Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes

2011. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Though aimed at primary, this beautiful book will appeal to readers of all ages.

Features: Illustrated informational section on the spiral at the end of the book


With its large, minimalistic print, Joyce Sidman’s multi-award-winning book Swirl by Swirl is an informational text even beginning readers can understand and explore. Sidman is well known for her ability to blend and interweave poetry and informational writing, and Swirl by Swirl can definitely be read as a free verse poem. Yet it stretches out–like spirals themselves–spanning the whole book, and allowing us to take in just one main thought at a time. Essentially, the book is a conceptual and visual exploration of one of the most beautiful, interesting, and mysterious shapes in nature: the spiral. As we learn, it appears everywhere–from fern fronds to galaxies, from the tail of a seahorse to the center of a tornado. Older readers will be delighted (and amazed) to think how many times they have viewed this shape, perhaps without pondering it; younger readers will be fascinated to learn just how prevalent spirals are, and encouraged to look for spiral shapes in the world around them. The pictutures by Beth Krommes invite a second and third look, as some spirals are hidden or camouflaged; looking for them is fun, and finding them takes a bit of concentration. For this reason, you’ll want to take your time when sharing the book aloud, and you may even want to read it more than once.

In the Classroom

1. Background. Talk about the swirl or spiral shape. Who knows what it looks like? Which of your students can draw this shape?

2. Personal experience. Where in nature do you find this shape? Make a list–in writing or just orally. Be sure to do this before reading the book, so you can see how many of your students’ observations are borne out, and which examples come as surprises.

3. Reading. Share the book aloud, taking time to let students explore the art and look for the many spirals the artist has put there for us to find. How many of these have your students seen for themselves? Which ones are new to them–perhaps spirals they have never thought of before?

4. Simple Research. The Common Core Standards ask primary students to do a simple form of research that involves summarizing and/or discussing in-class readings provided by the teacher. Take time to do that, asking, “What have we learned from our research?” (Do call it research.) And think carefully: What do we learn from Sidman’s book? For example, how common are spirals in nature? Where do we find them?

5. Writing. Give students a chance to “fix” what they have learned in their minds by writing about spirals–spirals they have seen, or just the shape itself. What does it make them think of? Many students will enjoy embellishing this writing with art. Drawing and painting spirals of all kinds is challenging, fun–and relaxing. You may wish to support this effort by showing or posting pictures of spiral shapes that you collect: plants, shells, snakes, animal tails, sea creatures, and more.

6. Extended research.  Within the Common Core Standards, research is foundational to informational writing skills. It is helpful to introduce primary students to some of the many forms research can take. For example . . .

  • Take a “field trip” around your school campus. See if you can identify any spiral shapes within that environment. If you have the opportunity, explore beyond those boundaries–a field, a zoo, a beach. Record what you see with words, photos, or sketches.
  • Take a close-up look at spirals by bringing some specimens into class–and drawing them. Good subjects include snails or other creatures with spiral shells, centipedes or other creatures that curl themselves into spirals, ferns or any plants with spiral shapes. (Can you think of an example that does not appear in the book?)
  • Review the informational appendix at the end of Sidman’s book. Here you will find additional drawings and explanations of where we find spirals and how they behave.
  • Look up the word “spiral” online. See what you find.
  • Collect photos or paintings of spirals and create a classroom collage.

7. Conclusions.  Bring your study to a close by asking the big question to which there is no one right answer–but many possible answers: Why do spirals exist in nature? Talk about this first if you wish–then write about it. Students may wish to write informational pieces, philosophy, poetry–or choose another form altogether.

8. Summing up. Ask each student to sum up in two or three sentences the most important or interesting thing he or she has learned about spirals.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

  Watch for a review of Sneed Collard’s newly published book Lizards, a gem of an informational book that can teach us 
  all a thing or two about “spectacular saurians”! And please remember . . . Give every child a voice.