Tag Archive: nonfiction


Exoplanets by Seymour Simon. 2018. New York: HarperCollins.
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Levels: Grades 3 and up (Adults will enjoy and learn much from this book)
Features: Incredible photos and illustrations, glossary, index, guide to further reading, and Author’s Note.

Exoplanets

Overview
Whenever author Seymour Simon comes out with a new book, it’s cause for celebration. I urge you to have a look at Exoplanets, the newest addition to this writer’s impressive collection.  Like Simon’s previous titles (over 300 of them), this book is a gift. It’s highly readable, making even complex and expansive subjects (like galaxies or the universe itself) both understandable and entertaining. In addition, it’s jam packed with ideas curious people love to explore, such as whether we’re alone in the universe.

Not that long ago, landing on the moon was a big deal. Now we are studying—literally identifying and investigating—so-called exoplanets, meaning planets outside our tiny solar system. What could be more exciting? But wait. Did you read that right? Did I say tiny solar system? Well, let’s put it in author Seymour Simon’s own language—and believe me, the guy has a gift for comparisons. If the Milky Way Galaxy were the size of the USA, he tells us, “Our whole solar system would then be the size of a quarter coin placed on the United States. Meanwhile, the sun would be only a microscopic speck of dust on that scale” (6). How small does that make you feel?

Milky Way 5As humans, we’ve likely pondered the possibility of alien life since we first looked up at the stars. Now we might be close to answering the question meaningfully, making this—from a scientific perspective—one of the most exciting times to be alive. Ever.

Tiny can be powerful. For a small book, Exoplanets has a big reach. In just under 40 pages, Seymour Simon investigates a wide range of provocative questions, some answerable and many meant to tease our imaginations:

• What’s a Goldilocks planet?
• How many stars (suns) and exoplanets might exist just within our own Milky Way?
• What’s a galaxy? And how many galaxies might our universe contain?
• How many exoplanets have been confirmed so far?
• How in the world do scientists discover these new planets?
• Are exoplanets like Earth—or like any planets in our solar system?
• What does a planet need to sustain life?
• How do we calculate the odds of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
• Would aliens be like us—or very different?
• Should we look forward to aliens stopping by—or brace ourselves?

If you and your students have ever wondered about these same things, don’t miss this book. The ideas are inherently intriguing and presented with the clarity for which Simon is famous.

Animals Nobody LovesI’m a long-time fan of Seymour Simon’s nonfiction, and have carried his books to countless workshops, sharing them with teachers and students alike—who always madly scribble down titles. Special favorites for me include Big Cats, Animals Nobody Loves, Gorillas, Sharks, Whales, The Brain, The Heart, and Our Solar System, but let me just say that you could read all day and into tomorrow, and still have numerous remarkable Seymour Simon books to explore. As a former teacher, Simon knows how to engage students, how to emphasize important details, how to get conversationally technical without drowning us in hard-to-recall statistics, and above all, how to suggest stimulating questions and issues for us to think about.The Heart

In his striking conclusion, Simon admits there is much we humans still do not know, including whether life beyond our solar system, if it exists at all, might take the form of intelligent beings or simple microbes. “So why are we even looking?” he asks. “We’re looking for answers because that’s what humans do. We are curious about our world and our surroundings” (39). That curiosity, he adds, is like an insatiable thirst.

What a brilliant wrap-up.

Curiosity not only feeds our desire to explore space, but also drives our very desire to learn. Let’s nurture the innate curiosity in our children because it’s what makes our teaching not only effective, but literally possible. One good way to keep curiosity alive is by sharing great nonfiction books like this one.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book aloud. You may find this book appropriate for use with a reading group of students who share an avid interest in space and the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Still, who can say how many of your students will find this topic intriguing, given just a little taste? With this in mind, I recommend reading at least through page 9 aloud to the whole class, then inviting students to finish the book on their own, with follow-up group discussions. As you read through the book yourself, mark those passages you just “have to share.” I’m predicting you’ll find quite a few!

milky way 3Background. How many of your students have wondered about the possibility of life on other planets? Or wondered how many other planets there might be in the universe—or just within our own Milky Way galaxy? For fun, have students write short paragraphs about this, speculating or offering their current beliefs. After sharing selected passages from the book, talk about whether their ideas have changed—or their beliefs have been reinforced. Share your own thoughts, too–with, of course, the caveat that no one knows the answer to this question. Yet.

Because the book is so clearly written, students do not need a great deal of background information to understand it. However, a grasp of certain concepts will certainly enhance their enjoyment of this topic. In particular, it’s helpful if students are familiar with or knowledgeable about—

• The story of Goldilocks, so they can readily grasp how the “Goldilocks” concept applies in other contexts (It’s easy to assume children are acquainted with these fairy tales with which a lot of us grew up, but many are not, so ask!)
• The basics of our solar system, such as the number of planets, and a sense of which ones are closest to the sun (Think about sharing Seymour Simon’s book Our Solar System as a way of setting the stage for Exoplanets.)
• The terms solar system, Milky Way galaxy, and universe—and distinctions among them
• The concept of a light year, the distance light travels in a year, or 5.88 trillion miles (Make sure students have some idea of what a trillion even is—this can be difficult for young readers, or anyone, to picture!)

Our Solar SystemYou might also wish to ask students how many have seen films or read books that explore the idea of alien life. What forms does that fictional life usually take? Do they feel these portrayals are realistic—or mostly a product of writers’ and film makers’ imaginations?

Questions for Writing or Discussion

Question 1: What does it take to make a planet habitable? This is a good question to research, though your students likely have many ideas about this already. Exoplanets offers numerous clues. See the early discussion of “Goldilocks” planets on page 5, the reference to water vapor on page 13, and the discussion of atmosphere, ocean water, and temperature on page 19. See if you can, with your students, come up with their own personal definition of the “habitable zone.” Note the comment on page 20 that “Each star has a different habitable zone.” Why would this be? What’s the habitable zone for our own star, the sun? What if Earth had been a little closer to the sun—or just a bit farther away?

Cosmos2Note: In his famous book Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote this:

The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a one followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious. (1980, 5)

Those beautiful lines haunt me still. Worlds are indeed precious. But as we now know, precious does not necessarily mean unique. The idea that intelligent life could exist somewhere in that “everlasting night of intergalactic space” is infinitely captivating.

Question 2: How many exoplanets exist? While we cannot come up with a specific number, we can—as Seymour Simon’s book suggests—make an intelligent guess. What’s important here is understanding how scientists make such estimates.

We need to begin with the notion of how many exoplanets might exist in that tiny bit of galactic real estate known to us, the Milky Way. According to Simon, scientists estimate that there could be one Goldilocks planet circling each red dwarf star in the galaxy—and more such planets circling other stars similar to our sun. Based on the numbers of such stars in the galaxy, the Milky Way itself might contain billions of habitable planets (See page 9 for a thorough discussion). Remember, though: The Milky Way is only one galaxy, so we have to ask . . .

How many galaxies are in the universe? See page 32 for an estimate. Then, as the saying goes, prepare to do the math. You should come up with a pretty dazzling number. If there truly are this many Goldilocks planets scattered throughout the universe, what are the odds that life in some form exists out there somewhere, however distant from us?

Billions and Billions

 

Note: For an utterly delightful discussion of how to use and multiply cosmic numbers, see Carl Sagan’s book Billions and Billions, pages 3-12. That title is a joke, by the way. Sagan, by his own account, never uttered the expression “billions and billions.” It was made famous by talk show host Johnny Carson, who loved impersonating Sagan.

 

 

 

 

 

Question 3: Suppose there were intelligent beings on other planets. If we could reach out to them, what would we want them to know about us? Before students write or talk about this, share the story of Frank Drake’s Arecibo Message, a broadcast sent from Puerto Rico in 1974 (See page 31). Discuss the things Drake included in this message.

Then ask students to think about sending a similar message today. What things would you come up with, as a class, to include—and why? What would best represent life on our planet in the Twenty-First Century?

You may also wish to share Simon’s discussion of Breakthrough Listen, a sophisticated search initiated by physicist Stephen Hawking (see page 32). What is innovative about Breakthrough Listen, and how does it change the exploration game for scientists?

Question 4: Is it likely—or even possible—that alien beings have already visited us on Earth? Many people think so, though evidence is anything but conclusive or even, for that matter, convincing to most scientists. But it’s fun to imagine, which may help explain why so many people feel they’ve been visited by aliens. What do your students think? Research this topic and discuss whether the evidence thus far has credibility. What barriers or conditions minimize the odds of beings traveling through space to visit us here on Earth?

Hey–is anybody listening? As Simon tells us in Exoplanets, we are continually sending signals into space through our radio and television broadcasting. More recently, we’ve begun deliberately attempting to contact anyone who might be listening. So far, we’ve heard nothing back. Why? On page 28, Simon offers several possible reasons. Share these reasons with students and ask what they think. Could someone be listening out there? Do they hope so?

Question 5: Are alien beings friendly? Among the many enticing questions Seymour Simon raises in this book, this one is for me the most tantalizing of all. No matter how curious we might be, we have to face the possibility, as explorers have through time, that we could encounter hostile beings who do not wish us well. Should we keep going anyway? Is it worth the risk? What do your students think?

Ask if they imagine that alien life is more likely to be friendly or unfriendly—and why. Suppose we were to encounter a civilization with intelligent beings far older, wiser, and more technologically sophisticated than any beings here on Earth. Would this be a good thing? What influence might such a discovery have on us, and how could our lives change as a result?

Before you go . . .

Take time to read the Author’s Note at the front of the book. This isn’t a quickly dashed off comment. It’s a message from the heart by an author who loves writing and enjoys telling us about his approach and vision.

Want to know more about exoplanets?

They’re a hot topic on the internet these days. Just type “exoplanets” in your search engine and prepare for a barrage of articles and thrilling photos. In addition, Seymour Simon lists several key websites to explore. See page 40.Milky Way 3

About the Author

The New York Times has called Seymour Simon “the dean of the [children’s science] field.” He has written more than 300 books for young readers, 75 of which have been named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). In 2012, Simon founded StarWalk Kids Media, a streaming eBook platform that makes outstanding literature from today’s top authors available to schools and libraries.

Simon’s website (www.seymoursimon.com) is a Webby Honoree, and was named one of twelve “2012 Great Websites for Kids,” offering children, families, and educators a wide array of free downloadable resources designed to enrich their reading experience. Throughout his incredible career, Simon has won multiple awards for his work, including the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Lifetime Achievement Award for his lasting contribution to science education. A visionary and committed educator (He taught for twenty-five years before becoming a full-time writer), Simon never loses sight of his primary goal. “I’m more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than I am in teaching the facts,” he says. “The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

Visit Simon at http://www.seymoursimon.com where you can read more about his interests, learn about other publications, follow his daily nature walks in upstate New York, and even post on his blog.

Teaching Nonfiction RevisionAre your students writing their own nonfiction? Let us help!

Teaching Nonfiction Revision (by Sneed B. Collard and Vicki Spandel) will guide you and your students seamlessly through the whole revision process. You’ll find out, step by step, how one of our finest professional writers—Sneed Collard—readies his own drafts  for publication. As Sneed shares his trade secrets, I work alongside him, translating Sneed’s professional strategies into classroom writing activities students will love and learn from, suggesting ways to confer during revision, and sharing writing secrets that demystify revision even for writers who struggle. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like an expert at teaching this vital part of writing process. Don’t miss our list of recommended nonfiction books—for both adults and students (And if you’re wondering, of course Seymour Simon made the list, even though, unfortunately, we didn’t have space to include all 300 titles).

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is available at Amazon or at our publisher’s website, http://www.heinemann.com

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Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes and Bagging Bugs, written and photographed by Sneed B. Collard III. 2018. Missoula, MT: Bucking Horse Books.
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults
Features: Gorgeous photos, glossary, index, and delightful “photo bloopers” section you will love!

Overview Woodpeckers cover
Tap, tap, tap, tap. You’ll hear it any day now! The percussion section of the ornithological world, aka woodpeckers, going to town right outside your window, signaling spring. They’re not doing it just to annoy you. They’re actually communicating with one another, and the message could be “Watch out—this is my territory, not yours!” or “Love of my life, here I am!” Who knew? I didn’t. But I get it now, thanks to Sneed B. Collard’s most recent book, Woodpeckers. (Yes, he has another. Does the guy ever sleep?)

Collard is a terrific (and prolific) nonfiction writer, but this newest book has to be one of his best. What makes it so? Two things. Voice and detail. This magical combo works every time, whether for an award-winning author like Collard or a fifth grader hammering out a three-page report. Let’s take a closer look at these sine qua non features, beginning with detail.

ESSENTIAL FEATURE #1: Make it informative!
Readers have all sorts of ways of measuring nonfiction detail. Some tally facts–you know, the sorts of dates, names, or other data that might appear on a quiz. Other readers equate detail with imagery, those telling sensory cues that put us right at the scene. Who doesn’t love that? But for me, the essence of good nonfiction detail lies within this question: “What did I learn?”

When I finish a book like this one, I want to recall three, four—maybe six—things I didn’t know when I picked the book up. Details like these:

• Woodpeckers have a unique anatomy that allows them to bang on trees without getting headaches or brain damage.
• While some woodpeckers seek out soft trees to tap on, others can drill holes in trees nearly as hard as rock.
• Unlike most birds, woodpeckers have toes facing both forward and back that enable them to cling to trees, even upside down, without slipping.
• A woodpecker’s long tongue is attached to a special bone that allows it to extend way, way beyond what would otherwise be possible, ensuring that no crafty ant or beetle escapes its culinary destiny.
• Though drumming woodpeckers are most often seeking food, they also—with impressive speed and skill—excavate their own homes. (If you don’t find this impressive, then you haven’t tried drilling your way into a tree lately.)
• What’s more, were it not for woodpeckers, many other birds (certain kinds of owls and ducks, for instance) wouldn’t have their own homes to nest in.

 

Acorn PS on Pole 0994 copy

Plenty of good storage for acorns on this telephone pole!

I ask you: Did you know these things moments ago? I didn’t know any of them prior to reading Woodpeckers, and was struck by how much I had learned from just a few pages of highly readable text. As we share nonfiction with students (and I hope you do this regularly), we should also ask them to listen for things they learn. The more they value coming face to face with new information, the more appealing young writers will find nonfiction books like this one. They open our world, allowing us to experience things beyond our normal reach. The better the detail—and this book is information-packed—the richer that experience.

 

 

 

 

 

ESSENTIAL FEATURE #2: Put some voice into it!
Is voice really so important in nonfiction? Just ask nonfiction writers like Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Bill Bryson, Craig Childs, Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Michael Pollan, Katherine Roy, Seymour Simon, Melissa Sweet, Elaine Scott, or Susanna Reich—to name but a handful of people who literally make a living writing with distinctive, unmistakable voice.

Important doesn’t even cover it. Voice is elemental. It’s the soul of writing. The very thing that keeps us reading. Voiceless documents—and the world has plenty of those, so no need to produce more—are nothing but dust collectors.

Woodpeckers, like all of Sneed’s nonfiction work, rings with voice. This is why you’ll want to share it aloud. It’s an excellent model of what nonfiction can be. When you read a book like this one to your students, you’re not just teaching them about woodpeckers. You’re demonstrating firsthand how to engage readers by bringing information to life.

Wait a minute, though. Aren’t reports (of the sort students write in school) supposed to be a little bit . . . well, dull and dry? Don’t they have to be (here comes that dreaded word) objective? Sure. But objective doesn’t mean boring. A dull and plodding, albeit faithful, recounting of facts. If that’s our idea of objectivity, we need to grab our notecards and run as fast as our feet will carry us.

