Educational Books for Kids

Dabchicks and Other Small Grebes

Dabchicks and Other Small Grebes

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Many years ago I came across a word I didn’t know. I looked it up and the definition was “a dabchick or other small grebe.” Well, that cleared things up; I didn’t know what dabchicks or grebes were either! So I looked those words up ….  Since then, whenever an explanation or information leads to further questions, I think, “A dabchick or other small grebe!” So this is what this blog is about—those interesting questions that come up when you’re talking about or teaching something else.

I write books for children to help them navigate the world they live in now, and create the world they want to live in in the future. These posts are meant to give parents, teachers, and homeschool teachers some ideas and inspiration for helping their kids along that journey.

Reading for Pleasure and . . . Something Else

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When I was a senior in high school, I finally gave in to the pressure and read Moby Dick. My dad had been nagging me to do so for years. I didn’t like it all that much. In fact, I had to force myself through the drier parts. (I just wasn’t that into whaling.) But when I finished it, I had the most thrilling feeling. It really had been an awesome book—even if I couldn’t put my seventeen-year-old finger on exactly what constituted that awesomeness. I wanted very much to talk about this book—to talk about the parts I did like, the parts that confused me, and the parts that put me to sleep. It was late (the ending had definitely not put me to sleep!), but my dad was still up, reading in the living room. I stumbled in, with that special drunkenness only literature can provide, and told him I’d finally finished The Whale. We talked. And talked and talked and talked. It was one of the most wonderful evenings I ever spent with my father.

And I was very happy to have read Moby Dick, even though I wasn’t particularly happy while reading it.

That’s the thing about books. Sometimes you read for pleasure and nothing more. Sometimes you read for something else. And that something else is mysterious and ineffable. How do you get anyone to read a book when you have to admit that it is a difficult read, not a page turner, sometimes annoying, and often impenetrable? This is especially difficult when the people you are trying to persuade are children.

“Harry Potter, it’s not, but you really should give it a try.”

“Why? Is it funny?”

“Not really, not in a way that you’d notice.”

“Is it exciting?”

“Oh yes! . . . in places.”

“Is it boring?”

“Eh, yeah, in a few spots.”

“So why should I read it?”

So at this point, you could answer honestly, and say, “It will enrich your life in some way that I can’t explain and you won’t understand, and it may be many years before the value of it really sinks in.” But if you do that, you might as well give up.

There are ways to pull this off, though, particularly when the literature you have in mind is less daunting than Melville. It’s really not unlike getting kids to eat vegetables. Start with small bites. And eat along with them. Read aloud to them some of the best bits of the books you want them to learn to love. Keep it short and sweet and don’t expect immediate results. Let them see your joy, but don’t pressure them to feel the same way. Talk about the books you love—without expecting them to love them, too. If they are the kind of people for whom literature is a solace and stimulant, they will eventually come around.

Is this how my dad did it? Not really. Oh he talked about literature all the time and often quoted his favorite passages. But the reason I read the books he loved was because what I loved most about him was his love of and excitement about books. It was one of the ways we bonded. So maybe the best way forward is to just love literature, love your children, and trust that one day they will meet.


Image: The Voyage of the Pequod from the book Moby Dick, painting by Everett Henry (1893–1961)

Group Think: Animal Names Get Strange When They Come in Groups

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A herd of cows is about as ordinary as it gets, but when some animals get together in groups, they go by some pretty strange names—and often apt and funny names as well. A group of kangaroos, for example, is called a mob. Here are a few more:

A parliament of owls

A murder of crows

A shrewdness of apes

A clowder of cats

A bevy of otters

A skulk of foxes

A knot of frogs

A kindle of kittens

It’s fun to make up names for groups of human animals:

A school of teachers

An infection of doctors

A basket of ball players

A gathering of gardeners

A backpack of students

A loan of librarians

Can you think of any fun group names?


Image: A clowder of kittens. Photo by echoe69 CC-2.0

Handwriting—Do We Really Need It?

