It’s Maple Syrup Time!

Can you see it? Hear it? Smell it? TASTE IT? It’s sugaring season in the Northeast. The official flavor of Vermont is Vermont Maple Syrup!

         According to Mark Isselhardt, University of Vermont Extension Maple Specialist, Vermont leads the nation in syrup production. These green mountains and their sugar makers produced “just over 50 percent of all the syrup in the US.” 2020 was a good year for sugaring. Mark said, “The weather cooperated with March being a bit warmer than average and April remaining cool enough to prevent tap holes from being plugged with microbial growth. We saw the largest crop produced in 80 years.”

It took 52 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup in 2020.


My friend Craig runs his home-grown sugaring love affair up in Shelburne, Vermont. He must be busy as all get out these days in his beautiful sugar house. My family thinks he makes the best syrup. It tastes like maple tree and earth and sky and sun. It tastes like Vermont.

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One of our most well-known birds in North America—the black-capped chickadee—does something pretty remarkable. Throughout summer and fall, chickadees can store thousands or even tens of thousands of food items. Chickadees hide all that secret grub—a thousand bits of beetle, bug, fruit, seed—behind birch bark, under lichen, between spruce needles.

And that’s not the most amazing thing. During winter, when food is scarce, chickadees survive quite nicely by remembering where they stashed all that food. How? Scientists discovered that the memory part of the brain—the hippocampus—actually grows over 30% in the fall. So, when finding food on a frigid day in January means life or death, chickadees will remember where they cached the food.

That’s some bird brain!

It makes my day as a nonfiction author to dig deep into the research and find these wonderful examples of scientific discovery. To be able to share it with readers is icing on the cake!


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Eagles are good parents

Parental devotion. A bald eagle broods two eggs in the middle of a snowstorm.

Check the live eagle cam.

Learn more about brood patches.

And… this place is great!
VINS Nature Center

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Imagine You’re a Cocoa Bean – 3rd graders study CHOCOLATE!


Hey teacher/librarian friends…this was a fun writing workshop. The 3rd graders at Patana International School were studying, believe it or not, CHOCOLATE! They were learning about the journey from cocoa bean plant to chocolate bar on the supermarket shelf. I thought POETRY would be the perfect way to kickstart the student’s nonfiction writing juices. We first wrote a TWO-WORD POEM and then, once warmed up, we dove into a POV POEM, writing a poem from the point-of-view of a cocoa bean. Thanks to Melissa Stewart’s wonderful nonfiction book, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, for an understanding of the cocoa bean ecosystem.



Check out the fun results!

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Here’s the teacher’s blog post about our 3rd grade poetry session.

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2nd graders create nonfiction comics

Last week I visited Patana International School in Bangkok. During the week-long visit, I conducted writing workshops for grades 1 – 5.  In the 2nd-grade workshop, I focused on hooking the reader with a good lead and using strong verbs and vivid details. The subject of our writing was sea turtle hatchlings. My directions were simple: you are sea turtle hatchling, break free of your eggshell with your egg tooth, clamber to the surface and then dash to the sea and swim away. Whenever I have given this assignment in the past, students write wonderful pieces of prose with lots of active verbs and turtle-ly vocabulary. How surprised and overjoyed when I saw what one group of second graders produced. Inspired by writing about sea turtles, they created comic strips of the hatchling’s journey to the sea. So cool!

Check out the teacher’s blog of the experience:

This week we have been incredibly lucky to have a visit from
children’s author, photographer, and naturalist Steve Swinburne as
part of our Non-Fiction November.
In our session with Steve on Wednesday we were blown aware by not only
his passion for writing, but his fascination for wildlife. Steve lives in
Vermont, a state in the United States, and is fortunate enough to be
surrounded by an incredible landscape and wildlife. It is through nature
which he uses his experiences and facts about nature and wildlife and
transform them into beautiful story books that children love.

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The book he shared with us was TurtleTide, which told the story of sea turtles Screenshot 2019-11-22 09.55.16.png
coming to beaches to lay their eggs.

