Greeting Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is right around the corner (Feb. 2nd). What a fun way to explore whether, animals and folklore with your curious kids. There are a number of resources available online and in your local bookstore.

First, I’d like to recommend a delightful Groundhog Day book by fellow 12 x 12er Susanna Leonard Hill: Punxsutawney Phyllis (Holiday House, 2005). Hill puts a feminist spin on the Groundhog Day tradition. Phyllis is a young groundhog who knows she could do her Uncle Phil’s job. But her family is reluctant because she’s a girl. One year, Uncle Phil lets Phyllis help him make the annual prediction. He foretells six more weeks of winter when the signs of early spring are readily apparent. Phyllis changes Uncle Phil’s mind and becomes her uncle’s successor, breaking the groundhog glass ceiling. Hill also includes information about the traditions of Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil. This book is a fun read for children ages 4 through 8. Hill also has some fantastic Groundhog Day resources and activities on her site. You can find them…….here.

For a brief overview of Groundhog Day’s historical roots, see the official Punxsutawney Groundhog Club web site. Essentially, the tradition has its origins in the European Candlemas Day. To quote from the Groundhog Club Web site, according to one old English poem:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.”

Specifically, the Germans, who later settled Pennsylvania, believed that if a hedgehog cast its shadow on Candlemas Day, there would be a second winter. In North America, German immigrants substituted native groundhogs for hedgehogs, and the rest is history.

If you are looking for Groundhog Day-related activities and lesson plans, you can turn again to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Learn how to make a thumbprint groundhog, whip up groundhog cookies and more. The Mini Page also boasts activities and lesson plans for Groundhog Day.


When Curious Kids Get Sick

Sick boy

Well, we’re all still in our pajamas. Nobody’s going to school or “Mommy and Me” today. We had a sleepless night marked by raging fevers and barking coughs. So now I’m contemplating how best to keep two housebound, curious kids entertained until nap time.

Right now the kids are playing Starfall on the computer. Normally, I’m pretty strict about how much “screen time” they get, but these are extenuating circumstances. We’ve snuggled up with several favorite picture books and magazines, like Wild Animal Baby. (Note: We also love Highlights High Five, Big Backyard, LEGO Club Jr., and National Geographic Little Kids, which have lots of activities and puzzles.)

After a couple of PBS Kids shows, we have a science experiment to finish up. Yesterday we grew red and blue polyacrylamide crystals. We stacked them in a test tube and are awaiting the “sunset” it should produce. Sometimes being sick slows the boys down just enough that they are game for coloring, activity books or craft activities. When they are healthy, these things don’t keep them occupied for long. And there’s always our mountains of LEGOs to build and board games to play.

As for me, I will try to take advantage of this “slow” day to get some extra writing in. Since there’s been a marked downturn in wrestling and fighting, I’m revising my January manuscript so I can share it with my newly formed critique group. I’m hoping to finish a critique of another member’s draft today. I plan to go through and “Like” or “Follow” all my 12 x 12 in 2012 pals. Oh, and I need to get together a submission for Query Tracker’s logline contest. I better get moving before Mr. Rogers is over!


Nonfiction Friday: Pascual and the Kitchen Angels

Fiction or nonfiction? It’s often tough for me to classify Tomie dePaola’s work. His biography of Pascual Bailon, Pascual and the Kitchen Angels (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), is truly creative nonfiction at its best.

Using playful illustrations and captivating prose, dePaola recreates the story of Saint Pascual, a shepherd boy who yearns to be a friar and feed the hungry. When Pascual arrives at the monastery with tasty food from his mama, the friars ask him to cook a dinner. Pascual has no idea how to cook. What can he do? Why, pray, of course.

While Pascual is praying, the kitchen angels appear turning his ingredients into tasty dishes. This happens night after night. The curious friars want to know how Pascual produces his delicious dishes. When they see Pascual’s piety and how God has blessed him, they fulfill his wish of helping to feed the hungry.

