24 Sept 2011


How come?

Those are probably the first questions a child asks in any language. I wished we'd never stop asking 'why' and 'how come'?
Looking for answers to these two questions has probably led to many inventions, and it has lead me to write many books.
How does a tiny little seed know to grow into a stalk of corn or into a towering cedar tree? How did it get programmed?

I love doing research and finding answers to my questions. For my latest book, Amazing Animals, I had so much fun reading and learning about mind blowing animals facts.
Did you know that the fig wasp and the fig tree have a symbiotic relationship? Neither one could live without the other.
The wasp bores a hole into the fruit, lays its eggs and dies. This means that when you eat one of those crunchy brown fig newton cookies, you are chomping down on some dead wasp remains... Gross huh? But a cool fact.

The octopus is a pretty amazing animal, too. Scientists in the Seattle Aquarium could not figure out what was killing their sharks. Little did they suspect the octopus. Have a look at this cool video which sheds a whole new light on the octopus: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7004909622962894202

When I write, I submit a proposal to a publisher whom I hope will be interested in this sort of book. The publisher decides on the title of a book. They also decide who will be in the illustrator. I have been lucky enough, with several of my books, to be allowed to collaborate with the illustrator.

W. Alan Hancock is a young, and impressive, wildlife artist. When I saw his art, I suggested to Tundra Books that he illustrate Amazing Animals. I was so happy that they agreed. His art looks so real... Check out his website:

Even if you don’t know much about anacondas or weaver birds, there are many questions you can ask about animals which you daily see around you.
Do you know how old ladybugs get to be?
Does a blackbird migrate? How far?
When my son was ten years old, he asked a great question. It had snowed and, when we stepped outside, he looked at the pristine white fields.
“Where does the white go when the snow melts?” he asked.
I told him “Don’t ever stop asking those kind of questions! And go in search of the answer!”
I wrote a poem about ‘where does the white go when the snow melts?’ and so you don’t need to write just nonfiction about your questions. Nonfiction can even be written in the form of poetry!
Have fun researching and writing!

20 Sept 2011

Chewing on Books

Chewing on Books
In a culture overflowing with ear-worn copies of Harry Potter and jam-stained editions of Robert Munsch’s works, it’s easy to take books for granted. They’re everywhere—our homes, schools, bookstores, libraries, vast cubes of them at Costco.
With all these books, it’s easy to forget that we learn not just to read, but how to respect and use books. 

There’s a science to how we learn not just to read, but also to use books; an anthropology of books.
All you have to do is to go somewhere with a less developed book culture for this to jump right of the page, so to speak.

When I go on book tours to remote and rural communities in Canada, some of the most striking moments are talking with children for whom books are a novelty.

Several years ago I did a reading in Thompson, Manitoba’s public library as part of a Canada Book Week tour. The kids jostled in, sat cross-legged, smiling and laughing during the reading. Then came the book signings and sale. The librarian shepherded one elementary student up to me, ten dollars clenched in her small hand. She wanted to buy a copy of my book. It was the first book she’d ever bought. I was the first author she’d ever met.

The experience of buying a book and meeting an author are both important parts of book acculturation. Learning that you can access books and that, in seeing yourself reflected in that author, that you have the power and opportunity to write, to self-express, to share your experience-- whatever it might be—of the world.

The most dramatic example of this anthropology of books is in a community like Bunalwenhi, Uganda. A neighbour of mine recently returned from a sixth-month stint starting the small, rural community’s first library.

What she discovered is that filling the bookshelves was the easier part of fostering a book culture. People needed to learn to use books.

Bunalwenhi is primarily an oral culture. Even with mandatory primary school education, most children make it to the sixth grade—including learning the rudiments of reading and writing—without ever holding, let alone owning, a book.

For Bunalwenhi’s children arriving at the library was like going to a foreign land, populated with strange creatures—books. Kids in primary school approached the books as tactile objects. They pulled books from one-another’s hands, ripped them, hit one another with them, folded pages, scribbled in them. All the things that kids do with books, but here generally at a much younger age when they’re first introduced to books and learning how to properly use them, which became a focus for the librarians.

When we give babies books they can chew, or plasticized ones they play with in the bathtub, a watching anthropologist would jot down a note about book acculturation. Later some adult will joyfully read in a warm, bubbly tub; or feel a sense of peace reading the paper while chewing on breakfast toast.

Every time we hold a book, we can be glad that someone taught us not just how to read, but that a book can be ours to read.

17 Sept 2011

Talking About the E-Word

Well my goodness. Didn't that mention of evolution get things ramped up on this blog and over at the Globe and Mail? (As of today, 805 comments on that story.)

