Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Patterns in Nature - An Interview with Sarah Campbell

Sarah, your book, Growing Patterns,  is beautiful and also informative. Can you start off by explaining what are Fibonacci numbers?

Thank you, Nancy. The Fibonacci sequence is a simple number pattern that starts with 1 and 1. To get the next number in the sequence, you add the first two numbers together. So, the third number in the sequence is 1 plus 1, which equals 2. The next number is 1 plus 2, which equals 3. Then, 2 plus 3, which equals 5. The numbers keep going higher and higher, always following the same pattern. So, the first 12 Fibonacci numbers are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and 144.

What made you decide to tackle this topic in a picture book for young readers? 

As soon as my first book, Wolfsnail, was published by Boyds Mills Press in 2008, I started casting about for the next project. Initially, I thought I might write about another small animal, but the nonfiction market is already saturated with books about the animals I was considering – a butterfly, a turtle, a gecko. I knew, however, that I wanted my next book to feature the same upclose, macro photography I used to illustrate Woflsnail. When I was talking through that idea with an editor at an SCBWI conference, I said, “Maybe I could do something on patterns in nature.” Coincidently, I had recently finished reading a novel that featured Fibonacci numbers in the plot. Intrigued by something one of the characters said about the numbers being found in nature, I did some research. When some of the first examples I read about were sunflowers and pinecones, I knew I had hit upon an idea I could photograph.
     There was a little hesitation at Boyds Mills initially about whether Fibonacci numbers, which are typically taught in middle school, were appropriate in a picture book for elementary school readers. However, the concept of patterns is central to the early elementary curriculum, including “growing patterns,” which, after I read the term in a math curriculum document, became my title.

The photographs are striking. What challenges did you face in providing the images for this title? 

One of the constraints I set for myself when I started writing nonfiction for kids was that I needed to be able to photograph my subjects locally. I had three small boys at the time and no time or money for traveling. All the flower images were taken in my neighborhood – some in my backyard. The hardest to get was the nautilus shell but my aunt who is a stained glass artist in South Carolina knew of a source for good shells and she sent one to me by post.
     The biggest challenge in making the images was figuring out how to create a visual narrative. Each image is essentially a straight-on photograph of a natural object: flower, pinecone, pineapple, shell. In contrast to the images for Wolfsnail, which were macro shots of a snail hunting for food, these Growing Patterns images did not show action. I solved this problem by using a page design that showed the same “growing” progression as the Fibonacci numbers have in the pattern. On the first page, there is one tiny photograph of a single sprouting seed. Subsequent pages show proportionately larger images with flowers that have the number of petals equal to Fibonacci numbers.

How can teachers use this book in their classroom?

My favorite way for teachers to use the book in their classrooms is a multi-disciplinary project called The Fibonacci Folding Book. The teacher uses Growing Patterns to introduce Fibonacci numbers and then the students make, write, illustrate, and share their own nature-themed books. An online video tutorial, including all the steps, connections to national standards, and student examples, is available in the FOR TEACHERS section of my website. More examples are available on my blog.
     Teachers can also ask students to suggest two starting numbers other than 1 to create their own growing pattern. I sometimes do this with students during school visits. We use personal white boards to do the addition required to find each subsequent number in the sequence.

 I see that your recent title Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature covers another great STEM theme. What is the story behind that book?

Mysterious Patterns came about because smart librarians suggested it. They had Growing Patterns in their collections and thought fractals needed a book, too.
When I began the research and saw the equation for the Mandelbrot set, a fairly famous fractal, I nearly gave up. It looks like this:

     My publisher was also (understandably) nervous about whether it was right for the elementary market. More research led to my decision to use a compare/contrast structure to write the book. Fractals at their most basic are shapes. They are different from the geometric shapes (cones, cylinders and spheres) students learn in elementary school, but the fact that kids learn about these shapes in early grades meant to me that they could be introduced to fractals, a totally different kind of shape.

What are you working on now? 

I am working on a book about infinty. Figuring out the photographs for this one has been a huge challenge, but I’m in a good place with them now. I can’t wait to share!

Thank you, Sarah! 

If you enjoy Sarah's book, take a peek at Joyce Sidman's SWIRL BY SWIRL: Spirals in Nature. It is the perfect companion title! 


  1. This is fascinating. It makes me like math a little more! Bravo Sarah. Keep stretching young minds.

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