Books, Nature, Science/Math

Spring Seed Sorting

Here’s a fun spring activity that touches on many different subject areas — spring seed sorting.

Here’s what you need:

  • Various seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, beans, apple seeds, popcorn, strawberry seeds, pear seeds, for example)
  • White paper
  • Marker
  • Glue

Here’s what you do:

  • Have your child sort the seeds by color and shape
  • Squirt glue on the paper, and have your child glue the like seeds together
  • You can give your child the names of the seeds you’ve provided and have him/her guess which is which
  • Label the seeds

More things to do and discuss:

  • Do the sizes of the seeds predict how big the plant will be?
  • Seeds contain embryonic (baby) plants, as well as the food they need to grow. Which of your seeds do we eat as food? If you pop the popcorn, you can see the white food puffed up. Yum!
  • How are strawberry seeds different from all other seeds? (Answer: They live on the outside of the strawberry).
  • How are the black sunflower seeds that birds eat different from the sunflower seeds people eat? (Answer: The tough seed coat has been removed.)
  • What do seeds need to germinate? Can you start a seed without water? Light? Soil? (Hint: You can germinate seeds without soil. Try wetting a paper towel, placing a seed inside and putting it in a plastic baggie. Tape the baggie to a well-lit window and see what happens.)
  • Encourage your child to try new foods so they have more seeds to add to their collection.

Nancy Elizabeth Wallace’s book, Seeds, Seeds, Seeds, prompted this activity. In the book Buddy receives a package from his Grandpa with five seed-related activities for him to explore. You can easily replicate Grandpa’s activities in your own home.

Books, Nature, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Just One Bite

Author: Lola Schaefer
Illustrator: Geoff Waring
Publication Info: Chronicle Books, 2010
Intended audience: Preschool and up
Genre: nonfiction, picture book (32 pages)
Themes/topics: nature, animals, science
Opening and synopsis: ”With just one scoop, a worm can eat… –> . this much dirt (and everything in it)!”
Schaefer and Warning reveal how much nectar a butterfly sips and how much bamboo an elephant bites. They rely upon simple sentences and vivid visuals to show how much 11 animals consume in only one bite. Backmatter includes more detailed discussions of 12 creatures and their eating habits. For example, reticulated giraffes use their sticky saliva to coat thorns making them easier to chew. Komodo dragons can eat up to five pounds of food every minute. That’s a lot of meat!
Resources/activities: This book is a great excuse for a trip to the zoo. Our zoo features komodo dragons; after reading about their insatiable appetites, I was ready to take a peek at them again. If you can’t make it to the zoo, check out National Geographic’s Kids site for more information about animals and their appetites. Finally, the National Science Teachers Association, which selected the book as an Outstanding Science Trade Book, recommends a scaling activity found….here.
Why I like this book: This book is a cross between two of my favorite Steve Jenkins books, Actual Size and Time to Eat. Children find animals fascinating, and this book spurs discussion about animals and their environments.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Nature, Science/Math

Spring Project Update

The caterpillars are here!

They survived an overnight on our porch (I forgot to check for delivery…ooops!) They also endured a trip to Cooper’s school yesterday where the curious preschoolers crowded around and watched them eat and eat and eat.

Growing butterflies has proved to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster, however. So far this morning, only one of our five caterpillars is eating, and he’s markedly bigger than the others. I’m not sure what might have happened overnight. Uh oh! This may require a second effort, perhaps one where I remember to check the porch for packages.

We continue to water our seeds and keep them in the windowsill. So far, no sprouts, but I’m crossing my fingers.

Homeschool, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

Eagerly awaiting very hungry caterpillars

Yesterday was the first day of spring. This year, I’m working hard to make sure we have lots of spring fun. Aside from our seed-related activities, I’ve ordered painted lady caterpillars from Insect Lore. Choosing among ladybugs, butterflies and ants was tough, but butterflies definitely offer the most drama.

So, here’s the deal. Insect Lore is shipping us caterpillars in a cup with special food. The caterpillars should feed, molt and grow for about a week. (Did you know, caterpillars molt? As they grown they burst out of their skin, revealing the new skin underneath. Eric Carle never mentioned that one.) Then they should build a chrysalis and transform into butterflies within about a week.

Our kit includes a special butterfly-net habitat so we can feed and watch the butterflies for a couple of days before we release them into our backyard. I’ve already double-checked to make sure painted ladies will survive in our area. I know from research I’m doing for a book that some butterflies are very picky eaters. Monarchs stick to milkweed. Karner Blues love only lupine.

