Posts Tagged homeschooling

STEM Tuesday– Deserts –Author Interview

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

Why are author interviews such an important part of STEM Tuesday? For one, it’s fun for kids (and adults!) to read about doing research and writing from the person doing the work. Plus, getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be an author can get kids (again – and adults!) excited about doing their own writing!

Without further ado, let’s meet Lori Alexander, who lives in Arizona and is the award-winning author of several kids’ books. Her most recent book is DESERT QUEEN, which is all about Minerva Hoyt and her advocacy and passion for the desert. Here’s more about the book:book cover for Cactus Queen

“Long before she became known as the Cactus Queen, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt found solace in the unexpected beauty of the Mojave Desert in California. She loved the jackrabbits and coyotes, the prickly cacti, and especially the weird, spiky Joshua trees.

However, in the 1920s, hardly anyone else felt the same way. The desert was being thoughtlessly destroyed by anyone and everyone. Minerva knew she needed to bring attention to the problem. With the help of her gardening club, taxidermists, and friends, she worked to persuade politicians, scientists, teachers, and others to support her cause. And, it worked! Minerva’s efforts led to what came to be known as Joshua Tree National Park in California, and saved hundreds of thousands of plants and animals.”


Andi Diehn: What’s your favorite fact you learned about Minerva Hoyt?

Lori Alexander: I love that Minerva’s path to protect the Mojave desert took many twists and turns. It’s not easy to speak up for change, especially as a woman in the early 1900s. In addition to transporting bits of the desert to the east coast to rally support for her cause, Minerva started a letter writing campaign and even pitched her idea to turn the Joshua tree area of the Mojave into a national park to the president of the United States. My favorite fact was that Minerva made two scrap books to take to the White House. They were packed with beautiful photographs and artwork of the Mojave desert which helped to make her case to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 2021, I took a research trip to Joshua Tree National Park and met with the park’s archivist. I was allowed to (carefully) flip through the very same albums Minerva shared with the president in 1933!

AD: I love how you mix in her quotes – what was your intention behind this?
Lori: My first nonfiction editor, Ann Rider, now retired, taught me that quotes from historical figures “bring the text to life.” They were sprinkled throughout our books together: All in a Drop and A Sporting Chance and What’s a Germ, Joseph Lister? While I’m working with different editors and publishers now, I continued to include rich quotes throughout my texts, pulled from primary sources such as letters, interviews, and scientific papers. Cactus Queen begins with these words from Minerva: “This desert possessed me, and I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.” A great quote, as it also sets-up the story problem and Minerva’s motivation.


AD: Minerva moves plants native to the west to the east – yet the book is about preserving the native plants in the desert. How is this action considered part of conservancy?

Lori: Minerva transported bits of the desert vegetation, as well as rocks, sand, and taxidermy desert animals, to New York and Boston for their annual flower shows. She set up displays about the size of a classroom to share the beauty of the Mojave. Audiences were captivated, as most had never seen such a landscape before. Minerva believed this was an important step in gaining support for her cause. If people loved the desert, they would want to protect the desert. After the flower shows ended, she donated the displays to local museums so people could continue learning about the desert. Her main goal was to show that the desert is not a barren wasteland, but a beautiful place filled with unique plants and animals worth saving.


AD: The problem of people claiming wild plants as their own and removing them from their native habitat – where can we find examples of this today? What’s being done to fix this?

Lori: I currently live in a desert not far from the Mojave—the Sonoran desert in Arizona. Much as Joshua trees represent the Mojave, the Sonoran desert is known for its towering saguaro cacti. Saguaros can grow to 50 feet tall and live more than 150 years. They are a slow growing cacti, with only a few inches of growth during their first ten years. It can take more than 60 years for a saguaro to grow its first arm. While many people here in Tucson would love to have one of these stately, iconic cacti in their front yard, it is illegal to poach them from the desert floor. Luckily, state-wide laws protect saguaro from theft, vandalism, and unnecessary destruction. If a saguaro interferes with new construction projects, permits are required to move and replant the specimen. Because of such laws, saguaros are highly safeguarded and not currently listed as threatened or endangered, although they may soon face other challenges due to climate change.


AD: I love the part about the letter writing campaign! What can children learn from this?

Lori: Minerva hosted an inspection over acres of the Mojave—the last step before the space could be named a national park. But the appointed government official wondered where the lush trees and roaring waterfalls could be found. He reported that the area was not fit for protecting under federal law. After the failed inspection, Minerva began a letter writing campaign. She want the National Park Service (NPS) to send a new inspector, someone who better understood desert landscapes. She called on her friends and neighbors, local scientists, teachers and politicians. They wrote letters to the NPS for five months until a new inspection was scheduled. A second chance for the desert! From this, children can learn that they too have a voice, and that there is power in numbers. If there’s something they want to change in their school, neighborhood, city, or the greater world, they can speak up. Elementary-age kids have families and a network of classmates, teachers, and neighbors who may be willing to help make change. It could begin with something as simple as writing a letter (or email) to a local elected official.


