Friday, November 23, 2018

5 Books to Celebrate National Maize Day!

"This holiday began as a small research project through which I intended—with my family—to commemorate the United States holiday of Thanksgiving through the viewpoint of the indigenous people." – Corinne Lightweaver

If you have read my book THE STORY OF SEEDS: FROM MENDEL'S GARDEN TO YOUR PLATE, AND HOW THERE'S MORE OF LESS TO EAT AROUND THE WORLD, then you might have observed that there are a number of photographs of maize (corn) throughout the book. There were actually more, but I realized in first pages that I had a heafty imbalance. The reason there are and would have been even more is that I am totally in agreement with the belief of Native Americans that maize is life. 

From an ear of sweet corn on the cob to a tamale to cornbread to popcorn and field corn, corn is definitely something to celebrate! And, on this day after Thankgiving, a day many Native Americans recognize as a #DayofMourning, it is a day to reflect on the people native to our country, their history, their culture, and their struggles. 

Here are some books to read today. Who needs #BlackFriday anyway? All that stuff will be here tomorrow. 

1. We are Grateful by Traci Sopell

2. #NotYourPrincess : Voices of Native American Women

3. The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson

4. CORN by Gail Gibbons

5. Corn is Maize by Aliki

    For more about my recent titles, including the Green Earth Book Award title THE STORY OF SEEDS, visit my website 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Save the Animals! Books About Endangered Animals & Conservation Efforts from SLJ

So very grateful to School Library Journal for this thoughtful inclusion of BACK FROM THE BRINK in their Saving Animals article. 

"Nancy Castaldo’s hope-filled Back from the Brink addresses successful stories of conservation. Whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison have all been brought back from near extinction, reintroduced to their native habitat when possible, and now have a future where previously none seemed possible. Castaldo thoughtfully considers the various viewpoints involved from the controversial breeding program to save California condors, which still remain endangered and may never fly freely again, to the resurgence of American alligators who now face new threats from rising sea levels and invasive species. Castaldo’s work will give readers hope that they can make a difference while not shying away from the rough road ahead for many species."

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Five Books About Wolves

I was deeply saddened to hear of wolf ambassador, Atka's death today. In honor of this beautiful wolf who taught us all so much, I'm sharing five books about wolves. Learn more about Atka and the Wolf Conservation Center's work at 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

STEM Author Interview with Patricia Newman

Many of you might know STEM award-winning author Patricia Newman’s books. They focus on the environment and cover subjects ranging from ocean plastic to sea otters and now elephant communication. 

I was eager to read this latest after researching elephant cognition for my BEASTLY BRAINS title. Patricia didn’t disappoint. EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS is a fascinating look into the study of animal communication. 

Hi, Patricia! This is another great book. What sparked this subject for you? 

Hi Nancy! Thank you for having me.

The seeds for Eavesdropping on Elephants had been planted long before I knew scientists listened to them. I volunteered for the San Diego Zoo many years ago and had the opportunity to travel to Kenya on a group photo safari with one of the zoo’s geneticists. We observed several elephants in family groups walking, taking care of their young, and warning us not to get too close. I developed a fascination with their size, their looks, their relationships, their intelligence, their memories, and eventually the way they communicate with both infrasound (sounds too low for us to hear) and audible sound. Later, when my kids were born, we spent some time each week at the zoo, and we almost always found ourselves at the elephant enclosure.

When my daughter, Elise, was an undergraduate at Cornell she worked for the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) cataloging forest sounds, just like the student volunteers mentioned in my book. ELP studies forest elephants, a newly designated species few people know about. That newness stayed with me, and in the back of my mind, I always knew I’d write about ELP. 

In the meantime, my daughter graduated from college and we co-wrote an article for OdysseyMagazine about elephant migration called “Their Trunks are Packed: Elephants on the Move” (October 2014). I guess you could consider that article a warm-up, but we focused on traditional savanna elephants rather than forest elephants. 

