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STEM Tuesday — Earth Day 50th Anniversary Celebration– Interview with Author Mary Kay Carson




I’m excited to turn the tables on Mary Kay Carson, who usually does these interviews and invite her to speak about her newest (really cool) book,

Wildlife Ranger Action Guide 


Be a Hero for Local Wildlife!

Birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals live all around you – and you can help protect them! Use the field guide pages to learn about which species you’re likely to see in your area. Then turn your backyard into a sanctuary by creating an animal-friendly habitat where wild residents can find food, water, shelter, and places to nest and raise their young.



Here is a spread of the inside of this awesome book:













A lot of the books you’ve written are about space or weather, how did you come up with the idea to write Wildlife Ranger?

Providing habitat for local wildlife is a real passion of mine. My husband and I live in the city, but chose to buy the 100+ year-old home we did fifteen years ago because of the acres of urban green space that surround it. We’ve been able to watch all kinds of critters take up residence as invasive plants has been removed, native plants encouraged and cultivated, dead trees left standing, and lawn abandoned! And I want kids to feel similarly empowered. To know that they can help wildlife right in their own backyards by providing one or more of the Big Four—water, food, shelter, and nests. Kids love animals, and presentations about how scientists are helping endangered animals are some of my most requested during school visits. And while kids are drawn to the well-publicized plight of pandas, tigers, and penguins, there isn’t a whole lot a young person in Iowa can do to help those faraway animals apart from raising awareness or donating money from a bake sale. But helping the wild animals that live all around us? That’s something anyone of any age can do.

I do love to write about space and weather! But biology is actually my background. My degree was biology (systematics and ecology), I served in the fisheries program as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I have quite a few animal books under my belt—Emi and the Rhino Scientist, The Bat Scientists, Do Sharks Glow in the Dark?, etc. But I’d have to say that it was my years of experience writing for Audubon Adventures that most inspired me to propose the idea of Wildlife Ranger Action Guide. I knew there were lots of fun projects out there for kids to do that would truly help wildlife.
 Was it difficult to do the research on each animal? Can you share something unexpected or unusual you learned about some of the animals.

Our home is filled with field guides, so I can’t say the research was difficult. I am embarrassed by how much I learned along the way, however. After all, these are animals I’ve seen most of my life. But somehow I never realized that green darners migrate nor knew that cottontails can have six litters a year. SIX! I’m ready for native wildlife trivia night!

Was it fun to write in this style, ie. more expository than narrative?
I like expository writing when it really speaks directly to readers. I try to imagine myself speaking to a group of kids thirsty for facts—but also a bit fidgety—when writing expository text. Clarity, brevity, and friendliness are paramount. I’m not a big fan of rambling, stream-of-consciousness, expository text for young readers.


This book seems to just beg for readers to take with them outside. Is that how you hope that readers use it?
This book should be filthy! Covered in dirt and warped from damp grass, smudged with paint and sticky with glue from projects. Seriously! A pristine copy of Wildlife Ranger Action Guide is just sad.


Can you give your readers tips on how to record data on animals they see or how to make journal?

Choose a format that works for you. Some kids are more likely to use something they’ve invested time into or personalized, like a Wild Notes Notebook. (Download template pages here.) But there are also apps for recording observations for the smart-phone savvy, too. In these times of global climatic changes, tracking when flowers bloom  and birds migrate has never been more critical.

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

My photographer husband, Tom Uhlman, did the photos of all the step-by-step kid projects. (A good number of the animal photos in the Field Guide sections are his, too.) Kudos to him for all the kid-wrangling of neighborhood and friends’ children! It was a fun challenge to think so visually. Not only how do I write up projects and information in ways that interest readers, but how (and what!) to show so they can successfully make a Paw Printer or Coffee Tub Nest Box by looking at the photos and text. Those photo shoot days were long and messy! Also, that’s our beloved cat, Shamu, on page 38.

Thanks so much for sharing your book with us, Mary Kay! If you’re interested in winning an autographed copy, please comment below or give this post a shoutout on Twitter and tag @mixedUpFiles and @marykaycarson.
Author Jen SwansonScience ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 40 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her. www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com Jennifer is also the creator and administrator of #STEMTuesday and #STEAMTeam2020

STEM Tuesday — Earth Day 50th Anniversary Celebration– Writing Tips & Resources

Tackling a Planet – Sized Topic

Earth Day. Earth Week. Earth Month. It’s time to celebrate all that exists around us. But, how do you do that in words? When you’re interested writing about in the entire earth, where do you even start?

As writers, we are often given the advice to narrow our focus; yet, at the same time, we are expected to provide a grand, universal truth. That feels so contradictory. How do can we provide specific details to bring a planet sized-topic to life?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgReading Jack Hart’s Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, I stumbled across the concept of the Ladder of Abstraction and have found this an excellent way to visualize writing.

