at Georgia Southern University and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, (which was the inspiration for the setting and illustrations by Anne Hunter). Cold water reefs aren’t formed from living corals like tropical reefs, but from sediments (sand, mud, and shell-fragments) impacted and cemented over time. That’s what inspired the first lines you quote.

Beyond the Books:

Find out more about octopuses. The best way is to meet one in person at an aquarium, but if you can’t do that, you can check out this video about octopuses.

Make an octopus from a paper plate, or a toilet paper tube. Check out ideas for papercraft octopuses here.

If you were an octopus, what sort of a den would you build? Draw a picture of what your octopus home would look like. I would probably build mine out of pillows and blankets so I could curl up and read a good book!

Randi is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. She’s written other books about animals that build: The Nest That Wren Built  and  The Lodge That Beaver Built. 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 22, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ a field trip to Sapsucker Woods

 A couple weeks ago we headed up to Sapsucker Woods (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) for a wildflower walk. I can hear you asking: what about the birds? Oh, they were there - noisy and generally high in the trees where we couldn't see them. Meanwhile, the wildflowers were hanging around, close to the trail, showing off their prettiest blossoms and smiling for the camera.

wild geranium 

These are native woodland plants, found in eastern forests in North America. I think the leaves look like hands with fingers spread out.



 White trillium, another woodland native.











Jack-in-the-pulpit (above) and some fern fiddleheads (below)

Sweet woodruff - it looks like it's related to bedstraw, and it is.


a quiet spot to listen to frogs singing....

and then off to see the geese! Oh, look at those cute fluffy babies!

Friday, May 17, 2024

How to Ask a Caterpillar a Question

 One Long Line: Marching Caterpillars and the Scientists Who Followed Them
by Loree Griffin Burns;  illus. by Jamie Green
64 pages; ages 7-11
‎MIT Kids Press, 2024

“This is a story about unusual caterpillars, curious people, and fascinating conversations,” writes Loree Griffin Burns. The caterpillars are pine processionaries. The caterpillar watchers are Jean-Henri Fabre and Terrence Fitzgerald, one working in France, one working in America, their studies separated by nearly a century.

And the conversations … they were with the caterpillars. How does one ask a caterpillar questions, you ask? If you’re Henri you play tricks on them and observe how they respond. Henri noticed that the caterpillars walked head-to-rear. He noticed that they seemed to follow a strand of silk – except for the leader who was tasked with finding the way. What would happen if he took away their leader? Would a caterpillar always follow the one in front of them? And what would happen if he could get them to march in a circle? When Henri died, he thought he’d answered his questions. But…
   … there was more to find out. At the turn of the millennium Terrence Fitzgerald, an entomologist at SUNY Cortlan began asking his own questions of caterpillars. He’d studied other social caterpillars who used pheromones to communicate, and he wondered whether Henri’s pine processionary caterpillars might have used pheromones. Henri was not around to chat with, but he could ask the caterpillars. One question he asked was: if the leader didn’t lay down any silk, would the others still follow? Terrence would have to play some tricks to get the caterpillars to answer – just like Henri did. You can find out more about his research and watch a video here.    
I love how Loree brought Henri and Terrence’s experiments to life. I love how she showed their process of asking questions, testing, and repeating the tests to learn how the caterpillars do what they do. Most of all, I love how she shows that “Science is one long line of learning.” Henri Fabre wasn’t the first naturalist to wonder about – and study – pine processionary caterpillars. Terrence Fitzgerald won’t be the last. Questions about these caterpillars (and other caterpillars) will continue as long as there are curious naturalists.

It’s not just questions about caterpillars either. Scientists are asking millions of questions about whales and space and dinosaurs and trees and fungi. What sorts of things are you wondering about? And how can you answer those questions?  

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 copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ apple blossom pollinators

 Last week I was walking by my friend's garden and the air was filled with the sweetness of apple blossoms. The tree was busy with pollinators: honey bees, flies, wild bees. Here are a couple of the pollinators that took enough time at the blossoms to get pollen on their legs and elsewhere.



What pollinators are you finding on the flowers growing in your neighborhood?

Friday, May 10, 2024

An Ocean Adventure with Michelle Cusolito

A Window into the Ocean Twilight Zone: Twenty-Four Days of Science at Sea 
by Michelle Cusolito 
144 pages; ages 10 & up
‎Charlesbridge, 2024

This is an adventure story! Author, Michelle Cusolito takes readers on a twenty-four day research expedition with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Destination: the North Atlantic. 

The scientists aboard Research Vessel (R/V) Sarmiento de Gamboa want to learn more about the ocean twilight zone. It lies about half a mile below the surface and scientists know “more about the surface of the moon than they know about the twilight zone,” says Michelle. The scientists are trying to learn more about the biodiversity and food webs in this zone, and how carbon moves from Earth’s atmosphere to the surface of the ocean, down through the twilight zone and eventually to the sea’s floor. To do that, they’ll use sophisticated equipment to help them collect and analyze samples from the ocean.

Chapter by chapter, Michelle introduces the reader to the vessel and the crew. As they head out to sea, she introduces the scientific equipment and the kind of data the researchers hope to collect. Of course, they don’t depend totally on new tech – there’s plenty of old-school ways to collect information about the ocean as they travel.

In one chapter, Michelle focuses on the MOCHNESS – not a monster, but a sophisticated collecting and sensing system. The nets collect creatures from different depths: lanternfish, octopuses, and a diversity of bioluminescent creatures. The sensors collect information about water temperature, salinity, oxygen and light levels. Other chapter focuses on cutting edge technology employed via water sled and underwater robots.

And then there’s the adventures: storms at sea, glitches in hardware that require creative solutions to recover equipment. I like how Michelle ends the book with a discussion  of the future of ocean science. She also presents early findings from the research trip and provides tips for kids who want to study the ocean. And the end pages are maps- so you won’t get lost as you travel along with the crew.

This was such a wild adventure story that I had to ask Michelle a Few Questions ...

Me: Tell us one surprising thing you learned from your adventure at sea. 

image provided by author
Michelle: I learned that Life Savers candies are used in a surprising way in ocean research! Here’s what I wrote in the book (page 79): Weights are attached to one of the candy rings, which is attached to the MINION [an underwater robot]. When the MINION is lowered overboard and into the ocean, the water dissolves the candy. Once the candy ring breaks, the weights fall off and the MINION reaches neutral buoyancy in the twilight zone, which means it hovers at a desired depth rather than sinking deeper or rising back to the surface. Not all Life Savers are up to this task, however. The ones that dissolve at the correct rate are individually wrapped fruit or butter rum ones, which are larger than those in a roll.
Me: How did you come to be part of the expedition? And what was your role/job? 

Michelle: It’s rare for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to bring a children’s book author out on an expedition where berths are in high demand. I’ve built a strong working relationship with WHOI since I first connected with them while researching for my first book—Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin—nine years ago. I strongly believe in WHOI’s mission and do what I can to support it. Writing books that feature their research is one way to do that.
I had three jobs while at sea:
  1. Researching for my book. This included conducting interviews, taking notes, and shooting lots of photos and videos;
  2. Working with another science communicator on board—Marley Parker—to write daily blog posts about the expedition for WHOI; and
  3. Assisting the scientists as needed.
Photo © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marley Parker

I generally worked 12-14+ hour days, just like everyone else. (It’s a 24/7 operation). I was on deck and in the lab with the scientists every day and during some overnight shifts. There were times when I’d go to bed at midnight and my alarm would go off at 3:00 am to go document the recovery of a piece of equipment. I’d be on deck working ten minutes later. (Except for the one time I was so exhausted that Marley couldn’t wake me!) 

I loved being in the action and assisting when needed. One of my favorite memories is from a day I helped process the animals brought up in the nets. I got to see creatures that most people will never see. The photo above is of me holding an Atolla Jelly from that day.

Me: A lot of your research was interviews and photos. How did you store your valuable information while at sea? 

Michelle: This expedition took place in May of 2021, so we had to quarantine in a hotel in Spain for two weeks before boarding the ship. While in quarantine, Marley and I conducted Zoom interviews with many of the scientists and engineers. This helped us get a head start on building our understanding of what we’d be observing. I took notes during the interviews, and we recorded them. I later transcribed those interviews. All of the work done in quarantine was backed up to the cloud because we had relatively good internet in the hotel. Once we got on the ship, it was a whole different ball game. 

We had a very poor internet connection on the ship. Marley and I struggled to email simple word documents and relatively small photos back to WHOI for our daily posts. We’d often have to send them late at night when most people were sleeping (and therefore, not using the internet).

On the ship, I took notes in regular old spiral notebooks - I used a total of four for this book! I had brought several pocket-sized notebooks (including a waterproof one) thinking I’d use them on deck, but I never did. There was no time for notetaking on deck. I’d do that as soon as I got back inside. 

I also kept a journal where I collaged and glued in memorabilia while in quarantine. I also recorded my personal feelings and thoughts, not necessarily intending to use them in the book, but a few bits did get in. (The sidebar on page 66-67 was pulled from my journal)

I also took thousands of photos and dozens of videos. I backed those up to an external drive.

Me: Thank you for taking us along on your ocean adventure, Michelle! 

Michelle is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website

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 copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Birds and Bugs Together!

Saturday is World Migratory Bird Day! Did you know that insects are an important food source for migratory birds? If you love to watch birds, make room in your yard for bugs!