Cooper, my five-year-old, loves the magic of the kitchen angels zipping around the kitchen to boil beans, chop vegetables and slice cheese. DePaola’s drawing are hilarious and half the fun. Pascual and the Kitchen Angels is what all nonfiction should be — a great story first and a lesson second. For those who are interested, dePaola includes a note in the back matter with the legend of Saint Pascual.

I’m contemplating a biographical picture book for my February  12 x 12 in 2012 manuscript. I think I’ll use dePaola as my inspiration.

Seeing snow

Snow globe

I love snow. I love the crunch under my feet. I love how it coats everything in its glittery glow. I love the way it brings the busy suburbs to a crashing halt and forces everyone to take a day off.

A good snowfall is a rarity in southern California. We might get a snow day every year or two. However, this year we haven’t even had our usual dose of winter rain. So, in our house we’ve had to resort to making our own winter fun, first with indoor snowball fights and now by making snow globes.

I tried this activity at the park today with several toddlers and preschoolers, and it was a lot of fun.

Here’s what you need:

  • Glass baby food jar (clean, with labels removed)
  • Small plastic toy (I found a selection of trees at Joann’s.)
  • Super glue
  • Glitter
  • Glycerin (CVS and Rite Aid make their own. Look near the lotion.)
  • Water

Here’s what you do:

Glue the small plastic toy to the inside of the lid, and let it dry. Add about a teaspoon of glitter to the jar. (NOTE: If you use too much, it gets clumpy.)  Fill the jar halfway with glycerin. Fill it the rest of the way with water. Screw the lid back on. You might add a dollop of super glue to make sure little hands don’t unscrew the jar. Flip the whole contraption over and voila, snow globe.

We are keeping our snow globes in the kitchen. They still leak a little bit despite my best efforts. Enjoy!

State Park: Antelope Valley Indian Museum

Crushing acorns

State Parks offer vast opportunities for children to learn and explore both indoors and outdoors. I recently took the boys to one of my favorite spots, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park located 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the vast Mojave Desert.

It was a welcome visit. The site had been closed for four years for earthquake retrofitting, and had reopened in the Fall of 2010. Our MOMS Club had organized a field trip to the site, so our visit took place outside of normal business hours (Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Our park ranger hosts had developed an hour-long program perfectly suited to the children’s ages.

First they helped the children experience the collection by playing games with them.

“What kind of tools do you have at home?” Ranger Jean asked.

“Screwdriver! Hammer!” the children shouted in turn.

“See if you can find some examples of tools in this room that the Native Americans used,” Jean challenged them.

And so the preschoolers set off to explore. When the children had found a few tools, Jean explained how Native Americans used rocks, twine and sticks to help them do their work.

The boys also heard a Native American story about Bluejay, Crow and acorns. They learned how native people made a kind of oatmeal from crushed acorns and pine-nut butter from pulverized pine nuts. (Pine-nut butter was Cooper’s joke.) The children got to try their hand at grinding the acorns and pine nuts just as the Native Americans did. Then we took a little nature hike along the nearby trail, which typically boasts a beautiful wildflower display during the season. We wrapped up our morning with a nice picnic that allowed us to chat with ranger Deb one-one-one.

For locals: The Antelope Valley Indian Museum , a State Historic Park, is a Southern California gem. Located in the vast Mojave Desert about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the park was once home to amateur anthropologist William Arden Edwards, a set designer in Hollywood. The main portion of the museum is Edwards’s Swiss chalet-style home, which he built directly into Piute Butte. A rock outcropping serves as one wall of the home’s majestic Kachina Hall.

Edwards harbored a deep interest in Native Americans of the southwest, and his home included a room for displaying his collection of pottery, baskets and other artifacts. Years later, he sold the 160-acre property to Grace Wilcox Oliver, who turned the it into a full-fledged museum. She converted the home into exhibit galleries, added her own collections and operated the Antelope Valley Indian Museum for more than 30 years. The State of California bought the site in 1979.

Ooooooooo blech!

Playing with Oobleck (aka Arp) at the Exploratorium

Ooooooo blech: the recognition that something is both astoundingly cool and disgustingly yucky. Now I know why school children call this cornstarch/water mixture Oobleck.

