25 Nov 2015

Books! Books! Books! - An Addendum

By Claire Eamer

Claire Eamer photo
The online publication, Hakai Magazine, has published an article listing, with short reviews, Eleven New Coastal-Themed Books for Kids. Several of the books are by friends of Sci/Why, whose earlier books are part of our own Science-Themed Books for Children. (And several of these coastal-themed books will doubtless appear in our list after the next revision!)

To quote the article's author, Sheryl McFarlane, who is a children's author herself, "Books reviewed here range in topic from a First Nation salmon ceremony to the voyage of the Mayflower, from a west coast nature alphabet to an east coast whale stranding." They're suitable for early or intermediate readers - and they're lovely!

20 Nov 2015

Books! Books! Books!

By Claire Eamer
Claire Eamer photo

A few months ago, we at Sci/Why put together a list of kids' science books by Canadian writers - ourselves and others. It's a work in progress, which we plan to update as often as we can manage, but it's already pretty lengthy.

The list is organized so that you can find books by topic and see immediately what grade level they're suitable for. That was for the convenience of teachers and librarians. But it's awfully convenient for people who might be looking for presents for their favourite kids at this time of year. Right?

So we thought we'd just mention again that we offer, for your consideration, our list of Science-Themed Books for Children. Just follow the link to a lot of science a lot of fun, and a lot of great ideas!

16 Nov 2015

And the Hits Keep Coming!

By Claire Eamer

It's been an award-laden autumn for Sci/Why bloggers. And here's another.

Our friend, world traveller, and occasional Sci/Why blogger Margriet Ruurs has won the 2015 Information Book Award from the Children's Literature Roundtables of Canada for her beautiful book on Yukon landscape painter Ted Harrison, A BRUSH FULL OF COLOUR: THE WORLD OF TED HARRISON. Margriet co-wrote the book with Katherine Gibson. It was published by Pajama Press.

The 2015 Honour Book is DREAMING IN INDIAN: CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN VOICES, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, and published by Annick Press.

Congratulations to everyone!

12 Nov 2015

Non-fiction impacts students in real-world ways

by Joan Marie Galat

I love a good tale as much as the next person and write stories as well as nonfiction, yet factual texts hold a special place in my heart and on my shelves. I still have my first book on birds and fondly remember the How and Why Book of Astronomy that gave me those first insights into the night sky. All these years later, astronomy is the focus in one of my book series (Dot to Dot in the Sky), and birds get plenty of plugs in my tree book (Branching Out - How Trees are part of Our World). The nonfiction of my childhood steered me toward interests that have lasted through the years, and influenced my writing career.

It turns out fact-based titles offer even more than the "wow" factor. Nonfiction is crucial to preparing young minds for the future. It builds critical academic skills by building vocabulary. With content that is often technical or science-based, nonfiction exposes children to words that are less likely to appear within a fictional text. Facts also teach children about different environments and their place in the world. Nonfiction books often connect to curriculums, building on the content children need to grasp in order to better succeed at school. Nonfiction also encourages reading because children can choose books that relate to their specific interests.

Joan teaching kids to juggle after
reading a nonfiction book on
how to keep three beanbags in the air.
Non-fiction reading in the early years has another perk. It helps children gain an understanding of how information can be accessed. Knowing how to use an index and table of contents are life skills. It is important to become familiar with how headings highlight topics, charts summarize data, and sidebars provide more detail. The report writing called for in future jobs or post-secondary education will be easier to manage for those who have spent time in the world of non-fiction reading.

Next time you're picking out a book for a child, or visiting the library or bookstore together, visit the nonfiction section. Factual books can lead to new interests, skills, and adventures. As you can see in the photo, a book on juggling led me to a new hobby. And there's been a bonus. I bring my star-shaped beanbags to schools during astronomy presentations and demonstrate falling stars!

The facts found in nonfiction books, as well as newspapers, magazines, atlases, and other reference texts, create the foundation young children and students of all ages need to ensure a lifetime of learning. Yes, I'm saying you should even read the dictionary. The Reading Rockets website offers more reasons to read nonfiction.

Joan's next book, Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Aurora is scheduled for release in 2016.

6 Nov 2015

Jan Thornhill Wins 2015 Vicky Metcalf Award

By Claire Eamer
Jan Thornhill
Sci/Why's own Jan Thornhill is this year's winner of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People - and the rest of us at Sci/Why couldn't be prouder! The award is given for a body of work over many years, and Jan certainly has that. She has fourteen books to her credit (so far) - and for many of them, she was both writer and illustrator.