Presenting factual information as though we don’t care anything about it, as though we could recite it in our sleep, is anything but objective. Boredom, which is hard to camouflage, casts a shadow over the writer’s topic. It’s the worst form of bias. If the writer can’t wait to get a report (or any writing) over with, that’s precisely how readers will feel. By contrast, imagine that the writer sees his research as an adventure, an opportunity for discovery. I’m pretty sure that’s how Sneed sees it. Between the lines of his book we can read his underlying message: “You’ve got to hear this! I cannot wait to share this with you.”

Woodpeckers runs about 40 pages, and they fly by. That’s the power of voice.

Where does this VOICE come from? Several things. First, Sneed knows his subject inside and out, so he can write about it with confidence: “A woodpecker’s beak can strike wood at more than fifteen miles an hour. That would give any other bird—or us—brain damage. Not surprisingly, woodpeckers have super-cool adaptations to keep from injuring themselves. Their beaks and skull bones are specifically designed to absorb shock” (6). As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. You need to do your research. Voice is built upon a bedrock of knowledge that lets the writer feel and speak like an expert.

Downy PS in Our Oak 1507 copy

Downy Woodpecker tapping away on an oak tree

 

Second, Sneed uses quotations to bring other voices into the discussions—and also to give the information additional authenticity. We meet woodpecker expert Dick Hutto on page one, and he reappears periodically, like a good friend dropping by for coffee. A friend who always has something quotable to say, like this: “We record their [woodpeckers’] drumming and play it back. Woodpeckers will come attack the loudspeaker if they think it’s another male intruding on their territories” (21). Of all the comments Sneed might have chosen to include right here, he picked one that would make us laugh. I read this and think, “This writer wants me to have a good time reading his book.” I do. That’s exactly how we want to feel reading our students’ work.

 

Professor Dick Hutto

Professor Dick Hutto

Voice also comes, of course, from the combination of word choice, rhythm, and tone that reveals the writer behind the words. In his introduction to the chapter “Woodpecker Families,” Sneed writes, “If you had to choose non-human parents—and I’m sure you’ve been tempted—you could do a lot worse than choosing a woodpecker mom and dad” (24). The voice here is witty, playful, conversational. A writer chatting with his readers, making a joke while simultaneously surprising us with a terrific tidbit of information. Few people watch a woodpecker light on the suet feeder and think, “Well, now. There goes a model parent!” We’ll think it now, though, won’t we?

 

In any nonfiction writing, voice depends enormously on the writer’s enthusiasm for the topic at hand. Collard tells us straight up that he finds woodpeckers fascinating, and he demonstrates this on every page with an energy and involvement that are downright contagious. He spent several years putting this book together, much of it searching for woodpeckers in the wild and attempting to get those elusive just-right photos. That’s a level of commitment we can’t expect from most students, at least prior to graduate school. But that’s not the point, really. The point is this: Students (and all writers) do better work when they’re in love with their topics, as Sneed clearly is here. If we want to see reports and essays we’ll actually enjoy reading, let’s help students discover topics that speak to them. Then maybe, as in Woodpeckers, those hand-picked topics will speak to us too.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book aloud. It’s always tempting to reach for a good story. I do it all the time. But students will want to read what you find exciting. If you never reach for nonfiction, why should they? Show them that reading, like food, is enhanced by variety.

This book is short enough to share in one or two readings—three at most. I wouldn’t share it chapter by chapter because individual sections are so short that you could lose continuity breaking it up this much. Use a document projector if possible so you can enjoy the photographs. They’re outstanding and will add immeasurably to your understanding.

Background. How many of your students have seen woodpeckers firsthand? Can they identify particular species? Either way, ask them to look for familiar woodpeckers as you go through the book together.

If at all possible, consider a field trip to spot (or even photograph) woodpeckers in their native habitats. Woodpeckers are prevalent throughout North America, so chances are good that some live near you. If you’re in the city, you may find woodpeckers in nearby forested areas, parks, or woodlands. If you’re lucky enough to live close to hiking trails, that’s almost a sure bet. Keep in mind that some species take up residence in burned areas following forest fires. (See Sneed Collard’s book Firebirds for more information on this.)Firebirds

Personal Note: We have numerous woodpeckers in the forest behind our house. They tap on the window frame outside my office window every spring—so loudly I can barely concentrate on my writing! Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know they were “talking,” not necessarily pecking the house apart in their ongoing quest for food. (That’s a relief!) In addition, the only species I could name was the Flicker. Now I know we also have Downy Woodpeckers—and that rare species, the White-Headed Woodpecker. That photo was the give-away!

Woodpecker7

That rare White-headed Woodpecker!

 

Write, write, write! If you’re a teacher, you know what a turn on it is to help someone understand something that was, just moments earlier, cloudy and mysterious—or not even on their radar. Why not let students experience that same excitement? Writing their own nonfiction gives students a chance to be our teachers.

Encourage them to choose topics they feel committed to researching. This makes the whole process far more fun for them—and more entertaining for you as you read the results. If possible, go for variety. You don’t really—do you?—want to read thirty, forty, or two hundred reports on climate change, or any other topic. Choice for students means variety for you.

Where will students get their ideas? One surefire source is the nonfiction you read aloud. When students see and hear what great nonfiction writers like Sneed Collard have to say, it inspires them to ask themselves what information they might share with the world. Nonfiction writing has virtually exploded in the last decade—in diversity, quality, presentation, everything. It’s as engaging as the best fiction you can find. It’s current, informative, provocative, and a critical component of a good education. If you’re wondering what to read next (after Woodpeckers), why not have your students nominate some possibilities, then take a vote? This will engage them in exploring the ever-expanding world of nonfiction, and will ensure they have a real stake in what you read together.

Woodpecker2

Creatures like the Pygmy Owl are all too happy to move in when woodpeckers move out.

 

Getting creative with formatting. How creative are your students in formatting their essays, biographies, analyses, or reports? Much of this depends, of course, on whether they have access to technology that supports more than black lines on a white page. Even if they don’t yet have that tech edge, you can make students aware of how design influences our experience as readers.

As you go through Woodpeckers, ask students to notice the layout. It’s striking. Photos are everywhere! How much do your students feel these photos add to the interest and appeal of the text? Discuss ways your students could incorporate illustrations into their own nonfiction: photos, sketches, maps, graphs, cartoons, or other visuals that break up text and give readers information they can’t get from words alone.

Also notice the use of color and shading, and the variations in fonts. Such seemingly small features enhance the visual effectiveness of any document. They’re more than window dressing. Textual variations can very deliberately draw readers’ eyes to important points.

You might also notice that in Woodpeckers some information is boxed apart from the main text. (See pages 12 and 13, for example.) Talk with your students about what this approach does for us as readers. What sort of “break” does such formatting provide? How would a writer decide what information, if any, to set apart in a box?Woodpecker6

Discuss whether “boxing” is an approach your students might borrow for their own writing. You might have them review one of their recent nonfiction drafts to see if they can identify a section of text that could benefit from this special treatment. Have them search for a short segment that is hard to work smoothly into the main flow, yet too important to simply dump on the cutting room floor. Bingo. A good way to save a detail that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else.

How about those subheads? Often students who use subheads (and many, unfortunately, do not!) take them very literally. For example, suppose a student is writing about Emperor Penguins. She may use subheads like these: Appearance, Life Cycle, Habitat, Food Sources, Natural Enemies. There is nothing wrong with this. Such subtitles add clarity and make any discussion easier to follow.

On the other hand, subheads, which Sneed sometimes calls A-heads, offer the writer an opportunity to get a little playful, and perhaps provide readers with deeper clues about upcoming content.

As you go through Woodpeckers with your students, pay attention to Collard’s subheads, sometimes pausing to ask students, “What is this next section probably about?” You’ll notice that some subheads are direct: e.g., “Woodpecker Families.” But much of the time, Sneed is having some fun with us, as if to say, “Are you guys paying attention here?” And we are! Who could ignore headings like “What’s a Woodp-p-p-p-pecker?” or “Hot-Footed Fact”?

This isn’t to say we should transform students into comedians. I didn’t put this book down saying, “Man, I’ve never laughed so h-h-hard!” No—this is a subtle thing. It’s an author looking carefully at his message and asking, “What’s important here? What could I emphasize in this subhead to get and hold readers’ attention?”

Keeping readers reading is what the writing game is all about. Too often students don’t know this because they don’t have to. They have a trapped audience: teachers. Teachers don’t have much choice about whether to read their students’ work. What if they did? That’s the way we need to teach our students to write—as if their readers (like those of the professional writer) could walk away and read something else.

A new way to think about revision. I loved the whole book, but I have to say, “Woodpecker Photo Bloopers” was my favorite part. Maybe because most writers aren’t gutsy enough to share their bloopers—and bloopers of any kind are fun to look at. But also because it gave me enormous appreciation for the effort required to photograph birds. They don’t pose!

 

Woodpecker1

One that didn’t make the cut . . .

 

 

It also struck me that this careful culling of photos was a form of revision. We so often think of revision as “fixing,” but that’s a highly simplistic definition. What prompts us to revise our writing—or anything?

When we built our current house, the one woodpeckers find so irresistible, we revised the blueprints repeatedly. Why? Because at various turns some internal voice would whisper, “This isn’t quite it. This isn’t right yet.” That’s the very voice I hear when I revise my writing. And I suspect it’s close to what Sneed hears in his mind as he reviews potential illustrations, tossing this one, keeping that.

As you look at the photos in this delightful section (which I predict your students will love as much as I did), take time to study each photo carefully. Ask your students why they think each one was rejected. It may help to simultaneously review the photos that were chosen—beginning with that stunner on the cover. What characteristics do these keepers exhibit that are missing from the bloopers?

Then help students make the connection to writing. Just as a photographer like Sneed will choose one photo over another, good writers will choose one word, one phrase, one sentence over another. While all may express the same general idea, just as all the blooper photos show woodpeckers, some convey the message more clearly, more precisely, or in a way the writer prefers. Noticing such differences will give your students a much better appreciation for what revision is about. Making choices.

More Writing Activities Students Will Love

Take your own photos! Almost nothing jump starts writing like photographing your subject(s) first. You don’t have to focus on woodpeckers—though you certainly could. By all means, choose topics that suit your environment. That could mean farmlands, factories, architecture, bodies of water, animals, sports, food—anything! What’s more, students do not all need to photograph the same kinds of things. One might be interested in sculpture, while another wants to study community gardening. The point is to get students into the environment, seeing the world firsthand through their own eyes. You will be amazed at how this electrifies the voice in their writing.

IMG_5884 (2)

Sneed, going for a great shot!

 

If possible, encourage students to take multiple photos. As Sneed has discovered during his many years as a photographer, most photos don’t turn out as well as we hope when we click the button. In addition, multiple photos provide increased opportunity to uncover details we can easily overlook initially. Don’t be surprised if they switch topics mid-stream either. A student photographer may start out focusing on city traffic and wind up capturing wildlife in the park. So need I say? This is one of the best ways you’ll ever find to help students find personal writing topics.

Personalize research. What nonfiction topics are your students writing about right now? Whatever it is, take one class period to think about ways they could go beyond books, articles, and internet to make their research more personal. Make no mistake—these academic research trails are important, and we want students to follow them. But nothing really takes the place of close-up experience through site visits, observations, and interviews with experts. Want to see your students truly jazzed about research? Try asking, “What if YOU were the primary researcher on this topic? What if YOU were the one whose data others would cite?” There’s so much more to research than taking notes. It’s a hundred times more rewarding to make yourself the resident expert on a subject you have identified as important.

Follow up. A book like Woodpeckers invariably raises questions we can answer through personal investigation. Just as an example, since reading the book, I am far more aware of forest terrains. I cannot get this comment from Sneed out of my head: “One problem is that humans don’t like messy-looking landscapes.” No kidding.

 

Guayaquil Woodpecker 2L4A8485 copy (1)

Guayaquil Woodpecker

We may shamelessly litter streets and beaches, but when it comes to our forested areas, we cannot resist the urge to tidy up. Why? Unlike plastic and other trash, organic remnants like leaves, twigs, fallen and scorched trees, or snags actually support life in more ways than most of us realize. We should appreciate these natural gifts, not treat them like refuse. So my personal research question is this: How do we get people (myself included) to wake up? How do we get interfering humans to stop fanatically removing all dead trees and other natural remains from forests that depend on these very things to thrive?

 

 

 

How many follow-up questions can your students come up with after reading Woodpeckers? Here are just a few that occur to me:

• What kinds of woodpeckers live in my part of the world?
• Many people view woodpeckers as pests, though they do much for the environment. Some even kill them. How can we get people to feel more positive toward these birds?
• We know that woodpecker hollows provide homes for other creatures, such as wood ducks and owls. What kinds of birds (or animals) take over woodpecker homes in my area?
• What species of woodpecker, if any, are currently threatened with extinction?
• What talents does it take to photograph woodpeckers? Or any birds? Can I do it?
• If I went birding in my area for a day, how many species of birds would I see? How much does this change with the seasons?
• What skills does it take to be a birder?
• Are feral cats (or other animals) a threat to woodpeckers (and other birds) in my neighborhood? What, if anything, can we do about this?

I’m betting your students will come up with better questions than mine. Be sure to remind them: Their questions are the jumping off point for exhilarating investigative research.


Words from the Author . . . Sneed at home

Sneed Collard graciously agreed to answer a few questions about writing, revision, woodpeckers, and nonfiction. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: This isn’t your first book about birds. Yet woodpeckers in particular seem to fascinate you. What’s so intriguing about these species? And did your interest in woodpeckers make it easier to write about them?

I first noticed woodpeckers growing up in California, where Acorn Woodpeckers drilled thousands of holes into telephone poles to store their acorns! Ever since then, I’ve loved these birds. They’re beautiful, of course, but also relatively easy to recognize, which helped get me started in birding. They also play essential roles in forest habitats. I mean, what’s not to write about?

Q: Many people have an impression of birding as not too physically demanding. You just take binoculars with you when you go for a walk, right? Is this a misconception?

Birding can be like that—but not for most serious birders. When my son, Braden, and I are birding, we usually cover five or six miles each day, some of it across very demanding terrain. Birding also can have its perils. In the four or five years we’ve been seriously birding, we’ve suffered treacherous roads, dehydration, falling trees, and killer bees. Needless to say, these trials have been worth it. Intellectually, birding offers so many great challenges, from learning to identify birds from calls and physical characteristics to observing their ever-fascinating behaviors.

Q: One of the many things that makes this book so intriguing is that you did your own photography. What’s the hardest thing about photographing birds?

Photography depends on great equipment, a ton of experience, and even more patience. Braden and I aren’t willing to sit in a blind for hours to wait for a bird, but if we know about a nest, we’ll go and set up our tripods and wait. Usually, though, we’re opportunistic photographers, hoping to run across great birds and photo conditions when we can, and the only way to do that is get out there a lot! Tomorrow, for instance, we’re driving three hours up to Kalispell, Montana in the hopes we can find a Snowy Owl. Even so, it takes years to recognize good photo conditions and how to use your equipment to maximize your odds of a good crisp photo. Every day after birding, Braden and I come home and delete about 80% of our photos. If we get one or two great photos per day, we’re happy.

Q: In the final section of the book, you share some photos that did not work out—it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, in fact. You mention taking up to a hundred photos for each one that you finally select for publication. How do you know when you find that one special photo? What makes you say, “Ah, this is the one I want”?