Writing about marine debris, Ebola, zoo scientists, and sea otters kept me hopping for the next few years, but when I had the chance I asked my daughter to introduce me to the scientists at the Elephant Listening Project. Founders Katy Payne and Andrea Turkalo, Director Peter Wrege, Research Analyst Liz Rowland, and scientist Daniela Hedwig were excited to work with me. Although their work has received global media attention, they seemed especially excited about sharing it with children.

You had me at, “The air vibrates with deep rumbles that thunder lake a bass drum.”  What a fantastic description that sets the scene for this book. Can you take us behind the scenes to the crafting of that beginning? 

Thank you. I’m glad you like it. For me, the first chapter is the hardest to write. It does the heavy lifting to set the scene and to introduce the theme and narrative thread of the book. I usually don’t know how to articulate all of that when writing my first draft, so I begin someplace in the middle and write through to the end. Once I’ve figured out how I want to present my theme and carry forward my narrative thread, I write the opening.

I wanted something dramatic to begin the book, so I chose sex (in the service of science, of course). In the elephant world, mating is BIG news perhaps because elephants seem to adore their babies. A celebration that involves not only the male and female but all nearby participants trumpeting and roaring their praise in a cacophony of sound and seemingly joyful movements. 

As I wrote the opening I wanted to capture this joy, and at the same time describe the variety of harmonies that remind me of a group of jazz musicians riffing off one another. When you’re close to elephants or even when you listen to recordings of their sounds, the deepest bass notes vibrate in your chest. 

At the end of the first page, I ask, “Do you wonder what they’re saying to one another?” I sure do! And I’m eagerly anticipating the Elephant Listening Project’s efforts to decode some of these sounds. 

The Elephant Listening Project is another example of a group of dedicated scientists uncovering data that will change the canon of science education. How did you work with them on this book? 

Many of my recent books involve real scientists in the field doing science. The same is true for Eavesdropping on Elephants. It always astounds me how generous and giving scientists are with their time, and how thrilled they are to tell their stories.

I was not able to visit the Central African Republic because the scientists were not in-country at the time of my research, but I did travel to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The Elephant Listening Project is supported by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, which also houses the Bioacoustics Research Program. Although birds and elephants don’t have much in common, scientists at the Lab and at ELP study them by listening with similar technology, hence the partnership.

I spent two full days at the ELP lab interviewing Peter Wrege, Liz Rowland, Daniela Hedwig, and several student volunteers. I also watched an engineer make one of ELP’s acoustic listening devices. Katy Payne hosted me at her home for many thousands of questions. She made me breakfast one day and lunch the next and treated me like an honored guest. ELP was very generous with photos and video and allowed me to copy roughly 50,000 files onto an external hard drive I’d brought with me. Having those resources at my fingertips as I wrote made a huge difference in acquainting myself with their camp, the vegetation, and individual elephants. 

Because Andrea Turkalo lives in Massachusetts, I interviewed her by telephone and email. She lived with the elephants for nearly twenty years and had a huge storehouse of knowledge about their habits and family relationships. She can also identify nearly 4,000 elephants by sight.

For each interview, I started my hand-held digital recorder and asked open-ended questions designed to allow the scientists to tell their story. The interviews are more like conversations because there is some give and take. I interject with questions if details need to be clarified or allow the scientists to explore a tangent if that’s where their story takes them.

Back home, I transcribe the interviews and then follow-up with clarification questions in an email or two…or five.

The scientists also played a large role in vetting the manuscript before it went to print. And as busy as they are, they met every deadline. Again, I marvel at their generosity! 

Was there something that was your WOW moment in writing this? 

I’ve known for a while that elephants communicate using infrasound—my daughter told me when she worked for ELP—but I’d never heard it until I began researching Eavesdropping on Elephants. Katy speeded up a recording for me which raised the pitch within the limits of human hearing.

I also knew elephants trumpet but I didn’t know they roar, rumble, and aooga. This variety of sounds and the emotion they express was a revelation. Be sure to read the “Goodbye” sidebar and listen to the grief in the juvenile male’s calls.