Since I don’t have children in school, the first time I encountered Oobleck was at San Francisco’s mega hands-on science museum, the Exploratorium. An exhibit had this liquid (or is it a solid?) in a giant drum. Press a button, and the drum shook rapidly. The Oobleck turned into a solid until the shaking stopped. I had to try this magic at home.

Fortunately Cooper’s Mind Blowing Science Kit had the recipe: 1/8th cup water and 5 T. cornstarch. Mix it up and enjoy the magic. During stirring, Oobleck becomes solid at the bottom of the bowl and difficult to move. But, if you stop stirring and gently touch the top, it feels like a liquid. The process of hardening under pressure or intense shaking is the opposite of the liquefaction that occurs during earthquakes.

Oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid, also called a shear-thickening liquid, but it’s not the onlyone. Gravy thickens when you stir it (or so you hope). Struggle in quicksand, and it will be more difficult to escape. These substances defy Newton’s principle that applying pressure twice as hard to a liquid should move the liquid twice as fast. Good luck if you try that with Oobleck. Here’s a great explanation of Newton’s theories.

Mix up these common household ingredients, and check it out. I have to admit, I had even more fun than the kids.

12 x 12 x 12

What’s that, you might be thinking? A cube with a volume of 1728? The size of a new ottoman I’m buying? A 3D scrapbook page? Guess again.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I do set goals, but I create them organically throughout the year when opportunities arise. Well, a once in a lifetime opportunity popped up last week: the 12 x 12 in ’12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, and I jumped on in.

12 x 12 in ’12 is the brainchild of pre-published author Julie Hedlund. Two years ago, Julie brainstormed 30 picture book ideas during the month of November as part of the PiBoIdMo challenge. However, Julie realized that she only completed one manuscript from the 30 ideas she’d come up with. Thus, a new challenge was born: write 12 children’s picture book manuscripts in 12 months in 2012.

More than 300 people have signed up for the challenge from published authors and illustrators to newbies like myself. There are tremendous benefits: an ongoing support group, opportunities to form critique groups, prizes that include manuscript reviews by published authors. We work on the honor system. No one has to post a manuscript anywhere, we’re just honest with the group about whether we’ve reached our goal for the month. Manuscripts don’t have to be publication ready, but they do have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

For me, the greatest plus  of accepting the challenge has been a shift from “trying to be a writer” to “being a writer.” Julie Hedlund calls herself a “pre-published author,” a term I adore, and one I’ve adopted for myself. Julie’s completed books, she just hasn’t acquired an agent or a publishing house…..yet. I liken writing to running. If you lace up your shoes and get on the treadmill or track to run, you are a runner. You don’t have to complete the Boston Marathon to be a runner. Writing, like running, is a process. If you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, you are a writer regardless of whether you achieve publication.

I’m excited about this opportunity to write the types of children’s picture books I love: activity-based science books, biographies of scientific heroes and so forth. And I’m sure by December, they’ll be at least one or two fiction pieces in the mix. At this rate, I might even be pitching agents at the August  SCBWI conference ( Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) a full year ahead of my previous goal.

Do any aspiring writers want to join me for 12 x 12 x 12? You have until Jan. 29th to officially get in the game. Have any parents, teachers or grandparents seen holes in the nonfiction children’s book market that need filling? I’d love to hear your book ideas. If you don’t want to write them, I just might.

Nonfiction Friday: Amelia Earhart – The Legend of the Lost Aviator

As you may recall, last week was Amelia Earhart Day, and I wanted to find an age-appropriate book to support our discussions about this famous aviator. Unfortunately, my efforts met with little success, as most of the library books available were way over a preschooler’s head. However, I did find a beautiful picture book targeted for children ages eight and up: Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator by Shelley Tanaka (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2008).

While Cooper couldn’t read the whole thing, I did! (Note: I did not want to get into a protracted discussion with a preschooler about death, so I pretty much skipped over the part about Amelia disappearing. We just read about her key aviation accomplishments.)

