Field Work

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 Field Work — Interview with Loree Griffin Burns

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 Loree Griffin Burns who wrote this month’s featured book about real-life scientific field work, Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island.

The book takes place on an Icelandic island that’s only decades old. Readers join the scientists studying this new patch of land and the plants and animals that are colonizing it. Loree Griffin Burns earned science degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Massachusetts. Since then she’s been writing books and articles that celebrate our natural world and the people who study it. To research these stories, she’s beachcombed on both coasts, cruised the Pacific Ocean in search of plastic, surveyed birds in Central Park, stung herself with a honey bee, visited the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly (on horseback!) and lived on a Costa Rican butterfly farm. Her latest book, Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island was named a 2017 best children’s nonfiction title by both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Loree lives with her husband and three nearly-grown children in central Massachusetts.

 Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about?

Loree Griffin Burns: In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel with my husband to Iceland. While we were there, we took a day-trip to the island of Heimaey, which is the largest of an archipelago off the southwestern coast of the country. It poured rain the entire time we were on Heimaey, so we toured by bus instead of on foot. At one point, as we rounded the southern end of the island, our bus driver pulled to the side of the road and pointed out to sea. “You see that island?” he asked. “The furthest one out?” We squinted through rain-soaked bus windows to see the rock he was talking about. “That’s Surtsey,” he said, “and I stood on the very spot this bus is parked, when I was a boy, and watched as it was born.” I knew the moment he said this that I’d just heard something incredibly special. I took out a notebook and started taking notes on everything he said from that moment on, including the fact that Surtsey was closed to all but the Icelandic scientists studying its transformation from a seething hunk of lava to an island that supported living, breathing organisms. As soon as I was home again, I began to research Surtsey’s story and became convinced it was the perfect subject for a ‘Scientists in the Field’ book. Once I’d convinced my editor of it too, I wrote to the Surtsey Research Society, the organization that controls access to the island as a research site, and pitched the idea the them. I was thrilled when they sent back an invitation to join an expedition the following summer.

MKC: Would you like to share a favorite part of spending time in the field researching this book?

Loree: I spent one working week, Monday through Friday, on Surtsey, as part of an expedition that included ten other scientists. Eight of those were Icelandic, and one was a Polish botanist who was living and working in Iceland at the time. Our team consisted of three women and seven men. Some of my favorite moments were getting to know the people I was with. As you’ll see when you read the book, I spent the most time with entomologists Erling Ólafsson and Matthais Alfredsson. But I got to know some other fascinating people, too. One of my favorite mornings was the one I spent with Lovisa Ásbjörnsdóttir, a geologist who has spent a lot of time on Surtsey. We hiked Austurbunki and Westurbunki together, mountains formed from Surtsey’s two volcanic cones, and spent several delightful hours sharing our work, our homelands, and what drew us each to Surtsey. Another highlight that didn’t make it into the book was my exploration inside the island. Underneath the hard lava crust of Surtsey is a network of lava tubes—tunnels through which molten lava once flowed but which now snake, empty and exploreable, underground. When botanist Paweł Wąsowicz first mentioned them to me, I didn’t believe him. And once I realized they existed, I was very nervous about checking them out. But I did, and it was an unforgettable experience.

Purchase a copy of  Life of Surtsey

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Loree: I do. I spent my twenties in a research lab studying the expression of genes in yeast cells and earning a PhD in biochemistry. So, science has been part of my life for a long time. I tell kids all the time that for me, science is not a subject, or a career, but a way of looking at the world, a way of asking questions about how it works, and then figuring out how to find the answers.

MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process by sharing how you’re tackling a current project?

Loree: I recently finished a picture book manuscript for older readers about fruit flies and how scientists came to realize they are a useful organism for studying DNA. I know. I know. It doesn’t sound like proper picture book material, does it? But it really is! The focus is entirely on the flies themselves, their bodies, their life cycles, their strange and adorable (!) laboratory habits, their easy to manipulate DNA. I think the right illustrator could have a great time with this book. (If you know one, send them my way.) While I try to find the perfect publishing home for the fruit fly book, I am working on another insect book: The Moth Ball. Coming from Charlesbridge in 2020, this book is an invitation into the nighttime exploits of the lesser-loved cousin of the butterfly: the moth. Right now, I’m reading up on moths and moth identification, and sketching out ideas for how best to structure a book that will excite readers about studying the moths in their own neighborhoods. The second spring finally arrives here in New England, photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I will start calling moths into our own yards, using black lights and special sugar baits, and we’ll begin recording every moment for our book. We’re both pretty excited! What you can see from these two examples is that my bookmaking process involves a lot more than just writing. I spend a lot of time researching my subjects, by reading the words of other writers and by having my own first-hand experiences with the topic. I also spend time getting my finished manuscripts into the hands of publishers who can help me bring them to readers. This variety is one of the things I like about making books.

MKC: Any recommendations for readers who loved Life on Surtsey?

Loree: Nonfiction books are my passion, and titles I’ve loved lately include: Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d by Mary Losure; The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman; Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins; Seeing into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright, Illustrated by Nina Crews.

More about Life on Surtsey:

Win a FREE copy of  Life of SurtseyEnter 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 Mary Kay Carson, fellow nature geek, science nerd, and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids.

 

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STEM Tuesday Field Work — Writing Craft and Resources

This month we’ve focused on books about scientific field work. What about the field work of a writer? Whether their subject matter is fact or fiction, frogs or fractals, writers have important research to do out in the field.

We all know that sensory details help to create a more engaging read, but how do you craft those sensory details? Research in the field!

 

 

 

 

Here is an exercise to help you with auditory information. It will train you to become more aware of the ever-present sounds around you, will help you gather specific sounds on site, and will strengthen your descriptions of sound qualities.

Creating a Sound Map

The set-up:

  1. Place yourself “in the field.”
  2. On a plain piece of paper draw the largest circle that will fit.
  3. Put a dot in the middle of the circle. The dot represents you. The circle represents the furthest edge of your hearing.

Listen:

  1. When you hear a sound, record it on the map in relationship to the dot and the edge of your hearing.
  2. Record the sound as a word, color, shape or symbol – whatever represents it best.
  3. Try to indicate qualities of the sound: is it loud? moving? staccato? raspy? repeated?

Keep going:

  1. Continue listening until your map is full.
  2. Do you notice any trends in what you have recorded? Are there more human or natural sounds?  Are there more sounds on one side? Why? Were their sounds that surprised you?
  3. Try writing about the sounds of this place in a descriptive paragraph.

Sound maps have become one of my favorite tools for collecting sensory data. Try them in a variety of places and you will grow your ability to enrich your writing about scientific field work.

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com


THE O.O.L.F. FILES

This month, The Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files look at field work options for young people.

Want science you can do while fishing? Or at the beach? Or in a sports stadium? SciGirl has got you covered!

http://pbskids.org/scigirls/citizen-science

From tracking the seasons through tulips to tracking hummingbird migration, students can get busy collecting data with Journey North.

https://www.learner.org/jnorth/

If you prefer to do field work from the comfort of your living room – or classroom – Zooniverse is for you. Tons of opportunities to help scientists spy on cheetahs, count cute seals, or train an algorithm to detect plastic on beaches.

https://www.zooniverse.org/