Tag Archives: children’s books

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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And now for something completely different…

And now for something completely different…


I spent two days with 45 students at the International School Riau at Rumbai, Sumatra, and it was an author visit on an intimate scale. I visit schools across the U.S. and generally I’m speaking with 200 3rd graders in a gym the size of Rhode Island. The small but dynamic school in Rumbai afforded lots of great eye contact, sharing of work and time for good back and forth for question and answers. While the school is situated on a Chevron oil campus, and is surrounded by tidy houses with lush gardens, you don’t  forget the Sumatran jungle is alive and howling all around. While we missed seeing the hornbills and wild elephants and python snakes as thick as Rafa Nadal’s biceps, we woke to gibbon monkeys and let the rain from Sumatra run down our backs. 

 Will post more photos and news from ISR Rumbai so you can get a sense of this high-powered seat of learning in one of the remotest corners of the earth. 

We left Sumatra under cloudy skies and traveled through Jakarta onto to Surabaya for a 3-day visit with the students of Surabaya International School. Leslie Baker, the vivacious librarian from SIS, scooped us up at the airport and ushered us into the Hotel Majapahit. As you can see from the photos, this is a place where we will revel in the architecture, history and food. More soon. 

ImageImageHotel Majapahit


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Word graveyards and flat tires

ImageToday we wrestled, we massaged, we hoed, we tweaked, we nipped and tucked. We became word warriors and sentence defoggers and paragraph clarifiers. We took on the job of word undertakers hauling tied and used words to the Word Graveyard. 


R.I.P. “move” “go” “stuff” “nice” “epic” “awesome” and most of all, “went.”


We transformed pre-school into a wild zoo, as we howled like wolves, hooted like owls, screamed like monkeys, and hissed like snakes. The teachers loved it, but the kids gloried in it. 


Second and third graders pounced all over my writing assignment to load up their writing with details. And, as one student declared, when I asked what a detail is, “You zoom into the small parts.” 


Fourth grade through eighth grade accepted my mission: Mission Verb Hunt. They kicked those weak verbs to the side of the road. Go became scramble and went became trundle. 


Tomorrow at the Farewell Assembly, we’ll celebrate with a reading of some the student’s  writing efforts. It’s gonna be awesome…I mean, magnificent! Will share a few sample of our work in a future post.


I can’t finish up this post without a mention of our after-school bike ride. Brian, the technology teacher, and his son, Rex, and Heather and I donned helmets and cycled out of the Chevron campus, and into the outskirts where village meets jungle. We were an hour out, making good time, mud-splattered, and searching the terrain for elephant tracks. Along a wide stretch of jungle road, my front tire blew out. Brian, our go-to guide and bike magician, tried desperately to repair the flat, but we were riding borrowed bikes and fixing wasn’t an option. We hobbled back to school, grabbing a lift from locals. After a shower and late dinner, we feel happy, tired and grateful for a comfortable place to lay down our tired bodies. Image

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Gibbon wake-up call

Gibbon wake-up call

We arrived in Sumatra two days ago and woke our first morning to the wild and bellowing call of the gibbon. I’ve woken to coyotes, owls, New York CIty taxi cabs, the Colorado River down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the haunting cry of sandhill cranes in Nebraska, but nothing prepared me for this in-your-face primate proclamation. I’ve learned these are territorial calls. No worries gibbons. This stretch of Sumatran jungle is all yours.

We are visiting two International School campuses in Sumatra, the 6th largest island in the world and home to more than 50 million people. (Vermont, where we live, has just over half a million people.) Once lush tropical rainforest covered Sumatra from coast to coast. Like so many habitat loss stories around the world, much of this biological wildlife paradise has been lost to development and palm oil plantations. Yet, deep, deep in the untracked remnants of forest live lovely reddish-brown orangutans, and even some last Sumatran rhinos.

Listen to a gibbon here:


January 20, 2014 · 1:43 pm

Goodbye Singapore; hello Sumatra!

Goodbye Singapore; hello Sumatra!

We celebrated our last night in Singapore with a fantastic meal at Samy’s Curry Restaurant. Curry fish head, like chili crab or chicken rice, is one of the iconic dishes in Singapore – spicy but oh so good. The food gets plopped on banana leaves and cold beers and iced lime drinks cool the palate.

The days flew by at Stamford American International School. Before I knew it, Friday afternoon arrived and the end of the first week abroad. The student’s produced wonderful poems and engaging pieces of writing about sea turtle hatchlings.

With jet lag behind us (and the Mac Book Pro power cord I left behind in one of the classrooms…grrrrr!), it’s off in the morning for a week of teaching in Sumatra.

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January 17, 2014 · 2:09 pm

Day Three and going strong at Stamford American!

Day Three and going strong at Stamford American!

We had fun gathering together after our Cool Details writing workshop in the morning 4th grade class. I wish we could have given every kid a book to hold but thumbs up worked just fine.

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January 15, 2014 · 12:25 pm

Writing with cool details at SAIS

Writing with cool details at SAIS

Day 1 at Stamford American International School was a great day. I began, double-shot cappuccino in hand (yes, I drink a lot of coffee…still a wee bit jet lagged) with a general assembly presenting to all 3rd, 4th and 5th grades…all some 400 students. Do you know what it’s like to have 400 students sing along with you on your song, “One in a Thousand?” It’s loud and pretty cool.

I then dove into writing workshops, 5 in all, back to back. We focused on writing with vivid details. With a 20 minute lesson on enriching our language by using strong verbs, cool details and hooking the reader, the students tried their hand at turning a boring group of sentences into an exciting and interesting paragraph. I gave them this: I was on the beach. I saw a lot of baby turtles go down to the ocean. It was fun. And boy, did they do some great revisions. They added cool details (“cloud-splattered skies” “palm fronds that touched the sky”) and strong verbs (“stippled” “tip-toed” “nudged”). We celebrated our revisions with thumbs up and rounds of applause. Way to go SAIS kids!

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January 13, 2014 · 12:15 pm