Imagine a ladder where each rung represents a different level of abstraction. Let’s apply this concept to a tree. On the lowest rung we would have: the sycamore tree in my backyard.  The would be a bit more abstract: all sycamore trees, and the next would be trees. Higher rungs could be plants, living things, everything. Thus, climbing the rungs, we move from the concrete to the abstract.

The lowest rungs of the ladder put you in a scene; the highest rungs of the ladder provide you with perspective. Imagine yourself standing on the first rung; you are as close as you can be to the ground without actually being there. You can see the details of the dirt. Then imagine standing on the top rungs; you have a view that lets you comprehend how those details fit into the larger picture. As Hart notes, “Emotion originates on the ladder’s lowest rungs.” He goes on to explain, “… greater meaning resides on the ladder’s upper rungs.”

In order to bring out both emotion and meaning, writers can move up and down this ladder strategically to provide both concrete details (yielding personal connections) and generalizations (yielding universal truths) for their readers. Most writers struggle with providing those concrete details. Here’s a fun way to practice working your way down to the bottom rung to generate dozens of specific details.

Set Up

Select an item from nature that will fit in your hand. Something with a variety in textures (like a stick covered in lichen, an interesting stone or a large flower) works well. Position your non-dominant hand in front of you, holding the item. Position your paper and dominant hand behind you, where you can’t see them.

Pretend an ant is crawling on your item. Your job will be to trace (on paper) the ant’s path as it explores the item. I know this sounds odd, but it works, so try it.

Blind Drawing

Begin by putting your pencil down in the middle of your paper; after that, do not look at your paper. You will be creating a wandering scribble — not a drawing of the item. Resist the temptation to look at your paper! As you watch your imaginary ant explore, trace his trail on the paper, basically creating a map of his route. Keep your ant going. Keep your dominant hand tracing. Make your ant go around the corner, over the edge, into the hole.

For a minimum of five minutes (set a timer if you need it), keep tracing your ant’s journey. If he retraces his steps, that’s fine. If you need to turn your item over, that’s fine. If he goes in a hole where you can’t see, make it up. When you think you’re done, keep going. Keep him exploring! Keep mapping his path.

Getting the Details Down

When you’re done, you may look at your drawing. Then, look at your item and retrace the trip. Along the way, describe his experiences aloud, jotting every detail down. Think of the texture under the ant’s feet, the shapes he encounters, the amount of light, the shade of color, the springiness of the surface, what each area reminds him of, etc.. The goal here is to overflow your page with details.

If your ant was a good explore, you should have quite a list. Sure, these descriptions are from an ant’s perspective, but they are concrete details. Unless you first record details with this level of specificity, you won’t have enough fodder for the bottom rung of the ladder.

Selecting the Specific

Now, let’s take this exercise a bit further. We won’t try to find a universal truth here (although you might try that too), but instead practice with a simpler task, creating mood. Skim your list for descriptors that convey a common mood. In my list, several feel kind of ominous. Using a highlighter, crayon or symbol, mark the details that match the mood. I’ve chosen yellow for ominous ones. Next, search your list for a different mood and mark that with a different color. Can you find a third?

Put that in Writing

Your final challenge is to use the selected descriptors to convey that mood in a sentence or short paragraph. I started with my green descriptors and tried to convey playfulness. Then I used the descriptors flagged with yellow to create a more ominous sentence, and finally the ones marked in red to convey a comforting mood.

When tackling a planet – sized topic, specific details matter. They carry the reader down to the bottom rung on the Ladder of Abstraction. Immersed in a scene filled with specificity, readers feel grounded, emotionally connected, and ready to move up the rungs and discover a universal truth.



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Heather L. Montgomery loves to climb ladders — abstract and otherwise. See how she applies these writing techniques in Who Gives a Poop? The Surprising Science Behind Scat (Bloomsbury, September 2020). Pre-orders available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781547603473.


STEM Tuesday — Earth Day 50th Anniversary Celebration– In the Classroom


It’s interesting that we’re celebrating Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the midst of a pandemic that has much of the world shut down. As I write this post, my state is under a Stay-At-Home order, and has been for a while. While COVID-19 has been devastating for people, in a way, it’s been a gift to the Earth. With people taking a step back from their daily hustle and bustle, the Earth has breathed easier, and animals have felt safe to come out of hiding. Before the world restarts, it’s a good time to step back and take a look at our relationship with the Earth.

The books on this month’s list cover a wide range of topics, from inspiring environmental activists…

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One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet
by Anuradha Rao
With stars from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, this book profiles twenty environmental activists of color from around the world. Their individual stories show how they went from kids who cared about the environment to leaders in their communities.


