STEM Tuesday– Awesome Animal Antics– Interview with Author Patricia Newman

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Patricia Newman, author of Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation. This fascinating book is a 2019 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students: K-12 (National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council) and won a Eureka! Gold Award from the California Reading Association.

Mary Kay Carson: Why did you write Eavesdropping on Elephants?

Patricia Newman: Back in the 1980s I visited Kenya and saw elephants in the wild for the first time. I watched the way they moved, observed their family groups, and experienced how fiercely the matriarch protects her herd when she charged our safari van. One day we took a hike outside the national park and came across a massive elephant skull. Any child who has seen The Lion King understands the circle of life, but it wasn’t at all clear to us how this elephant had died. Natural causes or poaching? The tusks were gone. Did a park official or a poacher take them? The idea that a poacher carried away the tusks under cover of darkness gave me shivers.

I must have passed my interest in elephants on to my daughter Elise, because she worked for Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project as an undergrad. She had daily contact with Katy Payne, Peter Wrege, and Liz Rowland. She explained their research to me and described how she sat in front of the computer cataloguing forest sounds. And she told stories of snatching the headphones off her ears when an elephant trumpeted a very loud alarm call. I knew then I wanted to write about them. Elise handled the introductions, and the rest…well, you know.

School Library Journal says about Eavesdropping on Elephants, “…this book does an excellent job of transporting readers and providing a clear, multifaceted picture of African forest elephants…The more you listen to wildlife, the more your mind opens up to new ideas about why the world is a place worth saving.”

MKC: How did you research this book? Did it involve travel? 

Patricia: I did not spend time with forest elephants. The scientists were not at their research station in the Central African Republic when I wrote this book, but I did sit in the Elephant Listening Project’s lab and listen to forest sounds. I had headphones on my ears and for hours I watched video and listened to sound files.

You might think listening to sounds is a poor substitute for actually being in the field, but it wasn’t. The sounds were transformative and immersive! I felt elephant rumbles and roars deep in my chest. I heard water sloshing as elephants walked through it. I literally swatted away a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I could imagine the forest mud sucking at my feet. And I learned how to identify the sounds of frogs, buffalo, parrots, gorillas, and chimps.

By allowing my ears to take over, I learned to appreciate the forest in a whole new way. And I wanted my readers to have the same experience. Eavesdropping on Elephants tells the story of field scientists helping an endangered species, but it’s so much more. Through the power of video and audio QR codes, the book allows readers to walk in the scientists’ shoes inside the forest. I always ask kids to tell me what they see in the videos or hear in the audio. Their responses would make Katy and Peter proud.

Patricia Newman’s books show kids how their actions can ripple around the world. Newman hopes to empower kids to think about the adults they’d like to become. Find out more about the author and her award-winning books at

MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while writing the book?

Patricia: Throughout, I imagined my daughter at age ten. What would she want to know? Elephant facts, for sure. But she was also interested in the “how” and “why” of the world. This book was a challenge because the narrative unfolded over the course of many years. How would I squeeze in Katy Payne’s early work with infrasound, sprinkle in some Elephant Listening Project history, and still keep the ten-year-old Elise engaged? I decided to use the passage of time to my advantage.

Science is not performed in a vacuum, nor is a long-term investigation quick. I thought the story of how Katy’s work on infrasound at the Oregon zoo morphed into ELP was a great example of real science in action. Questions and observations often lead scientists down unexpected paths and to unexpected conclusions.

Also, scientists sometimes age out of their work. When Katy retired from ELP, Peter carried on her vision but added his own flair. I thought the staff change was a great example of the inclusiveness of science—how different individuals can contribute to and build on the same project.

MKC: For readers who loved Eavesdropping on Elephants, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?

Patricia: A tough question because I don’t know of any other books about forest elephants for children (or for adults for that matter). They are just coming into their own as a species and few people know about them. Young readers interested in elephant research might consider The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell and Donna M. Jackson, which features Caitlin’s work with savanna elephants. Also, consider Bravelands #3: Blood and Bone by Erin Hunter, the author of the Warriors series. The third installment of Bravelands is told by the African elephant—but it’s a savanna elephant, not a forest elephant.

Win a FREE copy of Eavesdropping on Elephants!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host this week is fellow elephant fan Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

STEM Tuesday– Awesome Animal Antics– Writing Tips and Resources

Let’s Get Organized!

When you are staring at a blank piece of paper, pulling your hair out because writing is so hard, I challenge you to do a double take. Is “writing” actually the hard part? For me, the hard part is:

  1. knowing what to write


  1. knowing what not to write.

