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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The Little Book That Could

Safe in a Storm:Final cover

Happy Birthday to my new book – Safe in a Storm! It publishes today April 26, 2016.

Many thanks to Cartwheel Books and Scholastic Publishing! They did a wonderful job with the book. I’m over the moon with the book’s art! Jennifer A. Bell created beautiful, classic illustrations.

I call Safe in a Storm “the little book that could.” I never gave up on this story. And I felt like it never gave up on me, always tugging at my sleeve, as if nudging me to find it a home.

I wrote the rhyming couplets in late 2001, finishing the story in early 2002. For more than a decade, I’d submit the manuscript to editors, rejections would pile up, and I’d file the story away. Eventually, I’d dust it off and send it out again. Submission. Rejection. Submission. Rejection. On and on, for over 13 years, until an editor at Scholastic saw promise in this story of how animals find cozy places to keep their young safe and warm.

So…happy birthday Safe in a Storm! The story is dedicated “to teachers and school staff everywhere, who provide a safe harbor for children every day…in memory of the 20 Sandy Hook Elementary schoolchildren.”

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International school visits!

St. Croix. Singapore. Sumatra. Surabaya. Java. Borneo. Bangladesh. Dubai. Kuala Lumpur.

Over the last two years, I’ve traveled to these countries to visit International Schools. The kids in these schools are hungry for information served up in an interesting and dynamic fashion. The teachers are professional travelers and true citizens of the world, with endlessly fascinating stories of global adventures.

When I travel to foreign countries, like I do when I roam the states, I KEEP MY EYES OPEN AND MY EARS ON. You never know what you may find.

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A camel in the Dubai desert.

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A sunset in Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur.

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Tallest building in the world – The Burj Khalifa in Dubai.


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A waiting rickshaw driver in Bangladesh.


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A roti breakfast in Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur.


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A Kirkus Star for Safe in a Storm

Kirkus Star
by Stephen R. Swinburne, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
Age Range: 2 – 7


Safe in a Storm:Final cover

A soothing story follows adult animals as they protect their young and offer words of comfort during stormy times.

The story opens and closes with an adult collie and puppy, at first watching a storm roll in. The final pages show the same pair safe inside their farmhouse, with the reassuring words, “A storm will always end.” Each double-page spread features an adult with one or two babies, ranging from moles to whales to giraffes. The animals are all cuddly-cute and nonthreatening, even the wolves and the bobcats, and the swirling storms are evocative without being too scary. Each spread has a rhyming couplet in the adult’s voice addressing the stormy weather, along with some reassuring advice about staying safe next to the grown-up. The text doesn’t specify whether the adult animals are mothers or fathers, and though the larger animals seem parental, the story is dedicated “to teachers and school staff everywhere, who provide a safe harbor for children every day” and to the memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary victims. The story could be effectively used after any sort of disaster, with its supportive words about an adult’s calm shelter keeping little ones safe.

From young preschoolers afraid of thunderstorms to school-aged children learning to deal with worrying aspects of the larger world, this encouraging story offers a hopeful view of the protective power of caring adults. (Picture book. 2-7)



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A Book 15 Years in the Making

Safe in a Storm:Final cover

Like many writers, artists, musicians, comedians, I was frozen after the events of September 11, 2001. I didn’t know what to do next. And doubted what I did for a living — writing children’s books — made any difference at all. For weeks, I groped for a way to begin. Was it okay to write again?

It was the sounds from that dreadful day that awakened something in me. In the tumult of crashing and splintering, I heard the sounds of a storm. But also a reason to hope.

I began wondering how parent animals safeguard their young during storms – downpours, gales, thunderstorms, and howling winds. How do giraffes keep a little one safe when windstorms rage across the African plains? What does a mother whale and calf do when squalls beat the sea into froth and frenzy? And how can a mama sloth protect her baby when the wild winds whip through the rain forest bending trees and flinging leaves?

I started writing Safe in a Storm on a snowy afternoon in December 2001. I finished a first draft in early 2002.

Like a lot of manuscripts, it didn’t find a home for many years. I’d submit to a few publishers at a time, mailing manila envelopes to New York City and Boston (those were the days when snail mail was the only option). Rejection after rejection. Sometimes an editor would hang onto my manuscript but eventually nothing would come of it and my story would be returned. I’d file my story away, wait a year, and submit again. Rejections piled up. BUT, I never gave up on my quiet and simple read-aloud story about animals finding cozy places to keep their young safe and warm.

So I am ecstatic, after a fifteen-year-wait, that Safe in a Storm has found a home at Scholastic. And I jump for joy over Jennifer Bell’s gorgeous illustrations.

I believe good things take time. I believe good stories will find a home. And I believe Winston Churchill was right: Never Give Up!



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I dedicated the book, in part, to the “memory of the 20 Sandy Hook Elementary schoolchildren,” as I believe, that school was struck by a violent storm. I visited Sandy Hook Elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, on Dec. 1, 2009, two years before the tragedy. I remember the warmth and dedication of the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, and I am so grateful I got a chance to visit. Close by my writing desk, I keep letters from kids I’ve received over the years. I treasure the one from a student at Sandy Hook:

Dear Steve,

Hi! I’m a fan of your books. When you came to our school, Sandy Hook Elementary, on December 1, 2009 I was inspired to be a writer. Your the best author ever! When you read the first chapter of Wiff and Dirty George The Zebra Incident I was thrilled to read the rest. I will always remember the advice you gave me and to never give up. I hope to grow up and be a good writer like you. But already you gave me a heads up on how to do it.

Your fan,


“When the storm rumbles loudly and the sky turns to ink,

Snuggle close, my little mole. Touch noses, warm and pink.”


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