Here's what the award jury had to say about Jan and her work:
With clarity and grace, Jan Thornhill’s books use both art and text to draw children into a closer and more understanding relationship with the natural world. Over a period of almost 30 years she has shown a rare ability to present serious topics to children from a scientific perspective in which gaining knowledge is pleasurable, never didactic or dry. From concept books like The Wildlife ABC, to stories and folk tales dealing with subjects like migration or wild animals in urban environments, to non-fiction books for older children on complex and challenging subjects such as conservation or death, Thornhill enriches the young reader’s awareness of the physical world and our place in it. A passionate and deeply-informed interest in nature is always conveyed with her characteristic combination of humour, empathy, and common sense.

Jan with Kirsten Hanson, chair of the board of the Metcalf Foundation and one of Vicky Metcalf's grandchildren. (Laurence Acland photo)
Jan has kindly shared with us her acceptance speech, delivered at the Writers' Trust Awards banquet on November 3. Here it is:

Thank you so much! I am humbled and thrilled to receive this award— my sincerest gratitude to the Writer’s Trust and the Metcalf Foundation.

Of course, I’ve known about the Vicky Metcalf Award for a long time, but I never thought I had a chance of getting it. Not only because there are so many amazing children’s writers in Canada, but also because I write mostly non-fiction. For a long time, non-fiction, especially for kids, has been the odd man out awards-wise. So I’m so glad that someone – well, a jury of three someones – has decided that what I write is both important and literature…. Literature, despite the fact that, in one of my books, there are fewer than 50 words in the main text. The Wildlife 123 begins with the very hard-to-write line: “One panda,” and ends with the equally difficult “One thousand tadpoles.”

So I guess I am also being recognized as an illustrator. This shows a growing understanding that picture books are, indeed, literature; and that when they work, they are a perfect marriage between words and art. This has been made even clearer to me when other artists have illustrated my words, most recently the fabulous Ashley Barron who did the gorgeous artwork for Kyle Goes Alone, published by Owlkids this fall.

I am not the only writer/illustrator who has received this award in the past 50 years, but I do seem to be the first author who writes primarily non-fiction, almost always about science, nature, and the environment. And YAY! to that, I say. As a science writer, it’s particularly gratifying to be recognized after 10 years of living under an unbelievably heavy-handed anti-science regime – a government that did not understand the importance of long-term scientific studies, research libraries, and, most critically, the free dissemination of information and ideas—which is part of what literature is also about. I hope the new government gets it right, with both the sciences and the arts.

On a more personal note, my family and friends, and a few industry associates know that more than 10 years ago I had to give up illustrating because of a painful condition in my arm that was eventually diagnosed as cancer. I’m happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free for seven years since my treatment. But I’m just as thrilled to say that, though my dexterity is not what it once was, I’ve recently figured out a way to work around my handicap and I’ve almost completed my first self-illustrated book in more than 10 years. (It comes out with Groundwood next fall.)

Along with offering my thanks again to the Writers’ Trust and the Metcalf Foundation for granting me this award, I would also like to express my gratitude for the substantial sum of money that comes with it. I don’t know if everyone here knows this, but trying to create children’s books that make a difference doesn’t often pay very well. I, and others like me, do it because we believe that children deserve excellence in the books they are given to read. Receiving this recognition confirms I actually did make the right career choice 25 years ago.

I’d also like to thank the publishers and editors I’ve worked with over the years: Sheba Meland and Anne Shone, Jennifer Canham, Karen Boersma, Karen Li, and Sheila Barry, to name just a few. I’d also like to thank my pal, Laurence, who has been my computer and science mentor for years, and my mum, who’s sitting right there, my biggest fan from the first time she stuck a crayon in my hand when I was two, and who, along with my dad, surrounded me with books.

And of course, my wonderful husband, Fred, who, for more than thirty years, has put up with the squalor that surrounds me when I work. And who has stood beside me on volcanoes and in hospitals, and has made me laugh in both places.

Finally, I want to thank the astonishing biodiversity of this planet of ours that never fails to entertain me and provide me with inspiration."

If you'd like more Jan Thornhill (who wouldn't?), check out her fungus blog, Weird and Wonderful Wild Mushrooms, or just enter her name in the Sci/Why search engine (right) to find links to her many fine Sci/Why posts.

30 Oct 2015

Haunting the Queen Mary

Innocent and out of focus -
I packed light and didn't bring a tripod.

by L. E. Carmichael

It's 9 PM and I'm standing in the lobby of the Westin in Long Beach, site of the 2015 American Folklore Society meeting. I'm hanging out with a group of grad students from Western University (including a lady who hails from Cape Breton!), waiting for a cab to take us to the Queen Mary for a pre-conference ghost tour.

It's dark and we're experiencing a heady mix of excitement and jet lag (I've been awake for 23 hours). After a short ride to the dock, we pile out of the taxi and stare up at the ship, which is enormous, well-lit, and completely innocent looking.