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Friends of The Earth: A History of American Environmentalism with 21 Activities
by Pat McCarthy
A collection of inspiring stories about the women and men who had the foresight to preserve Yosemite, Mt. Ranier, the Grand Canyon, and the Florida Everglades. Through these stories, young readers form a picture of American environmentalism and conservation. McCarthy helps kids act with 21 eco-activities.


…to understanding the complexities surrounding environmental policy…

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Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines
by Paul Fleischman
This Green Earth Book Award title offers a wake-up call for middle-grade and young adult readers as they try to make sense of the flood of environmental news. Readers discover there is more at work than merely wanting to help — money, politics, history, and psychology are all connected.


…to things you can do in your everyday life to help the Earth.

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Human Footprint: Everything you will Eat, Use, Wear, Buy, and Throw Out in Your Lifetime
by Ellen Kirk 
A powerful visual tool from Ellen Kirk and NatGeo that helps kids visualize the extent of their consumption. Did you know we each consume 13,056 pints of milk; take 28,433 showers; and eat 12,888 oranges, 14,518 candy bars and buy $52k,972 of clothes in our lifetime?

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Generation Green: The Ultimate Teen Guide to Living An Eco-Friendly Life
by Linda Sivertsen
Sure, we want to be eco-friendly, but how do we accomplish that? Siversten offers dozens of tips on how to shop, dress, eat, and travel with a lighter carbon footprint.


Even if you are quarantined and don’t have easy access to these books, you can still dig in to some activities that celebrate Earth Day.

Research How COVID-19 is Helping and Hurting the Environment

Practice your internet searching skills to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the environment. (Be sure to look for reliable sources of information.) In some ways, it seems to be helping. Air quality has improved dramatically in many areas due to the lack of cars on the road. In other ways, it may be hurting. A lot of recycling has been suspended because of the Stay-At-Home orders. How else is the pandemic helping or hurting the environment?

On a more personal note, think about how you are living right now. What things are you doing (or not) that are beneficial to the environment? Are you doing anything that is more harmful?

Take Action In Your Own Life

Very few of us live a life that doesn’t impact the environment in negative ways. Often times, we don’t even think about how what we’re doing affects the Earth. One of the best gifts we can give to celebrate Earth Day is to make changes in our own lives to be more environmentally friendly.

To start, you need to be aware of how you impact the Earth. Take a look at how you use resources. You can make it simple or you can track your usage over a period of time – a week or two or even a whole month. Resources to look at include food, water, fuel (including gas for your car and energy for your house), clothing and other items.

Here are some questions to help you think about how you live.

  • How many resources do you use? How much of each?
  • Where do your resources come from?
  • How much do you waste?
  • What do you do with resources when you are done with them?

Once you’ve taken a look at how you use resources, think about things you can change to live a more environmentally friendly life. Here are some examples.

If you notice a lot of your food is being transported from across the country or world, commit to getting more of your food from local farms. Look into participating in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

How much of the food you buy gets thrown away? Think of ways to reduce your food waste. In our family, that often includes planning meals for a week and having leftover nights to eat food that didn’t get eaten the day it was cooked. You can also look into composting. Instead of throwing out potato peels and apple cores, throw them in a compost bin. Use the resulting compost to improve the quality of soil in your gardens.

Do you throw out clothes when you are done with them? If so, look into alternatives. You can pass them along to a friend or relative. There are also lots of opportunities to donate them to charities. You can even hold a clothing drive where you can help people recycle their clothing and earn money for a school or service organization.

There are lots of resources that can help you find ways to live a more Earth-friendly life. This includes several of the books on this month’s list.

Help Your Favorite Animal

Perhaps you’d like to do something further afield. What’s your favorite wild animal? Do some research. Where does it live? What environmental issues does it face? Are there charitable organizations that are working to help these animals? Once you know what issues there are, you can come up with some ways to help.

Perhaps that means donating to an organization dedicated to helping that animal. To help even more, ask for people to donate to that organization rather than giving you birthday presents. Or run a fundraiser to collect money to donate.

Maybe you can participate in a citizen science project that will help the animal. Enlist your friends and family, too. Here are a few resources that can help you investigate what citizen science activities are out there:


No matter what you’re doing these days, I hope you’ll take some time to celebrate the Earth. Wishing you, your family, and the Earth peace and good health.


Janet sometimes helps out with conservation projects – here she’s helping cut reeds to stock an insect hotel.


Janet Slingerland loves learning about science, history, nature, and (well) everything, which she then turns into a book. She has spent many hours helping out on environmental projects, including transforming her yard into a native plant oasis (a work in progress). To find out more about Janet and her books, check out her website: janetsbooks.com



Mission Statement

From the Mixed-Up Files is the group blog of middle-grade authors celebrating books for middle-grade readers. For anyone with a passion for children’s literature—teachers, librarians, parents, kids, writers, industry professionals— we offer regularly updated book lists organized by unique categories, author interviews, market news, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a children's book from writing to publishing to promoting.

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