Although I’d heard of forest elephants through ELP, I didn’t know much about them. Andrea says “Elephants are the architects of the forest. They range wide. They eat a lot of fruit. And they defecate the seeds out all over the forest.” Without elephants, the forest wouldn’t exist as we know it.

Those kinds of connections are huge WOW moments for me. 

Katy Payne and Patricia Newman sharing a light moment. 

I love your ending words, “The more you listen to wildlife, the more your mind opens up to new ideas about why the world is a place worth saving.”  What encourages you, as an author and an activist? 

When I was a kid in school, I became most excited about connections between my school work and the outside world. Although I always feel renewed by nature’s beauty, I thrive on its connection to us as humans. How sea otters save seagrass, an ecosystem that benefits people. How elephants build the forest just by doing what elephants do best—eating and defecating. How our snack foods (made with palm oil) manufactured and eaten thousands of miles from the Bornean rainforest endanger orangutans. 

I always say we don’t know what we don’t know, but if we’re willing to stop, look, and listen to the world around us we’re more likely to find out how our habits affect the natural world. 

Children also encourage me. At the end of Eavesdropping on Elephants, Katy says, “I think that children’s voices and what children care about making a huge difference in this world. And they must be given a bigger voice.” I agree, and write books with that goal in mind. 

After reading Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, one mother wrote to say, “My son is now more than ever convinced that he wants to study lit a fire in him with this book. For that, I am grateful!” Another student told me she used Plastic, Ahoy! as the subject of her college admissions essay to study marine debris.

To know I’m having a profound impact on these kids is all the encouragement I need.

Thanks, Patricia. It’s been wonderful chatting with you about this latest book. I’m so happy to have it on my shelf. 

Thank you, Nancy. Always a pleasure to appear on Naturally Speaking.

Patricia Newman’s book can be found at your local bookseller or online. 

Learn more about all of her books at  

Check out the book trailer

Follow Patricia on Facebook and Twitter @PatriciaNewman 

Friday, August 31, 2018

STEAM with Kirsten Carlson

Kirsten Carlson really explores the S and the A in STEAM with her combination of science and art.  I was fortunate to discuss her recent trip to Antarctica with her recently. 

Hi Kirsten! Thanks for chatting today. I know that you visited Antarctica many years ago. For most, that is a once-in-a-lifetime destination.  Why did you return? 

Thanks for having me. Last year, I returned to Antarctica on a mission to seek out ways to connect people to the beauty and wonder of Antarctica, through science and art. During my initial visit to Antarctica in 1992, I spent 2.5 months living and diving in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. As a marine biologist, I focused on exploring sea life impacted by icebergs and human pollution. The trip inspired me to become a scientific illustrator and eventually a children’s book author-illustrator because I want to share both my enthusiasm for exploration and discovery and my passion and love of nature.

Most people would look at that trip as daunting.  Let’s just say that this isn’t a trip you book on Expedia, pack a bag, and go. What preparations were involved?

The logistics of visiting the seventh continent are incredibly complex, and it’s 100% handled by the National Science Foundation(NSF) and the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). They gave me the opportunity to go down as a scientist 25 years ago and they provided the chance to go last year, as an artist. In 2016, I submitted a proposal to the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program (AAWP) because I decided it was time to return to the place that inspired my career. The program provides opportunities for artists, photographers, writers, and historians to visit Antarctica. I was specifically interested in exploring the undersea world of marine science and sea life in the Ross Sea. It took over a year of waiting, but in June of 2017, I received the exciting news that I was going! The most daunting part of the journey was the paperwork needed to get PQd (Physically Qualified). Because Antarctica is so remote and medical and dental services are literally a continent away, everyone that goes must be in good health.

There was a bit of extra preparation involved in going scuba diving under the ice, but I’ve been a certified diver since I was 17, and I’ve been drawing underwater since 2006. About 100 people supported me through a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of diving equipment which included a dry suit and underwater camera. In October, I flew from Hawaii to New Zealand and then jumped aboard a military plane to fly the last leg across the Southern Ocean. We landed on a runway built on the Ross Ice Shelf. For seven weeks, I dove and drew sea life underwater, interviewed scientists working in the field and lived at McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island in Antarctica.

