Thursday, January 30, 2020

American Dirt and The Death of Monarch Activist

I found two news items on my feed today that I found equally disturbing. One was the death of missing monarch activist Homero Gómez González, and the other was the book tour cancellation of American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins due to threats against her life and the lives of booksellers carrying her book. 

What is going on here? No, this is not okay. It is incredibly frightening. 

You might not find these on an equal basis, but they are. Silencing people who we don't agree with or are threatened by is censorship in the worst form. 

We are better than this...aren't we? 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger Patricia Newman

Two Friends Who Want to Change the World

     When Nancy invited me to participate in this Behind the Story blog series, I immediately said yes, but I confess I didn’t know which book to write about. She had already featured Eavesdropping on Elephants,  Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, and Plastic, Ahoy! so her readers know many of my backstories. But then I realized there is one back story no one knows, and it centers around a special friendship.

     On a sweltering August day in 2009, I first read about a group of graduate students sailing to the North Pacific Central Gyre (aka The Great Pacific Garbage Patch) to study the plastic accumulating there. As I dug deeper, I discovered the expedition also included Annie Crawley as the official photographer and filmmaker. As the first ripples of an idea for Plastic, Ahoy! gathered momentum, I knew I would not only need the scientists’ endorsement, but Annie’s as well. Annie was as pivotal as the scientists because the expedition traveled 1,000 miles from land. Without Annie, there would be no photos for my book idea.

     I remember rather nervously cold-calling Annie to pitch my idea (which hadn’t yet sold). Already an important ocean advocate and member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, Annie used her cameras to tell the ocean’s story. Her social media feeds (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) and YouTube channel are filled with astonishing images and short videos.

     In these early days of Plastic, Ahoy!, few people were even aware of our ocean’s plastic problem, let alone discussing it, so Annie was intrigued by my idea. Well, maybe more than intrigued. “I was full-on in from the get-go,” she says, “because by the time you contacted me, I had already been up against nobody wanting to talk trash [literally] I was ecstatic you wanted to pitch a book idea. I knew kids would get it.”

Annie (R) and I met for the first time in the summer of 2014 on the banks of the Puget Sound in Washington.

     As we moved forward, Annie became a valuable partner in telling the story of Plastic, Ahoy! visually. If you’ve read the book, you’ve seen her compelling photos!

     We bonded over the book’s layout, the trailer, blog posts, and sharing our love of the sea. We knew we had to work together again!

     When Annie and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive our Green Earth Book Award for Plastic, Ahoy!, we already had our next book in mind: Zoo Scientists to the Rescue. While in D.C., we stopped at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park to interview Meredith Bastian, the orangutan scientist featured in Zoo Scientists to the Rescue.

     But that wasn’t all. Next, we traveled to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. We navigated a Colorado blizzard, were scolded by an angry black-footed ferret, charged by Maku the black rhino, and stayed at Annie’s childhood home in Chicago. We laughed, hoped for good photo weather, shared frustrations, and solved problems as we created the text and photo story together.

 Annie (L) at work on Zoo Scientists to the Rescue in Dr. Rachel Santymire’s (R) lab

     The friendship has blossomed. I’ve met her family; she’s met mine. We’ve presented together at various events, shared news stories about the ocean, and searched for another book idea.

     Which turned out to be right under our noses. Annie’s work as a scuba diver, dive instructor, photographer/filmmaker, and ocean educator/advocate became the foundation for Planet Ocean: Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean (Millbrook Press, October 6, 2020—available for pre-order on Amazon).

My first scuba lesson with Annie (R).

      In the book Annie and I demonstrate how we are all inextricably linked to the sea—the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. We take a deep dive into three of Annie’s favorite ocean regions—the Arctic, the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, and the waters around Indonesia in the heart of the Coral Triangle—to understand how pollution and climate change affect the sustainability of each region. We also introduce readers to local people fighting to save the ocean. Planet Ocean mixes STEM, current events, and global cultures, with a strong message of empowerment. We want young readers to use their storytelling skills to be the voice of the ocean. (I’m sorry I can’t yet share a cover or a trailer yet—we’re still in production mode! Stay tuned for lots more about Plant Ocean this fall.)
Annie and I interview Meg Chadsey (L) with Washington Sea Grant for PLANET OCEAN

     Meeting and working with Annie Crawley is one of the most satisfying “backstories” of my life. We’re two friends who want to change the world

Annie in her element

   Patricia Newman's books inspire young readers to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as Planet Ocean; Sea Otter Heroes; Plastic, Ahoy!; Eavesdropping on Elephants; and Zoo Scientists to the Rescue encourage readers to use their imaginations to solve real-world problems and act on behalf of their communities. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, Patricia’s books have received starred reviews, Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award; been honored as Junior Library Guild selections; and been included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Patricia frequently speaks at schools and conferences to share how children of any age can affect change. Visit her at

Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at Purchase and pre-order autographed copies of Nancy's books here. 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Australia Burning

Good morning, blog friends!

I'm a week away from a book deadline but have to pull myself away today to write about a place I visited and love dearly -- Australia.

As you all know, Australia is suffering from ravaging forest fires. Homes and lives have been lost. Millions of wildlife have perished. Here are some ways to learn more about the crisis and share Australia with your students.

 Articles you might have missed: 

Aussie Firefighters Save World's Only Groves of Prehistoric Wollemi Pines from NPR

Cats Are Making Australia's Bushfire Tragedy Even Worse from Wired

Australia Wildfires: Hundreds of Koalas Being Treaded As Animals Spotted 'Curled Up and Shut Down' Across Fire-Ravaged Region from Independent

Why These Australia Fires Are Nothing We've Seen Before from NYTimes

Books To Share With Young Readers: 

Ways to Help Australian Wildlife: 

World Wildlife Fund

New South Whales RSPCA

Koala Hospital

Animal Rescue Cooperative

I hope this page serves as a valuable resource as we see how climate change has greatly impacted one region. It's time for climate action. And it's time to pay attention because these stories will just increase if we don't act.