I'm not surprised and I doubt any of us who work in science journalism are. There is no winning the argument, so I generally don't engage. Of course then the "other side" will jump on that — as Daniel Loxton is now being engaged via a comment on Helaine's post. If you don't engage, you are thusly seen as unable to prove your thesis. It's all too exhausting, but it did get me thinking (yet again; I've written about evolution a fair bit) on how we do explain it. (Or not, as my next paragraph will attest.)

It is challenging science and needs some basic understanding of biology, genetics, adaption and such, but it needs to be discussed. I had a little wake-up call in the fall out from this story, in a carpenter's-house-is-never-built sort of way. When I asked my 14 year old what she understood about evolution she asked if that was something to do with humans and apes and added that her Grade 7 teacher didn't teach it, saying that everyone said it was too boring. Okay then. I have some work to do.

Perhaps I can use this as a starting point?

Isn't it a beauty? Yes, it is The Origin of Species as a BOARD BOOK! I found this little gem in a thrift store years ago (along with Shakespeare's All The World's a Stage and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, all in board book form.)

So, in this book, the very brave author (Harry Karlinsky) and illustrator (Brock Irwin) attempted to summarize Darwin's thesis in five wordless pages. The first one looks like this:

I just wonder what the publisher was thinking? Do you think that cover would engage your two-month-old baby? And, wow, I would just love to hear how the stories unfolded. Yet, it's a brave idea and somehow refreshing that back in 1991 someone thought evolution was an important enough idea to make it available to babies.

So, in my house, I think we will start opening up this discussion, a discussion I wrongly assumed was being covered elsewhere. I might just start with the board book, but I will also start with the idea of magic. Not magic in a woo-woo sort of way. Nor in a way that — poof, everything was created, perfectly formed in six days. But magic in a sense of evolution being such a logical, beautiful, ever-interesting, and always awe-inspiring explanation of life on Earth.

16 Sept 2011

Evolution Wins the Lane Anderson Award

Courtesy of Gillian O'Reilly:

The Lane Anderson Award winners have been announced and the winner in the young reader category is:

Evolution by Daniel Loxton. (Kids Can Press)

Brought to life by amazing computer-generated images, illustrations and photographs, Evolution is an accessible introduction to a fundamental process of life on earth.

Daniel Loxton is Editor of Junior Skeptic, the children’s section of Skeptic magazine.

“This tour-de-force of science writing will spark the imagination of readers as they contemplate how we and other creatures came to be.” – The Jury

More information on the award and selection process can be found at www.laneandersonaward.ca

14 Sept 2011

A Call to Arms – and Flippers, Too

Image: Cedars-Sinai.edu
 Readers of The Globe and Mail were treated to this headline this morning: “Children’s book too hot for U.S. publishers warmly received in Canada.” Naturally, I was intrigued.

The book in question turned out to be a children’s nonfiction title, published by Kids Can Press: Evolution, by Daniel Loxton.

I had the great pleasure of reading the book when I sat on the judges’ panel for the Lane Anderson Science Writing for Children Award back in June. I can tell you that the book was so well-received by all the judges that it made the shortlist, along with Sea Wolves is by Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read, and Ultimate Trains by Peter MacMahon (The winner of the award, and the $10,000 cash prize will be announced later today).
So what’s the trouble with Evolution? It’s factually correct, sensitively and intelligently written, and beautifully designed; the perfect introduction to one of the most important principles in biology, for children and adults.
But for U.S. publishers, according to Loxton, it was “too hot a topic” – i.e., they were afraid of pressure from creationist yahoos (my expression, not Loxton's).  All declined to publish it.
As a born-and-bred Yank, I’m appalled by this thoroughly chickenshit (a well-known scientific term) behavior on the part of my fellow Americans. Book people should know better. Forgive the book-related pun, but book people should  show some spine.  Yes, I know, the book biz is struggling, publishers need to feel certain that a book will make money. But really – you don’t think there’s a big enough market to support a terrific science book? Puh-leeze.
On the flip side, I’m feeling great pride that one of my own publishers here in Canada, Kids Can Press, isn’t as much of a weenie as their American counterparts. They knew a good book when they saw one, and decided to publish it for all the right reasons. I bet they’ll make a mint on it too.
Gillian O’Reilly, the Editor of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre News, is not surprised that Evolution found a home in Canada. She thinks Canadian publishers have distinguished themselves in science publishing for many years. “It's interesting that the American Institute of Physics award for science writing has gone to Canadian books five times since 2001,” she says. “The subjects have been wide-ranging (space, engineering feats and failures, dinosaur poop, math all around us and explosions of all sorts)… I see a lot of great Canadian books in my role, and I think Canadian publishers are willing to take risks and be inventive when it comes to science for kids.”
So bouquets and two opposable thumbs up go to Kids Can Press and all of the other vertebrates (i.,e, those with backbones) of the Canadian children’s publishing scene.