In the session with Steve we learnt the first things a writer needs to do is
“get it down and fix it up” a motivating phrase that enhances the need to get
your words out of your head, get them down on paper and then you can go
back, edit and fix them……mistakes are good!

Steve also shared with us the 3 important things to remember when writing, “If you, as a writer, have active verbs, cool details and a hook to grab the reader, you are halfway there to making your writing really sparkle.” This was something we
got to practice with Steve in our writing workshop. Screenshot 2019-11-22 09.59.32.png

Following this session we were inspired to take his non-fiction story of the
journey of the Turtle, and adding our own creativity to the concept and our
current learning on writing comics, we created our very own comic strips of
a turtle’s journey.

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3H were inspired by Steve’s energy, passion, poetry, and singing about how to
be a writer and our need as a world to understand and respect animals. We
look forward to our next visit to the library to search for his books!



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The Last Straw

After a long day at the office, Marvin Stone was enjoying a refreshing mint julep at his Washington, D.C. home. It wasn’t long before pleasure turned to disgust as Mr. Stone’s drinking tube, made from rye grass, turned to mush. His drink was ruined. The year was 1888. The way people drank their drinks was about to change.

The inventor in Marvin Stone set out to make a better drinking straw. He fashioned a thin tube by wrapping paper around a pencil, sliding out the pencil and applying glue to the ends of the paper. The modern straw was born!


While people have sipped liquid from drinking tubes for thousands of years, it was Marvin Stone’s first paper tube that led to the invention of SO MANY KINDS OF STRAWS – plastic straws, bendy straws, jumbo straws, spoon straws, flexible straws. Some estimates say that Americans now use 500 million plastic straws a day!

Sometimes it seems like the plastic problem is too much, too overwhelming. What can I do when millions and millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans from rivers in places such as India and China?

Well, you can make a difference today, right where you live. If your family is eating out, REFUSE A STRAW. At home, SWITCH FROM A PLASTIC STRAW to a REUSABLE STEEL, GLASS, BAMBOO or PAPER STRAW.



Today, 50% of plastic manufactured globally is single-use plastic, like the straws above. When it might take 500 years for a plastic straw to decompose, a metal straw with a safe, silicone tip is a better bet.    

One less plastic straw in the environment could save a sea turtle’s life.


For one whole year, the author saved every piece of plastic he used. This obsession with plastic led him to ask why we love it so much and can we find a way to use it more wisely.

(this piece originally appeared in The Valley Green Journal)




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I am an immigrant.

I am an immigrant.



Born in London, England. On the edge of the city where chimneys poked the grey sky, and brick three-story walkups crowded each other like weeds in a lot.

We lived at Seven Wolsey Road. No hot water. No indoor loo. On Saturday mornings Mum boiled water on the coal stove and filled a cooper tub. Us three kids scampered in, soaped each other’s backs and laughed.

Dad worked on a post office train sorting mail. He’d be gone for days. My mum guessed he had a little something down in Devon to take his mind off the kids, the bills, the struggle.

Mum worked in a factory sewing buttons on coats.

My grandmother — Dear Nan – hid the bottle of cheap gin under her pillow.

I mucked about in the streets with my best mate Dirty George. We swiped candy at Mary’s Sweet Shop. We chucked stones at neighborhood kids.

Once a rock whizzed out of the dark and sliced my upper lip, leaving a thin white scar.

America beckoned.

Dad went first. Then mum and three kids boarded the big ship Queen Elizabeth to sail to New York City.

I clutched the railing and stared open-mouthed. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. Thousands on the dock to welcome us.

We are all immigrants.




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Alligators Make the BEST Moms

I wish I’d met Louis Guillette.


Lou was an internationally known research scientist and a passionate facilitator and advocate for science education from South Carolina. For over thirty years, he studied (and photographed) alligators and crocodiles in the wild. His research centered on the links between environmental contaminants and infertility and reproductive issues in alligator populations from Florida to South Carolina. “If the environment is not healthy for a baby alligator or a baby dolphin,” said Guillette, “It’s probably not healthy for us, either.” Lou showed that alligators act as a sentinel species for long-term health effects of environmental exposures, with many parallels to human development and lifespan. Colleagues used words like “extraordinarily enthusiastic” “inspirational force” “dedicated scientist” “charismatic” “funny” to describe Dr. Louis Guillette.