And if you’ve done your research and are boggle-eyed by a mountain of marvelous material, it can feel like you are facing Mount Everest. So what do you do?

You turn to your handy-dandy toolbox – the one labeled “Organization.”

When you are writing about STEM topics, you’ve got lots of organizational tools to choose from. It’s kind of like clothes in a closet; there are tons of ways to get organized.

Cubbies & Compartments

Some folks like those super-segmented organizers you can buy at the home improvement store. Those make sense because someone has already figured out what works for the standard items stored in a closet. There are shoe-sized cubbies, shelves for t-shirts, racks for slacks. And when you want to use the closet, you know where to turn for each type of item. Lots of expository nonfiction is organized like that. Pick up a field guide to birds and it’s super easy to find the range of a black vulture because you know where to look. With discrete chunks of information, those books make fun-fact lovers smile.

As for the writer, once you know what the sections are (and how much space you have in each one), pulling the right information from that mound of research becomes a whole lot easier! Organization is your friend. Of course there are still challenges. How do you handle pieces that don’t come in the “standard” size? What do you do when there’s a gap in the known information? Won’t that standardization be boring? A skilled writer knows how to handle that.

On Your Own

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgTake a look at any STEM book which uses this organizational tool. Animal Zombies: And Other Bloodsucking Beasts, Creepy Creatures, and Real-Life Monsters by Chana Stiefel is a great example. Compare the content provided on three different animals.  Make a list of the standard chunks of text. What are their labels? How long is each chunk? How do they vary in content?

Totally Traditional

For their clothes closet, other folks are choose a traditional clothes rack and hangers. A section for pants, one for shirts, shoes on the floor. Each section can be as large or small as needed, and there’s room within each section for items of varying sizes (i.e. a mini-skirt hangs just fine beside an evening gown). Need segments within the sections? No problem. Stick skinny jeans on one end of the rack and fancy pants on the other.

There’s a reason animal books have been relying on good old-fashioned, traditional chapters for years. They work. Readers know what to expect. Pick up a book about animals and most likely you’ll find chapters with headings and subheadings, grouped by animal type. This organization lets a reader get all the info about similar animals at one time, helping them mentally compare and contrast.

This strategy gives the writer lots of freedom. Material unearthed during research can be lumped together by similarities. Have a subject that needs additional explanation? There’s room for that. Want to be a get creative? You’re in charge of labeling the chapters!

On Your Own

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFind a title with traditional organization. I got up close and personal with Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers by Kelly Milner Halls. Looking at the table of contents, I saw that chapters 2 through 5 were organized by type of animal. One of the fun things about studying this book – besides all the ick appeal! – was that the author spiced up this traditional take on organization by using fun chapter titles. Boring old “Mammals” became “Furry Death Eaters.” Study the title you’ve chosen and ferret out the author’s unique twists on this traditional method.

Organized by Outfit

Snoop around in the closets of friends and you will find a few with unique organization. Some folks organize their closet by outfit. If you find that perfect combination – that sweater, scarf, and suede that set off your eyes just right – you might want to keep it together.

When a book works this way, the information in a chapter is integrated tightly to build to one point, cover one story, or address one discrete aspect of the topic. Each chapter is distinct, often focusing on an exclusive topic or category. Readers gain a more in-depth understanding of a single topic.

For the writer who is staring up at lots of single stories, anecdotes, or parts of a whole, this organizational took can be their ticket to free flowing words! Knowing that you can write just one piece at a time, crafting each chapter individually, can help you focus and get those words on the page.

On Your Own

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgPick up a book labeled “Field Guide” and you expect information in cubbies and compartments. But dive into Beavers (The Superpower Field Guide) by Rachel Poliquin and you’ll feel the power of this alternative organizational technique. Through a laser-tight focus on one body part – chainsaw teeth, paws of power, superstink – per chapter (plus a healthy dose of humor), Poliquin proves that adaptations are superpowers.  Find another book that uses this organizational tool. Why was this strategy chosen? Was it based on the type of information available? The content itself? Or, perhaps, the author’s purpose?

Looking at how other writers use their organizational toolbox gives us a peek into their writing process. Understanding these structures better can help us see our options. Every piece adds to our own writing toolbox, so that next time when we sit down to write, our words will spill (in an organized manner) onto the page.

Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids who are wild about animals. The wilder, the wackier, the better. She’s tried on each of these organizing tools: Her Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals used chunked text that functions like cubbies and compartments; her Little Monsters of the Ocean used totally traditional chapters; her Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill is organized by outfit. Learn more at 



Random Fun Sites For STEM Writing Inspiration

Today I Learned: Today I learned that the bearded vulture’s diet is almost entirely made of bone!

