24 HOURS IN A SALT MARSH covers the ecology of salt marshes worldwide, but focuses especially on a tiny scrap of salt marsh at Neahalem Bay State Park. From the Amazon blurb:
“A salt marsh is teeming with life, although a lot of it is hard to see. Spend a day in this ecological wonderland and witness the effects of the changing tides, the parade of creatures, and the rapidly altering shape of these and biologically crucial areas.”
The first sentence of Neighborhood Sharks, “every September, the great white sharks return to San Francisco,” successfully sets up the rest of the book, prompting the reader to wonder where the sharks are returning from and why they are traveling to that particular spot.
As the first lines unfold, Roy slowly builds tension. She uses our natural unease about great whites to wind us up, but she also uses language. Not only does she build a word picture of sharks stalking their prey, she uses the sound of language to great effect. The sharks “circle” and “stalk,” they are “silent” and they “STRIKE!” The repeated “s” sound help the sharks seem scary and sinister.
Now Roy doesn’t just leave us here. The book goes on to take the reader on a journey from fear to fascination to sympathy. But her first lines are a master class on how to create a great beginning.
I suggest you buy or check out a copy of Neighborhood Sharks and really look at the first few pages. Compare it to your own work and see what you can learn.
Here are some things to consider as you evaluate both mentor texts and your own work:
- Does the entire rest of the story spring from the first line?
When editing, I often see first lines that don’t really have much to do with the rest of the book. Think about the end of the book. Now imagine winding the entire story back up like a ball of yarn. If you get back to the beginning and those first lines don’t logically tie into everything else on your ball of yarn, especially the end, then you need to think about reworking them.
- What is the emotional journey the book will take the reader on? Are you establishing the beginning emotion early on?
- How is the language you choose adding to the intended emotional starting point?
‘Tis the season for summer reading lists. I created a list to share with a group of fellow nonfiction writers here in the Pacific Northwest that I thought might be fun to share. The goal is to read 1 adult nonfiction title, 3 MG/YA titles, and 10 picture books before school begins again. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to hear about other nonfiction titles you love.
P.S. If you are a nonfiction writer, particularly if you are a new nonfiction writer, I have a list of questions to accompany these books to help you think more deeply about choices each author made as they wrote. My hope is that it will be helpful as you think about your own work. If you’d like a copy, contact me and I’d be happy to send it to you.
Read a list 1 adult nonfiction book, either from the list below or choose your own.
- The Songs of Trees, by David George Haskell
- Grunt; Gulp; Packing for Mars; Stiff; or Bonk, all by Mary Roach
- The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery
- Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
- I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong
- Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, and Dylan Thuras
Read a least 3 books from the MG/YA list or choose your own:
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
- Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin
- March (3 books), by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
- Why’d They Wear That? by Sarah Albee
- Josephine, by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson
- Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
- A Black Hole is Not a Hole, by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano
- Samurai Rising, by Pamela S. Turner
- Drowned City, by Don Brown
- The Slowest Book Ever, by April Pulley Sayre
- Bubonic Panic, by Gail Jarrow
- The Story of Seeds, by Nancy F. Castaldo
- The Octopus Scientists, by Sy Montgomery
- Courage & Defiance, by Deborah Hopkinson
Read at least 10 books from the Picture Book list or choose your own:
- Coyote Moon, by Maria Gianferrari
- Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy
- Giant Squid, by Candace Fleming
- The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant
- Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings, by Matthew Burgess
- Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, by Suzanne Slade
- Gravity, by Jason Chin
- Feathers, Not Just for Flying, by Melissa Stewart
- Whoosh! by Chris Barton
- Glow, by W.H. Beck
- Mesmerized, by Mara Rockliff
- High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs, by Lisa Kahn Schnell
- Pink is for Blobfish, by Jess Keating
- Emmanuel’s Dream, by Laurie Ann Thompson
- Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, by Don Tate
- Raindrops Roll, by April Pulley Sayre
- Can an Aardvark Bark, by Melissa Stewart
- When Lunch Fights Back, by Rebecca L. Johnson
- Round, by Joyce Sidman
- A Village is a Busy Place, by V. Geetha
- Swimming with Sharks, by Heather Lang
- A Nest is Noisy, by Dianna Hutts Aston
I am excited to share that material I’ve been working on with Whale Times, Inc., The Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA Fisheries) for The Year of the Vaquita will be available to classroom teachers and other science educators soon. You can see a sneak peek of the material on the Whale Times website.
The Year of the Vaquita is an effort to raise awareness of and take action to help the vaquita, the world’s most endangered whale (Vaquita Fact Sheet). As of this writing there are estimated to by about 30 of these tiny porpoises remaining in the world, down from an estimated 60 individuals last summer. Vaquitas occupy a range about the size of the state of Rhode Island in the northern end of the Gulf of California. The primary threat to the population is entrapment in nets set for other species. Even though strict controls have been enacted for portions of the vaquitas’ home range, illegal fishing, particularly nets set for a fish called the totoaba (Totoaba Fact Sheet), whose swim bladders are highly prized in China, continue to kill vaquita.
Efforts are underway at government and agency levels to save these animals. How can you help? First, you can help raise awareness by spreading the word. Second, and most importantly, you can make sure the seafood you buy is sustainable. This is the single most important thing consumers can do to help not just the vaquita, but ocean ecosystems all over the globe.
What is Sustainable Seafood?
Sustainable seafood is seafood harvested in a way that meets these three criteria:
- Enough individuals are left after harvesting to ensure populations remain healthy and able to reproduce for future harvests.
- Harvesting methods do not damage the habitat of the target species as well as other species in the associated food webs.
- Harvesting methods avoid by-catch. “By-catch” is the capture of non-target species, including turtles, sharks, seabirds, and whales.
Opportunities for Teachers and Science Educators
Whale Times is preparing free curriculum materials for elementary classrooms. As mentioned above, a sample of some of those materials is available. In addition, there are opportunities to participate in the Celebration of Conservation this spring. This celebration includes free classroom materials, and Skype and email contact with scientists. Here is the description from the Whale Times website:
Kids, teachers, and schools become Science Team members for three important research projects. Join WhaleTimes for another exciting Virtual Research Mission with gray whale expert Dr. Dave Weller, vaquita expert Dr. Barbara Taylor, and Dr. Daniel Costa, the Costa Lab Team, and Dr. Patrick W. Robinson UC Año Nuevo Island Reserve Director will share on-going research with the magnificent elephant seal.
Free high school materials are available through the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s Oceanscape network.
I hope you and your students will join us on this important exploration.
Appealing illustrations and active, engaging language make Sheri Mabry Bestor’s Good Trick, Walking Stick a fabulous read-aloud text. This picture book follows the life cycle of a walking stick, an unusual insect that disguises itself as a stick to avoid predation. Camouflage is not the only “trick” in the walking stick’s repertoire. Kids will enjoy the repetition of “good trick, walking stick,” every time an interesting adaptation is discussed.
Sidebars are packed with extra facts that kids and adults will enjoy. The book is a perfect addition for K-5 units on life cycles, adaptation, and food webs. I’m also a big advocate for using picture books with older students as well, as I think they can benefit from the straightforward, unintimidating way picture books present sophisticated concepts.
More about Walking Sticks
- “Walking Sticks”–National Wildlife Federation
- “Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides for 80 Years–NPR
- “Stick Insect Helps Scientists Study How Animals Move”—New York Times