STEM Tuesday

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

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 new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). 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 and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– Writing Tips & Resources

Field of California poppies

Photo by Nils Larson

The Writer’s Walk: Nurturing Creativity in Difficult Times

Every day, as part of my writing process, I take a walk outside among Joshua Trees and, in spring, golden California poppies. Often a writing problem weighs on my mind: an opening that’s not quite right, a subplot that’s stumbling, a structure that’s just not working. As my feet pound the ground, my brain is only partially occupied by the scurrying rabbits and calling quail. My mind wanders just as I do. And in those moments I often have a breakthrough, an “aha moment” that leaves me eager to return to my manuscript.

We are living during a difficult time when so many of us are encouraged to stay indoors to keep ourselves, our friends, and neighbors safe. Yet one thing we are still allowed to do is to go outside for exercise. And we need to. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with nature. We need nature, and it needs us.

Forest Talk by Melissa Koch

Even before I read Melissa Koch’s FOREST TALK, one of the books on this month’s booklist, I knew humans had a symbiotic relationship with trees. We breathe in oxygen released by trees. Trees use the carbon dioxide we exhale for photosynthesis. But here’s what Koch wrote that astonished me: “Trees don’t just make people physically healthier. They also improve our spiritual well-being.” 

Koch goes on to cite several studies that show being among trees or even simply seeing trees out a window helps us heal faster and reduce stress, blood pressure, anxiety, and negative thoughts. The Japanese government even coined the term “forest bathing,” which involves walking in the woods and using all your senses to take in your surroundings as a way to improve mental health. 

I’d argue this symbiotic relationship holds the key not just to our sanity but to our creativity too.

Starting a Writer’s Walk Practice

There’s no time like the present for starting a writer’s walk practice. Before you do, a few ground rules. 

  • First, leave your headphones at home, so your senses are fully engaged with the world around you. 
  • Leave your notebook at home too. The idea is to keep your body and your mind moving. 
  • When you begin, focus your attention on a few deep breaths in and out. Notice the feeling of the ground beneath your feet. 

Eventually, your mind may wander. This is good. When it does, magical things might happen. Things like:

  • Story sparks – As you walk, observe animals, even little insects. What kind of bird did you hear? Why is the sky suddenly filled with butterflies? What makes those wispy, thin clouds?  Back home, that wondering might turn into research and even writing about a new topic. But there’s no pressure if it doesn’t.
  • Storing up sensory details – Use your walk to closely observe your surroundings. Note not only the sights, but also the smells, sounds, and textures. What do things look like and sound like? Can you think of analogies? Now file those details away for future use. One day when you need to capture how the leaves rustled or the birds called, you’ll remember, and these details will reappear in your writing.
  • Poem practice – I love poems for their ability to capture a single moment in exquisite detail. When you observe something interesting on your walk, maybe an autumn leaf floating in a rain puddle, challenge yourself to craft a little poem in your mind. No need to write it down. It’s just an exercise in paying attention and noticing small details, a way to remind yourself to focus on individual moments and concrete details in your writing.
  • Solving problems – I can’t tell you the number of aha moments I’ve had during my daily walks. The key for me is to think about my problem right before I begin. Then I clear my mind and focus on my breath, the feel of my feet, letting my mind wander. If and when my brain is ready, it might wander back to my story and play with the problem.

So, if you are allowed, get outside and take a writer’s walk. Your mind, your body, and your writing will thank you!

O.O.L. F (Out of Left Field)

Can’t get outside right now? Relax by watching a nature webcam here.

Experience California’s golden poppies live on their own webcam:

The app Headspace is offering free meditations during the pandemic, including a 10-minute walking meditation, perfect for a writer’s walk.

ReadWriteThink shares a wonderful Poetry Walk lesson from Patrick Striegel.

Read more about how walking boosts writing with this article from Publication Coach.

The New Yorker reports on how walking helps us think.

Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– In The Classroom

As I write this post, my community is still under a Stay-At-Home order, and has been for several weeks. There has been a lot of debate about when and how we should open up different areas of the country. Communities are trying to balance the health of businesses and the economy with the health of people. In a way, the two interests are intertwined in a close and long-term relationship. Which is a lot like this month’s topic – symbiosis.