The Fibonacci Sequence in Nature: Photos and patterns to blow your mind!

Science News for Students: Current research written with kid appeal, such as a robotic jellyfish that spies on the sea.

STEM Tuesday– Awesome Animal Antics– In the Classroom

Help! Help! We need your help! We want to know what would help you most in our second-Tuesday-of-the-month posts.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a regular structure to our STEM Tuesday posts.

  • The first Tuesday of the month is the book list.
  • The second (this one!) is classroom information.
  • Week three covers writing craft, for writers and teachers of writing.
  • Week four is an author interview and book giveaway.

A different team of writers works on each week. Our second-Tuesday team is trying to figure out what type of classroom support would be most helpful to you, our readers. Would you please take just a moment to answer 4 quick questions  for us? Your survey responses will help us write super-useful classroom guides for you!

****Take Survey Here. Thank You!****

And now, I interrupt this blog post to give you…

The Interruption Construction!*

Sometimes, readers don’t enjoy STEM writing because they find it difficult. STEM writing can be dense, with lots of ideas packed into a single sentence. Fortunately, some of those sentences follow patterns that can help readers sort out the information. One very common structure in science writing is called the interruption construction. This month’s books contain some great examples of the construction using high-interest topics (and high-interest topics are always the best way to teach useful reading skills!)

Consider this sentence, from page 41 of Animal Zombies, which describes the Frilled Shark:

Its 300 teeth, with multiple spikes arranged in 25 rows, are pointed like arrows toward the creature’s throat.

Show that sentence to students, and then block out the “interruption” found between the commas:

Its 300 teeth, with multiple spikes arranged in 25 rows, are pointed like arrows toward the creature’s throat. 

Point out that the information surrounding the commas make a complete thought. The “interruption” consists of extras that the author is throwing in as a freebie, like when you buy a big lotion pump and get an extra little bottle for free. If a sentence with an interruption construction is  overwhelming them with new information, they can read around the comma and then look back to find out what extras the author wanted to add.

Death Eaters has a wealth of these sentences. At the bottom of page 18, there’s an intriguing passage that describes hyenas and wolves. It would be a great text for a class talking about scavengers, and you could throw in a quick introduction to the interruption construction. The first paragraph reads:

Wolves, found in Africa, northern Asia, Europe, and North America, prefer colder climates. Hyenas, which are native to Africa and southern Asia, thrive in warmer areas. These two death eaters are very similar.

Two interruptions in a row! And if students keep reading that short section, they’ll come across two more. You can discuss the first one as an example, have students talk about the next one, and then have them watch for the others as they read.

Finally, Little Monsters of the Sea illustrates a second form of the interruption construction–one that uses dashes instead of commas. Often–but not always–dashes are used to show that the interruption is restating or clarifying the information that came just before. Consider these sentences:

If you require a very specific habitat—if you can’t call just anywhere home—it’s nice to have young’uns who can get up and go find a fresh spot. (page 26)

Animals inherit their DNA—and therefore their characteristics—from their parents. (page 44)

Once again, if a sentence with extras offset by a dash gets too long or too dense, readers can skip the middle part, and go back to it after they have digested the main part of the sentence.

The interruption constructions in these books are fairly short. But in academic text, that “extra” information can get quite long. If students get used to observing the structure in easier, interesting text, they will have the confidence to tackle it when it shows up in more difficult text.

*I believe the phrase “interruption construction” was coined by Zhihui Fang in: The Language Demands of Science Reading in Middle School, International Journal of Science Education, 28:5, 491-520, 2006. (DOI: 10.1080/09500690500339092). If you ever come across Zhihui, please let him know I appreciate his contribution. It’s a great descriptor and helps students grasp the idea quickly!


For more great ways to use these books in the classroom, see the links below for online educator guides and supplementary material.

Eavesdropping on Elephants

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Teachers guide with supplementary videos and activities
The SuperPower Field Guide: Beavers

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A free unit on beavers for grades K-3 that incorporates the book
Backyard Bears

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Teachers guide with prereading, discussion, and extension activities
Penguins vs. Puffins

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Videos and more to go with the book
Smart About SharksSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit Video describing the creation of the book cover
Animal Zombies

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Teachers guide with some unique activities that only require students to read parts of the book
Little Monsters of the OceanSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit A description of the origin of the book and some quick teaching ideas

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former science teacher and the author of the Once Upon A Science Book series (NSTA Press) on integrating science and reading instruction.  She also writes for children, with her most recent book being Dog Science Unleashed: Fun Activities to do with Your Canine Companion. Visit for more information on her books and staff development offerings.