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Homegrown Book Wins a Local Award

I have lived in Rockbridge County Virginia for 22 years. Being born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and not to parents very outdoor minded, I somehow managed to spend every allowable moment outside exploring and dreaming of wilder spaces. Our property in Virginia covers 14 acres that we allowed to grow back from what can best be termed ‘excessive mowing’. The wildlife has followed, and I could easily spend the rest of my days exploring here; there is much to discover. In education this kind of focus is called place-based learning. Place-based learning is valued as a way to insure children have a grounded sense of awe and the ecological knowledge about local spaces in order to extrapolate, as adults, similar feelings towards far-flung places of the globe. Three of my picture books have local roots – either because the organism featured is local or because my work with local students inspired the idea – and the other two were inspired or nurtured by travel. I am lucky to have both possibilities for inspirational sources in my life.

So, with that long preamble, I am pleased to share the news that my fourth picture book, The Hidden Life in Streams, has won a local award – first place in the book category of the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Excellence in Craft Contest. The main star in The Hidden Life in Streams is a local stream near (on our property) and dear (full of place-based learning) to my heart. It also stars my daughter Mauri, who loves saving individual critters lives (including stink bugs) and who has helped me sample for Save Our Streams for years. In the book she is as empathetic as in real life. Also featured as characters are our dear friends, Steve and Wendy Richards, who trained me when I first joined the Maury River Save Our Streams chapter. This is the first book I illustrated myself, using photos and digital magic.

I have taught stream sampling to hundreds of Rockbridge County students over the last 20 years in my volunteer work with Boxerwood Nature Center’s education programs. This summer I got to read The Hidden Life in Streams and share its story to campers through one of Boxerwood’s programs. The local connections keep flowing. Now with this award, I hope the connections will ripple further to include even more young readers. If you’re interested in a copy, you can find one here. And if you’re local and would like a signed copy, you can find my email here.

Also, in helping promote the local nature of this book and its message, partial proceeds from its sale are donated to Boxerwood Nature Center to assist with their amazing educational programs. I will end with the lovely review from Elise Sheffield, the Education Director at Boxerwood, which is found on the back of the book:

“From small packages come great things: a water penny becomes a beetle, a tiny stream becomes a laboratory, and a child becomes a citizen scientist. Turn the pages of The Hidden Life in Streams to follow the adventures from land to stream to net. Guided by young Mauri, we meet the macroinvertebrates whose tiny bodies tell big stories about the stream and its health. A book about families for families (both human and aquatic), this gentle work offers a simple, scientific introduction to the flowing wonder just a stepping stone away. A whole new world awaits go and fetch that net.”

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Migrations

Now is the time of year that I see the most Monarchs where I live in Virginia. They are the third generation of adults scouting around to lay eggs before they die. Their young will be the fourth generation of the season – the generation that migrates south to overwinter as adults, their reproductive capacity put on hold until next spring. It is important to have milkweed growing for their larvae to eat. However, it is also important to have a lot of late summer and fall flowers blooming so that the adult butterflies can find enough nectar to give them energy to migrate.

Unfortunately, my milkweed is ragged and tough looking at this time of year. Monarchs do use it and successfully hatch, eat, grow and metamorphosis. But I wish I could provide them with fresh juicy plants. I have read, but cannot find the scientific article, about cutting milkweed in mid-summer so that there are fresh leaves for this last generation of monarchs. I have always been hesitant because I have a large patch and worried that I might miss a larva if I mowed versus cutting by hand. However, on my walk people recently cut a field (early July) and about 2-3 weeks later there were foot tall, fresh and juicy milkweed coming back from their cut stems. They look a lot tastier than what I have growing and I hope to discover larvae on them this month.

A quick search led to this:

 Cut- At mid season after the blooms have faded, cut some common plants back by about a third. This promotes fresh plant growth and could get you an extra generation of monarchs on the fresh new leaves. Leave some plants uncut if you want to harvest milkweed seeds in fall.

So perhaps I will try this next July. I hope you are seeing some monarchs flit around now too. And if you don’t have a milkweed patch (yet) or flowers blooming (yet), you can still help monarchs by sharing my book with any young readers you know. They will learn that milkweed matters. They will learn about life cycles and food chains and they might just grow up to plant some of each!

On my property, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) wins the contest for attracting the most diverse array of pollinators:

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See What a Seal Can Do

See What a Seal Can Do by Chris Butterworth and illustrated by Kate Nelms (Candlewick Press, 2013) is a sweet and creative way to introduce the world of gray seals to young readers. Beginning and ending with their seeming laziness as they lounge on beaches, the author brilliantly uses the circular structure of a picture book. In between we are treated to their activities underwater, which are anything but lazy!

