Conservation

Middle Grade Author Michele Weber Hurwitz tackles an environmental mystery in her latest book, Hello from Renn Lake

I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.

Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)

In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.

When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?

I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.

I wasn’t that familiar with the potential toxicity of algal blooms in lakes. How did you first get interested in them? What sort of research did you do?

A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.

In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?

One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.

I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?

My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!

There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?

In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.

I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?

Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊

This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?

While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.

In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.

Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?

My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!

I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”

Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.

Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?

Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.

In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!

I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.

Did you learn something from this novel that was new in terms of writing?

I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?

I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

STEM Tuesday All About Conservation – Interview with Author Nancy Castaldo

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 author Nancy Castaldo who wrote this month’s featured conservation book, Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction.

Find out how seven different animal species from around the world were saved from extinction by hard-working scientists and environmental activists in this book. Nancy Castaldo has used her experience as an environmental educator to create award-winning books about our planet for over 20 years including her 2016 title, The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less To Eat Around The World, which earned the 2017 Green Earth Book Award, Junior Library Guild Selection, and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia. She loves sharing her excitement about nonfiction with readers and fellow writers. Visit her at nancycastaldo.com, on Twitter at @NCastaldoAuthor, or on Instagram at @naturespeak.

Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about?

Nancy Castaldo: When I was young I had nightmares of creatures going extinct. I was terrified of losing any endangered species. I still am, but I know that my younger self needed to see hope and learn about the helpers. I wanted to give those stories to my readers. I wanted them to see that we all can make a difference, that every endangered species doesn’t go extinct because of the helpers. And that no matter where you live or how old you are, we all have the ability to join in the bucket brigade. I hope that Back from the Brink does that for my readers.

MKC: Could you share some highlights of doing research for Back from the Brink

Nancy: Every place I visit for research and photography has been life changing for me. This book, like the others for Houghton Mifflin such as Sniffer Dogs and The Story of Seeds, has taken me to places I only dreamed of visiting. I am a herper at heart, meaning I love reptiles and amphibians. Spending time with the tortoises and marine iguanas in the Galapagos was heaven. Another favorite experience was spending time with the dedicated California condor researchers in the Sespe Wilderness area. Part scientist and part adventurer, these biologists work tirelessly to conserve the condor population, despite continued threats to the birds from lead poisoning and micro-trash litter. It was a joy to enter their world.

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Nancy: I do have a STEM background. I completed a biology/chemistry double major in college and was president of the science club. At the same time I was also the co-editor of my college’s literary magazine. I was highlighted when I graduated in the college’s view book with the title, Creative Combinations. I’m still combining, having then went on to get a master’s that focused on children’s literature. Science, writing, and photography are all my passions. I love writing STEM books. I was a curious kid and I love writing for curious readers. I strive to inspire, inform, and empower my young readers because I believe they are our hope for the future. Our world needs them now more than ever.

Purchase Back from the Brink!

MKC: Any recommendations for fans of Back from the Brink?

Nancy: I’m hoping that readers will become inspired and empowered with the success stories in Back from the Brink and want to learn more about these creatures and other endangered species. There are many wonderful fiction and nonfiction books that can continue the experience. I’ve included many in the Learn More section of the book, including Dorothy Patent’s The Buffalo and the Indian, Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, and Jazynka Kitson’s Mission Wolf Rescue. While these books are great reads, I really hope that my readers will step out into the wild and discover some of these creatures first hand. I list places throughout the country for outdoor, natural sightings in my book.

Praise for Back from the Brink:

  • “[Castaldo] offers solid, meaningful suggestions for young readers […] including many, many learning opportunities: things to watch and read, organizations to investigate, websites and parks to explore. Challenging but important reading for the intended audience.”–Kirkus, STARRED review
  • “Readers will be moved by Castaldo’s appreciation for these animals.”–Booklist, STARRED review

Win a FREE copy of Back from the Brink!   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!

Hosting this week is Mary Kay Carson, fellow animal lover, science nerd, and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

 

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STEM Tuesday All About Conservation- Writing Craft and Resources

 

Maps & Footprints

(Author’s Note: I recently read an estimated 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist in 2018. That’s only twelve years from now. 12 years! Today’s elementary students and those kids who aren’t even in school yet will face a whole new world and workplace. The way we raise, teach, and prepare the future adults of 2030 must also shift as we bridge the gap between the industrial age and the digital age. Conservation will occupy a fundamental piece in this shift and STEAM will have to rise to the forefront to meet the challenges. Think STEAM literacy and philosophy are important now? Over the next decade, they will become considerably more vital to the education of our young minds. The future that rests in the hands of the kids out in the playground today depends on how we manage our limited resources. We need STEAM thinkers and we need to crank up their STEAM education. It’s up to us to make sure they are ready for the challenges that lie ahead. 12 years will be here in the blink of an eye.)