At 45 pages, the book is lengthy, however it covers Earhart’s life from her childhood through her disappearance and its aftermath. It opens with Earhart’s first view of an airplane at the 1908 Iowa State Fair and recounts in detail her idyllic early childhood with her sister Muriel. From an early age, Amelia was an adventurer who enjoyed trying new things. Her parents instilled in her and her sister that girls could do anything from playing football to climbing trees.

The book also covers Amelia’s first experiences with flying, her record-breaking achievements and her final flight. Sidebars detail other related subjects and provide context: air travel, female fliers, Amelia’s fan mail, navigation techniques and other circumnavigation attempts. The book includes a mix of historical Earhart photos, including childhood pics, and beautiful illustrations by David Craig.

For older children, this provides a complete portrait of Amelia’s courage and dedication to flying. It’s an inspiring tale worthy of upper elementary children who are ready for chapter books.

PBS KIDS launches 40 new math games

I’ve been reading Lisa Guernsey’s book, Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five (Basic Books, 2007). Her key TV and game usage advice is that parents must be aware of the content (what you let them watch/play), context (how and how much you use media) and your child.

The boys don’t typically play a lot of computer games, but I’m a huge fan of Starfall. I swear Starfall is how Cooper taught himself to read. With that in mind, I read with delight the news that  PBS KIDS now boasts more than 40 new math games on its PBS KIDS Lab site ( These games are absolutely free and challenge preschool and early elementary children to learn math concepts with their favorite characters. Many of the games are designed for children as young as age three, so I thought I’d let Cooper and Finley try them out today.

You can help Dinosaur Train’s Buddy find and sort gemstones of different shapes and sizes. Go apple picking with Curious George to learn number recognition. Or help George count backwards to make his rocket blast off. Most games eliminate the need to click and drag, relying on clicking only, which makes the games easier for little hands.

The PBS KIDS Lab is not limited to math games. Children can help Gerald from Sid the Science Kid match objects to the climate in which they belong. Or, they can bake a cake for a celebration with Super Why?, forcing them to sound out and spell words along the way.

The boys were delighted with the new games. The 3 to 5-year-old games were a little too easy for Cooper, but he enjoyed them nonetheless. Finley enjoyed the games targeted to the preschool age group as well. Both boys were thrilled when their efforts resulted in a print-out prize (a coloring and cutting sheet), which they eagerly cut and decorated.

The site also includes a number of ideas for activities you can do at home to reinforce concepts. For example, have your child help you set the table and count out the napkins or forks. Or build a house for a favorite toy character to learn concepts like bigger and smaller. Home-based activities include supplies lists, complete instructions, as well as suggestions for books appropriate to the theme.

One final note: If you have a child in middle school through the college years, PBS KIDS is participating in the 2012 STEM Video Game Challenge. The challenge provides cash prizes to kids who can develop new math-based games for children ages four through eight. Here’s the link:

Armchair Archaeologist

From National Geographic's "Forbidden Tomb of Genghis Khan"

Do you have Indiana Jones aspirations?

I recently stumbled upon a UC San Diego Research project, called Valley of the Khans, that  involves thousands of armchair archaeologists around the world. The research team uses non-invasive tools, like satellite mapping, unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensing, in its efforts to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. These techniques minimize digging and respect local culture and traditions. Because there is so much satellite imagery to analyze, the team, led by Dr. Albert Lin, has asked average citizens to log onto the site and tag satellite data.

I’m still getting my feet wet as a “level 1 novice.” Using the video on the site, I’ve learned to tag roads, rivers, ancient and modern structures, which the team will explore. In this early phase, I am honing my technique as I get feedback on each map I tag.

While the subject of Genghis Khan is far too violent for early elementary students — he was a pretty nasty fellow, after all — I can certainly see upper elementary, middle school and high school students finding this to be a fascinating effort. The rich Web site contains history of Genghis Khan as well as the science behind the exploration. In November, National Geographic aired “The Forbidden Tomb of Genghis Khan,” and video clips are available on the program Web site.