The boys are excited. One of their Nature’s Miracles books is called Once There Was a Caterpillar. We’ve read it over and over to learn about the caterpillar life cycle: eggs, caterpillar, pupa (in a chrysalis), butterfly. As I’ve noted before, I love this series because each book contains ideas for talking with your children about the subject. as well as activity suggestions, books to read and useful Web sites.

Do you have any spring activities on your agenda? How do you celebrate the arrival of sunshine, warmth and new life?

Homeschool, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

First Day of Spring Fun

March 20th marks the first day of spring this year. At our house, I’m hoping spring will mean the end of an intense winter storm with high winds and cold rain. Didn’t the Punxsutawney clan predict only six more weeks of winter?

Nevertheless, we are celebrating the beginning of spring at our house by engaging in a number of spring activities. As we drive and play outside, I encourage the boys to look for signs of spring: buds and blossoms on trees, ants scurrying about, birds singing their spring songs, bunnies hopping, warming weather. We’ve talked about spring weather and how it differs from winter. (NOTE: Click here for a Kindergarten spring weather lesson plan.) Finally, last week I took Cooper and Finley to Lowe’s where they each picked a packet of seeds and a pair of gardening gloves. We started our seeds in egg cartons since it’s still too cold to sow them outside. They are so excited about their plants, spritzing them with a spray bottle every day; I am crossing my fingers they germinate.

Many of our spring activities have been inspired by Scholastic’s Nature’s Miracles book series by Judith Anderson and Mike Gordon. The set includes four books — one each about seeds, caterpillars, tadpoles and raindrops. Each book explains a natural cycle; for example Once There Was a Seed  begins with a young girl and her grandfather planting a seed and follows that seed as it sprouts, blooms, produces pollen, and dies and spreads its seeds starting the cycle over again. The back of the book includes for reading the book with your child and suggestions for more spring activities, books for additional reading and helpful Web sites.

Hopefully warm spring weather has made it your way. Happy spring!

Books, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Bug Shots

Author: Alexandra Siy
Illustrator: Dennis Kunkel
Publication Info: Holiday House, 2011
Intended audience: Ages 6 to 10
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: science, nature, insects
Opening and synopsis: ”Bugs bite. Some drink blood. Bugs rob. They steal food from gardens and fields. Bugs kill — mostly each other, but also plants, animals, even people sometimes. Bugs destroy. They eat houses, clothes, and furniture. Bugs bug. (Is bugging a crime?)”
In her latest book, Siy invites children to become Fellow Bug Investigator (FBI) agents, surveying page after page of bug “mug shots” (photomicrographs) and learning more about them via their “rap sheets.” Thus informed, Siy encourages  children to deliver a verdict: are bugs good, bad or just plain bugly?
Why I like this book: Siy is one of my favorite nonfiction science writers for children. We love her Cars on Mars book, which chronicled the adventures of Spirit and Opportunity as they roved the Red Planet. She has a snappy, engaging style that ensures her subjects are never boring. With that said, this book would be nothing without Kunkel’s photomicrographs — essentially colorized pictures taken using a scanning electron microscope. Imagine a honeycomb-like grasshopper exoskeleton magnified more than 3000 times. Picture the hairs on a water strider’s legs magnified 2100 times, so you can truly understand how it walks on water. Even my three-year-old wants me to read him this book because the pictures captivate him.
Resources: This would be a great addition to any unit on bugs. Teachers and homeschoolers also can reserve time on the University of Illinois’s BugScope so kids can control the scanning electron microscope on their own while taking a close up look at the bugs they captured.
At home w collect our own bugs and look at them using our 99-cent magnifying glasses (thank you 99 Cent Store). I also bought a bug catcher at Target for a couple of dollars a few weeks ago. This can provide endless hours of entertainment on a nice spring day. A friend introduced me to Insect Lore a wonderful Web sit chock full of fun bug products. We just ordered painted lady larvae. Finally, Penn State has a list of fun bug  sites for kids….here.

Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Books, Holidays, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

April Fool, Phyllis!

Phyllis in front of an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter plane
Phyllis in front of an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter plane

As avid readers of Punxsutawney Phyllis by Susanna Leonard Hill recall, Phyllis predicted an early spring. Bored from all that hibernation, Phyllis decided to take a little trip this year in anticipation of April Fool’s Day, the subject of her newest book.

I am flattered to say that our family was selected as the first stop on Punxsutawney Phyllis’s World Tour to promote  April Fool, Phyllis! We are big fans of her original Groundhog Day story, and her April Fool follow-up continued to delight.

