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,

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“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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Talk at home about…authors’ journeys via @steverswinburne

Talk at home about…authors’ journeys via @steverswinburne.

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Get It Down, Fix It Up…Bangladesh edition

I love helping young authors in a writing workshop. To watch them stretch their writing wings is one of the best parts of my job. In recent workshops in Dhaka, Bangladesh, young authors tried out their writing wings buoyed up by strong verbs and vivid details.

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After a mini-lesson on the power of verbs and details in our writing, I showed a brief powerpoint about sea turtle hatchlings. During the powerpoint, I asked the young authors to make a list of vocabulary words regarding sea turtles (flippers, egg tooth, hatchling, sandy beach, scaly skin, counter shading, etc.). We were now ready to tackle the writing assignment.

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“I was on the beach. I saw a lot of baby turtles go down to the ocean. It was fun.”

The directions were to revise the above sentences into an interesting paragraph by using strong verbs and VIVID DETAILS. I set my iPhone timer to 10 minutes, and with heads down and sharpened pencil firmly in hand, the kids dove in.

I was so proud of my Bangladeshi students! They experimented, they threw down weak verbs and then replaced them with stronger ones, they penned generalizations and then edited in interesting specific details. They became writers.

Here are two examples of student’s work:

The hatchling slices open the thin coating of protection, with its egg tooth. This is where the beginning commences of a turtle’s life. Slowly rising out of the shaded home of security, black and white scaly flippers lurch forward out into the warm crunchy, sifting sand. Prey flies ahead and crawls across the sand in search for soft-shelled hatchlings. Scurrying across with every ounce of energy as the hatchling rush forward in search for potential safety. The rigid scales drag across the comforting sandy beaches. Ahhhhh….the first wave comes into contact with the hatchlings. The fizzling foam runs smoothly across the counter shaded back. At last, safely away from moments of danger. Sailing across the bubbling waters drifting along with the current. Gone, gone, gone…a new journey begins. Sarra 7th grade AISD

I wake up and can only see darkness. I’m currently a hatchling. I use my egg tooth to scratch and break the egg. I use my flippers to get out and as soon as I’m out, I get hit by cool air. It tastes and smells salty. I see a few rocks far away. As I get closer I see that they are like me, camouflaged into the night. As I move my scaly skin and crawl forward I join them. Together we move towards the ocean united as one. It’s dark but I can see clearly. Splash! I leave the beach and into the water. I am counter-shaded so I swim in peace. In seconds I’m far away from land. I prepare myself for what is coming and start my journey.        Aqib 6th grade ISD

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Continued Tales of a Tag – Along -Bangladesh Edition

The sounds of honking horns lull us to sleep at night and greet us in the morning. Incessant horn honking is probably the first thing that greets a stranger’s ear upon arrival in Dhaka. The horn is a means of expressing all kinds of things on the road in Bangladesh. It says “I am behind you, I want to pass you, I see you, hello, go head, don’t go ahead, move over, stop, hurry up.”These are things that drivers in many countries may try to communicate when they use their horns, but in Dhaka this is the language of driving. Actual traffic signals and signs are few and far between and rarely obeyed anyway. So how does one move through Dhaka’s daily, slow moving massive knot of cars, buses, trucks, CNG’s (a natural gas vehicle) and the ubiquitous rickshaw? Keep your hand on the horn of course!

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This is why very few expats drive themselves in Dhaka. Most everyone has a driver or has drivers they can use when they need to. Driving here is a skill that takes a long time to master.

The only taxi is a rickshaws or CNG’s. The rickshaws are tons of fun but very bumpy and you might not always get to the correct destination depending on your communication skills in Bangla or your driver’s understanding of English. The rickshaws also have no lights so nighttime riding can be a bit hazardous. As for the CNG’S, they are not for the faint of heart or the prudent, since you are literally riding in a metal cage with wheels while perched above a tank of condensed natural gas.

The horns of Dhaka have taught me that what one culture may find as annoying and aggressive noise pollution, is to another culture the daily dialogue of just getting around town.

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Bangladesh 2015

I am in Bangladesh to speak about manatees, sea turtles and wolves in a country where Bengal tigers, Asian elephants and Nile crocodiles roam. Actually, their are none of those creatures roaming in Dhaka, the capital city. Tigers, elephants and crocodiles live 100 miles south in a place called the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. IMG_6142

What roams here in Dhaka are people. All twenty million. Dhaka is rarely still or quiet. It is full of scurrying, plunging, dashing, walking, running, dodging humanity. And people here ride any means of conveyance. Rickshaws, bicycles, motor scooters, crammed cage-like buses, CNGs, cars, double-deckers. This is a honking, hustling, haphazard cityscape, where coconuts and aromatic teas are sold beside the road. And if you drive, it’s every man for themselves. IMG_6137

Tucked into this messy and muddled city sit the gated confines of the American International School Dhaka. I am teaching here for the week and in the capable hands of middle school and high school librarian Colleen Boerner and elementary school librarian, Carol Clark. I am not only talking turtles, manatees and wolves with Pre-K kids up to seniors in high school, we’re doing writing workshops and singing songs on the ukulele. Good times!

