Monday, March 30, 2015

Loree Griffin Burns, Author of Award-Winning Nonfiction

Loree Griffin Burns is the author of Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It and four other award-winning nonfiction books for children, including Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Movement which won a coveted Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Loree has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and her books grow out of her passion for science and nature.

In Beetle Busters, Loree follows the Asian long horned beetle’s invasion of North America and she introduces the scientists and dedicated volunteers who track down and eradicate beetle infestations in an effort to save millions of acres of hardwood forests. 

Thanks to Loree for stopping by today to answer my questions!

It’s a pleasure to be here, Linda. Thanks for inviting me!

Loree, you were trained as a scientist. What led you to writing for children? Could you tell us a little about your career path?

When my first children—a set of twin boys who are now 16—were born, I knew that I wanted to take a short break from my career as an academic researcher. I’d just earned a PhD in biochemistry and the next obvious step was a post-doctoral research position. But for me, this type of work would be very hard to do while also learning how to be a mother. My thinking at the time was that I would stay home with my boys until they were old enough to go to school, and then I’d go back to the lab.

Like all the best laid plans, mine hit snags I’d never anticipated. First, we added another child to our family, a daughter. And then, when all three kids were very small, I stumbled across an article in my local newspaper that really piqued my interest. It described an accident in the Pacific Ocean in which 39,000 plastic bathtub toys (yellow ducks, blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs) were dumped into the sea. Eleven years later, scientists were predicting the toys would begin washing ashore where I lived, in New England.  How did the scientists know the duckies were coming this particular summer? Was someone following them? Who was that person? For heaven’s sake, HOW DID HE FOLLOW THEM?

I did a little poking around and learned that there was, indeed, a grown man whose job was to track those toys around the world ocean. What’s more, this guy, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, was using the information he collected from the tub toys to learn about surface currents in the ocean. I was in awe. I began researching his story and eventually decided to turn all my research into a book for young readers.

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was published in 2007. By then I’d begun to research another story that intrigued me: the world’s honey bee populations seemed to be in trouble. I convinced my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to let me write about that story, too. My career as a creator of children’s books was officially underway. And to be honest, I was so intrigued by this work that when my kids were all in school and there was, finally, time to consider going back to the lab bench, I didn’t. Writing about science both engaged and fulfilled me … AND gave me the flexibility I wanted for my family. I still think it’s the perfect work for me.

You’ve come up with some pretty unusual topics. What sparked the idea for Beetle Busters? What convinced you it was a book-worthy topic? Was it difficult to convince an editor to buy into this project?

In 2008, I attended a community meeting at my public library. I’d heard that an invasive beetle had been found in our town and that in order to stop its movement, officials were going to start cutting down trees. Lots of them. I love trees, and the very thought of losing some of my favorites made me angry. I went to the meeting to learn more. I learned so many incredible things: the beetle was accidentally imported from China, it spends almost its entire life inside hardwood trees, it is hard to get rid of. I learned, in fact, that in order to save the hardwood forest of the eastern United States, my town and the towns around me were going to have to start cutting down our hardwood forests. It was an impossible dilemma. And I decided to write about it.

My editor was a little concerned that the story would not interest kid readers, and that it was too local. I was convinced that the book would grab kids, though, and I knew that the battle with invasive beetles was relevant everywhere. (Look up the emerald ash borer, for example. Or the gypsy moth caterpillar. Or even the bark beetle, a native that is becoming an issue as climate changes in the southwestern US.)

How do you approach the research for a topic like this?

I approached my research in two phases: 1) background research and reading and 2) experiential research. I started reading everything I could about the Asian longhorned beetle: its natural history, its life cycle, its invasions into North America. And I reached out to the scientists I’d met at the community meetings, setting up interviews and following them into the field to see how they tracked and studied the beetle. Over the course of the next two years, I conducted 35 of these field interviews!  

You had a lot of information to coordinate in writing Beetle Busters. How did you organize it? Was there any information you were forced to leave out?

I’m pretty low tech, actually. I take hand-written notes in the field and I record interviews where I can. I type all these notes up daily. These notes are organized by date, but also compiled into one huge document for easy searching. I’m intimately familiar with this document by the time I am done drafting my manuscript!