During her less-than-24-hour stop in Southern California, Phyllis received multiple readings. Cooper and Finley read the book for bedtime Thursday night. On Friday, Ms. Dina’s class at Palmdale United Methodist Preschool read the story. The class also helped Phyllis find her way to the sugarhouse using the maze from Susanna Leonard Hill’s site. We also shared the book with some of other friends in the area.

We made sure to snap a few photos of Phyllis alongside some of our more recognizable landmarks: Joshua trees and super fast airplanes. (Important note: Our area is the birthplace of the Space Shuttle and the spot where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time. Planes that have flown higher, faster and further are all developed, built and tested here.) Phyllis really enjoyed the trip to the Joe Davies Heritage Air Park where she saw all kind of stealthy aircraft including the SR-71 Blackbird, U-S Dragon Lady, and F-117 Nighthawk. Rumor has it she might have taken the Nighthawk for a spin.

Phyllis loved the Joshua trees.

And now, for a review of the book (drum roll, please!):

Author: Susanna Leonard Hill
Illustrator: Jeffrey Ebbeler
Publication Info: Holiday House, 2011
Intended audience: Everyone!
Genre: picture book (32 pages)
Themes/topics: April Fools Day, nature, weather, groundhogs
Opening and synopsis: ”Phyllis knew everything about the weather. After all, she was Punxsutawney Phyllis, Weather Prophet Extraordinaire! So, when she woke up on April first, the day of the Spring Treasure Hunt, it took only one whiff of the morning air to tell her something wasn’t right.”
All the signs point to a blustery blizzard for April Fools Day. No one believes Phyllis’s prediction that a storm is on its way. When the snow hits during the annual Spring Treasure Hunt, will Phyllis be able to save her cousins?
Why I like this book: Honestly, there aren’t that many April Fools Day books on the market, and with small children at home, I like to celebrate each new holiday and season with a themed book. Beyond its theme, there are several elements to recommend this book. First, its discussion of weather and natural cycles can inspire lessons about how to predict weather, signs of spring and winter and the like. Second, children actually participate in the Spring Treasure Hunt along with Phyllis and her cousins. My three and five-year-old love puzzles and mysteries, and they enjoyed shouting out their guesses to each new clue. Finally, Hill includes a historical note in the back of the book detailing the origins of April Fools Day. As with the best children’s books, I learned something new. I had no idea that April 1st originally was considered New Year’s Day under the Julian calendar. When the Gregorian calendar took root beginning in 1582, New Year’s Day became January 1st. Those who continued to celebrate April 1st as the first day of the new year were considered the original fools.
Resources: Hill includes classroom guides for kindergarten, first and second grade on her Web site. This guides align with many state standards for several subjects. Just for fun, Hill also has a Phyllis paper doll dress up page and a maze worksheet.
And now, we must say “bon voyage” to Phyllis and send her on her way. Next stop….Texas!

Books, Nature, Outside, Reading

Perfect Picture Book Friday: The Camping Trip That Changed America

I feel truly honored to review this delightful book. I had read so much early press about it on several nonfiction blogs. The story intrigued me, especially since we recently took the boys to Muir Woods, named for naturalist John Muir. I was lucky enough to win my a copy from one of my favorite blogs, Teaching Authors. And Barb wrote a beautiful inscription to Cooper and Finley so that they’ll always remember their trip to Muir Woods.
Author: Barb Rosenstock
Illustrator: Mordicai Gerstein
Publication Info: Dial Books for Young Readers – Penguin Young Readers Group, 2012
Intended audience: Ages 6 to 8
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: U.S. history, nature
Opening and synopsis: “Teedie and Johnnie didn’t have much in common — but they shared a love of the outdoors. They both loved a good story, too. And that was enough to change America.”
Rosenstock focuses on a brief excursion in 1903 when famed naturalist John Muir and then-President Theodore Roosevelt camped amongst the giant sequoias in the Yosemite wilderness. The two grown men swapped tales and relived their boyhood during their three-night camp out. Though Johnnie and Teedie never saw each other again after the trip, they became lifelong friends, and that friendship influenced outdoorsman Roosevelt, spurring him to protect more of America’s wilderness. Roosevelt subsequently helped establish 18 national monuments and 55 bird sanctuaries and game preserves. He also added 148 million acres to the National Forest system and doubled the number of National Parks, according to Rosenstock’s notes in the back of the book.
Resources: Rosenstock’s site has a lesson plan for teachers and parents, which is written to Common Core Standards. The boys and I also enjoyed exploring the Yosemite Web site, taking in numerous photos and videos of the majestic park. There are separate sections for kids and teachers.
Why I like this book: As a writer, I am always interested in narrative frameworks. In this book, Rosenstock focuses in on a period of four days, yet these few days have far-reaching impact in America’s history. This approach stands in sharp contrast to books that attempt to cover whole lives of well-known figures or entire historical periods. By narrowing her focus, Rosenstock is able to explore the camping trip in great detail, drawing upon primary resources like newspaper articles and government reports.
Mordicai Gerstein won a Caldecott Medal in 2004 for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. His illustrations capture the beauty and majesty of the ancient redwood forests.
This book would be a great read for Arbor Day or Earth Day. Or, if you have budding naturalists or history buffs, this book is a perfect everyday read.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Cultivating curiosity, Nature, Science/Math, Writing