If the bird is well-lit, doing something interesting, and the eye is sharp in the photo, it’s usually a keeper. Most often, we get these kinds of photos at a blind, a feeder, or a nest. The great cover shot for Woodpeckers was taken at a nest that I visited several times. The last time I went, I thought it had been abandoned, but I waited for twenty minutes. Then, I saw the pencil-thin beak of a baby woodpecker poke out of the hole. I got so excited! That’s when the real action began, as the parents returned to feed their ravenous teenagers!

Q: A lot of young readers these days love to read stories—novels in particular. How do we, as teachers, lure them into the world of nonfiction?

This is always tough. Some kids naturally prefer nonfiction topics, but many veer toward fiction. One problem is that most teachers still treat nonfiction as an “educational” or “special” category—and they don’t read nonfiction themselves. Instead of picking up a novel to read aloud, I wish more teachers would just grab a good nonfiction book and read that aloud during reading time. One great resource to turn on teachers and kids is something called The Nonfiction Minute. Each day, this website features a short audio clip by a prominent children’s nonfiction author. I encourage teachers to share these with their kids as a wonderful “warm up” to the day. Here’s the link: http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute

Q: Many young writers rely heavily in the internet or on other reading to gather information for a nonfiction report or bio piece. Is that enough? Or should they expand their own concept of “research” to include other avenues, such as the field research you do?

The internet has several well-known flaws including the fact that few websites are monitored for accuracy and that many websites are put up by groups or individuals with an agenda. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of internet research for young people is that it robs them of the joys of true investigation. In teaching writing camps, I’ve found that kids get the most pumped up when they can go out there and observe and discover things for themselves. Even when that’s not possible, it’s great fun to interview experts and explore the print resources of a library. A sure-fire way to get kids excited is to have them go out and photograph something and then write about it.

Q: Suppose young readers want to see some woodpeckers for themselves. Are they likely to find these birds pretty much anywhere in the U.S.? And do you have any special advice for people (of any age) who want to go out birding?

One of the awesome things about birding is that birds can be found everywhere. Woodpeckers live almost anywhere you can find trees and some, such as Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers often visit suet feeders during the winter. Even if you live in the heart of an urban area, you will most likely be able to find a couple of dozen bird species. Just grab a pair of binoculars and a guide book, and you’ll be on your way. Even rock doves (pigeons) display fascinating behavior and brilliant variation. And don’t forget—birds came from dinosaurs. I always remind myself of that when looking at any bird! Best advice for a beginning birder? Just get out there and start looking!

Q: Clearly revision is critical in getting a book like this one ready for publication. Can you briefly highlight some things you did in revising this book?

The revisions that went into Woodpeckers were nothing short of extraordinary, starting with my basic approach to the book. In my first attempt, I decided to take a species-by-species approach since each North American woodpecker has fascinating features. After letting the book sit for a while, however, I decided that this approach was too encyclopedic and decided to adopt a similar light-hearted voice and style to what I used for my book Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. lizards2Even after roughing out that approach, however, I made dramatic revisions. One was to seek out and add quotes by woodpecker experts. Another was to axe my introduction. At first, I had recounted my experience with Acorn Woodpeckers. That intro was okay, but I decided that it didn’t really add to the book, so out it went! What might be readers’ favorite feature of the book, the “Photo Bloopers” spread, was a last-minute addition. I was lamenting our failure at getting really great Arizona Woodpecker photos and just decided, “Well, what if I just put these imperfect photos in and call attention to the fact that we tried—and failed—at photographing these uncooperative critters?” That turned out to be a terrific revision. Besides the above points, I went through countless rounds of tightening, recasting, replacing verbs, and so forth—all the effort it takes to produces a strong piece of writing.

Q: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. Is one more of a challenge? Which one is more fun for you as a writer?

I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction, but each has its challenges. For me, finding the right voice in fiction can be a challenge, as well as fully developing the characters. In nonfiction, getting the research right and knowing how to organize a subject takes a lot of effort. The nice thing about writing both is that the skills required for each contribute to the other. Writing fiction helps me develop voice and characters for my nonfiction. My nonfiction helps me come up with meatier plots and settings for my fiction.


More about Sneed Collard
Sneed Collard has written more than eighty books for young people and adults—many of them award winners. His very recent (2017) book Climate Change—Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival was a finalist for the Green Earth Book Award and theHopping Ahead2 AAAS/Subaru/Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books.
Sneed’s book Firebirds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (2015), also an award winner, tells more about the relationship between birds and their habitat, showing how some thrive in the burned remains of a forest fire. Firebirds was featured here on Gurus—and is among my personal favorites of Sneed’s books, along with Animal Dads, Creepy Creatures, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Sneed B. Collard’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards (delightfully humorous), and his autobiography, Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s SonSnakes, Alligators, and broken hearts

Together with his son Braden, Sneed spent four years researching and photographing woodpeckers in preparation for writing this book. That dedication and attention to detail, together with his sense of humor, make Sneed among America’s favorite nonfiction authors. To learn more about Sneed or to book a conference or classroom visit, go to http://www.sneedbcollardiii.com or http://www.buckinghorsebooks.com


Do you teach your students to revise? Hey . . . let’s talk!

If you could take a whole scripted seminar on revision from Sneed Collard for under $30, would you do it? Guess what? You can—it’s all contained right here in concise, readable forTeaching Nonfiction Revisionm specially designed to make the teaching of revision streamlined and easy. No matter what genre you teach, Teaching Nonfiction Revision will guide you and your students right through the revision process. You’ll have a good time, and get better at teaching revision than you ever dreamed possible. Lessons are posted online so you can print out and distribute just what you need when you need it. Bonus: I’m Sneed’s co-author, making sure he doesn’t wander off-topic to write about birding in Montana.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is available at Amazon or at our publisher’s website, Heinemann.com


 

 

 

 

 

Endorsement from a writing expert . . .thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-no-background.jpg

Writer and educational consultant Steve Peha, author of the multi-award-winning Be a Better Writer, recently said this about Teaching Nonfiction Revision:

“It’ll give kids a fabulous foundation in the hardest and most important part of writing there is. And it’ll give you a way to get really good at teaching revision, too.”

To read Steve’s five-star review on GoodReads, visit this site: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2322979630?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

 

 

 

 


Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery. 2017. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Illustrated nonfiction chapter book.
Levels: Grade 4 through adult.
Features: Outstanding illustrations from the wild habitat of the Amazon rainforest, intriguing details backed by impressive firsthand field research, selected bibliography and index. Length: 67 pages, excluding back matter.

 

Overview
To say Sy Montgomery is a master of nonfiction is an understatement. Not only is her writing brilliant—at times poetic—but Sy’s incredible research always yields memorable details I can’t get out of my head. Like these . . .

Did you know that as many as 500 species can be found on a single flower from the Amazon? Or that the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world” because it provides a staggering one fifth of the world’s oxygen? Or that a new species is discovered in the Amazon every three days? That’s only a sampling of what you can expect to learn about this exotic place where “life piles upon life” (12).

I’ll admit it. Previous books I’d read about the Amazon wilderness left me with a haunting sense of dread. An environment that’s home to giant anacondas (up to 300 pounds), fearsome piranhas, and the biggest alligators on earth, the black caimans, didn’t sound like anywhere I’d set up camp voluntarily. Now I feel my perceptions shifting. Though Montgomery never discounts the dangers, her book provides a balanced view, mixing the undeniable danger with a true vision of Eden—an elusive and endangered paradise worthy of our reverence and protection.

As we learn from Montgomery’s words and Keith Ellenbogen’s photos, Eden has some unusual inhabitants: pink dolphins, for instance, thought by some natives to have the power of transforming themselves into humans. And then there’s the Goliath birdeater, a tarantula that weighs in at a quarter pound and has a leg span long enough to cover your face—not that you’d want to check that out.

Center stage, however, goes to the tiny, gorgeous fish—tetra, cichlids and others—sought by aquarium enthusiasts throughout the world. They grow in abundance here, and flourish during the rainy season, when water rises so high that students take boats to school. “Then, in the dry season,” Montgomery tells us, “ . . . the water level drops—sometimes more than thirty feet. Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” (5). Ninety percent. Think about that. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to pluck these small natives from Utopia just to satisfy some aquarist’s whim, just the opposite is true. If we don’t buy them, they die. And the local fishers, called piabieros, must find some other way to earn a living. Cattle ranching. Mining. Logging. Activities that call for burning or harvesting precious forests.

Cardinal Tetra

Wait, though. Could creatures so tiny possibly play a role in saving the most expansive rainforest on the planet? Turns out they could, yes. The problem is, exporting fish is not simple. It’s a complex process rife with uncertainty.

Fish are fragile. They must be collected, tended, and then transported with the care we reserve for the most vulnerable life forms. Everything from locating these shy fish in the first place to keeping them healthy in just-right conditions offers extreme challenges. “ . . . if these creatures are to survive in the wild,” Montgomery tells us, “it’s essential that people around the world care about protecting them” (17). Reading her book is an important first step in building that level of concern.

Amazon Adventure is filled with exquisite photos that capture the surreal colors of the Amazon. Some take us to the treetops with squirrel monkeys. Some plunge us right into water that’s thick with vegetation and “so stained with natural tannins it’s as red as burgundy wine” (10). You’ll feel as if you’re snorkeling with the team of aquarists and veterinarians who’ve signed on to this adventure, hearing the cries of parrots and kingfishers overhead, trying to remain “still as sticks” so as not to scare the fish—and hoping not to panic as you wonder what just brushed against your skin.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery’s book leaves you wanting to visit the Amazon for yourself, or, at the very least, create your own aquarium sanctuary for cardinal tetras. You’ll want to be sure your new pet is from the wild, not farm raised. That way, you could be helping to save the rainforest that literally keeps us breathing.

In the Classroom

1.Sharing the book. Reading the book to yourself first will help you settle on a purpose for sharing: (1) to illustrate fine nonfiction writing that offers both engaging voice and rich content, (2) to inspire students to read the rest of the book on their own, or (3) to encourage further exploration of the book’s primary topics, including the Amazon rainforest, acquisition of aquarium fish, or set-up and maintenance of successful aquariums.

At 67 pages, Amazon Adventure is long to read aloud in its entirety, but I would suggest reading all of Chapter 1 aloud (including “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9) as an inviting introduction, then sharing selected short passages from remaining chapters. Use a document projector to view the book’s incredible illustrations. (Don’t miss the comical selfie by photographer Keith Ellenbogen, page 20.) Following this introduction, invite interested students to finish the book on their own, or continue your discussion with a small reading group.

2. Background, Part 1: Fish and Aquariums. Ask how many of your students have (or have ever had) an aquarium. Was it fresh or salt water? Who set it up? Share some stories of preparing an aquarium and stocking it with fish. What’s required? If you have an aquarium of your own, share your experiences. Have you ever lost a fish? Have your students? If so, do you know the reason?

Ask how many students have had tetras, the primary species discussed in Amazon Adventure. Do they know what a tetra looks like? There are numerous varieties, and you can find many photos online, in addition to those in the book. Among those students who have had tropical fish, do they know if the fish were farm raised or caught in the wild? Why is it important to know?

Tip: If it’s possible to arrange a field trip to a local aquarium or pet store that features tetras, this will add enormously to students’ understanding and appreciation for this book. As an alternative—and again, if resources permit—consider setting up an aquarium in your classroom. This offers students a chance to participate in creating an environment that resembles that from which the fish came.

3. Background, Part 2: The Amazon. Start with location: Can your students identify the location and directional flow of the Amazon River? Ask them to try picturing it; then share a map of South America that shows the mighty Amazon and its tributaries. Tip: There are numerous maps of the Amazon basin online, and each provides a slightly different perspective, so view a variety of maps to truly appreciate the size, shape, and ecological impact of the region. And don’t miss the artistic rendition by Sarah Green, opposite Amazon Adventure’s Table of Contents.

Size. How large is the Amazon basin—the area through which the river and its many tributaries flow? Why does the immense size of this area matter so much to human life? This is a good time to share “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9. Compare the Amazon with any river close to your location, considering length, number of tributaries, or any other factors.

Firsthand experience? Have any of your students visited the Amazon or any of its tributaries? Have you? If so, talk about your experiences. Make a list of things you know about the region prior to reading this book and others, then add to your list as you learn more. Look up “Amazon River” online, checking out as many photos or videos as time permits. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who has been to the region, invite them to visit your class to do a short presentation and answer questions.

Further reading . . . Numerous books have been written about the Amazon and various adventures there. Have students assemble a list (looking online or working with your own media center staff) for further reading.

. . . and videos. National Geographic offers numerous videos on the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. You might choose to watch one as a class, then recommend others for students to watch on their own.

4. Nonfiction: More diverse than you think! Though it’s filled with illustrations, this is not a picture book in the traditional sense. The pictures are photos, for one thing—as opposed to the cartoons, paintings, or drawings we expect in a picture book. In addition, the book is divided into seven chapters, each running about ten pages. For these reasons, I’ve chosen to call this a nonfiction chapter book. Do your students agree with that definition?

You will also note that the book contains numerous anecdotes and biographical stories. Sometimes, as in Chapter 6, we follow the hands-on research of a scientist like Tim Miller-Morgan, who searches for parasites among captured fish that have grown listless. Chapter 3 gives us a biographical profile of aquarist Scott Dowd, who now creates eco-environments for creatures at the New England Aquarium, and is as much at home in the waters of the Rio Negro as in Boston. Chapter 5 takes us back stage as dancers prepare for the Festival of the Fish. Other stand-alone sections, like the one on tarantulas or that on ants are primarily factual.

Help your students understand that nonfiction writing at its best (as in this book) comprises several forms. To appreciate the stylistic diversity, you might read just a few paragraphs aloud from Chapter 2: Kingdom of the Cardinals, from Chapter 3: Scott’s Story, and from one of the informational inserts—on the pink dolphins (page 38), the tarantulas (page 47), or the ants (page 56). Talk about how this blend of nonfiction styles enriches our reading experience. Why do our minds enjoy writing that takes multiple forms?

Speaking of forms, how many ways does nonfiction come packaged? Make a list with your students, based on your nonfiction reading and research. Your list might include any or all of the following—

Biographies and autobiographies
• Memoirs
• Newspaper articles
• Journal articles
• Reports
• Factual summaries (the kind you might see in a museum or art gallery)
• Nonfiction picture books
• Nonfiction chapter books
• Encyclopedias
• Textbooks
• Brochures of all kinds

5. Main message: First line . . . or later? You can’t really blame Sy Montgomery for embedding the book’s main idea right in the title. I appreciate this title because it sets up an important and intriguing contrast: tiny fish versus the vast rainforest. Bam. Just like that, we’re hooked—got to read the book.

What Montgomery does not do, however—and I also appreciate this—is hammer home her main message in line one. Too often we encourage students to do that very thing. That’s one way of going about things, all right, but it’s not always the most effective, and it can lead to formulaic writing: message, support, support, support, conclusion. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Instead of conking us on the head with a thesis sentence, Montgomery opens Chapter 1 by giving us fascinating information about the Amazon. She wants us to care about this special part of the earth. Otherwise, her message won’t matter. We don’t come to the main message (title aside) until page 2:

Luckily, beneath the glassy surface of its rivers live dozens of species of tiny, beautiful fish whose powers may be even greater than those of the mysterious pink dolphin or the mighty jaguar. These shy fish . . . just might be able to save the Amazon.

Talk about this with students. Does a writer sometimes make a wise choice by waiting for the just-right moment to make his or her main point clear? Is this something they might try in their own writing?