Symbiosis is when two dissimilar organisms are closely associated with each other. Sometimes both benefit from the relationship. Other times, only one benefits. The books we’re highlighting this month dive into how symbiosis works. They are a great starting point for different sciences activities and discussions in the classroom.

Natural Attraction: A Field Guide to Friends, Frenemies, and Other Symbiotic Animal,  by Iris Gottlieb

Watercolor illustrations combine with a humorous, scientific text to examine thirty-five odd and unusual symbiotic animal, plant, and bacteria relationships. It includes statistics, graphs, takeaways, and fun additional facts about mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.


Symbiosis, by Alvin Silverstein

Photographs and a sprinkling of fun fact sidebars enhance the examination of plants, animals and fungi partnerships (both beneficial and necessary), symbiosis of numerous parasites and microorganisms (including Ebola and SARS), and the possibility of symbionts from space. The engaging text is supplemented with scientific terms, a glossary, and further research suggestions.


Partners in the Sea, by Mary Jo Rhodes and David Hall

You’ve probably heard about cleaner fish, but there are so many more undersea partnerships. There are fish that hang out in anemones, tiny crabs and shrimps that live inside sponges, and a bunch of animals that partner up with algae.


There’s A Zoo on You! by Kathy Darling

You share your body with more than a thousand microscopic species of bacteria, fungi, and other too-small to see organisms. Some are beneficial, such as tooth amoebas that eat bacteria. Others, like some fungi, take advantage of the relationship by benefiting at our expense.


It’s a Fungus Among Us: The Good, the Bad & the Downright Scary, by Carla Billups and Dawn Cusick

Most land plants live in a symbiotic relationship with fungi, and use the fungal web to share information with their plant buddies in the garden, field, and woods. Some animals develop beneficial partnerships with fungi, too – but others are attacked by fungal parasites.


Things That Make You Go Yuck! Odd Couples, by Jenn Dlugos & Charlie Hatton

Everything on earth is involved in a symbiotic relationship, some good and some bad. Amazing close-up photographs coupled with trivia questions, humor, sidebars, and a dash of gross-out facts makes this book on animal, plant, and microorganism adaptation and survival an entertaining and educational read about some unusual and creepy relationships.


Forest Talk: How Trees Communicate, by Melissa Koch

Trees are talking all around us, using an underground network of fungi and roots to communicate with one another. They also share chemical messages from their leaves, sending defense signals to other plants when pests attack.


Plant Partnerships, by Joyce Pope

An examination of the dependence of numerous plants and lichen on other plants and animals for their habitat or survival. Covers instances of symbiosis, parasitism, gardening, and pollination by insects and mammals.


Even if your school and library are closed for the rest of the school year, you can still try some activities to explore symbiosis.

Explore Online
Use the Internet to learn about symbiosis. What are the three general types of symbiosis? How can you describe each type of symbiotic relationship and how do the organisms interact in each? Make a poster or PowerPoint presentation to compare and contrast the three types of symbiosis. Make sure to include at least two examples of organisms that use each type of symbiotic relationship. How is each relationship the same or different than the other relationships? Why would an organism want to be in a symbiotic relationship? You can also include any interesting information that you learned in your research.

Create a Game
Using what you have learned about symbiosis and the Internet, make a list of pairs of organisms in symbiotic relationships. With this information, you can create a card game, board game, or trivia game that involves matching organisms in symbiotic relationships. You’ll need to develop the rules of the game, instructions on how to play, and determine how players win the game.

Draw What You’ve Learned
Use your artistic skills to create a drawing, painting, or other artistic creation that shows a symbiotic relationship. What organisms did you portray in your art? Where are the organisms? How are they interacting? Is the relationship positive or negative? How does your art show this? What can someone learn about this relationship from the art?

Write About It
Write a short story or poem that involves symbiosis. Get creative! What characters will you create? How will they illustrate a symbiotic relationship in your story or poem? How does their relationship impact the plot or themes of your writing? What other information can you include in your writing?


Carla Mooney loves to explore the world around us and discover the details about how it works. An award-winning author of numerous nonfiction science books for kids and teens, she hopes to spark a healthy curiosity and love of science in today’s young people. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three kids, and dog. When not writing, she can often be spotted at a hockey rink for one of her kids’ games. Find her at, on Facebook @carlamooneyauthor, or on Twitter @carlawrites.