You don’t back away from controversy in Beetle Busters, in fact, you say that you have some reservations about razing woodlands to prevent the spread of the Asian long horned Beetle. Can you tell us a little more about that?

This was the hardest book I’ve written, and in hindsight, I know it’s because this is a story I am intimately, inextricably involved in. The trees that have to be cut down are on my town common, in my friend’s backyard, in MY backyard. I’ve sat in the shade of these trees, my kids have climbed them, they add to the beauty of the place I live. Even though I understand what is at stake—namely, YOUR trees—it is hard not to be angry when the time comes to fell these trees. At last count, Worcester County has cut more than 34 thousand trees. We’ve replanted about a third of that. Our landscape, however, will not look the way it did before ALB arrived for decades. I may not live to see it.  This is a very hard thing to contemplate, especially because there is no guarantee that the eradication program underway here will work. Even if it does, there is no way to know how many other ALB infestations are out there, or at what point we as a society will decide we can no longer afford—financially—to conduct these eradication programs. What then? Will what we have done here in Worcester be for naught? (Do you know the story of our gypsy moth caterpillar invasion? It is hard not to see it as a cautionary tale.)

You just had another book come out, Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, about
butterfly farming. I once wrote an article about this topic, and it was fascinating to learn how this conservation effort is helping butterflies, rain forests, and people in third world countries. Tell use more!

I’d love to read your article! This book grew out of a trip my kids and I took to the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston. (I blogged about the trip .) 

The idea that the butterflies landing on our heads in Boston, Massachusetts that day had been caterpillars in Costa Rica two weeks before captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I asked the curator of the garden, Lea Morgan, if she’d answer some questions for me and by the time our interview was over, I was planning to join Lea’s next trip to El Bosque Nuevo, one of her pupae suppliers in Costa Rica. 

Photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I joined Lea at El Bosque Nuevo twice, actually, and we’re both thrilled to have the book out in the world mesmerizing kids. (You can read more about our adventures in Costa Rica .)

Beetle Busters is part of Houghton’s wonderful Scientists in the Field series, as are two of your other books, The Hive Detectives and Tracking Trash. What makes this series so special?

I was a fan of the series long before I had the nerve to pitch a book for it. As someone with a background in science, I appreciated the depth of content: readers get a look inside the daily life of a working scientist, including the ups (finally spotting that long-sought after tree kangaroo!)  and downs (leeches!) of field research, as well as the ups and downs of scientific discovery. Add to that incredible photography and gorgeous design and you have a series that readers of all ages simply respond to. There are more than forty titles in the series now, and I’m immensely proud to have made three of them. Many of the SITF authors share additional information on their books and research adventures on the series blog.

Have you had the opportunity to go out in the field for your research? What was your most exciting research trip?

Yes! This is one of my favorite parts of the work I do. In fact, I am currently making plans for my next field trip: a week on the island of Surtsey in Iceland. I will be joining a team of ten scientists on their annual visit to this sixty-years-young volcanic island, collecting the details I’ll need for my next Scientists in the Field book.

Would you like to tell us about any future projects in the works?

I’m also hard at work on a book for older readers that shares the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It’s called The DNA Affair: A Story of Science and Skullduggery, and its due out in 2017.

Thank you so much for visiting Lupine Seeds, Loree!

It was my pleasure, Linda. Thank you for having me!

If you’d like to find out more about Loree Griffin Burns and her work, you can visit her website or her blog

Photo credits for Loree's portrait shot go to Ellen Harasimowicz  who was also the photographer for Beetle Busters and Handle with Care


Monday, July 28, 2014

Jane Sutcliffe, Author of STONE GIANT: MICHELANGELO'S DAVID AND HOW HE CAME TO BE

Today I welcome Jane Sutcliffe to my blog to talk about her book, Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, which recently received a marvelous review in Kirkus https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jane-sutcliffe/stone-giant/.

Jane Sutcliffe www.janesutcliffe.com is the acclaimed author of over twenty nonfiction books for young people. She says her childhood was so average that she read biographies to get a peek into the exotic and exciting lives of others. Now she writes biographies and other nonfiction books for children.

Stone Giant was inspired when Jane visited Florence. She stared at Michelangelo’s David for a very long time, knowing that there was a story in that face. This interview is the story behind the story that Jane discovered.

Could you tell us about that trip to Italy and why you were so struck by Michelangelo’s statue of David?

I honestly went to Italy just as a tourist, not looking for a book idea. Of course, I wanted to see the David, since I’d heard about it my whole life. We were lucky enough to have a very wise tour guide who let us just drink in the magnificent view of the statue. Then she asked two questions. “Do you like David?” she asked. Heads bobbed. “What do you like about David?” she continued.

We all had different reasons. Some liked the physical perfection of the statue, some the artist’s skill, and so on. For me it was that face. In the expression on David’s face, I could see the whole story of David and Goliath. I had never seen anything so expressive. It gave me such a thrill to see that face on the cover of Stone Giant.

How did you approach your research on Michelangelo’s creation of David? Were there any memorable incidents along the way?

I always start by reading as much as I can about the subject. This is the pure joy part of research. And sometimes you find a bonus along the way. In reading about Michelangelo I also learned a great deal about his contemporaries, including Leonardo da Vinci, who makes a brief appearance in Stone Giant. I was especially struck by a brief anecdote about Leonardo described in a 16th century biography. That anecdote became my picture book Leonardo’s Monster (Pelican, 2010).



You begin the book with the “giant,” a big, trouble-making, block of marble. How did you come up with such an opening?

The marble block really was called the “giant” at the time. So it seemed like a natural hook to compare the stone to a big troublesome ogre. The opening sentence is repeated at the end of the narrative with a different twist on “giant,” this time to refer to the masterpiece. My editor actually suggested repeating the idea in the Author’s note and ending with, “There is a giant in the city of Florence.” It was dropped in the cross-read; apparently three times was too much.

You did such a marvelous job of shaping your information into an engaging story. In your book, you talk about how Michelangelo saw David in the stone, all he needed to do was to carve away what was not David. How did you manage chip away at all the not-Stone Giant information to reveal your David story?

Great question! That is exactly how I see the job of any nonfiction writer. Once we’ve done our research, we know our story is all there. All we have to do is reveal it. The art is in knowing what to leave out—not too much, not too little. And never, ever, to add anything that does not belong.

This book is pitch perfect for its young audience. Did you always envision this as a picture book? At what point in the writing process do you consider your reader?

I knew because of its tight focus and its visual appeal that it had to be a picture book. So I had to reimagine all the information I had into something that would appeal to young readers. Once I’ve done my research and my head is all full of adult-speak, I usually step back and just start jotting down ideas, more to regain my own voice than to start the writing process. I think of this step as kind of cleansing the palate.

Can you tell us a little about this book’s journey from idea to published book?

Well, it went to a number of publishers before it found enthusiastic support at Charlesbridge. Everyone there has been completely on board with the idea of a fully illustrated David for young readers.

John Shelley’s illustrations are the ideal accompaniment for your text. What was it like seeing them for the first time?

John is the perfect illustrator for a nonfiction book. His attention to detail and his obvious enthusiasm for the project make the book shine. And his inclusion of some of Michelangelo’s sketches gives the book an added dimension, and something for adult readers to connect to. I think that’s immensely important in a picture book, and often overlooked.

What’s coming out next? What are you working on now?

My middle grade nonfiction book about the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, The White House is Burning: August 24, 1814, will be released next week from Charlesbridge. You can see the book trailer here: http://youtu.be/mn4TR_QoTm0

I also have a picture book about William Shakespeare and the Globe, Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, due out from Charlesbridge in 2016. It will be illustrated by—ta-da—John Shelley! And I couldn’t be happier!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Hmmm. Since you asked, how about a plug, not for me, but for our local libraries. (Full disclosure here: I’m on my town library’s board.) Every one of my books starts with a trip to the library. Libraries are as important now as they ever have been. Support your local library, with your time, your visits, and your votes. (Leaving soapbox now.)

I couldn't agree more. Libraries are the living, thinking, beating hearts of our communities! Jane, thank you so much for being my guest today. Now I can't wait to read The White House Is Burning. 

To find out more about Jane and her work, drop by her website at www.janesutcliffe.com or follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/jane_sutcliffe
  
I just wanted to add that I'm a guest today on the printasia.com blog. I wrote about the passion of children's nonfiction here: http://www.printsasia.com/blog/2014/07/29/the-gulf-oil-spill-capturing-the-passion/





Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Author Lea Wait on UNCERTAIN GLORY

I’d like to welcome Lea Wait my blog, today.

She and I are raffling off a signed copy of her book, Uncertain Glory. All you have to do to be entered in the drawing is leave a comment on this blog post. Good luck!

Lea Wait writes acclaimed historical novels for children set in 19th century Maine. Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well, and Finest Kind are on recommended reading lists throughout the country and have been named to student choice award lists in 13 states. Lea also writes the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series for adults, the most recent of which is Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding.

Today, she’s here to speak about her latest historical novel for young people, Uncertain Glory.
Thirteen year old Joe Wood has always dreamed of being a newspaper man. When a distant cousin dies and leaves him a printing press, Joe borrows money to start his own newspaper. But now his loan is almost due, and he doesn’t have enough to pay it back. Will special editions about the growing hostilities between the North and South keep Joe’s newspaper afloat? What about Nell, the young spiritualist who’s come to town advertising that she can communicate with the dead? Joe’s friend and partner, Charlie, is looking for a way to debunk her. But Joe isn’t so sure she’s a fake. And when his assistant, the young African American boy Owen, goes missing, Joe turns to Nell for help.

Joe Wood, a thirteen year old boy who owns and runs his own newspaper, Charley, his flighty friend, Owen, an African American boy who works for Joe, and Nell, a young spiritualist, are all thrown together at the start of the Civil War—how did you come up with such a  fascinating and diverse cast of characters?

            I like to mix real and fictional characters in my historical novels. Joe Wood really did publish his town’s newspaper during the mid-19th century. His mother ran a local dry goods store. His friend Charlie, also a “real person,” helped him with the paper, but was a bit flakier and unfettered … so I described him that way. (I include historical notes explaining what Joe’s and Charlie’s future lives were like.) Nell, a 12-year-old spiritualist, is based on a number of child spiritualists of the period, including the Fox sisters. There were free black families in Maine in 1861, and, although Owen is fictional, because of his race, he’s able to give a different perspective on the beginning of the Civil War.

How much of the real Joe Wood is in Joe the character? What did you invent about him? Can you tell us a little about your process of turning an historical figure into a book character?

            Yes – Joe is real! I’ve read his diaries and think I have some idea of what kind of a young man he was. I knew I wanted to center a book on him and his newspaper … and originally set the book in the winter of 1859, which was the year he began publishing. Charlie and Nell were also in that first version. But I realized I needed more depth to their story … so I changed history a bit and set UNCERTAIN GLORY in April of 1861, during the first two weeks of the Civil War.

Joe is torn between the demands of his newspaper and helping his mom with the family store. His father hasn’t been much use since Joe’s brother died. How does this theme of family responsibility and grief fit in with the rest of your novel? Are any parts of the novel drawn from your personal life?

            Joe’s mother really did run a dry goods store. In the late 1850s – early 1860s she supported the family. Historically, Joe’s father was a minister in a small church which closed, leaving him without a profession. In UNCERTAIN GLORY I have him depressed and not contributing to the family, but in the book I blame his depression on his feeling responsible for  the death of Joe’s (fictional) older brother. I thought that would be easier for young readers to understand … and his reaction to Nell also explains why many people were attracted to the messages she brings.

            Luckily, I haven’t had to cope with the problems Joe and his family had.     

How do find ideas for your historical novels for kids? Do you scour historical records looking for interesting individuals? Or do you begin with an era or theme?

            All my historicals for children (so far) are set in 19th century Wiscasset. I wanted to take one town
and show, through a series of stand-alone books, how the geography of a town may stay the same, but the
way people live there changes over the years. Usually I start with one idea and then build on it. STOPPING TO HOME? (1806 – Wiscasset was the largest port east of Boston, and there was a smallpox epidemic.) SEAWARD BORN  (A devastating hurricane in 1804 Charleston, SC, nearby plantations changing from rice cultivation to cotton, and 20% of American mariners were African American). WINTERING WELL (1819-1820. Maine becomes a state … and what role was there in the 19th century for a disabled boy/man?)  FINEST KIND  (the Wiscasset Jail burned, and 2 school boys got the jailer’s family and the prisoners out and saved them)  Those were the beginnings …

I do a lot of work in small town Maine archives! 