AD: Why are national parks so important to wildlife conservancy?

Lori: They are crucial! In addition to preserving landscapes and protecting ecological biodiversity, national parks inspire wonder and life-long learning by those who visit. The NPS estimates that 325 million people visited the national park system in 2023, which includes 63 national parks and more than 350 historic sites managed by the NPS. These unique places help to educate the public on the importance of conservation. I always feel a bit more connected to the planet after a stay at one of these stunning spots and I encourage you to get out there and explore. Here’s a list of all of the sites managed by the NPS and their rates of attendance over the past ten years. Whether you visit one of the most popular parks or a lesser-known gem, be sure to leave no trace of your stay.


AD: In your author’s note you talk about damage done to the park during a government shutdown. That’s horrifying! Why do you think people hurt the environment so deliberately?

Lori: I’m guessing many people don’t think, and that’s the problem. They’ve traveled a distance to be there and feel entitled to the space. In 2019, during a 35-day government shut-down, Joshua Tree National Park remained open but with a very limited staff to manage the park’s 1200 square miles. Visitors began to ignore the rules. They squabbled over camp sites, scattered garbage, clogged toilets, and spray-painted boulders. They hung holiday lights around delicate Joshua tree branches. Other plants were cut down to make paths for racing off-road vehicles. The destruction took place over just a few days, but scientists estimate it could take up to 200 years for the slow-growing Joshua trees to recover. So while federal laws protect these beautiful spaces, it’s up to all of us to follow the rules and continue to speak up to defend these areas.


AD: Jenn Ely’s illustrations are fantastic – and I love the wildlife on every page. How do beautiful, accurate illustrations enhance a nonfiction picture book?

Lori: As I mentioned earlier about historical quotes bringing a story to life, the same is true for illustrations. Jenn’s artwork is lovely! Many people think “dry wasteland” when they hear the word desert. But Jenn created such a vibrant scene of the Mojave’s varied plants and animals. I adore every page but especially the nighttime spread, where Minerva camps out with the Joshua trees, and the final spread, when Minerva wins her hard-fought battle to protect the region she loved so much.


Lori AlexanderIn addition to picture books, LORI ALEXANDER writes chapter books about the fascinating history of science and medicine. She won a Sibert Honor Award for All in a Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World, and A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic Games was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Her recent release, What’s a Germ, Joseph Lister?: The Medical Mystery That Forever Changed the Way We Heal, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Lori resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her scientist husband and two book-loving teens.

Lori occasionally posts to IG: @lorialexanderbooks or Twitter: @LoriJAlexander

Peek into or purchase CACTUS QUEEN here.

STEM Tuesday– Deserts –Writing Tips & Resources

Hello from my desert home, Utah, and welcome to STEM Tuesday. I’m Stephanie. I took this photo several years ago at Snow Canyon State Park in Saint George and it really encapsulates what I love about life sciences. Nature gives us these unexpected—but beautiful—moments. This is the desert!

A tree growing in a crevice at Snow Canyon in Saint George, Utah. Photo credit: Stephanie Jackson

A tree growing in a crevice at Snow Canyon in Saint George, Utah. Photo credit: Stephanie Jackson

Before I get into writing tips and resources, I wanted to highlight some recent and forthcoming nonfiction desert books:

  1. First up, Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert by Tim Flannery, published in 2022. Written by an Australian scientist in his unique blend of strange factoids and clear explanations, this book is a must-read for desert explorers ages 7-10.
  2. Second, for children 8-10, Deserts in Danger (A True Book: The Earth at Risk) by Cody Crane, publishing September 3, 2024 with Children’s Press / Scholastic Trade Publishing. This title highlights the impacts of climate change.
  3. Next, you may enjoy A Day in the Life of the Desert by Roxie Munro, publishing on September 17, 2024 with Holiday House. Although it’s being marketed as a picture book, it’s nonfiction, and the text is accordingly verbose. It’s packed full of desert facts, and as the subtitle says, “6 Desert Habitats, 108 Species, and How to Save Them.”
  4. Fourth is Desert Tree Finder (2nd Edition) by botanist May Theilgaard Watts, publishing on October 8, 2024 with AdventureKEEN. As field guides go, this is as practical and as beginner-friendly as they come, covering the American southwest.
  5. And lastly, a visual smorgasboard in the form of this 320-page coffee table book, Deserts: The world’s most fascinating places by photographer Philippe Bourseiller, publishing on November 26, 2024 with teNeues. Truly exquisite images.

Writing Tips and Resources

Okay, so writing and deserts. Immediately I think of ecopoetry which, simply defined, is poetry about nature. (If you’re interested in exploring the genre further, check out The Ecopoetry Anthology.)

For beginning writers, there are multiple entry points. By no means are these the only ways to write ecopoetry; however, I’ll discuss three possible approaches, chosen specifically for upper elementary kids.