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Owl Count 2014

In Owl Moon, Jane Yolen writes, “If you go owling…You have to be quiet and make your own heat.” Maybe so, but when we set out on Saturday to count the owls in Hatfield, Massachusetts, I wore 7 layers up top and 3 down below.

I’d been on bird counts before. As a national park service ranger at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in N.Y.C. and then on Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, I led many early morning bird walks, moon prowls, beach combing hikes.

But all-nighter for owls…well, this would be interesting. “The night is perfect for owling,” said Heidi Stemple, our intrepid guide and long-time owler. A half-moon hung in the eastern sky like a lamp dimmed. One of the year’s best meteor showers — the Geminids — was peaking. The wind was hushed. It was 27 degrees Fareiheit.

Our band of five hardy owlers headed out at midnight to take part in the 115th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. “The longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on population trends,” so states the Audubon website. We were part of the night shift counting owls from midnight to sunrise. The day birders count what they see and hear from sunrise to dusk. The Audubon site also claims, “ten of thousands of participants know that it is a lot of fun.”

And fun it was. We drove back roads and circled frozen farm fields. We’d park, pile out of the SUV, and line up in front of dark woods…and listen. Heidi played the call of the Eastern screech owl on her iPod hoping to illicit some owly response. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Heidi said we were most likely to hear one of three species of owls: screech, great horned or barred.

Eastern screech owls range from 6 to nearly 10 inches in length, the size of a pint glass. This small owl comes in two colors: red and gray. You’ll see more rufous owls in the East. Like other birds of prey, they target rats, mice and moles, along with squirrels and rabbits. If it wasn’t for hawks and owls, we’d be up to here in rodents.

Great horned owls are the big boys and girls of the owl world. Their deep, soft hoots sounds like winter itself: whoo-whoo whoo-who-who-who-whooooo. When I was young and stupid, I raised a baby great horned owl. I lived in the backwoods of Georgia, far from prying eyes of the authorities. Of course, it is illegal to keep great horned owls and other birds of prey as pets. We called the owl Bubo and it successfully fledged. You don’t want to mess with Mother Nature – keep owls wild.

I love barred owls. Their eyes are dark chocolate. Their mottled brown and white face say, “You looking at me?” And one of the funniest things I’ve heard is a gym full of third graders mimicking the barred owl hooting call – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

At three o’clock in the morning, Heidi called in an Eastern screech owl with her digital device. The small red-feathered beauty perched in a maple tree on the edge of a farm field. Heidi switched over to her own voice, first, whistling a shrill descending whinny and then a thrill – flat and soft. “For one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes”…Heidi and owl talked, back and forth, as shooting stars fell out of the sky and all was right with the world.

Our final tally:

27 screech owls

14 great horned owls

1 barred owl

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So you want to be a scientist?

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Join Pamela Turner and I in Boston this Friday at the National Science Teachers Association conference as we explore sea turtles, dolphins, frogs, wolves and so much more. From 12 to 1, literacy professor and children’s book expert, Susannah Richards will host a session on IGNITING an interest in science, DELIGHTING potential scientists, and CULTIVATING knowledge about the world around us. Come join us at NSTA to explore where Science Meets Adventure!

You might learn a few cool things, such as:

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Sea turtle hatchlings “work together” to make it out of their nest cavity.  Sea turtle scientists call this rare display of social teamwork “protocooperation”, an instinct-based joint effort that is vital to the hatchlings’ survival.

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You sometimes have to relocate eggs from a leatherback nest to higher ground so summer high tides do not wash out the nest cavity. 

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If you’re a jellyfish, this is the last thing you want to see: the inside of a leatherback mouth. Once you go in, there’s no going out!

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Writing about scientists is all about discovering their passion; researching side-by-side with them, in the field, as they track dolphins, count sea turtle eggs, analyze elephant scat, tag butterflies. Sometimes, though, you get a glimpse of your expert’s personality. I loved it when Dr. Kimberly Stewart, the biologist profiled in Sea Turtle Scientist, told me her favorite color was blue and her preferred research gear were flip flops. 

Please check out Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s fantastic series of books called Scientist in the Field. Who knows? You may grow up to be a scientist!

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