The text is layered allowing for extra information to be conveyed without overwhelming the reader or the flow of the main text. In the classroom, a teacher may choose to read the main text straight through and then ask questions which can be answered with the smaller text as a post-reading activity. For example, on page 23 the main text is ‘Got one!’ After reading a teacher could ask, “I wonder how a seal can swallow a fish underwater?” Then go back and read the smaller text that explains/answers that question.

The illustrations were done in mixed media and are bold and inviting to young readers. I felt as if I were swimming beside the seal. The only back matter is drawings of other seal species on the end pages, but interestingly there is an index, which is not common in picture books. Whether used in the classroom or at home, this feature is useful for showing children how they can more easily find a topic they remember reading.

I really enjoyed See What a Seal Can Do. It is fun and informative on its own, and has good potential for extended use in the classroom. I hope you’ll check it out.

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Redwoods

I stumbled upon Jason Chin’s book Redwoods (Neal Porter, 2009) during my random library browsing this week (my favorite way to stumble upon a new book). Chin presents ‘all about redwood trees’ in a creative way that I think can pull in both ready and reluctant readers. In the book, a boy is reading about redwoods, and finds himself pulled into a redwood forest – from the subway to the heart of the woods with just a page turn. It’s delightful and captivating. Showing the boy in each page allows the reader to see just how big and majestic these trees are. I especially enjoyed the pages with framed illustrations depicting a change in action as the boy is exploring the canopy.

Redwoods ends with the boy back in the city, late for something, and forgetting his book on a bench. A young girl finds it, we turn the page, and her back into the forest. If you’ve ever seen the redwoods in person, you too will instantly travel there. I swear the last page is a section of Muir woods that I visited in 2017 and which is still fondly in my memory.

Redwoods is a creative way to share a lot of scientific and natural information with readers – I learned a few things about canopy creatures and reiterated trunks.  It’s done in a manner that feels like an adventure rather than any dry reading of content. I hope you’ll check out Redwoods and join in the adventure.

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Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds

I have always thought of horseshoe crabs as something mystical, seemingly prehistoric, but I realized after reading Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds: The Story of a Food Web by Victoria Crenson and illustrated by Annie Cannon (Marshall Cavendish, 2003), that I knew very little about them. The tone of the book perfectly matches my sense that they are mystical creatures, and I am now adding a trip to the Delaware Bay to my bucket list. I would love to see them crawling ashore to mate and lay eggs. Perhaps even more so, I would love to discover the freckle-sized hatchlings, which I gather is probably not very likely. It’s ok. I am still enchanted to know their natural history.

Historically, huge numbers of horseshoe crabs would come ashore every spring to lay billions of eggs that sustain migrating shorebirds, local birds, fish and more. And still there were enough eggs left to hatch.

The watercolor illustrations continue to enhance this story of this creature whose yearly journey has been happening since before the time of the dinosaurs. Published in 2003, Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds not a 500-words-or-less picture book. For that I am grateful. I started writing and learning about picture books in 2013 and was highly disappointed with the market demand for short picture books. I wondered if it was because parents did not want or have the time it took to read longer books. Then I wondered if regular exposure to only short texts would have a negative effect on attention spans, creating a negative feedback loop that for shorter texts. I do think there is some truth to these ponderings.  

Of course, there have been many wonderful short picture books created over the years. The reason I bring this up at all is that noticing the high word count, I looked up what it was exactly. ARBookFind says there are 2122 words. What is interesting is that the site states it is a book with interest level k-3, but it has an ATOS Book Level of 5.7. ATOS is a readability formula, and means that this book is leveled to fifth graders in the seventh month of the school year. This is not a picture book that a beginning reader could tackle. It is meant to be read to and shared with younger readers or enjoyed by older readers. As an adult, I enjoyed this book and learned about this organism and its amazing life cycle. As an ecologist I believe this kind of knowledge and these kinds of books are vital to sustaining our planet. So, I hope there are parents with the time to share these books and kids who are still willing to read picture books once they hit older elementary school and beyond.

The author’s note spells out the all too familiar warning of habitat loss and population decline of both the horseshoe crabs and the shorebirds who rely on the abundance of food the eggs provide. We may be too late to witness this spectacular natural event in the manner of the recent past. But it’s never too late to spend and hour with some books and a young reader.