There are two ways of looking at conservation. Conservation from an ecological point of view means we work to preserve our resources. Animals, plants, land, soil, materials, culture, etc. are generally the common resources targeted by conservationists. In the majority of these cases, these projects are undertaken for either efficiency or ethical reasons. For example, plant and agricultural scientists look to protect the biodiversity of existing foodstuffs by preserving seed varieties deep under the ice, such as at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The second way to look at conservation is through the physical science lens—the nuts and bolts science that underlies the way our world works. Conservation of mass, energy, and momentum all state that some property (matter, energy, momentum) in an isolated system doesn’t change over time. The old “matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed” principle many can probably recite in their sleep.

Conservation of a system

Our world is an interconnected system. Planet Earth is an isolated system, but we are not isolated within the system. One of the most important thought shifts, as we move forward in the field of conservation, will be to recognize interconnected systems and how the pieces and parts of the system function together.

  • How does protecting this one factor affect the entire system?
  • How does one behavior cascade down, around, over, under, or through the behavior and well-being of others?

Take an electric car in the year 2018 as an example. Big environmental impact? Not as much as you might think. Sure the emissions are down, which is great.

But how was that electricity generated? Fossil fuels or solar or wind or hydroelectric?

As you can see, the system matters. The conservation issues, both the ecological and the physical parts, must be studied for the entire system in order to develop long-term and successful solutions.

In order to develop long-term solutions to our local and global conservation issues, we need to develop system thinkers. Problem solvers who are able to attack problems from a systemic approach and look at all the parts of the whole.

In short, we as parents, teachers, librarians, authors, and scientists need to develop STEAM thinkers!

Maps

Last month, Heather gave us an excellent exercise for making sound maps. I like this exercise both as a writer and as a scientist. It’s a simple, easy, take-it-anywhere method to develop observational skills. This month for a conservation slant, work those observational muscles by repeating the sound map exercise several different times at several different places/locations (Preferably completely different places, like a park, a busy intersection, a mall, a sports event, a pasture). To this map, add additional details of the system. People, cars, workers, stop lights, animals, weather…whatever interacts with this small system you are observing in the time in which you are observing.

Footprints

Take your detailed map from the above exercise and think about all the observations that were recorded in that system. Now the fun part. Make a list of those moving or static interacting parts and consider the ecological or physical footprint of those parts within your mapped system.

  • How are energy and mass being incorporated in this system?
  • What story do they tell?
  • What are some of the reaching effects happening in this system?

Here’s a quick example from what’s going on outside the laboratory today with a construction crew patching potholes on a busy street leading into a high traffic flow intersection.

  • What effect does the construction have on the traffic flow? Traffic congestion.
  • How does the intersection system benefit when the construction crew is finished? Improved traffic flow and increased safety due to the poor quality of the road causing vehicles to swerve out of the way of monster pothole leading into the busy intersection.
  • What’s the economic impact of the work? The workers make money which they spend at local businesses. They patch that monster pothole and save potential repair costs on hundreds of vehicles that pass that way every hour. The area businesses around the intersection may experience a temporary lull in business due to the construction which will return to normal quickly.
  • What’s their environmental impact? The trucks and asphalt produce harmful emissions in their use and disposal but traffic flows smoother which allows travelers to reach their destinations within the system more efficiently.

Thinking Points

What are points to consider as conservation efforts move forward taking into account the systemic effects?

Laws of supply and demand. The economics of conservation is perhaps the single most important force either blocking or promoting conservation efforts. Economics from both the supply side and the demand side are important pieces of the puzzle that need respect and consideration in the solutions

Management and design. Great strides have been taken over the past few decades in these facets of conservation. Smarter buildings, transportation systems, and energy production have made and will make a difference. But these things take time and money so patience and persistence are important.

Saving the planet vs saving ourselves. We need to get a little selfish but in a smart way. Conservation, at its core, is about us protecting the things important to our survival and wellness as a species. Our needs, our values, and our histories all matter. The planet will probably be here long after we’re gone, let’s make sure we don’t force ourselves out before our time.

Conclusion

Matter and energy in a finite system are neither created or destroyed. This is something we’ve been taught in about every physical science class since our latter elementary school days. We’ve heard it so many times, we probably don’t even consider its power and its importance in the field of conservation. Perhaps, it’s time for the Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy to step outside the classroom and into the minds of every action we take.

In a finite system, we only have so much of a resource so we need responsible and system-sensitive solutions to conserve and/or replenish these resources. We need a STEAM generation that understands the systems and can develop solutions to improve conservation with the entire system in mind.

The goal is to develop a STEM/STEAM generation that pays attention and understands their maps and their footprints.

 

Indosylvirana urbis, the Urban Golden-backed Frog resting in the pink colored boat-shaped bract of the Curcuma angustifolia (East Indian Arrowroot) flower.

 


THE O.O.L.F. FILES

This month, The Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files look at conservation from several different angles, including systems, space, art, failures, and the laws of conservation.


 By MIKE HAYS

Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports-related topics at coachhays.com and writer stuff at mikehaysbooks.com. He can often be found roaming the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.