Friday, May 3, 2024

Meet some Super Animal Dads

Superdads! Animal Heroes 
By Heather Lang & Jamie Harper 
32 pages; ages 3-7
‎Candlewick, 2024

theme: animal families, STEM

Bringing up babies in the wild is a mighty big job. Animal moms usually get the credit since they’re the ones who do most of the parenting. But some dads take the lead…

Who are these unsung dad heroes? And what do they do? Some, like the brown kiwi, incubate eggs and keep them safe until they hatch. In fact, there’s lots of dads who care for eggs: water bugs, seahorses, and frogs. Some dads hide their young by building a shelter or hiding them under his wings. Dads feed their young and some play with them and teach them life skills, such as hunting or singing.

What I like about this book:

Last year I reviewed Supermoms! so I was really looking forward to a book about dads. Heather and Jamie did not disappoint.

I like the way this author/illustrator duo presents the caretaking tasks dads do as superpowers, from child care and feeding to defending and teaching. And I like that the featured dads come from a diverse list of animals that include fish, amphibians, insects, birds, and mammals.  The cartoon illustrations are fun – like when the wolf pups play tug-of-war with dad – and the animal dialog gives readers an opportunity to stretch their role-playing skills.

And, there is Back Matter! One spread gives each superdad a chance to share a fun fact about his superpower. There’s also a list of books and online resources for curious kids to explore.

Reproduced by permission of the publisher* (full permission at bottom)

I had so much fun reading this book that I just had to ask Heather and Jamie a couple of questions:

Me: Hi Heather. I want to know how you found so many cool examples of Superdads. Can you talk about how you explored your research?

Heather: We knew from our Supermoms! research that moms do most of the parenting in the wild, so finding superdads would be more challenging. But luckily Jamie and I both love a good treasure hunt!

We began with a small list of remarkable dads that we’d discovered while working on Supermoms! Some of those came from a field trip we took to see the Museum of Science’s Nature’s Superheroes exhibit in Boston. Next, we searched the web, books, science articles, blogs, even social media. We watched webcams, YouTube videos made by nature enthusiasts, and many documentaries, including PBS Nature episodes. 

Along the way we reached out to experts for ideas, to confirm facts, and to clarify details. Sometimes this resulted in us cutting an animal. For example, contrary to what you might read, there is no real evidence that male bats nurse their young! I think reaching out to experts to fact check and ask questions is always one of our favorite research steps. Often our scientists share rich details we can add to the text or use in our back matter, and their enthusiasm is always contagious.

With a small pool of dads to choose from we worked to develop categories of parenting behavior. We landed on five: incubation, making a home, feeding, protection, and play. Then we played around with different combinations of animals in each category. We asked ourselves whether the facts were sufficiently different? Did they show a variety of parenting strategies and ecosystems? Which could lead to the funniest images and speech bubbles? What would look the best? It was a complex puzzle, but perhaps made easier by the fact that there were fewer dads to choose from. 

Me: This one’s for Jamie. What goes into deciding how to present illustrations on the page? In Superdads, pages are divided into panels, like a comic book. 

Jamie: Using a comic-book style was a new experiment for me, and a fun one because it gave me the opportunity to show an action happening over a period of time and not just in a single moment. In a way, moving from one panel to the next provides a pause, in the same way turning the page does. Those pauses allow for so much play like creating a surprise, exaggerating an emotion, extending the story, or simply allowing the reader to take a breath. It’s tricky, that’s for sure, but it gives you lots of extra tools when illustrating a book. I got to practice using multiple panels in Supermoms!, which let me loose to challenge myself further when making Superdads. I do wonder… will it be tough to return to illustrating a book, that doesn’t have this “comic book” format?!?

Me: Enquiring minds want to know - Is there a Superkids book in the works? 

Heather & Jamie: What a terrific idea! Actually, we do have some superkids in our next book in the series . . . Supersquads! (coming in 2025). Making these books together has been one giant collaboration, so writing a book about animals that team up in the wild seemed like the perfect choice!

Beyond the Books:

Observe some animal superdads. Some of the easiest to watch are birds. You might see them collecting nesting material or defending their territory by singing and chasing other birds. Do they help keep eggs warm? And can you catch them bringing home take-out meals for the chicks?

Do you have a parent, grandparent, or close relative with “superpowers?” What are they?

Think about the kinds of superpowers you have. You might have super-friendship abilities, a super-imagination, or you’re super-creative. (I once thought I could fly if I practiced. It didn’t work…)

Heather and Jamie are members of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about Heather at her website, Learn more about Jamie at her website, They both are active on Instagram, Twitter, and on Facebook.

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.

* SUPERDADS! ANIMAL HEROES. Text copyright © 2024 by Heather Lang and Jamie Harper. Illustrations copyright © 2024 by Jamie Harper. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ before the blueberries...

 About 10 days ago I noticed the buds swelling on the blueberry bushes. You can almost feel the impatience of the white flowers inside waiting to burst forth! 

What small bits of beauty will you discover this week?