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Galápagos George

I picked this week’s review of Galápagos George by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Wendell Minor (Harper, 2014) based on the cover. It instantly transported me to the Charles Darwin Research Station that Chris and I visited in May 1990. We were on our honeymoon to the Galápagos Islands and immersed in the splendors of evolution as we learned how the islands isolated species, allowing for further speciation between islands (in the case of the tortoises) and within islands (in the case of finches). What lay between the covers of Galápagos George did not disappoint.

The story begins around a million years ago. We meet Giantess George and learn how she and other tortoises came to be on the islands, and then over time how they developed into different species on various islands. Much later, we meet Lonesome George, the only remaining descendant of Giantess George. He was found in the 1970s and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where the tortoises are protected.

Lonesome George was born around or a bit earlier than 1912 and lived at the station until his death in 2012. Unfortunately, a mate was never found for him and that species is now extinct. We saw many tortoises on our visit that day, perhaps one of them was Lonesome George. I remember reading about him, but don’t recall details of that day. Galápagos George follows the same trajectory of initial meeting and awe about a species, to sadness and loss (due to human greed), to hope, that I used in Oyster Matters: A Keystone Species Story. Humans are still degrading habitat and treating other species as if they are not necessary participants in the web of life. So, sadly, these kinds of books, are still needed. Of the 15 known species of Galápagos tortoises, three are now extinct, including the Pinta Island saddleback tortoises of which Lonesome George was the last individual. It isn’t fair that older generations count on younger generations to right their wrongs, but thankfully there are many in the older generation camp that are out their doing the research and conservation and activism needed to slow down the damage. And one way we can all help is to know the stories of loss and hope – and to help instill that hope in our young readers by sharing these stories with them.

A blast from the past:

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Mammoths on the Move

While I love the escape of a good novel, for me the best thing about reading is when I am so awed by something I learn that I find myself on new paths; paths of discovery that didn’t exist in my world before then. The next best thing is when I am coaxing the excitement of that discovery in a young reader. And so, I really wished I still had a young reader in the house when I was reading Mammoths on the Move by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2006).

Mammoths on the Move is written in verse and gives the reader an overview of mammoths as they migrated in the search of food, how they protected their young from predators, and of course we get a wonderful sense of how big they were. The content is readily approachable to very young readers. The illustrations are a mix of scratchboard and watercolor which gives a mesmerizing glow to the page causing me to linger at the details.

So, what about the path of discovery this book revealed for me? In this case, it’s more a path that I forgot to keep wandering on, or one that would be fun to revisit with a young reader. A few years ago, I planted a Kentucky Coffee Tree after wanting one for years. I had been teaching a Native Tree program to fourth graders in two of our local elementary schools – an outreach project of Boxerwood Education Association. At our second session a student brought in an amazing seed pod from a tree, but he didn’t know the tree’s name. Neither did I. We researched it together, and I was introduced to the Kentucky Coffee Tree. A little more research revealed that the seeds need scarifying to germinate and that scientists think perhaps the seeds were dispersed by mammoths who had the teeth to scratch up the tough seed coat a bit, but passed out the seeds uneaten. Not knowing that boiling water could be a means of scarifying the seed, I tried filing, which was difficult and unsuccessful. Eventually I just bought a tree. For many reasons, I never further researched the mammoth connection at the time. Reading Mammoths on the Move returned me to that path. If you’d like to take a little walk on it too, you might enjoy this post from the blog: In Defense of Plants and this post from American Forests.

I hope you will check out Mammoths on the Move, but whatever your next read, I hope you take some time to follow the paths it might reveal. Discovering new paths is, for me, one of the best parts of life.

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World Ocean Day

In honor of World Ocean Day on June 8, 2021, I thought I would review a charming picture book perfect for a sleepy afternoon or bedtime. Little Whale by Jo Weaver (Peachtree 2018) follows a mother gray whale and her calf from their winter birth waters in the southern hemisphere to their summer feeding grounds in the northern hemisphere. The northbound part of this 12,000-mile round-trip journey is taken by mother and calf on their own without the protection of their family pod. Journey North has a kid-friendly graphic that shows the migration route.

Little Whale is illustrated in monochromatic charcoal drawings of blue that create a wonderful mix of calmness, awe inspiring wonder and sometimes a little dread – though this is short-lived because mother is always nearby protecting her calf. The reader is pulled into their underwater world as mother and calf travel. The absence of busy pages and lots of color act to enhance my curiosity about their world and to marvel at the vastness of the ocean. It makes this incredible migration all the more incredible to ponder how they make it.