Sadly, Lou Guillette passed away in August 2015.

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Lou was gung-ho from the start when I first contacted him in April 2014 to do a kid’s book on alligators. “This is exactly the kind of thing I love working on,” he replied in his email. I’d proposed a book called The Alligator Scientist. After this upper elementary idea lost traction, I directed our collaboration to a younger audience.

I’d studied alligators as a backcountry wilderness ranger at Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. I knew that American Alligators are A1 mothers. They use strong jaws of fearsome teeth to protect their young, sometimes for up to 2 years. Inspired by Lou’s amazing photographs, I wrote Alligators Make the BEST Moms.

While photographing crocodiles in South Africa, Lou and his team were often tracked by lions and charged by hippos. All in a day’s work, he would say. “Being a scientist is the four best jobs on Earth,” Lou Guillette said, “You are a detective, adventurer, an artist and storyteller.”

Lou never lived to see the efforts of our collaboration. I think he’d have been pleased.

I’ve got a grin as wide as a gator as I introduce my new book,  Alligators Make the BEST Moms.


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Grade level: K – 3rd grade

Paperback: 32 pages

Publisher: West River Press

$10, includes shipping and handling

To order a copy of Alligators Make the BEST Moms, please contact Heather Swinburne at



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Author visit to Shanghai American School

Secrets of the Trade 创作秘密

(Written by Mette Vanderheide)

2:36Earth is Best – S. Swinburne来自SAS上海美国学校

“Keep your eyes open and really look,” Steve Swinburne, the visiting author, tells our elementary school students. That’s his trade secret—how he comes up with the stories for his non-fiction books about animals. Next up, he shows a slide with a picture of his house. It’s covered in snow. He asks the first grade students “What do you see?” They are surprisingly quick to spot a beautiful white owl, blended in amongst the snow-capped trees. That’s when he lets them in on another one of his ‘trade secrets’: in order to be a successful writer, he has to use all five senses, which help him remain in tune with the natural world. That means he has to put his phone and computer down and focus on what is happening around him—outside.

“睁大眼睛看世界。”是访问作家史蒂夫·斯温伯恩(Steve Swinburne)赠予我校小学生的一句箴言,这也是他动物纪实故事书的创作秘密。接着,他向学生们展示了他的住所照片,图中可见房屋上覆盖着一层积雪,这时他转向一年级小学生:“你们都看到了什么?”孩子们出人意料地马上发现了与树顶的积雪融为一体的一只美丽白色猫头鹰,紧接着他又分享了另一个“创作秘密”:若想成为一名成功的作家,就必须充分利用五官感受世界,这一方法有利于他适应大自然,但这也就意味着他必须放下手机和电脑,专注于周围发生的事情——外界的一切。

At Shanghai American School, our librarians work year round to not only add to and retain the largest English library in China, but also make sure we bring in some of the most creative authors to talk to and work with our students. Kimbra Power, one of our librarians, told us that our librarians “are approached on a weekly basis by authors and illustrators from all over the world who want to come to SAS.” But they don’t just accept anyone who wants to come to our school.

“Our authors need to be creative and clever, not just good writers or illustrators. Some authors with best selling books are not naturally charismatic and will not be able to work with our students. Other authors may have written and published some lesser known books, but know how to present with incredible enthusiasm, stories, and research advice.” The most important trait about the visiting authors is not awards or being on a bestseller’s list (though many of the authors we bring in have these accolades), but that they can provide a valuable and unique example to our students.

According to Mrs. Power, having a wide variety of visiting authors is an “opportunity of a lifetime” for all of our students as it allows our community to connect with people from varied walks of life, with diverse backgrounds and stories to tell.