6. Creating a powerhouse ending. This message about the mission of the tiny but mighty fish is echoed in the book’s ending (page 67), which you may want to read aloud (and contrast with the passage from page 2, quoted above). Notice that while the ending reinforces the book’s primary message, it does not restate it. The language is fresh and original—and the passage contains quite a lot of new information. What do we learn from this page about writing an effective ending?

Have students review an ending from any current piece of their own writing, asking these questions:

Does the ending reinforce or relate to my main message?
• Does it give readers new information instead of just repeating things I said before?
• Does the ending leave readers with something I want them to remember or think about?

7. Striking facts. Good details are always important or surprising—or both. As you share passages from the text, invite students to record in their writing journals any informational tidbits they find new or striking. Here are a few that captured my attention:

The Amazon is 15 miles wide at the mouth
• It has more than 1,000 tributaries
• Over 80 percent of the plants we eat are derived from plants in the Amazon basin
• Roughly 2.7 million acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed annually
• The cardinal tetra is the most popular aquarium fish in the world
• The black caiman can consume prey as large as a tapir

It’s important for students to understand that not all facts are equally important—or necessarily worth including in their writing. Have students review a piece of their own informational writing, underlining three to five details they have chosen to include. They should ask of each one—

Is this new information, not just something my readers probably know already?
• Does this detail answer a question that a curious person might ask?
• Is this information important to my topic?
• Will readers be excited or surprised to learn this?

The more yeses they can give to these questions, the stronger the detail.

8. Personalizing research. Research can start with reading books or articles—but it shouldn’t end there.

On the back book flap, we learn that author Sy Montgomery has made five other trips to the Amazon—not including the one she made to write this book. That’s dedication. How many of your students have done personal field research to prepare for a piece of writing? If they have never done this, now could be a good time to start.

A trip to the Amazon might be more than most students can take on, but countless research possibilities exist closer to home: visits to museums, aquariums, farms, places of work, theaters, art galleries, sports stadiums, and other places of interest can yield firsthand information that books alone simply cannot provide.

Students who do their own research (in addition to soaking up knowledge from experts) tend to write with more originality and confidence. They know their topics because, like Sy Montgomery, they’ve been there.

9. Voice—and the word choice connection. Voice comes in many flavors—comical, imaginative, awestruck, authoritative, chilling, sarcastic, whimsical, and more. One of the best ways to teach students about voice is by reading aloud, then having them describe what they hear.

If I had to come up with a word to describe Sy Montgomery’s voice in this book, I’d choose assured. She has a no-nonsense way of placing the truth under our noses like a good lawyer slapping down a telling piece of evidence before the jury:

“This huge, ancient rainforest is essential to the planet,” she declares in the first chapter. “Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered ‘the lungs of the world.’ Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year, mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles” (1-2).

Where does this kind of voice come from? Read the passage—or any others you like—aloud to students and ask them to describe the voice they hear, then try to put their finger on what they think contributes to that voice. Here are some things I noticed—and your students might too:

• Montgomery is unflinchingly honest, even when the message is bleak (and potential destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pretty troubling news)
• Her statements are direct and strong (she doesn’t say the rainforest is kind of important to many people—she says it’s “essential to the planet”)
• She’s confident—thanks to her hands-on research, reading, and interaction with experts
• Her word choice is impeccable—and let’s get specific about that . . .

Montgomery reminds us that the forest is huge and ancient. Who are we to destroy such a thing? It’s the lungs of the world. If we like breathing, that ought to matter to us. Words like vanish and destroy go beyond powerful. They deliver a slingshot direct hit.

As you share other voice-filled passages aloud, talk about specific words that strike a chord with us as readers. Ask students to identify other factors that contribute to voice. Have them review their own writing to identify a passage where their own conviction comes through loud and clear—and perhaps another where it does not. Can they revise to make the weaker passage more forceful?

10. Organizational genius. The book as a whole is brilliantly organized (It’s so good, in fact, that you probably didn’t even think about it), and you may wish to spend some time talking with students about that. Why? Because organization is one of the biggest challenges young writers face. Many students storm through the stage of gathering information, then look at the results the way they might eye a cluttered closet someone just asked them to straighten up.

Here’s a lesson in organization that demystifies the process and works well with a small group. (This is harder to do with a whole class unless each student has a copy of the book, but you can adapt the lesson to another, shorter piece of writing to which everyone has access.) It takes just four simple steps:

1. Help students see chapters or subsections as organizational blocks. Hold on—isn’t that obvious? You might be surprised how many students have never even thought of this. But once they see it, it makes both reading and writing easier. Have students ever divided their own writing into chapters or sections set off by subheads? If not, have them try this with any piece that runs three pages or more. It’s simpler to organize information when you take it chunk by chunk. It’s like labeling shelves or drawers.

2. Go through Montgomery’s book chapter by chapter, asking, “What’s the main message of this particular part?” For example, Chapter 1 introduces us to the Amazon, using a combination of description and fact to place us right at the scene. In Chapter 2, we go on a treasure hunt for tetras, getting right into that pristine red water, and learning how quiet we must be to let the fish approach. In Chapter 3, we get Scott’s story . . . and so on. When you finish listing the chapters and their purposes, look at this informational “map.” Why is it important for some things to come before others? Why do some pieces fit better at the end?

3. Think about what’s missing. You can be sure Sy Montgomery had more information on the Amazon and on tetras than she included in this book. The problem is, as a writer you can never share everything. It would be like bringing home each and every item from the grocery store. We have to make choices when we shop—and when we write. Montgomery doesn’t tell us what the researchers had for lunch, for example, nor does she recount every conversation. Thinking about what a writer might have omitted teaches students to separate important information from trivia. Writers always need to ask, “Do my readers need to know this? Will they care?”

4. Cut and re-order. Time for students to look at their own writing. Have them go through a current draft to identify the message of each section or chapter (or paragraph). Can anything be cut? Good! Pitching trivia is a first step toward great organization (just like cleaning the closet). Next, have them ask whether putting things in a different order would make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. For example, background information (like Montgomery’s description of the Amazon) should go right up front.

11. Organizational sleight of hand. Sy Montgomery pulled off two organizational tricks in this book that made me tip my writer’s hat. And you may want to point both out to your students.

First of all, she found a way to include information that didn’t fit neatly into one of her chapters. The sections on the seven deadly plagues (page 18), pink dolphins (page 38), tarantulas (page 47), and ants (page 56) would have interrupted her narrative flow about finding, preserving, and shipping tropical fish. Yet, this was not information Montgomery wanted to omit. So, what to do?

Answer: Give these topics their own space apart from the main text. Don’t you love it? This strategy is highly effective because it gives us, as readers, a little break in the ongoing rhythm of the book. Like hearing a new song on the radio. We welcome the change of pace and we devour the horrifying (but irresistible) details: “Wrapping twenty feet of muscular coils around its prey and squeezing it to death, this giant snake [the anaconda]can eat anything it wants, including jaguars—and people” (18).

The second trick is even better. That anaconda you just read about is part of a section called “Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon—In the Dark.” Why the dark? Because these seven deadly creatures are often under the water, invisible to unsuspecting waders, swimmers, or snorkelers. The “plagues” include the stingray, the giant catfish, the piranha, and other creatures most of us aren’t eager to meet in person. (No wonder our adventurers shudder when something bumps a leg or arm!) But—Montgomery has a surprise in store . . .

Just a few pages later (27-29), we’re treated to “The Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon Debunked (Sort Of).” What??!! In this section Montgomery pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind each myth. Maybe these critters aren’t quite as deadly as we’ve been led to believe. Take the anaconda. We learn that although these big snakes are capable of eating people, there are no documented cases of this happening. Ever. See? Now you can relax on your next jungle hike.

I love surprises, so have to say, I enjoyed that gotcha moment. Well played.

12. Further research—and argument. Montgomery’s book raises many possibilities for further research on such topics as—
Mining, ranching, and forestry in the Amazon region
• Preservation of the Amazon and other rainforests
• The role of this or any rainforest in preserving life on earth
• Predictions for the future of the Amazon rainforest
• Impact of economic advancement on indigenous people of the Amazon
• History of the Amazon region
• Famous explorers (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt) who have visited the Amazon
• Impact of Amazon species on modern medicine
• Rate at which new species are discovered

Any of these or dozens of related topics make outstanding subjects for further informational writing. In addition, the book touches on many issues that affect our lives. Students might consider any of the following topics as a basis for argument writing—and likely they will think of others on their own:

How important is it to stop or slow down deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
• Is tourism a boon to the rainforest economy—or a threat to the ecosystem?
• To what degree are we here in the U.S. affected by this rainforest so far away?
• Should people be free to use the resources of the Amazon as they see fit?
• Should tropical fish like the cardinal tetras be farm raised—or taken from the wild?
• Does the simple act of buying a tetra caught in the wild truly influence the future of the world’s biggest rainforest?
• Can the Amazon recover from damage already done?

 

About the Author . . .

Visit Sy Montgomery’s home page, and you’ll discover she has been chased by a silverback gorilla, “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo,” bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, and embraced by a Giant Pacific Octopus. Her daring research throughout the world has led her to write numerous books for young readers as well as adults, including three of my personal favorites: Birdology, The Soul of an Octopus (a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. The Good, Good Pig is an international bestseller and a book I’ve given as a gift countless times.
Sy is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Build Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (from the ASPCA for Humane Education) and numerous other honors. Her work with man-eating tigers, subject of her book Spell of the Tiger, was made into a National Geographic documentary that Sy both scripted and narrated.
A graduate of Syracuse University, Sy Montgomery has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and universities. The New York Times described Sy as “equal parts poet and scientist.” The Boston Globe called her “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

To learn more about Sy and her books, please visit symontgomery.com and bluereef.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
I’m delighted to announce that our new book, Teaching Nonfiction Revision, co-authored with best-selling nonfiction writer Sneed Collard, has gone to press. It’s due for release August 31, and is available for pre-order from Heinemann now:
http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Sneed and I had enormous fun writing this book. Our goal was to make revision both fun and productive for students in grades 4 through 8–and beyond! It’s adaptable for nonfiction writers of any age. Lessons and strategies are based on Sneed’s extensive experience as a successful writer of nonfiction, complemented by my own work as a teacher, writer, editor, and journalist. As you can likely tell from the cover, it’s light and fun–and we hope you’ll love it!

Sneed on Assignment

My friend, colleague, and frequent co-author Jeff Hicks will review the book in our very next post. Jeff brings his considerable expertise as a teacher and writer to bear–and I cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you, Jeff. Until next time . . . Give every child a voice.


 


Do you love nonfiction? Teach it to students? If so, here’s some good news just for you. Today, Heinemann put our new book on their website, and my co-author Sneed B. Collard and I could not be more excited. The book is titled Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons. The book makes its official debut August 31, but I wanted to give Gurus followers a short preview. I think the title tells it all, but here are some highlights just in case . . .

The premise is simple. Sneed Collard, author of more than 80 books for young people—many of them nonfiction—gets inside his own head to analyze the strategies that have made him one of the most successful authors for young people ever.

My part? To translate that insight into lessons you can share with your nonfiction writers grades four through eight—and honestly, beyond. Sneed’s perceptive and highly teachable ideas transcend grade level, and can be adapted for older writers right through college.

The book is short—just over 200 pages. Chapters are blissfully short, making it easy to zip through them, choosing the lessons you want to share with students. Oh—if you think nonfiction lessons need to be serious and intense, think again. Sneed and I had a great time putting this book together. He has a wicked sense of humor, and that shines through in every chapter. This guy knows how to make nonfiction fun. We’re not talking typical research papers here.

Sneed and I are grateful to my wonderful colleague (and recent co-author) Jeff Hicks, who will be reviewing the book on this site in August, so watch for that. Meantime, to learn more (and take advantage of some good pre-publication offers), please visit the Heinemann website: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

And happy, happy Fourth of July.


Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich. 2017. Illustrated by Adam Gustavson. New York: Bloomsbury.

Genre: Biographical picture book

Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults (must reading for fans of Pete Seeger and folk music)

Features: Striking illustrations, Foreword by the one and only Peter Yarrow, moving Author’s Note on how this book came to be, outstanding and diverse source list that will encourage students to expand their own research beyond books 

 

Overview

Pete Seeger. His very name sends chills down the spine of anyone who was alive and singing in the 1960s. Especially someone who has memorized recordings by those Pete inspired—singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and the Smothers Brothers, to name just a handful. Lyrics to songs like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are so deeply engraved in our consciousness it’s as if we were born knowing them. Even contemporary musicians owe a debt to this song writer and spokesperson for social justice. How do we thank someone like Pete Seeger, who so selflessly opened his heart to the world? With a book, of course.

Lucky for us, we don’t have to write it ourselves. Author Susanna Reich has done that for us, creating a beautiful, brilliant bio Pete himself would surely have loved. Reich’s rhythmic language brings Pete to life in a way that makes us feel we’re still part of his audience, clapping, stamping our feet, singing our hearts out. Reich tells Pete’s story from his days as a dancing, drumming toddler in the early 1920s right through to his unforgettable performance of “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009. Throughout, we see how this legendary musician’s beliefs and dreams were shaped by the events he witnessed—and oh, how much he saw to change.

Pete Seeger’s life of 94 years spanned several wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and changes in voting laws, and growing awareness of the threat pollution poses to the earth’s very existence. Almost miraculously, no matter the cause, no matter the location, there was Pete, right on the front lines, using his voice to generate passion and hope. Though he is often associated with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s (probably because singers of the time adapted and sang so much of his music), Pete’s legacy reaches back to far earlier days, and continues through the present. He began protesting for workers’ rights the first time he witnessed Depression era bread lines—and his boat, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson River even now, reminding us to keep our precious water clean.

As Reich shows us in her timely book, Seeger’s protests had a singularity about them. Though outraged by unfairness, Seeger was never violent. Instead, he emerges in this thoughtfully crafted bio as someone profoundly capable of optimism even in the face of humanity’s darkest moments. He was a leader of infinite charisma, gentle and peace loving, yet incredibly strong in his convictions. Seeger insisted on performing with African American friends despite prevalent racist views of the time, refused to betray other performers to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and stood fast when network television executives objected to his daring song lyrics criticizing then-President Lyndon Johnson. Always focused on the other guy, Pete gave little thought to his own welfare or safety. His gratification lay in following the path he’d determined was right. Though he lived much of his life in the most modest circumstances—sometimes unable to afford heat for his home—he wasn’t one to fuss about comforts. As Reich tells us, “Pete didn’t mind the cold. It felt good to be making a difference in the world.”

Adam Gustavson’s soft pastel illustrations harmonize beautifully with this portrait of a kind, selfless person, always ready with a smile, and nearly always singing or playing an instrument of one sort or another. In one of the book’s most memorable lines, a family friend is quoted as saying, “He played all night, and played all day, and after a while, you wanted to ship him off somewhere.” We can’t help laughing affectionately at this image of a man making his family crazy with nonstop singing. Now, in his silent wake, we find ourselves wishing him back.

Make no mistake. Not everyone loved Pete Seeger’s music. It wasn’t the continuous strumming of the banjo they minded; it was the lyrics. They were honest—and blunt. Champions of the status quo felt threatened—as Pete hoped they would—yet they were helpless to stop the tide. As Reich’s book shows so clearly, music has power to inspire and unify. People who heard Pete’s voice felt his unmistakable message to their very core. His songs became part of them, and part of America’s landscape and culture. Before long, followers were singing those songs in marches, at meetings, around campfires, and in their homes. One voice became the voice of millions. Even today, someone, somewhere, is almost surely singing one of Pete’s songs. As Peter Yarrow so perfectly expresses it in the Foreword, Pete’s “spirit travels beyond his time on earth.”

The title Stand Up and Sing! is more than a gentle reminder. It’s the author’s challenge to us all, especially in a time of discord, division, and unrest. Will we, like Pete Seeger, have the insight to recognize injustice when it’s right before our eyes—and the courage to make our voices heard? If so, then perhaps we shall, indeed, overcome.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. The book is compact enough to share aloud in one or two readings. Use a document projector so students can linger over the telling illustrations. It’s also a terrific small-group choice for students interested in music (particularly folk music, guitar, or banjo) or in social justice and its history. In addition, the combined conciseness and completeness of the book make it an outstanding model for teaching students to write a good biography.

Background. Any discussion of Pete Seeger must begin with his music. If you’re lucky enough to have recordings available, play them. In addition, search for online video clips of Seeger singing to and with his audiences. Share some from recent times, and others from Pete’s early days to help students appreciate how long Pete kept the music going! Be sure to notice and discuss Seeger’s signature interaction with his audience, how he not only invites them to sing along, but coaxes them into doing it. Gradually, even the shyest, most reluctant singers in the crowd begin mouthing lyrics and clapping hands, swept up in the irresistible joy of the moment.

Foreword—and beyond. Students who have studied music in some capacity have likely heard of Pete Seeger. His death was very recent (January 27, 2014), and he performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In addition, his songs, both those he wrote and others he popularized, have been recorded by numerous artists, many of whom—like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springstein—are extremely well known in their own right. Few students, however, are likely to know many details of Pete’s life beyond his singing and songwriting prowess.

Start by sharing the book’s engaging Foreword, written by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). It’s a heartfelt tribute, coming from someone who not only appreciates the book’s message, but who knew Pete Seeger personally and has sung his music for years. Yarrow touches on highlights of Pete Seeger’s history, but . . .

. . . if you wish your students to have a broader, richer context for appreciating the book, here are some relevant topics they might research—perhaps in small teams of two or three—then  share with the class:

  • The labor movement (1940s and 1950s)
  • Civil Rights Movement (1950s and 1960s)
  • Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations (1960s)
  • Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger: the mentor and the legend
  • Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger: the electric guitar controversy
  • House Un-American Activities Committee
  • Blacklisting and the Hollywood 10
  • Charles Seeger, musicologist (Pete’s father)
  • Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, concert violinist (Pete’s mother)
  • The Newport Folk Festival
  • “We Shall Overcome,” gospel turned folk and protest song
  • Awards received by Pete Seeger, including Induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of Arts, Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2008, George Peabody Medal, Woodie Guthrie Prize, and many, many more.

“Everybody, sing it!” How does one begin a book about a legend? With a list of awards and accomplishments? His date of birth? Most memorable achievement?

Or perhaps—as Susanna Reich does here—with a scene that depicts the quintessential Pete Seeger. There he is, smiling, hands up, banjo at the ready, engaging the crowd. Asking them to sing along. Don’t know the words? Sorry, but at a Pete Seeger concert that’s no excuse. As I noted earlier, if you look up videos online, you will see Pete eagerly feeding words to the audience time and again. “This isn’t just my song,” he seems to be saying. “These are your lyrics—meant to be sung in your voice.”

What makes this image of Pete such a great lead for this particular book? Discuss this with students.

Are your writers working on a biographical piece currently? If so, have them consider a similar approach to writing a lead of their own. This calls for carefully, thoughtfully choosing a defining moment or activity that encapsulates a person’s identity and character. For Pete, becoming one with his audience is that moment.

 

Argument. Does music today have the same political clout that it had, say, during the anti-war marches of the 1960s? Can your students name any current songs they would label as “protest songs”? Or if not, can they name songs that inspire social justice or compel us to do what is right? Note: This can be a hard thing to come up with off the top of your head, so give students a day to investigate song titles and lyrics before delving too deeply into this discussion. Also, in case not all students have discovered this, it’s easy to look up song lyrics online. Just type in “lyrics to Little Boxes,” or whatever. (The results can surprise you. As I learned when I looked up “Rocket Man,” we don’t always “hear” what the composer wrote!)

Following your discussion, have students craft an argument supporting (or denying) the idea that music is a vital form of protest in today’s world. Advocates of social protest through music should be able to cite specific songs or quote lyrics that exemplify such protest.

 Organizational strategy: Letting go of trivia. In her Author’s Note, Susanna Reich admits, “In compressing Pete’s story into a picture book, there was much I had to leave out.” This revelation marks the perfect place to kick off instruction in organization.

Students often think the biggest challenge in writing nonfiction lies in coming up with enough to say. In truth, good research typically yields volumes of information. The real problem lies in deciding what to omit. Leaving some things on the cutting room floor makes it infinitely easier to organize what’s left.

Reich does a masterful job of choosing salient moments that reveal just who Pete Seeger is. After reading the entire book, go through a short segment, perhaps four to six pages, this time noting which stand-out moments from Seeger’s life made the cut.

For example, immediately following the opening page (which shows Seeger leading an audience in song), we learn how he loved music as a child and admired the “share everything” philosophy of Native American tribes. On the following page, we learned that Pete started his own newspaper, and cared more about a new banjo than sweaters and underwear. Talk with students about what these and similar details reveal about Pete as a person. Then have students imagine some of the details Reich might have left out. For example, she doesn’t tell us what Pete’s favorite food was, if he ever had a pet, or how well he did on spelling quizzes. Why? Because she had to make choices—and some details were more important than others.

As students write their own bio pieces (or any nonfiction, for that matter), encourage them to set priorities, ranking details from their research into three categories: (1) what’s critical, (2) what’s less essential but still fascinating enough to include if space permits, and finally, (3) what can go. Now they’re ready to put things in order!

Expanding research. Take a minute to share the list of “Selected Sources” at the back of the book. It shows that Susanna Reich investigated a wide range of sources in preparing to write Stand Up and Sing! Not just books, but films, taped interviews, and recordings. What sources do your students rely upon most when writing informational or other nonfiction pieces? Discuss possibilities and make a list that goes beyond the world of print, encouraging students to expand their fields of research.

Illustrations and voice. Seldom have I seen a book where illustrations so beautifully complemented the subject. Do your students agree? What is the overall tone of Adam Gustavson’s  illustrations? In other words, how do they make us feel, and what contributes to those feelings? Imagine this book with photographs rather than paintings of Pete Seeger. Would the book seem very different even if the text were unchanged? What makes these soft-hued illustrations such a good choice?

What words would your students use to describe the tone or voice of the text? Is it authoritative? Reverent? Joyful? Peaceful? Playful? Honest? Serious? Comical? Or something else?

Noticing the little things. Adam Gustavson’s illustrations are simple yet deceptively detailed. With each depiction of Pete Seeger, it’s almost as if we can get inside his thinking. We can sense when he’s troubled, and when he’s at peace. And if we take time to study his surroundings, they show us even more. Here’s one example . . .

Consider the illustration showing Pete Seeger shaving. Using a document projector, have students examine and respond to this picture. What do these visual details reveal about Pete’s life at this moment? As students continue looking, read the accompanying text aloud. Does it reinforce what you see in the image? What do the words tell us that we cannot get from the illustration—and vice versa?

What’s the big idea? The purpose of any biography, of course, is to share important elements of a person’s life. But why this person, and why now? Is Stand Up and Sing! of particular significance at this time when protests regarding so many issues are common throughout the world? What message or messages is the author hoping we take away from our reading of Pete Seeger’s biography? Have students write about this briefly, then meet in small groups to share and discuss their ideas. Once they’ve had a chance to share ideas in small groups, discuss the core messages of the book as a class.

Folk songs. Some people see Pete Seeger as a singer foremost, others as an activist who packaged his message in song. Either way, Pete is widely regarded as the king of folk music. But what exactly is folk music? Where does this term come from?

Discussion. Is the genre of folk music still alive today? What does it sound like? Ask students to search out some recordings of contemporary folk music and play them for the class. As part of their research, they are likely to discover that folk music has evolved into a wide range of sub-genres, including Celtic, neofolk, rogue folk, Americana, and many others. And of course it’s worth noting that many songs from the 1960s and even earlier are still being recorded in updated versions today.

Argument: The right choice? At one point in the narrative, Reich shares a critical moment in Pete’s life:

At college Pete couldn’t stop talking about workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany. He talked so much that he didn’t do his homework. He lost his scholarship and had to drop out of school.

Losing a scholarship to Harvard is no small thing. Pete might have gone on to become a successful journalist—and what a different bio Reich would have had to write then!

On the other hand, when he left Harvard, Pete went to New York, where eventually he met blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly—and later Arlo Guthrie, with whom he would travel and perform across the U.S. Both had enormous influence on Seeger’s singing career. So the question is, Did Pete make the right choice? Is it the choice your students would make?

Discuss this, and have students craft an argument supporting or opposing Pete’s life changing decision to devote his time to music and social causes. Consider the ramifications of his traveling down one road versus the other.

Sentences that sing. The voice in any piece of writing is highly dependent upon sentence fluency. We don’t always think of this when reading for information, but author Susanna Reich is a master at crafting sentences. To better appreciate her skill and talent, slow down, read one or two pages aloud while showing them on a document projector, and ask students to notice some particulars that contribute to sentence fluency. They may mention highly varied sentence beginnings, variations in length, and a delightful mix of sentence styles—declarative sentences, exclamations, questions, effective fragments, and quotations.

Read-around: Learning to listen for fluency. Here’s something to try with small groups of three or four students each. Ask each group to select one short passage from the book; the amount of text on any given page is perfect. Ask them to read the passage aloud, round robin fashion, taking turns. Each reader can start and stop at any point—after one sentence, two, a whole paragraph, or whatever. But here’s the trick: Groups must continue reading for seven or eight minutes, long enough to go through the whole passage two or three times, perhaps reading a different section of text each time. Why? Because with each reading, fluency and inflection increase. Readers begin to really notice sentence beginnings, punctuation, word order and other factors that create drama. They become more adept at putting emphasis on the right words, using fluency to bring out meaning and voice. Like performers in a play, they uncover the power within the words they are uttering instead of mechanically reciting them. This is oral reading as it’s meant to be.

When groups finish rehearsing their passages, ask one or two to perform their selection for the class. Don’t be surprised if you have multiple volunteers! After listening, talk about the difference thoughtful oral reading makes. Is fluency especially important for this book? Why?

Research: Blacklisting. One powerful illustration in the book shows Pete sitting somewhere in a bus or train station, head resting on his hand, musical instruments unopened by his feet. If he appears forlorn, he has reason. His singing group, the Weavers, has just been blacklisted. Do your students know this term—blacklist? Have them do enough research to learn how the term originated and how common it was during the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of it all.  Talk about why the Weavers—and others—were blacklisted. Their behaviors were considered unpatriotic or un-American. Do your students find this ironic? In other words, is the practice of blacklisting itself un-American? Why?

More questions for discussion. Is blacklisting still legal? And is it practiced in the U.S.? Have students write a personal response about how they view this practice. Note that when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete Seeger refused to provide any information that would incriminate his friends. For this, he faced blacklisting himself, as well as potential jail time. How brave was this act of defiance? Would your students be this courageous in a similar situation? The answer makes a good topic for personal writing journals.

Freedom then—versus freedom now. One of Gustavson’s illustrations shows Pete Seeger singing in front of a television camera. In the text opposite, we learn that Seeger was invited to appear on television in 1967, for the first time in seventeen years. He sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song about a captain leading soldiers across a treacherous river, and eventually drowning. The song was believed to be a protest of Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Vietnam War, and it was cut from the show before it aired.

Crafting an argument. Compare this situation to the political and social climate in America today. Would that song likely be cut if performed now? How common is it to see or hear people criticize political figures, including a sitting president? Can such criticism ever go too far—or does this in fact make for a healthier social environment? Have students write an argument defending or opposing the kind of political free speech symbolized by protest songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

 

A “link in the chain.” In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Susanna Reich says, “As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain.” After sharing both the book and the Author’s Note with students, ask them to comment on the significance of this remark. What did Seeger probably mean by this? Clearly the chain is a metaphor—but what does it represent?

Reich goes on to say, “This book is meant to be a link in that chain.” How can a book serve as a “link” in the kind of chain Seeger was talking about? Do we, as readers, play a role in making this happen?

What can we do? Pete Seeger was part of a legacy of peaceful protest often represented by people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Like Pete Seeger, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both believed there were ways to get their message of equality and justice across without resorting to violence. Have students write a short response piece suggesting specific peaceful ways we can keep the “chain” going in our everyday lives. Pete Seeger wrote and sang songs. Susanna Reich wrote a book. What more can we do?

About the Author . . .

Susanna Reich’s resume reads like a best-selling adventure story. She is an accomplished professional dancer, who has done graduate work in the ancient Hawaiian hula, and written about dance extensively, both for professional journals and in her 2005 book José! Born to Dance. She’s also been a professional flower arranger, designing flowers for Julia Child’s eightieth birthday and many other events of note. She’s even driven big trucks, something not many writers can brag about. But none of these accomplishments, she professes, has been as much fun as writing children’s books, something Susanna began doing in 1994. Awards and honors have rained upon her ever since.

Susanna’s first book, Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso, won an Orbis Pictus Honor from the National Council of Teachers of English, and was also an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults, as well as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Recent books include Minette’s Feast: A Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams, 2012), about the bestselling chef’s first cat, a Parisian who lapped up Child’s leftovers but preferred mice. The book received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness and was on the best-books-of-the-year list, CCBC Choices.

In 2015 Susanna published another picture book bio, Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), which recounts the early years of the bestselling band in history.

Susanna’s newest release, Stand Up and Sing!, makes us eager to know what’s next on her list. To learn more about Susanna, watch a video of her discussing Minette’s Feast, or schedule a classroom visit, please visit her website: www.susannareich.com

 Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Gurus is taking a hiatus for Spring Break. Please watch for our return in May. Meanwhile, have a look at my current . . .

 Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. 2015. New York: HarperCollins.

Author Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Department of History, University of Jerusalem, holds a PhD in history from the University of Oxford, and specializes in world history. His 2015 book Sapiens is both fascinating and controversial.

Sapiens is described by numerous reviewers as “sweeping” in scope—a hilarious understatement. It spans more than thirteen billion years of history, from the Big Bang onward. Best of all, Harari will have you turning pages with a style that’s delightfully conversational and sometimes comic. I couldn’t put it down. Does it have voice? And how. The language is vivid and precise, the pace as fast as a roller coaster ride. I read numerous passages twice just for fun.

I particularly appreciated the small details inherent in many discussions—like this one on how we became a “race of cooks.” As you might expect, we owe much to fire:

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.

So—big brains are connected to short intestines. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I didn’t.

Overall, Sapiens is intended to show why our species, Homo sapiens, emerged as dominant. It covers the consequences of three decisive turning points in human history, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, posing provocative questions like these: Did these revolutions advance our quality of life—or create problems with which we still struggle? Are we happier than our ancestors, and what creates happiness anyway? Do we have a bright future—or any future, for that matter? Will artificial intelligence take over the world, leaving unemployed humans too much time to get into even more trouble? Are we getting smarter? And what makes us believe in the value of money, the rule of law, or the existence of nations?