World Ocean Day, of course, has the focus of saving our oceans and a plan to save thirty percent of the ocean by 2030. This is a wonderful goal. However, I believe that children cannot necessarily be moved to save something that they have no connection with. I also believe that connection can begin with a good book. After reading Little Whale, you can research their life cycle, or learn about other whale species, or any ocean topic that is sparked in your young reader. Connections promote love and love carries that child into an adult that will care about saving a natural resource. I hope you enjoy Little Whale.

Three of my books have ocean connections that are great for young readers too. Oliver’s Otter Phase is a fiction story about a boy who spends the day trying to be a sea otter. Salmon Matters: How a Fish Feeds a Forest looks at the role of salmon in moving nitrogen from the ocean to terrestrial habitats. And Oyster Matters: A Keystone Species Story looks at the beginning, the fall and the restoration of oyster populations, stressing how important they are for clean water. If you read any of these, I welcome your comments.

Happy World Ocean Day!

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Summer Time Family Time

I got to help my friend and education partner, Elise Sheffield, with one of her/Boxerwood’s Saturday morning programs for families a few weeks ago. It had been so long since I got to share ecology with children! Making the morning even better was that their parents attended. Part education, part modeling how and what to explore – this theme was macroinvertebrates – it felt much more organic than a classroom often feels. I got to be part scientist, part author, and every family received a signed copy of The Hidden Life in Streams. I hope the families remember it as fondly as I do.

Making the outdoors ‘user friendly’ for families is the theme of a manuscript I have been working on and shopping around for quite a while. I really hope it finds a home in the near future, rather than sitting on publishers’ and agents’ desktops. Until that hopeful time, I dug out some other picture books that you and your young readers might enjoy for summer explorations. They all have that lovely mix of field guide identification with some more in-depth explanations.

America’s Wetlands and America’s Prairies and Grasslands by Marianne D. Wallace (Fulcrum Publishing, 2004) would make perfect companions if you are planning a road trip this summer. Both books have an introduction to the subject habitat, and then sections based on regions of the United States. The illustrations are annotated with plant and animal labels and the back section gives more detail on common plants and animals one would encounter. These books make great starting points for curious readers and budding naturalists. Wallace has also written books in this series on deserts, seashores and forests.

Two others that can be enjoyed whether traveling far and wide or staying closer to home. One Small Square: Woods and One Small Square: Ponds by Donald M. Silver and illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (McGraw Hill, 1994 and 1995). These books will fascinate and satisfy the curiosity of budding naturalists that keep wanting to know more. Each page is busy with explanations, diagrams, labels and often sidebars with scientific exploration instruction. Your young readers won’t be bored with these books in tow outdoors and I daresay, screens might even be forgotten! This series also includes books on the desert, the seashore, coral reefs, tropical rainforests, artic tundra, and for those who may not feel ready to travel yet, there is one on backyards.

My books make great introductions to ecological concepts and the books profiled here build on such baseline knowledge. Whether you enjoy them before you head out to explore or carry them along, I wish you fun and wonderment in the world around you.

I will leave you with my latest illustration (I think it’s not done, but not sure what it needs) from a photo I took during a wildflower walk in our own lovely Brushy Hills – a habitat worth visiting and protecting.

Yellow Lady Slipper Cypripedium parviflorum
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Where Happiness Begins

I took up meditation again this past March. I had dabbled with it a few years ago and enjoyed it. I’m still only practicing for 10 minutes a day, but I look forward to these minutes trying to be hyper aware instead of lost in thought.  In a nutshell, meditation is really about recognizing that today, the here and now, is all we have and that our mindset can go a long way in making us happy. In other words, holding happiness hostage until some future time when you can realize it, neglects the happiness you already have. So, I was delighted to find another powerful book by Eva Eland that states this same idea about happiness in Where Happiness Begins (Random House, 2020).

With the same whimsical illustrations as her book When Sadness is at Your Door, Eland leads us on a journey beginning with fleeting and superficial forms of happiness. The reader is lead through times when happiness seems elusive, and ultimately to the understanding that one does not need to look for happiness because it is always present, because it begins with you.

I often write lesson plans to accompany books I like, but there is no need to for Eland’s books. She provides a guided reading lesson for both Where Happiness Begins and When Sadness is at Your Door. These plans make great conversation starters for at home readers and their adults also. As I write this review, I am at home prepping for a colonoscopy tomorrow, which will be happily over by the time you’re reading this. But what about today? This day will be spent and pass whether I choose to be crabby or happy. Why hold happiness hostage until Friday night when I can eat again?  Might as well find my happiness now.

I will close with a favorite quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”