Nonfiction Writing: Wielding the Microscope

I’ve been hard at work on my first-ever fiction manuscript. While the piece is a made-up story, I am trying to make my lead character — a groundhog — as realistic as possible. My first task was to brush up on hibernation facts by checking out a few nonfiction children’s books from the library.

I started by skimming Pamela Hickman’s Animals HibernatingLet’s face it. I know the basic groundhog story: go to sleep and wake up in time for Groundhog Day, see shadow (or not) etc. But reading Hickman’s book, I became so fascinated by the topic of hibernation that I slowed down and started reading more slowly. She captures perfectly the principle of wielding the microscope: choosing a very narrow topic, becoming an expert and finding something interesting in the familiar.

Clifford Stoll talks about this process in his article, “How to Build a Curious Child.” As he says, “if you are bored or think you know, narrow your focus.” This is exactly what Ph.D. students and college professors do. They don’t write a thesis about the entire Civil War or the whole subject of astronomy. Instead, they pick a smaller piece: a little-known battle or Civil War-era family or the genesis of Mars’s moons and spend years researching and writing the topic.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan talks about this principle of making the familiar unfamiliar in his book, Curious? One technique he suggests is to pick a totally unappealing task or topic.  As you do, try to find three novel or different things about it. Then talk about it with someone else, sharing your new-found thoughts and expertise. Kashdan’s research in a laboratory environment showed that people completely changed their view of the distasteful activity when they approached it in this way. And they were more likely to practice this technique in the future when faced with familiar or unappealing tasks and topics.

So, are you ready for some fun facts about hibernation courtesy of Hickman? You’ll never find hibernation boring again.:

  • Actually few animals are true hibernators — groundhogs are one — but several animals are “deep sleepers” including black bears, skunks and raccoons. The difference has to do with body temperature. Deep sleepers’ body temperatures lower only slightly, while hibernators’ temperatures can dip below freezing.
  • Remember all those sci-fi movies where people are cryogenically frozen and then return to life? Welcome to the world of hibernating reptiles. A number of frogs, turtles, fish and insects literally freeze in the winter. Their hearts can stop and their blood can stop flowing. But then when the air warms up, they literally come back to life.
  • Many hibernators don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom during hibernation. But others, like certain mice and chipmunks, like to nosh throughout the winter. They wake up from their hibernation from time to time and have a little snack. I guess they don’t worry about getting crumbs in their beds.

Wielding the microscope is what makes some nonfiction writers truly great, and I’ll talk about one such writer during my Perfect Picture Book Friday book review.  Stay tuned!

Books, Nature, Science/Math, Writing

Q & A with nonfiction-picture-book maven Melissa Stewart

 

Author Melissa Stewart

I promise not to gush, but Melissa Stewart is one of my curious kids’ favorite authors. Her science books are filled with quirky facts and zippy language proving that children’s nonfiction is anything but boring. When I started my journey into writing nonfiction picture books, Melissa was one of my big inspirations. I go back to her books time and time again to see how a master uses narrative structure and language.

This year Melissa will publish her 150th book. She has 21 new titles coming out in 2012 alone. Each book reflects her passion for science and the natural world.

She knows her stuff. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. She worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

Now, on to Melissa and her words of wisdom for new writers.

Where do your books ideas come from? What inspires you?

Melissa: Most of my book ideas come from things I read, things people tell me, or experiences I have. I’m a voracious reader and sometimes an article in a magazine or the newspaper will start a whole journey of exploration.