So far, all your historical novels for kids are at least partially set in Wiscasset. How can you come up with so many stories from one small town? Do you ever think you’ll run out of material? If you had to set a novel somewhere else, where might it be?

            All small towns are full of stories. I have one Wiscasset book that hasn’t sold yet, and I could continue in Wiscasset for a while, but I’d also like to write a book or three set in the 20th century … it all depends on my time (never enough of that!) and, honestly, which books are selling.  I wrote a book for young people set in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1838 that I still think is one of my best … but it hasn’t sold. So the market is important. 

I love the fact that you have recipes from your books on your website. (I made Cassie's Anadama Bread for dinner last night.) You don’t have one up from Uncertain Glory yet. If you did, what might it be?

            Good question! Probably a stew … Joe’s mother seems to cook those quite often!

Few writers are able to successfully write for both children and adults, yet you also write adult mysteries. Which audience did you write for first? What compelled you to jump to a new readership? How does the process of writing for adults differ from writing for young people?

            I’ll admit … I love writing for children best. But the first full manuscript I wrote was a mystery for adults.  It didn’t sell, and I was happy to turn to writing books for children. Then the mystery DID sell .. and I found myself having deadlines in two genres. Not a bad situation, actually … it lets me write about different subjects, in different ways. My books for children are my “serious writing:” I’m very fussy about accuracy and pacing. Our children deserve the best.  

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
            Let’s see! The 7th in my Shadows Antique Print mystery series (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS) will be published in early September. The first in a new contemporary Maine series based on a business of custom needlepoint and restoration (the Mainely Needlepoint) series will begin in January, 2015, with TWISTED THREADS. Right now I’m writing the second in that series, THREADS Of EVIDENCE. And for children? I’ve written another Wiscasset book, set in 1777, and I’m working on a book set in New Jersey in 1970 with the background of the Vietnam War and women’s liberation. 
  
For any teachers out there, Lea has a Teacher’s Guide for Uncertain Glory available on her website. For more information on Lea Wait and her books, see www.leawait.com






Friday, April 25, 2014

Environmental Hero: Diane Wilson

Diane Wilson was a Texas shrimper—a fourth generation Texas shrimper. She had started working on her family’s boat at age eight. By the time she was twenty-four, she was a captain.

Then she read a newspaper report saying that her county was the most polluted in the United States. She confronted four chemical plants to stop them from dumping toxins into the bay.

You can find out more about Diane Wilson in Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays, written and illustrated by Molly Bang.


You can also visit this PBS website

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Earth Day's Legacy

Earth Day made the environment a voting issue.

Despite heavy lobbying by industry, months after the first Earth Day, a strong new version of the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a voice vote.

President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. More environmental legislation was passed in the decade that followed
than at any other time in U.S. history.

Now Earth Day is celebrated around the world, reminding us that we need to care for the earth that sustains us. Our future depends upon it.

In the words of Gaylord Nelson, "Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. Are we willing? that is the unanswered question."

Find out how you can do your part at the Earth Day Network. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The First Earth Day

They filled Central Park and spilled into the streets of New York City. Old people and babies, blacks and
whites, people in suits and hippies. They raised banners, acted out skits, and swept the streets clean.

In Miami, Florida, they held a "Dead Orange Parade" where the winning float sported a statue of the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask.

In Omaha, Nebraska, they collected 156,000 cans and built a tin mountain.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico they played mariachi music and marched to protest the stench of a sewage treatment plant.

Over 20,000,000 people took part in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a tenth of the population of the United States. It was the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

“Earth Day 1970,” CBS News with Walter Cronkite,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day's 44th Anniversary

Denis Hayes was a college student when Senator Gaylord Nelson invited him to organize the first Earth Day.
 
There was no email, twitter, or cell phones. So Hayes used newspaper ads, mailings, and fliers. He reached out to professors and students, hunters and housewives, cub scouts and kindergarteners. 

He began with this ad in the New York Times:
A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.

Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living. April 22 seeks a future.

The result was the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Check out these images from National Geographic.

Happy Earth Day!