Many passages ask readers to question fundamental beliefs about humanity, laws, rights, or religious faith. Some readers find this uncomfortable. I think that’s unfortunate. The book asks us to think—it doesn’t compel us to agree. When is the last time you agreed with everything in any nonfiction book? My recommendation is to get a copy for yourself and make up your own mind. Agree or not, you’ll definitely be entertained.

A sidebar: Get the hardcover version. It’s filled with color photos you won’t want to miss. Be warned, though: It is startlingly heavy, printed on gorgeous thick paper meant to last through multiple readings. Find a comfy chair. Don’t read this book in bed. I very much doubt anyone would fall asleep reading Sapiens, but if you did drop it on your head . . .

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Thank you for stopping by. Our goal is to feature writers who deserve recognition, so please tell friends about our posts—and peruse Gurus for past reviews you may have missed. Authors, if you’d like someone to review your book who will actually read it and spend time with it, please send a copy to me in care of Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Woodward.

Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever by Sneed B. Collard III. 2017. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book

Levels: Grades 4 through 8, though adults will enjoy it too!

Features: Striking close-up photos, most by the author himself; expansive glossary; numerous sidebars that offer more detailed information for readers who want it; index.

 insects

Overview

“I dread the next one,” a friend told me—referring to her book club’s latest selection.

“Why?” I asked. Tiny print? Graphic violence? Saccharine romance?

“It’s nonfiction,” she groaned, making the universal face for FEEL MY PAIN. “Everyone knows nonfiction is sooooooo boooooring.”

I’d need a lot more o’s to capture her true inflection, but you get the idea. First off, let me say that if you find nonfiction boring, you’re reading the wrong books. And second, I have a cure: Sneed B. Collard III. I’m not sure Sneed is capable of writing a boring book (though perhaps he’s never tried). For one thing, he always knows his stuff, and knowing your topic is one secret to writing irresistible nonfiction. He’s got another nonfiction trick up his sleeve, though.

In a recent interview, Sneed had this to say: “My most important tool for writing nonfiction is an insatiable curiosity. Almost nothing pops up on PBS that doesn’t grab my attention: history, science, medical research, travel, baking shows—they all interest me.” (School Library Journal, September 20, 2016).

Curiosity is essential to good writing. We don’t always think about that when we teach writing, but we should—because curious writers seek answers to provocative questions like these:

  • How many insect species inhabit Earth?
  • What’s the most common insect on the planet?
  • Are there insect species yet to be discovered?
  • True or false: Insects dominate the world—and will likely be around after humans are gone.
  • Quick: Name three things no self-respecting cockroach will eat.
  • How do creatures so small defend themselves?
  • Can insects be bioluminescent?
  • Why is it so hard to swat a fly?

I confess I couldn’t answer any of these questions (well, maybe the one on cockroaches) before reading Sneed’s book. But I can ace this quiz now. Given that Insects (sans glossary and other back matter) runs only 45 pages, it contains a staggering amount of information—and like all good nonfiction, this book makes learning fun.

For one thing, it’s brilliantly illustrated with photos Collard took himself (with just a few exceptions). Most are close-ups that give us an insect’s-eye view of the ants, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, bees, cockroaches, katydids, and other six-legged friends that surround us.

In addition, it has voice. The tone throughout the book is light, humorous, and engaging: “The abdomen, or hind part, of an insect is mostly used to store luggage. Or, more accurately, important insect anatomy” (13). That’s a favorite trick of Collard’s—tossing out a line just to see if we’re paying attention. Of course we are. Clearly, Sneed loves his topic, and wants us to enjoy it as much as he does. Readers need to be curious, too—and I am. Sneed feeds our curiosity with a continual banquet of intriguing details. I was truly fascinated to learn that the reason we have so much trouble swatting flies is not (as I’d assumed) that they’re outwitting us. They actually don’t see as clearly as we do, but they can detect motion far faster, making it frustratingly hard to sneak up on them.

What I love most about this book is how Collard challenges us to drag our mesmerized selves away from those electronic screens and do some firsthand research on insects, right in our own back yards. Or basements. Or any forest, meadow, lakefront, city park, or urban oasis. Unlike elephants and tigers, insects live pretty much everywhere on Earth. You don’t need to go on safari to find them. But you do need to be open to opportunities. As Sneed admits on his book jacket bio, “he’s never resisted the urge to sit down and watch a large colony of army ants march across his path.”

Why should we care about insects, though? Aren’t they just pests? Actually, insects rule. And not just in the slang sense. They outnumber us by an estimated 200 million to one. Think about that. What’s more, though we might detest the way they ruin picnics, devour sweaters and bedding, or spread disease, they also do many good things. Some pollinate plants we depend on for survival. Others eat disgusting matter we’d never touch if we didn’t have to—and what the heck would we do if they didn’t? And—“Here’s a humbling fact: without insects, most of Earth’s animals would starve” (28). We eat them ourselves. And before you get too snooty about food preferences, keep in mind that grasshoppers are low in fat and high in protein. Can you say the same for your lunch?

One more thing: You don’t have to be an insect enthusiast to devour this book. Sneed’s humor and enthusiasm make his topic captivating even for those of us who can barely think about insects without reaching for the repellant. When you look out the window, can you see grass? Trees? Earth? Flowers? Those aren’t just there for your enjoyment, my human friend. They’re all insect habitats. They’re alive. So ditch your phobia, open your mind, and come on an adventure into a world little appreciated.

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In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Though Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever might be too long to share aloud in one reading, it’s conveniently divided into thirteen chapters that run about two to four short pages apiece. You can easily share one or two in a lesson, and you’ll definitely want a document projector so students can take in the alluring, informative illustrations. The book is also an excellent candidate for small group study—or as a beginning point for individual research on insects. (And by the way, nonfiction picture books make outstanding book club choices! Start a trend.)

Background. What do your students know about insects now? How much do you know? Before sharing the book, consider making two class lists: (1) Things we know for sure, and (2) Questions we have about insects. Check the “for sure” list against any new, expanded or contradictory findings you run across as you read the book. Also see how many of your questions are answered. Research answers to any questions that remain.

Insectophobia. As part of your background discussion, you’ll also want to discuss the 500-pound cockroach in the room, namely entomophobia or insectophobia. That is, extreme fear of insects. Many of us aren’t ready to embrace insects just yet, but genuine insectophobia goes much deeper. Fear or revulsion triggered by insects can be so strong that it actually keeps those who suffer indoors most of the time. Unfortunately for them, most insects view doors and screens as mere suggestions—and no doubt a horror movie is lurking there somewhere. Have your students known anyone who suffered from this condition? Though we may be tempted to joke about it, insectophobia is no laughing matter. It can be debilitating. By the way, some people are repulsed only by certain types of insects, and there are names for these conditions too. Apiphobia is fear of bees, myrmecophobia fear of ants, and lepidopterophobia fear of butterflies.

Feel like a snack? Here’s another related topic you may wish to discuss: insects as food. Have any of your students seen the old western film “Lonesome Dove”? If so, they might recall a scene where the character Woodrow Call enthusiastically chows down on what he thinks is candy—then violently spits it out when he learns it’s a grasshopper. Though you might sympathize, not everyone shares that reaction. As of 2016, there were just over 7.5 billion people on planet Earth, and an estimated 2 billion of them—more than one in four—eat insects routinely. Do your students find this surprising? Have any of them ever eaten an insect, or do they know anyone who has? On page 29, author Sneed Collard offers some commentary on the nutritional value of an insect-based diet versus the typical American diet many of us eat. You might share this sidebar as part of your background discussion to help students consider how much our culture influences what we eat—or consider repulsive.

Argument. Could Americans realize some advantages by including insects in our diet? Should we do this? Have students consider the advantages and disadvantages, then craft an argument for or against an insect-inclusive diet. Here are some factors to consider: nutritional value of insects, potential resistance by consumers, availability, sourcing costs, and consequences to humans, insects, and creatures that consume insects.

Nonfiction voice. As you’ll notice, particularly if you share the book aloud, Insects isn’t written in an encyclopedic voice. Anything but. As you go along, ask students for words that describe the author’s voice. Here’s a sample passage to illustrate what I mean:

With its antennae, an insect can detect movement, temperature, smell, sound, humidity, chemicals, and even which way its body is positioned. Antennae cannot pick up satellite TV or Wi-Fi, but still, don’t you wish you had a pair? (12)

To further appreciate the voice in this passage, look up “antenna” in any encyclopedia—or in Wikipedia. Read a few lines and contrast the voice you hear with Sneed Collard’s voice. What differences do you notice? How do those differences affect readers? As you read Insects, identify other passages where you and your students think the voice is particularly strong.

Discussion questions: Ask students to consider my friend who dreaded reading her book club’s nonfiction selection. Where does that sort of nonfiction phobia come from anyway? Have your students read nonfiction they would consider fairly voice-free? If so, when?

 Written response. No writers I know—including students—want to write something readers “dread” to pick up. But perhaps as educators, we unintentionally push them in that very direction. Do we encourage voice-free writing in reports or other nonfiction pieces students produce for school? Ask yourself what things we do to suppress voice, and discuss this with students. How could we encourage voice in nonfiction—or any writing? Ask students to draft a response to this, and have volunteers read their responses aloud.

 Illustrations from the insects’ perspective. In addition to being a published author, Sneed Collard is an experienced professional photographer, and he puts his talents to good use with this book. Discuss what the illustrations add. To understand their contribution fully, have your students imagine the book without any illustrations at all. What would be lost? Do pictures—particularly photos—contribute something words alone cannot provide?

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Suppose the photos in Sneed’s book were entered in a “Most Striking Photo” contest. Which one do your students think would win? Why?

 The core message. The purpose of Sneed’s book is clearly to teach us more about insects than the average person might know. But in addition to that purpose, is there a central message here? A belief or idea about insects that the author would like to consider as we close the cover? Once you finish reading Insects, ask students to discuss the core message with partners or in small groups, then share their conclusions with the class. List their responses and take a vote. Which response or responses come closest to capturing the book’s primary message? How did they reach that conclusion?

 Information by design. In analyzing any book we tend to think first of content. That’s only natural. But the way information is presented has tremendous impact on how easy it is to absorb. After reading Insects, page back through the book, using a document projector, and ask students to notice the layout—that is, how pages are designed. Have them look at the design as they might look at someone’s living room. Is the overall appearance inviting, luring you right in—or does it nudge you to find a more comfortable spot? Here are a few specifics you might prompt students to notice as they review the book’s design:

  • A good balance between text and illustrations, so we are not overwhelmed by either
  • Detailed captions for most photos
  • Plenty of white space (empty or open space), making the text easy to read
  • Engaging titles for each chapter, offering clues about content
  • Subheads within chapters to visually organize information
  • Sidebars—those green boxes that contain “behind the scenes” info for readers wanting more

Could your students use one or more of these elements in their own writing? Encourage them to think creatively about format in the next piece of nonfiction writing they produce for your class.

Discussion question: Should we stress presentation more in work done for school? Why?

Authentic language. One characteristic that distinguishes Sneed Collard’s books (not just this one, but all his nonfiction) is his ability to use scientific language with accuracy and ease. He is so skilled at making meaning clear from context that we’re scarcely aware of how much terminology we are internalizing. To help students gain an appreciation for this, try this lesson.

Let’s say you plan to share the first two chapters aloud. Before reading or discussing them with students, scan those pages for specialized vocabulary you feel readers should know to fully understand the message. Here are some words I might select from those early chapters (for younger students, this list might be shorter):

  • exoskeleton
  • chitin
  • antenna
  • thorax
  • abdomen
  • ommatidia
  • mandible
  • maxilla
  • labium
  • circulatory system
  • digestive system
  • respiratory system

Are you surprised by the number of terms listed here? Actually, I was. Though the book doesn’t feel “technical,” it’s richly strewn with terms students need to speak or write about insects confidently.

Once you’ve assembled your own list (which does not need to match mine), run through it with your class, asking students to briefly define each term. It’s OK to guess. If there’s a word they simply don’t know, such as ommatidia, leave that one blank for now. Then, as you read the chapter aloud, have students listen for any words they couldn’t define, or didn’t get quite right, and add or revise definitions based on what they learn from reading. As a final step, match students’ definitions with those in the author’s glossary on pages 46 and 47.

What’s your favorite genre? Many educators believe that nonfiction is supplanting fiction as the genre of choice among young people. Do you agree? What do your students think? Ask them to write a short argument defending their genre of choice. They should offer specific reasons and cite particular publications to defend their position.

Remind them that both fiction and nonfiction are big categories. They may want to narrow things down a bit. Nonfiction, for instance, includes not only science books but biographies and autobiographies, memoirs, history books, news articles, and other forms. Fiction can include adventure stories, fantasy, mysteries, and more. Once students finish writing, have volunteers read their arguments aloud as a prelude to a class discussion on genre and how tastes are evolving.

Note: For an interesting comparison-contrast extension, have students interview members of an older generation to see what their favorite genres and books might be. Have writers use results to create a generational contrast piece.

Curiosity—the key to topic selection. Author Sneed Collard identifies curiosity as one of his secrets to success as a nonfiction writer. As noted in the quotation from my Overview, Sneed takes an interest in virtually every kind of topic, from travel to cooking. What are your students curious about? Make a list. Oh, but wait: You first.

As your students look on, list three to five things that fascinate you, perhaps mentioning your reasons as you go. Here are just a few things I could be blissfully happy researching:

  • Discovery of new, Earth-like planets
  • Discovery of new octopus species—right in the San Francisco Bay!
  • The intelligence of crows
  • Why some whales actually seek human contact
  • New findings on benefits—and downsides—of homework
  • How worksheet overload is affecting preschoolers’ reading skills

Ask students to work with partners or in small groups of three or four to brainstorm lists of their own. Combine two or more suggestions from each group to form a class list—which students can then copy into their personal writing journals. Next time students need a good informational topic, this list will give them a source to check. Of course, students do not need to write about any of these topics—ever. But hearing one writer’s suggestions nearly always super-charges the imagination of another. That leads to good topic choice—which in turn leads to better writing.

Beetles or humans? Who will stick around? On page 7, the author tells us that since we have yet to identify all the insects on planet Earth, the actual number of species could be as high as thirty million. Talk about striking details! Here’s another surprise: At least 250,000 of those species are beetles. Why in the world would this be? Well, some scientists believe beetles have extraordinary “extinction resistance.” In other words, they can survive dramatic shifts in the environment. What about humans, though? Aren’t we pretty adaptable ourselves? Let’s talk about that . . .

Set up a debate: humans vs beetles—which species is more resistant to extinction? Form two teams to research this question, and let students choose which side to support. Just make sure you have at least a few debaters on each side! You may want to form debate teams of three or four to conduct research and plan a presentation.

Once you’ve given students time to assemble facts and form arguments, you can proceed in a couple of ways. Have one team from each side engage in an actual debate. Or give every team 5 to 6 minutes to present their argument. The rest of the class can score each presentation on a ten-point scale, based on two criteria: (1) How convincing is the team’s evidence? and (2) How compelling is the team’s argument?

 Personal research—and informational writing. Sneed Collard urges us to get outdoors (where most of the insects are) and do some research of our own. Reread the chapter titled “Learning More—The Final Molt,” page 44, and ask students to follow Sneed’s advice. Have them create an originally researched piece of writing on one insect that includes at least two components: text and an illustration. The illustration can be a photo, painting, sketch, or anything produced by the student him- or herself. The text might cover the habitat, behaviors, predators, or eating preferences of the chosen subject. (This needn’t be an “all about” paper; they can focus on one aspect of the insect’s life.) Have them document their personal observation with a record of time and place.