That is all so amazing. Before we move on, can you share with me the difference between a wet suit and a dry suit? 

Since we don’t have a layer of blubber like most marine mammals, we have to use man-made insulation to stay warm underwater. Depending on the temperature of the sea, one can choose a wetsuit or a dry suit. A wetsuit is made out of a rubber-like material called neoprene and it traps a layer of water next to your skin. That water warms up to body temperature and slows down the amazing ability water has to rob you of body heat. A wetsuit works well down to water temperatures of 50°F, below that and it’s time to switch to a dry suit. It literally keeps you dry underwater and uses a layer of air (trapped in fleece-like undergarments) to keep your body warm. Another major difference is: you can pee in your wetsuit, but you should never, ever pee in your dry suit.

WOW, that is a fact kids will love to hear, Kirsten! But getting back to your more serious craft, can you discuss a little bit of how you make this extraordinary connection with your work, combining art and science? As a science writer and photographer, it is one of the facets of my work that I love the most. Tell us more. 

I believe that all scientists and artists share a particular skill—the art of observation. Observation at the mode of discovery, it’s about being present in the moment, asking questions, using all your senses to understand your surroundings. For me exploring nature through the lens of science, fathoming what I’m observing while capturing the process in a sketch or photograph is the ultimate in a connection between science and art. I find my analytical skills while I draw shoot thru the roof. It’s not about how good the drawing on the page is, but what it looks like and the process of recording observations that shifts my perception of reality, and that is where all my creativity stems from.

Can you tell us all a little bit of what you found beneath the ice? 

The water is so clear it felt like I was floating in outer space, but with sound. There are two things heard on every dive—the Darth Vader-like sound of the regulator releasing bubbles on every exhale and the eerie sounds of Weddell seals vocalizing underwater. I took an underwater flashlight on every dive, even though it was daylight 24 hours a day above water, below it’s similar to doing a night dive. The sea ice formed a glowing ceiling, punctuated by bright circles that created imaginary dot-to-dots overhead. They are created by air bubbles that hit the under-ice surface and displaced some of the microscopic algae. Sea stars, sponges, soft corals and sea slugs come in all hues of pastels, pinks, and pale yellows and some are all white as if they are trying to disguise themselves as ice and snow.

What an amazing trip, Kirsten. Thank you so much for sharing all of this.
And now for the special treat of sharing your actual art. 

Photos and art courtesy of Rob Robbins, Brenda Konar, Steve Rupp, Mike Cloutier, Derrel Young, Kirsten Carlson ©2017

You can read more about Kirsten and her trip by following these links:

Read more about the AAWP award, Under the Ice, here:  
The online journal while in Antarctica:
Instagram: @artsyfishy

Twitter: @kirstencarlson

Saturday, August 18, 2018

10 Kidlit Books for the Dog Days of Summer

I hope this selection of nonfiction and fiction dog-centered kid lit gets you through these warm dog days of summer! 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Happy Birthday, Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was born today in 1818.  She was the first person to discover a telescopic comet!  She also became the first woman elected to the Academy of Arts and Science.  

She said, "We have a hunger of the mind, which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing." 

If you are planning a trip this summer to Nantucket, head over to the Maria Mitchell Association at 4 Vestal Street.  You can see Maria's house and gaze up into the sky just like she did.  

Read more about Maria Mitchell and fellow female astronomers: 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

15 Middle Grade Titles To Encourage Kids To Explore The Outdoors

Inspired by Melissa Stewart's wonderful post of picture books that encourage outdoor exploration, I've put together this list of middle grade books, both fiction and nonfiction, that older kids might enjoy reading this summer. 

Good News and Bad News ---For Wolves

There was good news and bad news recently for our country's gray wolf population, as you see below. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser...