Category Archives: Melissa Stewart

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Reaching Out to Angola

From: Celebrate Science
October 17, 2012 at 05:00AM

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. State Department, I recently had the opportunity to speak via videoconference with students in Angola. Wow!

Boy, were they interested in science. They asked me question after question about how diamonds form and how to find fossils. They really challenged me when I mentioned that some creatures can live in completely dark ecosystems. And they were simultaneously fascinated, delighted, and horrified to hear that they have tiny mites living in their eyelashes.
In other words, they were no different than the kids I talk with here in the U.S.

No matter where children live, no matter how they lead their lives, they are all curious about the world around them. And they are all eager to live.

I’m not sure who was more disappointed when our hour and a half visit was over—them or me. It’s the kind of day that reminds me how lucky I am to have this job.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Animal Grossapedia

From: Celebrate Science
October 10, 2012 at 05:00AM

Last week a book I’m really excited about became available to the public.

Just imagine a 112-page compilation of all the ways animals use pee, poop, vomit, spit, blood, and slimy mucus to catch prey and escape from predators. You won’t believe how versatile these “gross” materials can be.

Dying for a few examples? I don’t blame you a bit.

Baby elephants dine on doo-doo to get bacteria they need digest tough plant materials. When a horned lizard feels threatened, it squirts blood out of its eyes. Yikes!

Komodo dragons use their saliva to poison their prey, but mice use spit to heal their wounds. Sea cucumber use vomit to startle their enemies, and bees use it to make honey. Yum!

Because the book is published by Scholastic, it will be immediately available in bookstores and through book clubs and book fairs. So if you have a curious kid in your life, here’s the perfect gift for the upcoming holiday season.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Then and Now

From: Celebrate Science
October 03, 2012 at 06:02AM

Last spring, I wrote a post about Sarah Brannen, the illustrator of my upcoming book FEATHERS (Charlesbridge, 2014) for the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) blog. But I didn’t say too much about the book itself.

Over the summer, I realized it might be interesting to compare it to my book BIRDS (Children’s Press, 2001). Nonfiction for kids has changed a lot during the last decade and these two books are perfect examples of what worked then versus what works now.

Here’s a passage from BIRDS that discusses feathers:

      A bird’s most special feature is its feathers. Feathers are made of the same material as your hair and fingernails. They grow out of little tubes in a bird’s skin. Feathers help a bird fly, stay warm and dry, hide from enemies, and attract mates.
     There are two kinds of feathers—down feathers and contour feathers. Down feathers are like thermal underwear under a coat of contour feathers. Short, fluffy down feathers trap warm air close to a bird’s skin. Contour feathers cover a bird’s body, wings, and tail. They give a bird its shape and color.

And here’s a bit of text from FEATHERS:

Feathers can warm like a blanket . . .

On cold, damp days a blue jay stays warm by fluffing up its feathers and trapping a layer of warm air next to its skin.

. . . or cushion like a pillow.
A female wood duck lines her nest with feathers she has plucked from her own body. These feathers cushion the duck’s eggs and keep them warm.

These two pieces of writing are worlds apart. The first one is a straightforward compilation of facts. And back in 1999 when this book was assigned, that’s what teachers, librarians, and kids wanted and expected.
But then the Internet entered our lives in full force. All the information in the book is available at our fingertips and free of charge. If authors and publishers wanted to keep on selling books, they had to create something new and different. And they did.

Today’s nonfiction for kids must offer something that the Internet doesn’t. FEATHERS focuses on all the amazing ways use their feathers. Feathers are for more than just flight.

But the topic isn’t the only innovative thing about this new book. It has two layers of text. The main text explains how birds use feathers through a series of comparisons. By comparing feathers to familiar objects, kids gain a more solid understanding of the unfamiliar. The secondary text provides more detailed information.

And that’s still not the end of the novelty of this book. As I mentioned in last spring’s blog post, Sarah’s art brings the book to a whole new level, creating an overarching narrative arc and fun meta elements.

Here are a couple of sketches to whet your appetite: 

I started working on FEATHERS in 2005, so I’m really looking forward to holding the final product in my hand. Right now 2014 seems soooooooo far away.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: The Nonfiction Family Tree

From: Celebrate Science
September 26, 2012 at 05:14AM

Here’s my version of the nonfiction family tree. Other authors might disagree. Heck, I might disagree in a year or two. But for now, this tree shows how I think of children’s nonfiction as a whole.

The tree has two main branches, narrative and just the facts, but it leaves room for other fundamentally different kinds that might develop. Some people seem to be using the term “informational” for what I call just the facts. I don’t like “informational” because all nonfiction is chock full of fascinating information.

My just the facts branch has three twigs with room for other possibilities. There may already be some good candidates for that fourth slot. Suggestions?

Everything in red is what I think of as creative nonfiction. Some people seem to think that the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” are interchangeable, but not me.

As far as I’m concerned, there is tons of creative experimentation and innovation happening within non-narrative nonfiction. I’ll be writing more about all these ideas over the next few months.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: The Creative Core

From: Celebrate Science
September 19, 2012 at 04:06AM

 Candace Fleming, author of Amelia Lost, and many other great books calls it the “vital idea.”

I’ve heard other nonfiction writers use terms like inciting incident, emotional trigger, creative spark, moment of inception, central mantra. I like to call it the creative core.

What is it?

It’s the heart of a great nonfiction manuscript.

It’s what a specific author brings to a topic, to a manuscript that no one else can.

It’s why a topic chooses an author, not the other way around.

It’s the result of an aha moment, and the source of passionate writing.

It’s what connects a topic, any topic, to a universal theme that everyone can relate to.

And according to nonfiction author Heather Montgomery, it’s what makes the best nonfiction books timeless.

Sound like magic. Well, it kind of is.

A nonfiction book’s creative core is deep inside an author. Maybe it traces back to a powerful childhood memory. It might be the result of a deep-seeded desire, hope, belief, or disappointment. Here are some examples.

Tanya Lee Stone wrote Sandy’s Circus because, as a child, Alexander Calder, was the only artist she immediately understood in a way that her father and sister seemed to understand all artists. Calder was her link to a secret knowledge that made her feel more closely connected to her family.

Deborah Heiligman’s“nonfiction novel” Charles & Emma is so compelling because everything about who she is as a person drove her to write a book “in service to the love story” between Darwin and his wife. It’s a book that only she could write.

Next year, I have a book coming out that traces back to the walks my father, brother, and I took through the woods near our home when I was young. The knowledge my brother and I learned on those meandering journeys and the closeness it made us feel to my father had a strong impact on both our lives. In many ways, I’ve been writing No Monkeys, No Chocolate since I was 8 years old.

How can a writer go about identifying the creative core of a work in progress? He or she must think deeply and ask questions that may have an uncomfortable answer: What reallyprompted the writer to choose his or her topic. Journaling can be an invaluable tool during this process. Writing about the moment of inception can help writers stay connected to it and the emotions it triggers.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, the best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. We write because we have something we need to say.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Couldn’t Resist This

From: Celebrate Science
September 12, 2012 at 08:00AM

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

From: Celebrate Science
September 05, 2012 at 05:36AM

When I was in elementary school, we had to write a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay at the beginning of each school year. And I hated it.

Summer was my secret time away from the hustle and bustle of school year activities. I spent hours wandering in the woods, making clothes for my Barbie dolls, and reading Encyclopedia Brown mysteries on the tiny porch attached to my bedroom.

Summer still a special time for me. I spend July refueling from a school year filled with author visits and conference speaking. I do lots of writing. And I read and read.

For the last few years, I’ve spent the first week of August at the annual SCBWI conference in Los Angles. Then I head for a tiny cottage on a tiny island in the middle of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. My husband’s family has owned it for nearly a century.

It’s an off-the-grid retreat where I marvel at a swampy forest full of frogs and purple mushrooms. Some days I chase butterflies through big, open fields just to see where they’re going. This year my brother-in-law, Peter Fairley, had a fantastic new camera and he snapped this wonderful photo of an American copper butterfly alighting on a purple aster. Lovely, isn’t it?

Each year I discover something new. This year as I headed to the outhouse early on a foggy morning, it suddenly started to rain as I passed under a small grove of silver birches in the midst of all the conifers. Just as I reached the far side of the grove, it stopped raining.

Or did it?

I was dry, but I could still hear the pitter patter of rain beneath the birches. The ground under my feet was dry. But the ground below the birches was soaked.

I was amazed. I was witnessing a very, very localized rainstorm—about 6 square feet. Something about the shape or size or texture of the birch leaves was causing water droplets in the air to condense and fall. But the surrounding conifer needles didn’t affect the foggy air one bit. Cool!

I was so excited that I woke my husband and my nephew and dragged them out to experience my discovery. But it was early, and they were unimpressed.

I guess some people need a cup of coffee or a hearty blueberry pancake breakfast to appreciate the marvels of nature. But not me. I’ll take them whenever and wherever I can find them.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Super Silly Science Jokes, That’s It!

From: Celebrate Science
June 20, 2012 at 01:15AM

Sometimes the best jokes are ones that are just plain silly or ridiculous. Get ready to laugh out loud—here are some great examples:

Q: Which side of a bird has the most feathers?
A: The outside.

Q: How did Mars become the red planet?
A: It stayed out in the sun too long.

Q: How do you fix a short circuit?
A: Lengthen it.

Q: Why don’t millipedes play baseball?
A: Because by the time the put on their sneakers, the game is over.

Now it’s your turn. See if you or the kids you know can come up with some seriously silly science jokes of your own. And feel free to post them in the comments. We could all use a good laugh.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: A Year in Pictures

From: Celebrate Science
June 13, 2012 at 05:57AM

As the School year winds to a close, I thought I’d post some of my favorite images from school visits. Since September, I’ve presented to students in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia, Georgia, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Phew!

Wherever I go, I learn as much from the students as they learn from me. They inspire me, and they aren’t afraid to tell me if they think I’ve made a mistake. So here are some great moments with all those terrific kids. 

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Even More Super Silly Science Jokes

From: Celebrate Science

Changing a few little letters sure can make a big difference! Sometimes you get two words that sound exactly the same, like see and sea. But you can also end up with words that sound almost the same, like lion and lying or cheetah and cheater. And these word pairs can be the inspiration for some jokes that are very a-moose-sing. Oops, I mean amusing.
Here’s an example:

Q: What kind of test did the teacher give the young wolves?
A: A pup quiz.

The great news about jokes is that you can often recycle them. For example, you could tell this same joke about young dogs, seals, coyotes, foxes, sharks, or walruses.

Here’s a joke that dates back to prehistoric times.

Q: What do you get when two dinosaurs crash?
A: A Tyrannosaurus wreck.

Maybe you’ve heard a lot of banana jokes in your time. Here’s a joke that involves a very different kind of plant. If you like nutty jokes, give this one a try:

Q: What did the nut say when it sneezed?
A: Cashew.

Now it’s your turn. Can you or the kids you know think of jokes that use these similar-sounding word pairs?
• calculator/cowculator
• asteroid belt/asteroid bell
• poached eggs/pooched eggs

Feel free to post your best jokes in the comments. We could all use a good laugh.

Be on the lookout for more joke-writing posts in the future. And check out the Super Silly Science Jokes I post on Friday.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: When the Best Writing Happens

From: Celebrate Science
May 30, 2012 at 05:52AM

For the last few days, I’ve been working on a video to accompany a book coming out next spring. Why am I filming a whole year in advance? Because I need to get footage of wild roses in bloom, and that only happens one a year—now.

In some ways, structuring a video is a lot like organizing a book. It requires the same set of skills. But filming is completely different. There are so many things to think about—weather, lighting, sound.

When I write, I control every word on the page. But with filming (especially outdoors), so much is out of my control. Sometimes that’s incredibly frustrating, but it can also lead to unexpected miracles.

As I tried to capture footage of wild roses on a windy day, I focused hard on how the plants swayed and how the quality of light cast upon them changed as they moved. And suddenly, I had an a-ha moment.

Changing light. Flickering light. That was it—the perfect way to enrich the beginning and transition to the second section of a manuscript that had me stumped. In fact, I’d abandoned it months ago, thinking it was a lost cause.  

But in that moment, my hope was rekindled. I knew exactly what the manuscript needed. I didn’t even finish filming. I packed up, hurried home, pulled out that old manuscript, and began revising.

Sometimes the best writing happens when you aren’t even trying.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Super Silly Science Jokes, Courtesy of Homographs

From: Celebrate Science
May 23, 2012 at 02:55AM

You probably learned about homographs in middle school, but here a refresher. A homograph is a word with two or more different meanings. One example is the word spot. It can mean “to see” or “a round mark or stain.”

You can create a question that seems to use one definition of the word and an answer that uses the other.

Q: Is it hard to spot a leopard?
A: No, they come that way.

Here’s another example:

Q: Why was the asteroid unhappy?
A: He knew he’d never be a star.

Here’s a homograph joke that only makes sense if you recall something you probably learned in fourth grade but might not have though about in, er, a bunch of years. Earth has four layers—the crust, the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core. Hope you like it.

Q: How is Earth like a piece of bread?
A: It has a crust.

Now it’s your turn. Can you or the kids you know think of jokes that use these homographs?

• rock (a natural object made of minerals/a kind of music/a back-and-forth movement)
• ear (the organ of hearing/corn on the cob)
• bill (what a bird uses to eat/something you pay)

Feel free to post your best jokes in the comments. We could all use a good laugh.

Be on the lookout for more joke-writing posts in the future. And check out the Super Silly Science Jokes I post on Friday.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: A Gift for Educators

From: Celebrate Science
May 16, 2012 at 06:12AM

In March, a Twitter conversation with @mtechman a.k.a. Melissa Techman, the K-5 School Librarian in Charlottesville, VA, led me to write this blog post about nonfiction text features.

And thanks in large part to @mtechman’s RTs of that post, hundreds of educators visited my blog. Thanks, Melissa T.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In April, I had 10 minutes to present to a room full of Massachusetts Reading Association members at their annual conference. What did I talk about? Nonfiction text features, of course. And nonfiction text structure, too.

I gave out nearly 200 flash drives with the PowerPoint slide shown above (It has just the right proportions for classroom Smart Boards) and a variety of activities that will help elementary students learn about nonfiction text features and nonfiction text structures (cause and effect, compare and contrast, fact and opinion). Boy were those educators excited.

Last week, I presented the same ideas as well as a few new ones to the Nobscot Reading Council at a lovely dinner in Holliston, MA. And I gave out more flash drives. Those educators were excited, too.

Wish you could get ahold of all those materials? Good news. You can. They’re now available on my website. I hope you’ll download them (It’s free and easy!) and use them with your students.


Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Super Silly Science Jokes, Courtesy of Homophones

From: Celebrate Science
May 09, 2012 at 02:59AM

Nope, this isn’t a repeat of March 16th’s blog. Just to confuse you (and middle schoolers in English-speaking countries around the world), some genius came up with the terms homograph (a word with two or more different meanings) and homophone.

Homophones are two or more words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. For example, the words tide and tied are homophones. So are the words hair and hare.

You can create a great joke by mixing homophones. Here’s an example:

Q: How does a rabbit keep its fur neat and clean?
A: It uses a hare brush.

Let’s try one more joke:

Q: How do mountains hear?
A: With mountaineers.

Here’s a joke that uses homophones and a popular expression:

Q: What did the beach say when the tide came in?
A: Long time, no sea.

These jokes are fun because with a little bit of practice, the kids around you might be able to guess the answers. And sometimes they’ll come up with different answers that are just as good. Then you’ll have some brand new jokes to tell someone else.

Now it’s your turn. Can you or the kids you know think of jokes that use these homophones?
• horse/hoarse
• paw/pa
• toad/towed

Feel free to post your best jokes in the comments. We could all use a good laugh.

Be on the lookout for more joke-writing posts in the future. And check out the Super Silly Science Jokes I post on Friday.

Melissa Stewart: Behind the Books: Turtle Heaven

From: Celebrate Science
May 02, 2012 at 06:00AM

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reviewing final art from uber-talented illustrator Higgins Bond and making final edits to the text for my 2013 book A Place for Turtles. So it seems fitting that my husband, brother-in-law, and I took a trek to the Oxbow Wildlife Refuge in Harvard, MA.

Not only is it truly a place for turtles. It’s turtle heaven. Really.

Look at this picture. Do you see also those shelled reptiles. There are literally hundreds sunning themselves on logs sticking out of this wetland. And don’t even get me started about the frogs. I’ve never seen more of the leggy leapers in one day.

Peter caught a the painted turtle above, so I could get a close up image. Then he helped it cross the trail.

Later, we spotted this giant snapper crossing the trail in front of us. After snapping a few action shots, we watched and documented it plunging into the water. Awesome!

What a great day!
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