And brickbats go to American publishing invertebrates (read: woosies) who clearly have devolved since The Origin of the Species was published in 1859.
 To read the Globe article, go here.
To find out more about the Lane Anderson Award, go here.
To find out more about Daniel Loxton’s Evolution and/or to buy the book, go here.

13 Sept 2011

Eleanor of Aquitaine Sundial

When I speak to schools and libraries, I try to find a way to show how science can relate to a child's life. But tying science to history and making it interesting is more difficult than it seems. Thanks to my writing partner, Leslie Johnstone, I have the perfect way to capture a child's imagination.

Look at the picture on the left. Is this science or history?
Usually kids guess that this is the "One Ring" from Lord of the Rings as it has markings on the inside and outside of the piece. But the writing isn't Elfish.

On the outer rim of the ring are the letters " J F M A M J J A S O N D" and on the inside of the ring are the numbers 1 through 11. There is a brass ring that rotates around the centre of the ring and in the middle of this ring is a round hole. Engraved inside the ring are words, "Carpe Diem" or "seize the day."

So other than a really cool piece of jewelery and very nice birthday present from my best friend, what does this pendant have to do with science and history?

You are looking at a replica of the Eleanor of Aquitaine sundial, based on the one the queen gave to her husband, Henry II of England in about 1152. Right about now kids yawn.

Most children have never heard of Eleanor, Henry and know nothing about the Aquitaine. However, ask a child if they have ever heard of Robin Hood and most hands go up. Ask them if they know which king went to the crusades with Robin Hood most know the name of Richard the Lionhearted. And generally kids will have heard of his evil brother, King John. Now you have their attention. Let's not get into the fact that Robin Hood as portrayed in movies and books, was fictional.

When Eleanor married Henry, she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of her time. Marrying Eleanor was a pretty smart move for Henry as he now had access to money, lands and political influence. Eleanor like throwing lavish parties and wanted Henry to be back in time for dinner. Now frankly telling your husband he needed to be back at the castle no later than 5 pm had no real meaning as well, wrist watches would not be invented for another 500 or so years.

To solve this problem, Eleanor had a beautiful sundial made for her husband. This way he could always tell what time it was. Henry also commissioned an even fancier one for his wife made from gold and set with diamonds. And how did this romantic gesture work out? Sadly, there wasn't a "happily ever after" ending. Henry imprisoned Eleanor in a castle and went off to hunt and party to his hearts content, never having to see what time it was on his sundial watch.

Now the science. Turn the dial so that the hole aligns with the month. Turn the hole towards the sun so that a ray of the sun shines through the hole. Where the ray lands will tell you the hour.

Did you know?
When asked most people will say that "A.M." means "after midnight". In fact a.m. and p.m. mean "Ante Meridian- Latin - before midday" and "Post Meridian- Latin "after midday".