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This happens to me more often than I should probably admit. I’m at the grocery store, say. Looking at my list. Squinting at my list. T-H—is that an H? And after that, what? U? R, maybe? Trout! Do I need trout? Why? Oh, it’s not trout! It’s truth. Now why on earth would I have put ‘truth’ on my grocery list?

You see, I can rarely read my own handwriting. Fortunately, I rarely need to. These days I can even type my grocery list into my phone.

So the question is: In today’s increasingly digital world, do kids really need to learn to write by hand?

Even though we wonder if they’ll ever use the skill, there are some good arguments for teaching small children to print and older ones to write in cursive.

According to some research, learning to print letters helps develop the neural circuitry used in reading. Some studies have shown that kids who learn to print and/or write in cursive are better readers, better spellers, and enjoy more academic success overall. Writing by hand may help improve memory as well, even for adults (so maybe if I practice my handwriting a bit, I won’t even need my list). At least one study showed that college students who took notes by hand retained more than those who used a laptop.

I’m all for teaching handwriting, but I also tend to be wary of arguments that suggest new technologies are somehow bad for us. Socrates, in the Phaedrus, was very critical of a new technology that was beginning to catch on at the time—writing. He didn’t like writing because it weakened our powers of memory. If we wrote everything down, we would soon forget how to memorize things. Socrates was more or less right about that. But what we gained almost certainly made up for the loss. No, I can’t recite The Iliad, but because we now write things down, I can read pretty much any book I want any time I want. That’s a trade I’m willing to make. And who says I can’t still work to develop my memory skills? Just because I can read Homer doesn’t mean I can’t memorize him as well. (Though, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll start with a few sonnets, maybe a limerick or two just to get warmed up.)

So all I’m saying here is that not teaching kids to write may not be as devastating as some people might make you think. Who knows, there may be some as yet undiscovered advantages of learning to think with your fingers.

This is a recipe for sweet bread, written in suetterlin. It is NOT one of my grocery lists. Photograph by Fedora Umarov. CC 2.0

Thomas Jefferson: Paleontologist

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Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents. He was an architect, a meteorologist, a vegetable breeder, an engineer, an inventor, a violinist, the founder of the University of Virginia—the list goes on. He was an accomplished scholar and could read and write six languages (and could speak four).

And, oh yeah, he was a founding father of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States.*

But here I want to celebrate one of Jefferson’s talents that doesn’t get very much attention. Before it was even considered much of a field of study, Thomas Jefferson was a paleontologist. He collected and studied fossils, and was particularly interested in mammoths. An entire room at Monticello was turned into a natural-history museum that showcased his many fossils. He once stored bones in the East Room of the White House. In 1796 Jefferson wrote a scientific paper describing the bones of a large prehistoric creature discovered in the mountains near his home. The first giant sloth found in North America was named in his honor, Megalonyx jefersonii.

Because he was so open to new ideas and interested in just about everything, it makes sense that Jefferson would have been involved in the brand-new science of paleontology. If he had lived just a little later, a dinosaur might have been named after him.

* Jefferson was also a man of huge contradictions. He wrote “all men are created equal,” spent a large part of his legislative career trying to bring an end to slavery, which he called “a moral depravity,” yet he never freed his own slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale.


You can find out more about Thomas Jefferson and find photos and interactive online exhibits at the website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

Are you interested in learning some fascinating facts about dinosaurs and a few other prehistoric beasts? Would you like to read some cool stories about paleontologists (including the story of the bone wars, and how children make good fossil hunters)? Then check out my book Dino Records (written with Jen Agresta).

Ideas for discussion and activities:

1) If you wanted to name a new dinosaur after Thomas Jefferson, what would you name it?

2) Make a natural-history museum somewhere in your house. Collect rocks, bird feathers, or even animal bones. Include anything you can find outside around your home.

3) Do you know the names of any other paleontologists?

