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?


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:


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.


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


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!


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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Take stock

Taking Stock


It is good, as a writer, every now and then, to pause in the relentless angling for words. To take stock, inventory. To take a deep breath and look around at your stuff. I sometimes like to do this, to letup and ask myself: what am I working on? What should I be working on? What could I be working on? 

I recently took a week and half break from my writing. It was a wonderful 10 days of recharging my writing batteries. 

I was one of 9 lucky writers to spend a three-day weekend with Jane Yolen and her daughter, Heidi, at their home in Massachusetts. It was the first time Jane and Heidi offered a Picture Book Boot Camp. Jane shared her treasure trove of wisdom from years in the writing business. I can’t include all of the wonderful things she said, but here are a few “Jane’isms:”Image

“Turn off the internal editor…give yourself permission to write badly.” “A manuscript in a drawer doesn’t sell.” “Work on a variety of projects cause if you’re blocked on one, move to another…” “The eye and the ear are different listeners…read your work aloud…have someone else read it aloud.” “Picture books should have lyricism, sing-a-bility.” “The best motion in a picture book is turning the page.” “Make up words, stretch the language, find the right word.”

I drove away from Jane and friends bubbling over with inspiration and new directions. On the heels of the PBBC, I shuffled off to Boyds Mills, PA, to co-teach at the Highlights Writing for Science retreat. Working alongside host, Andy Boyles, and two gifted writers, Loree Griffin Burns and Gail Jarrow, we helped guide and hone our conferees’ science manuscripts. How great was it to view these stories in the raw, to know with hard work that the rough drafts could become complete and polished manuscripts ready for submission. Here are a few writing tips from the science writing workshop:Image

“”The job of the 1st paragraph is to get the reader to the 2nd paragraph” (Jerry Spinelli); “Always ask the question – why does it matter if this book is available to kids.” “The structure for your nonfiction proposal should be logical.” “A good magazine query is short and to the point (about 250 words).”  “When writing about science, look for real people who are solving or attempting to solve real problems.” “Scientists are passionate about their work – get that passion onto the page.”

This mini-escape was the perfect breather for me. It felt good to take stock, to talk business, and like Humpty Dumpty, to pull apart manuscripts and put them back together again. Now that I’ve stretched, catalogued and fine-tuned, it’s time to hit the refresh button.Image

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BIC (Butt in chair)


Butt in chair. That’s what Jane Yolen says is the secret to her productive writing. Keep your behind in the chair, hands on the keyboard, get your work done. 

 This is how Jane puts it: “ Want to know my secret? BIC. That’s right. BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer. 

 William Faulkner said: ‘I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.’ 


 Jane Yolen has been called the Hans Chistian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century because of her many fairy tales and storybooks. She is the author of over 300 books the last time I checked. Although, it could be well over a 1,000 by now. She keeps her BIC. 

 I first became acquainted with Jane’s writing in 1988 when my daughter Hayley was born. As a new dad and mum we were on the search to bring some good children’s books into the house and we stumbled on Jane’s book Owl Moon: a beautiful picture book about a dad and daughter heading out on a wintry, moonlit night to listen for owls.Image

Of course, Owl Moon, is a book I should’ve written. And a lot of my nature writing friends say the same. But Jane did. Good for her. 

 Owl Moon won the Caldecott Medal in 1987 for its stunning illustrations by John Schoenherr. 

 I’m so excited to be attending Jane’s first Picture Book Boot Camp next week when 12 children’s book authors gather at her house where Jane will lead a Master Class for published professionals.

 I feel a little like the Beatles when they left England for a retreat to study meditation in Rishikesh, India at the foot of the master Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. South Londonderry, Vermont to Hatfield, MA is not as far as London to India…but enough of me trying to tie in Beatle references. Image


Time to get my game face on and do as Jane says…BIC!

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Back in the USA


Random thoughts on spending a lot of time in SE Asia…


 We arrived home to Vermont just in time for a mind-blowing 16-inch snowstorm. The ski areas around here (Stratton, Bromley and Magic Mountain) are running full speed and it appears the economy in Southern Vermont is buzzing. On the other side of the world, we hope all our friends are safe and sound with the news of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Kelud in Java, Indonesia.  




Other than this blog, I wrote very little. The school visits kept me plenty busy, and when I wasn’t visiting schools we were traveling on planes, buses and taxis. 




Singapore and Indonesia are wicked hot. They sit almost exactly on the equator; meaning everyday it is hot, like 88 degrees F. hot. No seasons. And very humid. About 80% to 100% humidity most days. I sweated buckets. 




Indonesians are lovely people. Helpful, kind and friendly. All you need to do when meeting an Indonesian stranger with a grumpy face coming down the street is crack a grin. Their face lights up like they’ve just won the lottery.





Indonesians are industrious. We heard many times: if Indonesians can sell something, they will. Scooter fuel (scooters are everywhere and I once saw 5 people on one scooter: dad, toddler, and mom holding two babies), fresh picked fruit (coconuts, jackfruit, lychee fruit), crackers, chickens, water bottles. 




The Singapore metro is the cleanest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The folks in charge of the subways in NYC and Paris and London could learn a thing or two. It’s a delight to travel by subway and millions of travelers do everyday. Throwing a cigarette butt in the MRT will get you a $10,000 fine and gum chewing is banned. There’s no funky smells and artwork adorns the walls. 




Singapore is not Indonesia. Despite its cosmopolitan and commercial vibe, Singapore preserves its large trees. It’s a city within a forest. Wherever I traveled in Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo), I observed little or no infrastructure to collect trash or recycle plastic. Plastic gets burned or worse, dumped into a nearby gutter or canal or river which  eventually leads to the sea. As a recycling advocate forever harping on about plastic waste it was eye-opening to spend a month in third-world countries. When you are poor and trying to make it to your next meal, disposing properly of your trash is not high priority. A huge challenge, for sure. The poor old ocean gets the brunt of the waste. Please check out this wonderful and touching film trailer about Midway Island and the Laysan albatross. 




One powerful memory of my trip to SE Asia will be the smart and funny and savvy students I met in every school I visited. These culturally diverse, globe-trotting kids helped make my assemblies and workshops a total blast! I’m so grateful to the wonderful schools who invited us from so far away: Stamford American International School, International School Riau at Rumbai, International School Riau at Duri, Surabaya International School and Pasir Ridge International School. Many, many thanks!


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Visiting Author at PRIS

Visiting Author at PRIS.

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