11 Sept 2011

Talking About Salmon Farms

At a potluck dinner this summer, I crowded into a kitchen with several other people. All of us are science fans who volunteer with Straitwatch. We help biologists gather data about how whale-watching affects the local orcas. Over dinner, we chatted about the Cohen Commission that is gathering information on salmon.
Salmon are a big issue here in British Columbia! We Straitwatch volunteers knew that most of what resident killer whales eat is salmon. Humans like these oily fishes, too, locally and around the world. "In the last two decades, global consumption of salmon has risen from 27,000 tons to more than 1 million tons annually," noted McKay Jenkins in his book What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy In A Toxic World. That's a lot of salmon. And much of the salmon we eat comes from fish farms. "So, what is it about farmed salmon anyway?" one of the volunteers asked. "What's different about it?" He wondered why anyone could complain to the Cohen Commission about fish farms. After all, fish farms supply a lot of food. People need food. If a million tons of wild salmon were harvested every year, there might not be any wild salmon left to spawn in some rivers.
Part of the difference, we explained, is that the farmed salmon doesn't taste the same as wild salmon. Wild fish grow up eating a lot of small sealife, especially tiny invertebrates that look like shrimp. That's why salmon flesh is a pink or red colour. Farmed salmon are fed ground-up fish made into pellets. Without their natural food, the flesh of farmed salmon is more pale and less firm than wild salmon.
The food pellets are very convenient for the fish farmers, but some people worry about what might be in the pellets. Pollution like heavy metals or industrial chemicals can build up in the food chain, affecting both fish and humans. "Farmed salmon turn out to have ‘significantly higher’ levels of flame retardants than wild fish, likely because they are fed ground-up fish that are themselves contaminated," McKay Jenkins observed.
Another difference that we science volunteers noticed here on the Pacific coast is that most of the farmed fish are Atlantic salmon, thousands of miles from the habitat where they evolved. These farmed salmon are raised in large nets, suspended in small ocean bays. The salmon in a farm don't have freedom to move about over a wide area and scatter their wastes. Under the farms, the muck piles up on the sea bottom.
"Salmon farms are dangerous to wild salmon," wrote marine biologist Alexandra
Morton on her website, "because they create a place where viruses, bacteria and parasites breed." Wild salmon migrating past the farms might get sick. The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform promotes on their website the idea of farming salmon and other fish in closed containers, instead of enclosure nets in narrow sea inlets along the salmon migration routes.
Biologists are taking samples, and bringing their findings to the Cohen Commission. But this Royal commission gets different reports from every expert who testifies! The Norwegian companies building the salmon farms say the germs are no problem. Clam harvesters near salmon farms claim that the clam beds are affected. It won't be easy for the best laws to be written to protect wild salmon as well as support sustainable business development.
At each city the commission visits, the public audiences get to see history being made. And as we science volunteers discussed the same issues, and some of us attended meetings of that commission, we were part of the ongoing public discussion. It's good to know that science isn't only used by specialists in a lab, but by people studying how to work and grow food in the wide world.

6 Sept 2011

Seek Animal Signs Instead of Animals

Alone or with children, when it comes to enjoying nature, it’s natural to hope you might spot animals, especially big game. Depending where you live and how safe your surroundings are, you might hope to see a bear, moose, or deer. It’s always fun to catch a glimpse of wildlife but I challenge you to explore nature with a different plan in mind. Next time you walk a trail, make it your goal to look for animal signs instead of animals.
Use as many senses as you can. Close your eyes and listen. Can you hear birds, insects, or frogs? Sniff the air. You’re sure to notice if a skunk is nearby. You might also smell a stinkbug! These winged insects release a nasty smell when defending their homes. More pleasant nature smells to seek include wild mint, wild roses, or the scents that accompany fresh water. I’ve noticed wild cranberries waft a wonderful scent through the woods after an autumn frost.

Now look up into the trees! Can you see a bird nest or woodpecker hole? Perhaps you notice signs of insect life. You may spot leaves full of holes or eggs on vegetation. Look on willow trees for pale-green pine-cone willow galls. These odd growths form when midge larvae secrete a chemical that causes a part of the host tree to grow differently. The gall becomes a home for the midge which must chew its way out when it becomes an adult! Some insect galls look like small warts, spindles, or round growths on leaves. Others form bulbous growths along plant stems. Many different kinds exist.
If you come across spruce, pine, or other evergreens, check beneath the branches for signs of squirrels. Where I live in Alberta, red squirrels drop scales from cones as they feed from the branches above. They drop so many scales, great piles form into a midden. You may see tunnel entrances in a midden and even hear the chattering squirrel start to scold if you get too close! You will also know squirrels are nearby if you see small branches of needles on the ground. And if you glimpse a mushroom in a tree, you know a squirrel is saving a snack for later.
As you walk along, look into the underbrush to see if you can spot animal trails. Rabbits, deer, coyotes, and many other animals use these paths to travel through wooded areas. If you find a trail and look at the trees growing alongside, you may notice places where deer or moose have bitten shoots off tree branches. You may also see their scats on the ground.
In the fall, look for deer rubs and scrapes. Along trails, whitetail deer bucks rub their antlers on tree trunks, as well as break branches above the scrape. They paw at the ground until the soil is exposed and then leave their scent to mark their territory.
If your walk takes you along soft soil, sand, or a place where mud has dried or snow has fallen, look for animal tracks. But don’t just look for big prints from large animals! Look carefully for smaller prints from rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds.
Other things to watch for on a nature walk:
·         acorns or other nuts with teeth marks
·         animal dens
·         anthills
·         antlers
·         bones
·         cocoons
·         egg shells
·         feathers
·         insect tunnels in fallen logs
·         porcupine quills
·         snail shells
·         tufts of fur
·         wasp nests

The better you get at searching for animal signs, the better you will become at spotting the animals themselves!