The Founding Fathers and Their Ciphers

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In the early days of the United States, no one had to worry about hacked emails or data dumps from Wikileaks. In some ways, though, keeping state secrets secret may have been even more difficult then than it is now. Before emails and cell phones, all spies had to do was get their hands on a document, pass it along to their leaders, and the plans for revolution could be foiled. If the plans of the Founding Fathers had been intercepted, the United States might never have existed. And the Founders might have been executed for treason.

So the Founding Fathers tended to write in code.

Thomas Jefferson began playing around with codes when he was in college. Later he designed a mechanical device, called a wheel cipher, for encoding messages.  George Washington was fond of using invisible ink in messages to spies who were working for him during the Revolution. The Founders continued to use codes even after the Revolution. In May of 1789, James Madison sent an encoded letter to Thomas Jefferson. It was a discussion of the Bill of Rights they were planning to add to the Constitution. Ben Franklin invented some codes that were used by the Continental Congress.

The Founders used several different kinds of codes and ciphers.* Substitution codes were common. Substitution codes replace the letters in a message with other letters. “Hello” might be written as “Pqrru,” replacing H with P, E with Q, the Ls with Rs, and the O with U.

Sometimes they used book codes. Book codes are fun and can be very difficult to break. Only the person sending and the person receiving the message know what book is the key to the code. Here’s an example of a book code I made using the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. **

61,4/123,53/265,19/90, 29

The first number in each set is a page number in the book. The second number tells you which word on that page you’re looking for. You count the words on that page until you get to the second number. This is the word you’re trying to decode. For example, in the first set of numbers, the page is 61, the fourth word on the page. The fourth word on page 61 is the first word of the message. ***

Codes and ciphers can be fun. But when used by people plotting a Revolution, they can be matters of life and death.

* There is a technical difference between a code and a cipher, but most people use the terms interchangeably.

** It’s important that the sender and the receiver have the same edition of the book. This code set is from the 1999 Scholastic hardback edition. (See, bibliographies really are important!)

*** Here’s the decoded message—in case you don’t have the right edition of the book: “How have you been?” Yeah, it’s a lame message, I know. But book ciphers are a pain to make. No wonder Jefferson invented a wheel cipher!

Ideas for activities and discussion:

What did the Founding Fathers risk if their letters were intercepted by the British?

What do you think would have happened if the colonies had lost the Revolutionary War?

Can you make up a code of your own? Can you think of a way to make a code that would be easy for your family to decode, but uncrackable by anyone outside your family?

Read more about Jefferson’s ciphers.

How a Scientist Saved an Old Lady from Being Burned for Witchcraft

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For Halloween, I thought I’d post something about a real witch trial. Johannes Kepler had to drop his scientific research to travel home to defend his mother, who had been accused of being a witch. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Scientists Are Strange Enough.

Johannes Kepler was an astronomer and mathematician. He is the dude who discovered that planets move not in circles, but in ellipses. He helped convince the world that Galileo was right—the sun really is the center of the solar system. But in 1620, he had to interrupt his scientific career to keep his mother from being burned for being a witch.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe went through occasional bouts of witch hunting. Between 1500 and the late 1600s, as many as 50,000 people—mostly older, often poor or widowed women—were executed because their neighbors thought they were witches. Kepler’s mom, Katharina Kepler, was a 68-year-old widow when her neighbors in the small town of Leonberg, Germany, had her arrested for being a witch. She was accused of using magic to make her neighbors ill, of killing her neighbors’ animals, and of turning herself into a cat. It sounds a little goofy, but it was anything but harmless. Mrs. Kepler was kept chained to the floor of her prison cell for fourteen months of the six years it took to resolve her case. Her captors threatened her with torture. They generally did this by showing the potential victim the torture instruments they planned to use, in the hopes that the fear of it would cause the accused to confess—which of course had she done, they would have burned her at the stake.