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger Anita Sanchez

Happy New Year! We are back with new guest bloggers for 2020 -- the first is Anita Sanchez. 

Research in the Mud

     So there’s this mud puddle. It sits at the bottom of my driveway—a long country driveway that dips in the middle and rises again, and at the lowest point, there’s always this puddle.

In the driest days of August, it’s just a skim of mud. But in spring, the puddle fills with rain, and sometimes threatens to rise over your ankles—it gets deep enough to guard the house like a moat. The Fed Ex folks and mail carriers hate it. People with freshly washed cars hate it. My entire family hates it, and frequently beg me to yield and get the driveway blacktopped already. But I won’t.

     Because butterflies love my puddle.

     In summer, I watch butterflies flittering to the puddle, drawn to its muddy margins as though to a blossoming rosebush. They come to rest, slowly fanning their kaleidoscope wings. As if they were sitting on petals, they uncurl their long tongues and sip—not nectar—but muddy water, rich in the minerals and nutrients they need.

     Another reason I can’t possibly blacktop the puddle is the robins. They splash and fling water over their heads and stretch out dripping wing feathers and wiggle their tails in glee. Honestly, do wild animals ever just kick back and have fun? It sure looks like the robins are purely enjoying themselves.

     Then there’s the skunk. One foggy morning, as I gazed out my office window, pondering a topic for a new book, I saw a skunk daintily lapping from the puddle. Then he stretched, I swear he yawned and waddled off to his den for a nap after a long night of digging beetle grubs.

     All that summer, as I struggled to come up with a topic for a nonfiction book on wildlife, I idly watched the puddle, laced with snail trails, dipped into by dragonflies, visited by toads.
I was trying to think of a creative idea for a picture book. Something about wildlife habitat. I wanted to write about a place that nurtures a broad diversity of wildlife that provides all the crucial components of habitat: water, food, shelter, a place to breed. Should I write about the rainforest, jungle, desert? The bottom of the ocean, the tundra, the Arctic? All those remote and exotic habitats that most kids will never actually see…

     And then I looked at the puddle again.

     So I researched mud puddles. And my search led me to piles of books and journals and websites galore. I learned about the importance of ephemeral pools for amphibian reproduction, and how frequent bathing improves feather quality and enables birds to escape predators better. I read scholarly articles with titles like “Mineralogical and Textural Characteristics of Nest Building Materials Used by Mud-nesting Hirundine Species,” explaining why declines in populations of barn swallows are directly linked to lack of a readily available source of mud for nesting. I read about puddling behavior in Lepidoptera—who knew “to puddle” could be a verb?

     (And in the end, I had way, way, way too much information, and had to make the usual agonizing decision: what to leave out and what to put in. Of course, you can always fit some of the good stuff into the back matter.)

     But in the end, the really crucial research—the research that counted most—was just my idle window-gazing, watching the puddle through the seasons. The book was created out of my own first-hand experience and observation. Every animal mentioned in the text—toad, skunk, butterfly, mud-dauber wasp, snail, deer—I watched as they used the rich habitat of my driveway to find food, water, or shelter.

     That’s the thing with research. You’re always doing research. You just don’t always know you’re doing it.

     My nonfiction picture book Hello, Puddle! is coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Kids. Illustrations by Luisa Uribe.

Anita Sanchez is especially fascinated by plants and animals that no one loves. As an educator for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, she developed curricula for science programs serving thousands of students. Decades of teaching outdoor classes have given her firsthand experience in introducing students to the wonders of nature. She is the award-winning author of many books on environmental science for children and adults.   
Her most recent book is Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, Slime: Nature’s Decomposers.

Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at Purchase and pre-order autographed copies of Nancy's books here. 

Coming in May 2020! 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Researching STEM - Welcome Guest Blogger Melissa Stewart

Delightfully Disgusting Research

The story behind my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses) traces back to a three-week research trip I took to Africa in 1996. During the safari, I watched with fascination as a mother black-backed jackal upchucked her partially-digested dinner to feed her three feisty pups. When the little ones had eaten their fill, she scarfed down the mushy leftovers.  

The next day, while observing a gerenuk standing on its tippy-toes as it ate, our guide told us that it’s one of more than 150 mammals (including cows) that regurgitate their food and re-munch their lunch as many as four times. It’s their way of eking every possible nutrient from the tough plants they eat.

Right then and there, I started making a list of animals that vomit their vittles as a survival strategy. Over time, I added more than a dozen insects, birds, and mammals to that list. 

But why stop there? I also made lists of creatures that use poop, pee, spit, snot, and other bodily substances in the most surprising ways. Eventually, I had more than enough information for a 100-page book. 

Photo: Satoshi Kuribayashi/Nature Production/Minden Pictures

One of my favorite examples is the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucusFor 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. 
PhotoShinji Sugiura
Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job!

Available in June 2020 wherever books are sold.

Observational research—whether it’s in person, through videos, or via webcams—is one of my favorite parts of being a nonfiction writer. It’s also one of the best ways I know to gather tantalizing tidbits that can transform a piece of science writing from okay to outstanding. 

And the good news is that young writers can do this kind of active, engaging, self-driven research just as easily as I can. Why not let them give it a try?

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for young readers, including Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, Seashells: More than a Home, and Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs. She maintains the Celebrate Science blog and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.

Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at Purchase and pre-order autographed copies of Nancy's books here.

Coming May 2020! 

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...