One of these diverse and enthusiastic authors, Mr. Swinburne, was recently working with our elementary school students. Mr. Swinburne told us that he “loves to talk with children about research and writing. I give them practical advice. ‘Hook the reader! Get it [your story] down and then fix it up!’ Those practical things are important. But I also would like to have them learn that they too can follow their dreams. I followed my dreams, even though I thought I could never earn a living as an author. I think it’s important to do what you love.”

Mr. Swinburne had many jobs before he finally was able to become a full time author. He drove trucks, delivered pizzas, was in a rock band, and even had a stint as a boat captain. But his passion for writing was with him throughout it all. He kept a journal of his journey and discoveries along the way, including all that he was seeing and learning about animals.



Our elementary students may not have the same opportunities to observe sea turtles, crocodiles, and the other amazing animals that Mr. Swinburne writes about so well, especially in such a large city that has more cement than grass. So how can they come up with great stories? According to Mr. Swinburne they can write excellent stories right here in Shanghai, they just have to grasp the “adventure in your heart,” turn it into an “adventure in your head,” and then write it down in their journal. The most important thing, he tells them, is for them to tell their own story. “Everyone has a story, it could be about basketball or a birthday party. Or about a friend. Believe in your own story, believe in yourself.”


Not all of our students will become authors or illustrators, but it is important for them to be able to learn from and work alongside these incredible professionals. They are not just teaching them about how to write or draw, but how it is possible to be lifelong learners, to act with integrity and compassion in this world, and that they can courageously live out their dreams.

All of our visiting artists (writers, illustrators, mosaic artists, dancers, actors, etc.) live out our mission statement on a daily basis and show our students that the world is truly their oyster—they just need to stop and focus on their dreams and then go out and make it a reality.





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China in January 2017

On the Road to Beijing


When I was a kid I was told to finish my dinner because “children were starving in China.” We touched down in Beijing a week ago and all the children I’ve seen look pretty well fed. Thanks Mom and Dad for coercing me into eating that cold meatloaf.

Beijing is a busy, bustling city. We spend the first morning walking through Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 democracy protest. Ya’ll remember the iconic image of the guy standing in front of the tank.


We walked under a picture of Chairman Mao, the size of a movie screen, and entered an archway leading to the Forbidden City. Here lie well-preserved palaces and temples from 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties that lived and worked in palatial splendor. The place was packed. The Chinese love their history




2017-01-11-12-16-55The following day we taxied an hour and a half outside of Bejing to a section of the Great Wall of China called Mutianyu. The wall was first built in 550 and later reinforced around 1400. The Wall was built to keep out the likes of Genghis Kahn and his army of invading Mongols. It didn’t work. Genghis moved his troops into China in 1211.



I’d watched a Smithsonian special about the wall before we flew to China. I learned that the strength and longevity of the Great Wall of China lies in the sticky rice that was used as its mortar.

Over 400,000 people perished in the construction of the wall. Apparently they left them where they died. So this place is not only a barricade, but a tomb as well. The great wall was called “the longest cemetery on earth.”

We could have ridden the cable car up from the parking lot to the mountain ridge and the Wall, but we climbed the billion steps. It was a grueling work as crows cawed from the skies above.


We reached the top and explored the watchtowers and parapets for two hours taking selfies and imagining a horde of barbarians raining down on us from the north. I sharpened my dagger and held watch.



We concluded our visit to Beijing with a duck dinner. Not any duck dinner. But Peking duck at Suji Minfu, the best place in Beijing to eat duck. Peking duck is glorious. They started roasting duck in China around 420, one of the main dishes in the imperial court. Now everyone can enjoy the thin, crisp skin and amazing meat eaten in a pancake with scallion, cucumber, sweet bean sauce. No one spoke English but that did not matter. Duck was the common denominator.



At a nearby table three Chinese gents were feasting on duck and knocking back quantities of clear alchohol, maybe Chinese rice wine. They were happy and loud and looked at us and smiled. As we finished our meal and passed their table I said, “Ni hai” and shook their hands. They offered me a shot glass of their excellent rice wine. I drank it back to their great delight and with thumbs up we forged our very own U.S. – China détente.

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