For example, my book It’s Spit-acular: The Secrets of Saliva was inspired by an article I read in Natural History magazine. The article focused on how pigs attract one another with pheromones in their spit. Apparently, perfume companies have isolated the chemical and added it to their products. But the chemical in question didn’t seem to work on humans. LOL! After reading that article, I became very interested in spit and started doing research. Saliva is way more interesting that you might think. Interesting enough for a 48 page book.

Do nonfiction authors typically use agents or are they more likely to query a publisher directly?

Melissa: Hmm. I’m not sure what is “typical” for nonfiction authors. I can only say that I don’t use an agent. Over the years, I’ve developed great relationships with quite a few editors, so I just submit directly to them.

What is the querying process like for nonfiction? Do you send a completed manuscript, as with fiction picture books, or is a query completely different?

Melissa: Most of my trade books are picture books. And whether they are fiction or nonfiction, editors need to see the whole manuscript. For longer books, editors generally want a solid understanding of what the book will be—target audience, word count, art ideas, a statement about why the book will be unique in the marketplace. I generally send samples that are long enough to give editors a good idea of the writing style I have in mind. That can range from a few pages to a few chapters depending on the book.

What are the best markets for nonfiction children’s writers, for example mass market vs. trade or educational?

Melissa: To build a career, I think the best idea is to write for all the different markets. Sometimes one market is feeling economic pressure. When they cut their lists, they don’t have to acquire new projects for a while. But I always have to pay my mortgage and electric bill. For example, when the trade and school and library markets are slow, I try to focus more on magazine articles and mass market. In my experience, diversity is the best guarantee of a constant revenue flow. And that’s fine with me because I like doing lots of different kinds of writing.

What does your research process look like, especially when the topic is completely new and/or challenging?

Melissa: My research process is different for every book. Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and focus on science, I have a solid background in most areas of science. Recently, I wrote a book about the technological and scientific aspects of locating and studying the Titanic wreck. This meant doing a lot of historical research, which I discovered is quite different from researching a science topic.

For most of my books, I can find a scientist to tell me exactly what I need to know. With history, there are some things we’ll never know. And because different people often give different accounts of the same event, it’s hard to know what’s “true.” I’m glad I had this experience because it gives me a whole new appreciation of the challenges some of my colleagues face and overcome with every book. I’m sure they might say the same about the kind of research I do. It’s a strikingly different way of gathering and analyzing the information.

How do you take nonfiction from “just the facts” to a finished product that whisks children through the pages?

Melissa: Ah, that’s the most challenging part of my job. And the part I enjoy the most. It’s the most creative part of what I do, and it’s so rewarding when I know I’ve hit upon just the right approach.

Sometimes a book’s format and hook comes to me right away, and sometimes it takes years. One of the books I’m working on right now has been a ten-year process. I’ve written hundreds of drafts and tried four completely different approaches. Hitting the delete button on a manuscript you’ve worked on for a year can be devastating, but it’s also exhilarating. It opens up so many new possibilities.

The final product of my decade-long struggle, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, is slated for publication in 2013. I’m really curious to see how people will respond. The format is very innovative, but absolutely right for telling the story of how rainforest creatures depend on one another. And it doesn’t hurt that the book focuses on one of our favorite treats—chocolate.

In nonfiction, how does the partnership with illustrators work? Do publishing houses select the artwork or do you have more input?

Melissa: Again, I can only describe what I have experienced. The process may be different for other authors. I generally am involved in the process. Editors send me samples and ask for my input. We usually chose the illustrator collaboratively. I review sketches because scientific accuracy is so important for my books and illustrators may not have a strong science background. I’m very lucky to work with some great illustrators, including Higgins Bond and Constance Bergum. The chocolate book will be illustrated by Nicole Wong and another upcoming book is being illustrated by my long-time friend Sarah Brannen.

Do publishing houses require an expert to review nonfiction manuscripts? What are some good ways to find these experts if you haven’t relied upon interviews?

Melissa: Some publishers will find an independent expert to vet the manuscript, but usually it’s up to me. I have a big file of scientists I’ve developed relationships with over the years. And I routinely contact  them as I’m researching and writing. It’s the only way to get the most up-to-date information.

If I need to find someone new, I usually use the Internet. University websites describe the work of their faculty and include links to their scientific papers. So it’s very easy for me to identify people who are experts in a given field.

Melissa, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to provide advice to beginning writers.

Melissa: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Kirsten. There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing for curious kids, so your blog is a perfect fit for the kind of work I do.

Visit Melissa at her Science Clubhouse or check out her Celebrate Science blog, which is always full of fun science facts. Also, please see my previous review of her fascinating book, Inside Volcanoes