When you finish, create a class book of your results. Then talk about what students learned about the value of personal, hands-on research.

Note: For additional information on insects, look up the Amateur Entomologists’ Society: https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/what-bug-is-this/insects.html

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About the Author . . .

Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than 75 books for young people. His nonfiction titles include Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Teeth, Wings, Reign of the Sea Dragons, The Prairie Builders, The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, and more recently, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change and Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (reviewed here on Gurus). Just last year, he released his memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (also reviewed on Gurus).fire-birds-cover

Sneed’s books have won numerous awards, including the AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books and the Green Earth Book Award. In 2006, Sneed received the prestigious Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work.

In addition to his nonfiction titles, Sneed has written seven widely acclaimed novels, among them Flash Point, The Governor’s Dog Is Missing, and Dog 4491.

To learn more about Sneed, or to arrange a school or conference visit, please visit him at his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Good news! Sneed and I just learned that our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons will be released by Heinemann on August 31. We think you’ll love it. Is it written with voice? Are you kidding? We chose our own topic! Is it driven by curiosity? And how! Will it help your students write better, stronger, more enticing nonfiction? You can bet your book club on it. Stand by for more information.

And in case you’re in a book club, and terrified that members would sooner drop out than read your next selection, check out my . . .

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Personal Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. 2016. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.” So begins a book like no other. It’s a history of trails that begins with the earliest forms of ocean life (ancient Ediacarans that are said to have gone extinct about 541 million years ago), and winds up in modern times along the dramatically expanding Appalachian Trail with a crusty old thru-hiker, Eberhart, who has given up every convenience imaginable save shoes to live unencumbered. In between, we follow trails of all kinds, including lost Cherokee footpaths, the trails of the savannah-making elephants, early roadways, deer tracks, pheromone-inspired ant trails, traces of food-seeking caterpillars—even explorations of the Internet. This book, an intoxicating mix of history, philosophy, science, and travel advice, offers many tips for navigating trails successfully, but most important, examines the nature of the trail itself.

How did trails begin anyway? With movement. Those primordial Ediacarans—inelegantly described by some scientists as “looking like a bag of mud”—inexplicably moved one day. We can’t say they decided to move because they were literally brainless. Decisions were beyond their reach. Moor describes the first traveling Ediacaran this way: “It shivered, swelled, reached forth, scrunched up, and in doing so, at an imperceptibly slow pace, began to move across the sea floor, leaving a trail behind it” (36). He could almost be describing a contemporary couch potato. And as this quotation shows, this incredibly intelligent book, filled with singular observations, is just plain fun to read. If you like your reading simultaneously, um, down to earth and deep, this is your book. Here’s what I mean . . .

“To put it as simply as possible,” Moor says, “a path is a way of making sense of the world” (14). So—life can be seen as an effort to create and then improve upon pathways. Ever hear or use the expression “cow path”? Maybe you think of it as some miles-from-civilization trail to nowhere, but in truth, cow paths can be indicators of a savvy instinct that any species needs to survive. Like many animals apparently, cows have a knack for finding the most efficient way to traverse any piece of ground. We’re often wise to follow their lead, and guess what. We do. Then we “improve” the old cow path by widening and paving it. But traces remain if you know how and where to look, whether you’re trailing buffalo, elephants, cows, sheep, snakes, or even ancestral sea creatures.

On Trails is a book so expansive in detail, and so rich in thought I cannot possibly sum it up in a few paragraphs. I urge you to get your own copy (hardcover because this is a book you’ll want to keep) and settle in for some enjoyable reading and reflection. You’ll learn more things than you can list, but here are just two that stuck with me.

First, it’s not so much the trailblazers that make the difference. It’s the followers. If you lean more toward follower than trailblazer yourself, take heart. Followers have more power than they realize. After all, they’re the ones left to make sense of all that information trailblazers leave behind, and then improve upon it. Think of them as the editors of the trail making world.

And second, trails teach us about ourselves even when we’re doing nothing more sophisticated than “staring at mud,” and perhaps this is why the allure of being on the trail is so irresistible. “Walking creates trails,” says Moor. “Trails, in turn, shape landscapes. And, over time, landscapes come to serve as archives of communal knowledge and symbolic meaning” (199). Writers who help us perceive connections we might not recognize on our own are rare treasures. Moor is such a writer.

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woodward-vickijeff3249aThank you for stopping by. We feature writers who deserve recognition, so come often, and tell friends about our posts. Keep sending me books to review: Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. My thanks to the wonderful writers who have done so already. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. 2012. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

Levels: Aimed at grade 4 and up, but appropriate and engaging for any grade level, including adults.

Features: Striking and informative illustrations, strong nonfiction voice, exceptionally thorough glossary, expansive timeline from pre-17th Century to the present—and beyond, excellent resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” That playful description gives you a hint about Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s irresistibly charming nonfiction voice. But it doesn’t begin to reveal how much information the author packs into her 61-page account of this outer space phenomenon.

In a book written both to inform and amuse, the author manages to be scientific without being overly technical. Her conversational style—reminiscent of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science guy, and other fine nonfiction authors—makes readers eager to pull up a chair and learn everything possible about black holes.

We discover at the outset that black holes are not what we might think. For one thing, they’re not holes. They’re also not monsters, gobbling up everything in the universe. But yes, they can and do pull things in—things as small as dust or as large as stars—and what goes in never comes out. Not even light can escape. That’s because “a black hole’s pull us the strongest pull in the entire universe,” stronger than any “fleet of giant rocket engines” (5). And though black holes may not plot or strategize, DeCristofano imbues them with an unmistakable element of danger that only adds to their allure.

The book is beautifully organized, divided into eight short chapters, each with its own theme. We begin with a description of black holes, what they are and how they operate, then consider the enormity of their gravitational pull, the way in which a black hole is formed, and the unimaginable blackness itself. The author wraps things up by first treating us to an imaginary tour inside a black hole, suggesting how things might look and feel if somehow we could make the journey—which of course we cannot. It’s too far (an understatement) and the effects would be, let’s say, dire: “The pull from the black hole would force your body into a long, skinny, stringy shape” (51). Just what I wanted for the New Year!, you’re thinking—but actually, this undesirable effect, known as “spaghettification,” doesn’t end well at all. When it comes to travel destinations, black holes do not make the list. In the final chapter, we get a peek at the “strange new universe” conceived by Einstein and others, a place where space can stretch and bend (55), and Newton’s law of gravity is given a new twist.

Every great nonfiction book offers readers something to love, and this one is no exception. First, DeCristofano’s voice never settles into the mundane. Throughout the book, she retains a tone of vibrant curiosity as if she were making discoveries right along with us. Second, thanks to the author’s exhaustive research, this book is filled with intriguing, little known bits of information. For example, what’s the likelihood that we ourselves will be swallowed by a black hole? Don’t let it keep you awake. Turns out we’re quadrillions of miles from the closest one. (To find out how many zeroes are in a quadrillion, check out the brilliant chart on page 6.) In addition, the author is a veritable master of similes and metaphors—which I happen to love because they make complex ideas accessible. In one chapter, she compares black holes to whirlpools. Though they may not be exactly alike, we get the idea. It gives us an image to cling to, and that’s important when discussing something as elusive as a black hole that exists in black space.

Finally, this book is brilliantly illustrated—in a range of styles that blend beautifully and fully complement the text. Illustrations include Michael Carroll’s striking paintings and whimsical cartoons, along with stunning photos from NASA and other sources. Together, these illustrations make us feel as if we are on a space flight, searching for mysterious black holes ourselves.

By the way, will our own sun become a black hole one day? Apparently  . . . that’s impossible. Read the book to find out why.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole is an ideal discussion book for a small group, but you can also read it aloud if you divide it into chapters. Please do read at least selected passages aloud since this book offers such an outstanding illustration of nonfiction voice. In addition, use a document projector if you can; students will find the illustrations fascinating and informative.

 

Background. What do your students know about black holes now? You might have them write a definition of a black hole. This isn’t a quiz! It’s a chance for them to see what they know prior to reading or hearing the book compared to what they learn as they go through it. You might also make a class list of the main questions your students have about black holes. Then compare your class list with the seven questions on the front inside flap of the book jacket. How many questions match? And how many of their questions are answered by reading the book? Note: When you finish the book, have students write a second definition of a black hole, comparing it to what they wrote at first. What ideas or perceptions have changed?

Coming to “terms” with the content. Fully understanding the book requires knowledge of a little scientific terminology. The author is very good at explaining new terms and ideas in context, but you can help students get even more out of the book by introducing a few terms from the glossary either up front or as you encounter them. Doing so also gives you a chance to acquaint students with the benefits of referring to a glossary often as you read. Recommended terms to emphasize: black hole, energy, event horizon, force, galaxy, gravity, light year, matter, quasar, radio galaxy, singularity, star, supernova, white dwarf.

Format and genre. Many students—and adults—equate picture books with stories. Maybe your students do, too. Ask them. Then mention that an increasing number of picture books—particularly those aimed at older students—are nonfiction. This trend has literally exploded over recent decades. (Why do you and your students think that might be?) You might also ask how they define “nonfiction” in their own minds. In fact, nonfiction is a large genre that can include everything from biographies and memoirs to histories, news reports, documentary videos, scientific analyses, nonfiction picture books, and much more. In terms of genre, how would your students describe A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole? After discussing this with them, you might share your own thoughts—along with mine: It’s fact, not fiction. We can also describe it as informational writing, based on scientific research. Read Carolyn Cinami CeDrostofano’s “Author’s Note” (pages 70-71) for details on how she compiled her information.

The message. Nonfiction books should teach readers something important or interesting. Even casual readers will pick up numerous bits of information about black holes, stars, galaxies, and the known and unknown universe. But—is there a larger message here? What central idea (or ideas) does the author hope we take away from reading this book? Hint: To zero in on this, try comparing common myths about black holes to the impressions with which the author leaves us by the end of the book.

The details. One helpful way to think about details is to ask students what information, if any, was new—or surprising. Nonfiction authors—the good ones, anyway—are always full of surprises. We wouldn’t read their books otherwise. You can model this with just the introduction and first chapter. Make a list of things that surprised you. For me, that would include the following (and if you teach science, then probably these weren’t surprises—but you can call them interesting reminders):

  • A black hole is not really a hole
  • It’s trillions of miles from Earth to the closest star
  • Stars look close together in the night sky—but are trillions of miles apart
  • A black hole has the strongest pull in the universe
  • A black hole can pull in stars and asteroids—in fact, nothing whatsoever can resist it

Looking at details in this way—as tidbits of surprising or hard-to-forget information—helps students understand what to include in their own writing. The details that matter, the ones to sift from their own research, are those that will make a reader say, “No kidding? I never knew that!”

Voice. No one without a strong sense of her own voice would dare call Einstein “a radical smarty-pants” (55). DeCristofano pulls it off with nary a blink. She is having a good time thinking and writing about space, and that kind of joy is infectious. If you share the book, or parts of it aloud, you can ask students to point out moments where they hear the author’s voice most clearly. Have them identify strong passages, study them together—using a document projector if you have one—and try to figure out what creates the voice. Is it wording? Humor? Striking details? Something more?

In addition, talk about the role of voice in nonfiction. I happen to think it’s essential in most writing (contracts, medical reports, and the like being exceptions of course). If a writer is excited about a topic, there’s no reason that enthusiasm shouldn’t come through in her writing. In writing that serves an informational purpose, though, what is the role of voice? Talk about this, perhaps by comparing DeCristofano’s book to any nonfiction piece without voice. Encyclopedias and many textbooks provide good examples.

Illustrations. Ask students to notice the different types of illustrations that appear throughout the text. Discuss the various purposes illustrations serve: to amuse us, teach us something, add to the mood or appeal of the book. Was the choice to use a blend of illustrations a good one in this case—for this subject and this author’s approach to her subject? Why? What if the book contained only photographs or only cartoons? What would be lost? Or suppose it had no illustrations at all. What would happen then?

 Drafting an argument. Do your students have any guess about how much money the U.S. spends on space research and exploration? Has the amount gone up or down in recent years? You can check out the facts online at this or another website:

http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

Discuss this issue with students. Are we spending about the right amount—especially now that China and India are more active in space exploration, along with the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency? Should we be more competitive and aggressive in our spending? Or perhaps pull back and commit this money to some other endeavor? Give students a chance to research this topic briefly and discuss it in small groups. Then ask them to craft an argument supporting one of the following:

  • Increase spending on space exploration
  • Decrease spending
  • Maintain current levels of spending

Remind them to include strong reasons to back their position and to cite specific data and sources for that data. By the way, if your students are fortunate enough to know someone with relevant information or experience relevant to this topic, invite that person in for a class interview. The results will enrich your students’ writing immeasurably.

 Further research. Want to see a terrific video about black holes? Look up “nonfiction videos on black holes” online for a wide selection. Many are under two minutes long, allowing you to watch several within the span of a lesson. They may answer additional questions raised by the book. And seeing a black hole in motion—even an animated rendition—is an educational experience!

 

About the Author . . .

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is a science education consultant and award winning author. She has been named a Creative Teaching Partner (specialty: Curriculum and Planning) by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and has developed science programs with NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Early on, Carolyn enjoyed writing and imagined herself as a writer. As her interest in science grew, she found creative ways to combine the two.

“For the past fifteen or so years,” she says, “I have been fortunate to work with teachers, museum educators, and educational researchers on fascinating projects. But I have never really stopped writing. I write poetry—but don’t share it often. I try to write stories, too. And I thoroughly enjoy shaping engaging science books that I hope will capture the reader’s imagination on lots of different levels.”

Carolyn works with educators to help integrate writing—notably science writing—into the broader school curriculum. Visit Carolyn at her website: www.carolyndecristofano.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Welcome back! We hope you had a glorious winter break, and perhaps enjoyed a little snow—maybe not as much as we’ve had in Oregon. As I write this, we are working on our sixth foot of powder, definitely more than needed for cross country skiing, especially if you are the one breaking trail.

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Jeff continues his work with fifth graders and is also teaching curling now. If I were in Beaverton, I’d say, “Sign me up!” Meanwhile, when I’m not shoveling (which is hardly ever anymore) I continue to work on my new nonfiction book. And no, it’s not a myth. It’s real—and we will announce it soon.img_2895

What do you do when it snows? Besides wishing for a snow blower? Right! You read! I craved a little break from my steady diet of nonfiction and discovered I love the deliciously dark and gritty mysteries by Tana French. I highly recommend her newest, The Trespasser. Fans of the AMC series “The Killing” will quickly recognize how much the prickly tension between two crackerjack detectives—one male and one female—can add to any story. They’re partners, make no mistake, but they keep each other on point at all times.

the-trespasserI like the format of French’s books. She doesn’t bury readers in a barrage of gory details, or set up clichéd plots in which a sadist stalks a helpless victim who’s cringing in a corner. Her characters are realistic, and so are their motives. But this isn’t “Columbo,” and there’s a lot we don’t know when we first witness the crime scene—including who the killer might be. Gradually, French serves up healthy doses of clues, and lets you work on “the solve,” which is never as easy as it first appears.

Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran persist in digging for the truth, even when taunted by the rest of the Murder squad to get on with it and move to the next case. We get to dig with them, seeing every piece of evidence and every potential witness as a detective would. The level of detail in French’s writing is absolutely astonishing—and thoroughly fascinating. Add to that, French’s knowledge of police procedures is impressive and the interrogation room interviews are as compelling as any I’ve read by any author—ever.