In the midst of all this, her son, Johannes Kepler, moved his family from Austria, where he was working at the time, to Germany to defend his mother against the charges. Johannes Kepler was a very good choice for defense attorney in a witch trial. He was exceptionally clever at spotting inconsistencies in the stories of his mother’s accusers. However, his main virtue as a defense attorney was that he could use his scientific expertise and a good dose of common sense to refute the charges. What had seemed like magical illnesses to the people of Leonberg, Kepler showed to have very un-magical medical causes. Mrs. Kepler was freed in 1621—six years after the first accusation—but sadly the experience had been hard on her. She died only six months later. But at least, thanks to the efforts of her son, she died quietly in her bed rather than at the stake.

Climate Change Is for the Beans

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As we saw in the post about Victory Gardens, sometimes individuals doing small, almost ordinary things can be a huge help in times of crisis. By simply planting a few beans and tomatoes in their backyards, people were able to help win a war thousands of miles away.

One of the largest crises facing the world today is climate change. And, according to new research, individuals can be a huge help with that problem, too. How? By simply swapping out beef for beans. According to research published in the journal Climatic Change [Add link], if everyone in the country ate beans in place of beef, the US could meet more than half of its emissions goals by 2020.

Most people wouldn’t want to completely give up beef, but just like growing Victory Gardens, a little bit here and there could help a lot. If everyone ate beans in place of meat every now and then, it could help reduce global warming.

Activities and topics for discussion:

Can you think of another problem that people solved by everyone pitching in a little bit here and there?

Are there very small ways you help out at school or in your home that would make a big difference?

Do you like beans? Make up a new recipe using beans as an ingredient.

If you’d like to learn more about the science behind climate change, ask your librarian for my book A Global Threat: The Emergence of Climate Change Science.


photo courtesy Kennth Leung via flickr

Hurricane Talk (and cyclones, typhoons, and Willy-Willies)

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Hurricane Harvey just devastated large parts of Texas (and as of this writing Irma has formed in the Atlantic, her path as yet uncertain). Harvey joins the list of mega storms that have devastated parts of the US in the last century: Sandy, Katrina, Hugo, Irene, Floyd, Ike, Agnes, Camille—hurricanes all. But what about cyclones and typhoons? What are they? And are they different from hurricanes?

These monster storms form in warm, tropical waters around the globe. And like so many things, what they are called depends on where they are. Storms that occur in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and northeast Pacific Oceans are called hurricanes. The same type of storm in the northwest Pacific is known as a typhoon. And if the monster is in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean, it’s called a cyclone. In parts of Australia, they’re called Willy-Willies, which seems to me too gentle a name for a hurricane, but whatever.

You can learn more about hurricanes and other storms (along with lots of stuff about weather generally) in the National Geographic Kids Book Everything Weather by Kathy Furgang, and online at the Hurricane Society.


For further discussion:

Why might people who live in different places but speak the same language have different words for the same thing?

Can you think of something you call by one name and someone you know calls by another?

Can you make up a name for a violent storm that seems like a perfect fit?


If you are interested in donating to victims of Hurricane Harvey, you can fine info about trusted volunteer organizations here


Women in Politics

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I am happy to announce that my book Women in Politics, a part of the Women in the World series published by Rosen Young Adult, is now available in libraries and online.

While women make up roughly half the world’s population, they account for only about 20 percent of the members of the world’s legislative bodies—and a much lower percentage of ministers and heads of states. Women raise children, teach children, run companies, organize in their communities, and do thousands of other important jobs. Yet when it comes to politics, they have precious little to say about running the world.

This books explores why women are so underrepresented in the world’s governments and offers encouragement and advice to girls who are interested in politics—no matter what their beliefs, party, or political leanings.

Politics is not for everyone, and there are many ways to be involved in your world and make a difference. Being active in your community by volunteering and being a good neighbor is invaluable. Being a good mom or an inspiring teacher is one of the best ways to change the world. But girls who want to take part in the political arena need to know that they can, that politics and government leadership are just as viable a career option for girls as for boys. If you or your daughters (or sons!) are interested in the role of women in politics, please ask your school, homeschool, or community librarian for this title.