  1. The form method. Because the blank page can be so intimidating, choosing a template for a poem narrows the options considerably, and many writers find it frees the mind to write toward a specific “recipe” of syllables. For example, haiku. A simple 5-7-5 pattern helps produce work like this:from the pocks and cracks
    in vermilion rock: a
    tree flourishes, free
  2. The photograph method. Technically called ekphrasis, poems like this work to distill an ineffable image—intrinsically worth 1,000 words—into a linguistic dopplegänger of the original art. You may have noticed that my haiku was an ekphrastic poem based on my own photograph. Even if you’re not a photographer, you can find royalty-free images from websites like Pexels to work from. (And maybe check out that coffee table book!)
  3. The appreciation method. Writers begin with a topic and, through discovery writing, develop a message, or at least a vibe. An example would be an ode, which is like a toast, usually addressing a noun. (But then again, Ross Gay wrote an ode to sleeping in his clothes, so there are exceptions to everything in art.) Topics appropriate for desert-based poems might include desert animals like kangaroo rats or armadillos. I’d love to read a poem entitled “Ode to a Kangaroo Rat,” wouldn’t you? It’s so oddly specific, I’d have to see what it was about. Even the most poetry-averse writer could take facts and appreciate them, turning them into a poem with stylistic creativity.

And a note about poetry, especially… please teach it with joy. If there’s anything that I’ve learned about art, it’s that there’s no wrong way to do it, except with misery.

Whether you’re an educator, homeschooler, librarian, or writer, I wish you all the best with your desert unit studies. If you enjoyed today’s post, please jump on over to my blog to read about my favorite desert-themed picture books!


Stephanie Jackson

A nature-loving creative, Stephanie Jackson writes poemsarticles, picture books, and middle-grade novels. Her nonfiction has been published in Cricket magazine and her poems have been published in various literary journals including Touchstones, where she’s been a contributing poetry editor. Professional affiliations include the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)The Authors Guild, the American Night Writers Association (ANWA), and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). She expects to graduate from Utah Valley University in Spring 2025 with her undergraduate English degree, emphasis in creative writing. She interacts with the kidlit community on Twitter as @canoesandcosmos, and you can read more at

STEM Tuesday– Deserts — In the Classroom

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Deserts may seem dry and desolate, but they are thriving ecosystems filled with wildlife and plants that have adapted to survive harsh conditions. And even though school is out, these activities can help kids learn about the amazing desert and the unique life that thrive there.

Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert: Exploring the World’s Incredible Drylands

by Tim Flannery; illustrated by Sam Caldwell

Welcome to the weird wildlife you might find in a desert, from ants to lizards, rattlesnakes to scorpions. Each of the seventeen animal profiles is filled with in-depth and sometimes bizarre facts that highlight issues like climate change and conservation or explain more about evolution and habitats.




Classroom activity: As students read through this fascinating title, tell them to create a comic book profile of one of the strangest animals described. They can use a notebook to record the animal’s name and basic information, and they can also record its “super powers”—its unique adaptations that help them survive in the desert. Students should give their creature a comic book character name, and then they share their desert superheroes with the other students.

Cactus Queen : Minerva Hoyt establishes Joshua Tree National Park

by Lori Alexander

What if you knew a place that was filled with thorny, spiny beauty and dainty wildflowers, but all other people saw was a wasteland? In the early 1900s that’s how people thought of the Mohave desert. But Minerva Hoyt saw the desert as a habitat worth saving, and she went all the way to Washington to let the Park Service know.



Classroom activity: Have you ever noticed the waxy coating on a cactus? What is it for? To help students understand, try this activity. Gather your materials: two sheets of paper towels, wax paper sheet a bit bigger than a paper towel sheet, and a cookie sheet. Wet the paper towels so they are slightly damp. Roll one paper towel and use a paper clip to hold it. Lay it on the cookie sheet. Lay the other paper towel on top of the wax paper, roll it, and secure it with a paper clip. Lay it on the cookie sheet. Leave the sheet in a dry place for a day and then check i. How damp are the towels now? Which one is wetter? The one wrapped in wax paper keeps the towel damp, trapping in the water just like the waxy layer on a cactus does.

A Walk in the Desert (Biomes of North America)

by Rebecca L. Johnson, illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff

A lower middle grade text, this book uses photographs, notebook-like illustrated sidebars, and an engaging text to explore various North American deserts and the ways numerous plants and animals have developed strategies to exist in these challenging conditions. It also explores the interconnected food web and provides ideas for further research.



Classroom activity: Tell students to imagine one of the creatures in this book is the main character of a story. Have them write about its day in the desert from morning until nighttime. What other creatures does I meet? What problems does it face? Encourage students to use details from the book and do further research if they’d like. When they are done, ask them to add a few pictures—either drawings or printed images of the desert. And also ask them to create an interesting title for their book. When finished, students can host an author reading and display their book to the class.


Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. Visit her at