Her characters are real—and gritty. Detective Moran, like the Stephen Holder character in “The Killing,” is consistently smarter than he lets on, and is the perfect foil for Detective Conway, whose in your face style and colorful vocabulary would stop most sailors in their tracks. She takes no prisoners, and luckily is immune to insults since she receives plenty. Feisty, brilliant, intuitive, and unapologetic, Conway is a match for pretty much anything that stumbles into her path, from overbearing superiors to ingenious killers. I loved her—and am hoping she appears in many future books by Tana French. So much for mysteries . . .

Are you a fan of nonfiction? Then, rejoice. We’ll be doing more nonfiction reviews in future posts. Meanwhile . . . Give every child a voice.

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Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown. 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

Levels: Aimed at middle school and up, but a riveting resource for interested readers of all ages, including both younger children and adults.

Features: Striking graphic illustrations, easy to read text, expansive resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water.” That’s the first line on the dust jacket—and will give you a hint about how much you can learn from this highly readable, impressively researched historical narrative.

The story opens with how Katrina began, as a tiny, “unremarkable” wind in Africa. We follow Katrina across the Atlantic as she grows large enough to be given a name, and then powerful enough to ignite terror. In the first half of the book, we witness the 1.2 million citizens of New Orleans receiving news of the approaching storm, then preparing to evacuate—or unbelievably, to stay. It feels as if we’re right there with them as they wait in apprehension, huddling within structures that will be no match for what’s coming. We see them frantically struggle to protect their children, pry victims from sinking cars, and finally—in shocking numbers—lose their homes, belongings, pets, and loved ones. Battling a world that’s become surreal, more than fourteen hundred people die, some overwhelmed by the storm surge, others racing to escape rising floods, a few trapped in attics without tools to break through their own roofs.

The second half of the book depicts rescue efforts on all levels—from federal down to individual. Brown honestly portrays the poorly coordinated government efforts to provide shelter and help to people who have lost everything. Stranded citizens cling to rooftops and floating debris hoping that someone with a boat will miraculously head their way. For too many, that doesn’t happen. Constantly wet and shut off from all communication, survivors find themselves without food, clean water, blankets, plumbing, electricity, medical help—or means of escape. They watch cars and houses float like toys down “rivers” that used to be familiar streets. In the convention center and superdome, where thousands eventually take shelter, conditions are abysmal: overcrowded and filthy, with no fresh air and often nowhere to sit but the floor.

In the face of all this despair, Brown reminds us, there is light. Hospitals do what they can. Coast Guard men and women hoist people from rooftops. The Red Cross opens over five hundred shelters across twelve states. Texas, Arkansas, and other states take in refugees, once they are able to leave the city. Even as rain thunders down, brave volunteers venture out in their own small boats. Some wade or swim through toxic flood waters, risking lethal infection, to save friends, neighbors—even strangers. They persist in the face of explosions, fires, snakes, and gunshots. Gradually, the storm subsides, and the deadly waters that drowned New Orleans seep away, inch by inch, leaving horrifying mounds of detritus in their wake.

At 91 quick pages—they fly by—the book is a dramatic and intense portrayal of what can happen when we are unprepared for the worst that nature can deal out. And when government agencies and officials fail to respond quickly despite evidence of abject suffering. In stunning contrast, though, the book also shines a welcome light upon the courage of everyday Americans who risk everything to save others. In his direct, unflinching style, Don Brown shows us America at its absolute worst—and best.

Drowned City, which marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, is a fitting, brilliantly written, visually stunning tribute to the people—residents, rescuers, and some who were both—that fought bravely against insurmountable odds. Though many evacuees never returned to New Orleans, it’s worth remembering that others continue to rebuild, even to this day.

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In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Drowned City is an ideal discussion book for a small reading group—or for the whole class if you have enough copies to share. Despite the length, it’s a quick read, but expect students to spend extra time studying the illustrations. You can also read it aloud with the aid of a document projector. This book MUST be seen, not just heard. If you share it this way, plan to spend several class periods because you do not want to rush. Invite comments as you go.

Background. Do your students have knowledge of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath? How many have heard of Katrina, and know when it struck and where? Do any of them know someone who was affected? This is a highly sensitive question, of course; but if any of your students have personal histories to share, their insights can greatly enrich your discussion.

If you live in Louisiana or a neighboring state, your students have likely heard many accounts relating to Katrina. For students who are not familiar with the facts or circumstances, however, it may be helpful to provide some factual background about hurricanes in general and their deadly power.

A check under “hurricane facts” online will lead you to such informational tidbits as

  • The wind speeds of hurricanes in categories 1 (weakest) through 5 (strongest)
  • The number of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last 100 years
  • The states most often struck by hurricanes
  • Dates of the hurricane “season” on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  • Origin of the word “hurricane”
  • How the tradition of naming hurricanes began
  • The forecasting of hurricanes
  • Meaning of related terms, such as “surge” . . .

 

. . . and much more. Such information will give students a deeper appreciation of the book.

Format and genre. The first thing you’re likely to notice about Drowned City is the format. It’s a graphic nonfiction history, a genre greatly appealing to many young readers. Over the past three decades, graphic novels and histories have grown immeasurably in popularity and attained an impressive level of sophistication. Language and art blend to recount events with a power neither could match on its own.

Brown has his own artistic style, simple and raw. The facial expressions, which he brilliantly depicts using only a few brush strokes, indelibly capture Katrina’s impact on people of the Gulf Coast. These are not photographs, but if they were, we’d be saying, “How did he manage to get that shot?” He seems to know precisely what to illustrate—and just what details will intrigue, touch or startle us. Before actually reading the text, leaf through a portion to give students a feel for the overall “look” of the document. What emotional response do the illustrations arouse—even before students hear the author’s words? How would your students describe Brown’s highly individual artistic approach?

Not comic books. Though they share some similarities, graphic novels and histories are not comic books. What is the difference, though? Look at them side by side, and discuss the similarities the two genres share—and any differences you identify.

A footnote: In the publishing industry, books in this genre are typically called “graphic novels,” though the term can be somewhat confusing since novels are fiction and tend to be lengthy. This book is neither. Help students understand that “graphic novel” is a publishers’ term and quite different from “novel” as we usually think of it. The history of the graphic novel, by the way, makes a fine topic for informational research.

 

Color and mood. As you page through the book, notice the colors Brown chooses for his artwork. Ask students to reflect on the ways these colors influence the message and mood of the narrative. How does Brown want us as readers to feel? Also look for occasional hints of bright color. When and where do they appear—and what might they represent?

The big idea—or message. Every good nonfiction book has a big idea. Behind all the facts and anecdotes, there’s a message, something the author wants us to think about. As you share Drowned City, ask your students to think about the underlying message, or messages. There could be more than one. Talk about this as a class—or have students share their own thoughts in writing journals.

Organization. Unlike many books of comparable length, Drowned City is not divided into chapters. Yet it reads almost as if it were. It is easy to transition from one discussion to another. What organizational devices does author Don Brown use to keep us on track? Note that you may need to review the book more than one time to notice how he achieves this smooth topic-to-topic flow.

Following are some elements you may want to share with students once they’ve had a chance to express their own ideas about organizational structure:

 

  • Time: Time is a critical organizational device in this book, and with good reason. The people of New Orleans—and indeed people throughout the world—know the hurricane will strike long before it happens. This allows the author to take us through a period of tense anticipation, followed by the climax of the actual storm, and then an aftermath when many of the city’s most serious problems are just beginning. With respect to dates, the book opens in early August 2005 and rushes headlong toward the moment of crisis on August 29. Though the primary narrative concludes on October 2, when New Orleans is finally dry again, there’s also an epilogue on the final pages, a look back from the perspective of 2012.

 

  • Scene shifts: We move from place to place, and from one perspective to another. For example, we shift from Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, from the struggling victims swimming or clinging to rooftops to the rescuers in boats and helicopters, from the streets rapidly becoming rivers to the convention center and superdome, from the frantic chaos of New Orleans to the complacency of the White House. Such shifts give us a sweeping perspective on a complex catastrophe—like watching several films all at one time—and help us understand the multiple and simultaneous ways in which human lives changed when Katrina hit.

 

  • Pacing: With so much to tell, Brown has to keep things moving, and he does. In the half hour or so it takes to read and reflect on this book, he touches on numerous events, leaping quickly from one to another, helping us experience the frenzy the people of New Orleans must have felt. One moment we’re watching neighbors rescue one another from rooftops, and the next we’re standing in unbearable heat outside the convention center, waiting to board an over-crowded bus. By holding himself to a few lines for each scene, Brown covers an impressive amount of territory with a few words.

 

  • Lead and conclusion: I used to tell students that a good lead and conclusion are like bookends, holding details together. They work just that way in Brown’s book. He opens by telling us how inconspicuously a hurricane begins—it’s scarcely more than a small, seemingly innocent puff of wind. This surprises us, and compels us to read on, to find out how a small gust of air becomes a force of death. The conclusion is equally striking. We learn that many people have, remarkably, survived this wretched bout with nature, and it’s a testament to human endurance.

 

 

Voice. This book resounds with voice. It’s powerful, but controlled. There’s enough tension that Brown doesn’t need to embellish anything. He lets the facts speak for themselves. He is present on every page, though, present in the details he shares, the illustrations he creates to enhance them, and the words he chooses to engage us: Hurricane Katrina “crashes” ashore just post-dawn on August 29 and “erases” the town of Buras, Louisiana. Later, when the electricity goes out, night “swallows” New Orleans, and the next day people “melt” at an overcrowded convention center where it’s hard to breathe and the air reeks of human waste. On every page, we remain in touch with human panic, despair, and frustration. Occasionally, the people of New Orleans speak to us, and their words are authentic. As Brown’s source list shows us, he has pulled his quotations directly from books and news accounts of the disaster. They’re real, not invented, and we can feel the difference. In one scene, a mother stranded on a rooftop hugs her child and says simply, “Oh, baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it” (from Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, 2008, 10).

Personal response. Some of us identify with books like this because we have been through a similar situation or know someone who has—or because the author’s writing causes us to empathize with the characters. After reading the book, but before discussing it in depth, give students a chance to express their own feelings in writing. They may also wish to share these responses in small writing groups of three or four students.

Choosing facts wisely. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book like this is deciding what to tell—and what to leave out. Have a look at the bibliography, page 95, and share some of the sources with students. Talk about the kinds of sources Brown relies on, and the breadth of his research. Are students surprised to learn that for a book this length a writer would conduct such extensive research?

Ask them to imagine the notes and facts Brown must have collected as he investigated Katrina. With such an overwhelming amount of information at hand, how does an author decide which facts to share—and which to simply abandon?

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

First, ask students what they learn from the book. What information is new to them? Were there surprises? Are there facts or anecdotes they will not readily forget?

Second, go through the book slowly, looking for the most striking details, those that stand out or go beyond what we might hear in nightly news accounts. For example, check out page 41, which shows people in their own boats dodging swarms of cockroaches or “knots” of poisonous snakes. What other details make a similarly striking impression?

In discussing factual highlights that capture your students’ attention, talk about the criteria that nonfiction writers—including your students—should use in selecting details to share with readers. List some of those criteria and have students refer to them as they research and write nonfiction pieces of their own.

Drafting an argument. Look again at the information Brown shares on pages 8 and 9. We learn that the people of New Orleans had a 24-hour warning to evacuate before the city was hit with a storm surge “twenty-five feet above normal.” Yet many chose to remain. By the time the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation, it was too late (10). Though some people had no means to escape—having neither a car nor money for any sort of transportation—many made a deliberate choice to stay. Was this right? What would your students do? Have them write about this, creating an argument based on the following—or a related topic of their own:

 

  • Are people in a danger zone obliged to evacuate if they can? Or should that decision be completely their own? Why?

 

One of the primary issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina is the role that government, local or federal, should play in protecting citizens from disaster—or rescuing them later. After sharing Brown’s book, talk about some of the things that went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Could the government have done more? After discussing this, have students formulate an argument based on this or a related topic:

 

  • What role should the government play in protecting citizens from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? And what, if anything, is a citizen’s own responsibility?

 

Further research. For additional information about Hurricane Katrina or the rebuilding effort, students can check online under New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and Army Corps of Engineers. Don Brown’s bibliography lists many useful sources. Your school, city, or county library can also suggest books or articles to help writers further their research. Numerous films are available as well, and you may wish to view one as a class (see “Films on Hurricane Katrina” for ideas). You may also want to consider interviewing someone with relevant knowledge or experience . . .

Conducting an interview. One good way to learn more about any topic is by interviewing someone with special knowledge. Sometimes a writer is lucky enough to arrange a personal interview—but if that is not possible, an interview via phone or email (or Skype) is the next best thing. Here are a few people your students might want to consult—and likely you can think of others:

 

  • A current or former resident of New Orleans with firsthand knowledge of Katrina
  • A relative or friend of such a person—or anyone knows the history of Katrina well
  • A local meteorologist with insights about current technology used in forecasting hurricanes
  • Someone with a background in conducting or managing rescue efforts—for example, a member of the Coast Guard, a firefighter, or an emergency medical specialist
  • An engineer who can discuss what towns or cities do these days to make themselves more flood-resistant
  • Anyone who has been part of an evacuation effort
  • A mayor or other official who can respond to questions about the role government plays in preventing or handling disasters
  • A journalist or writer who has researched or written about disasters such as Katrina

To learn more about setting up an interview, check on line under “How to Set Up a Phone Interview” or “How to Set Up an Email Interview.” Ahead of time, lay out the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. Give students a chance to practice their interviewing skills, with you playing the role of the “interviewee.” Remember to ask for permission to record the interview or to take photographs, should you want to do that.

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About Author Don Brown . . .

Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than two dozen picture book biographies and other history books for children. Throughout his career, Brown has introduced young readers to such well known figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Dolly Madison.

His books have also explored important events, including the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the sinking of the Titanic, and the duel of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. One of his most recent publications, America Is Under Attack, offers readers a sensitive look at the tragic events of September 11th.

Don’s books have received numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Horn Book Honor and the William Allen White Award. One of the author’s histories, The Great American Dustbowl, has been nominated for the Texas Blue Bonnet Award. Drowned City was published in August 2015 on the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and recently won the 2016 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, which recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing for children. Don Brown also makes presentations to students around the country. You can follow his work on www.booksbybrown.com

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for returning! We hope you had a wonderful summer, and squeezed in time for family, travel, pets, reading, hiking, or whatever creates the joy in your life. Speaking of pure, unadulterated joy . . . congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. Even if you’re not a fan—heck, even if you don’t like baseball all that much—you have to feel good about a team that finally, finally puts an end to a 108-year drought. And by the way, congratulations to Cleveland as well. The Chicago victory would not have been nearly so sweet had the Indians not played their hearts out and made all those score crushing homers and gravity defying catches. What a Series. In other news . . .

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders, and will soon, I am sure, have stories to share on his experiences.

In the meantime, I am searching out the very best in nonfiction books as background for a new book I’m writing—to be announced soon! Drowned City was to my mind one of the best nonfiction books for young readers that I’d come across in a while. I hope you like it as much as I did.

A quick, personal note . . . I saw a lovely middle school student interviewed on the morning news. She was writing a letter to her older self to be opened about ten years from now. It was a moving and thoughtful letter, filled with the kind of humor and wisdom that made me wish she lived right next door and would stop by and visit while I’m out gardening. The advice she gave to herself ran along these lines . . . Don’t be swayed by others. Trust yourself, your own mind, your own heart. I liked that. Behind her on the classroom wall was a six-trait poster. No implied connection whatsoever. Just a good moment.

Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff Hicks at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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