Not for long, though.

We meet our guide, Matt Schultz of ParaXplorer Project, and head for the engine room, where we are promptly turned away because the cast of Castle is filming in there. I want to yell "Nathan Fillion, I'm from Edmonton, too!" but refrain, suspecting that if I do, I'll be booted off the ship before I hear a single ghost story. I snap a couple quick pictures of the crew and equipment, though, as this is the closest I'm ever likely to be to Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

The boiler room
Our tour reroutes, climbing down into the bowls of the ship, 50 feet below waterline. We're in an old boiler room now, a chamber off-limits to ordinary tourists. It's dim and cavernous and rusty. The heat is oppressive and somewhere, water drips. A body hangs from the rafters - part of the prep for a Halloween fright-fest. In spite of this bit of theatrical cheese, I can't help thinking that if anyplace on the boat is haunted, this is probably it.

Matt produces a passel of ghost hunting gadgets from the depths of his knapsack, explaining how each is thought to work. A compass and an EMF detector, for mysterious electromagnetic fields. Dousing rods, for asking spirits questions. Static electricity sensors - in air that's probably 85% liquid, a blip from these seems especially unlikely. Someone asks if a positive response on one of the gizmos is proof of the paranormal. To Matt's credit, he says "I have absolutely no idea." His policy is to eliminate all possible natural explanations for a result first, but the farthest he'll go on ghosts is "maybe."

As a scientist, I appreciate this. Just because science hasn't yet discovered an ordinary explanation doesn't mean there isn't one. On the other hand, the one thing science can never do is definitively prove that ghosts (or bigfoot, or aliens) don't exist - there's always a possibility that new data will come to light. For my part, I'm an open-minded skeptic. After all, Einstein proved that matter can turn into energy. Whether that energy retains a consciousness and a personality is a different question.

A lot of staff and visitors to the Queen Mary have reported ghost sightings. In addition to visual sightings, people claim to have been bumped, pushed, or otherwise manhandled when no hands were in sight. And the ship is also famous for disembodied voices, not to mention EVPs.

Door 13, where John Pedder died.
The flowers are a prompt for soliciting EVPs.

EVP stands for electronic voice phenomenon. It refers to voices that appear on audio recordings - voices that no one heard at the time the recording was made. Matt has a recorder that plays back on a 15 second delay, meant to support real-time conversations with potential spirits. Now we're crowded into a tiny drywalled area in the back of the boiler room, wearing headphones and straining to hear incorporeal voices responding to Matt's questions. The space was a greenroom, from the days when Disney ran the Queen Mary. Attempting to contact spirits from the Disney greenroom is an exercise in irony as much as science.

Castle has cleared out of the engine room, so we troop over and attempt to contact the spirit of seaman John Pedder. Although ghosts of all ages and sexes have been reported on the ship, John is an especially good candidate for a lingering presence - he was found crushed in hydraulic door 13. Matt's team has recorded EVPs that could be John responding to questions, but he's not talking tonight. Someone asks Matt if he's ever "enhanced" the evidence he plays for his tour guests. Never. "In this business," Matt says, "integrity is everything."

Our next stop is the first class pool, another space not on the regular tour. It's thought to be inhabited by two spirits - a ghost cat that our security escort saw once and believed was a living animal, and Jackie, a little girl who, according to the EVPs, loves to join visitors in a rousing rendition of Ring Around the Roses. Since the song is about the bubonic plague, this musical choice also strikes me as highly ironic. One of my photos captures a mysterious orb, superimposed on the balcony door. A spirit orb? There doesn't appear to be dust on the lens, as none of my other snaps show a spot at that point. Lens flare is a distinct and unromantic possibility. I took a couple shots from the same angle, though, and only this one shows anything unusual. A ghost? In Matt's words, "Who knows?"
Look closely -
the orb is near the top right of the door.

It's 1:30 in the morning now, and I've reached that stage of fatigue where my entire brain feels slightly out of focus. Maybe this will make my skeptical mind more sensitive to visitations from the beyond? Matt leads us into the women's change room, a short, narrow, hall lined with cubicles. "Step into any cubby you feel comfortable in," he tells us. Comfortable is not likely. The cubicles are cramped and distinctly coffin-like, it's pitch black and tropically humid in here, and we're about to call for Jackie. Matt sets out a teddy bear, a digital recorder, and four static electricity detectors. We sing in the dark, leaving out the last word of each line in case Jackie chimes in with an EVP.

And then it happens. The static detector farthest from us flares - a burst of green light so short-lived, I'd suspect my exhaustion-steeped eyes imagined it... except for the fact that everyone on the tour exclaims at the same moment. The humidity is condensing on my skin, so I'm having a rough time thinking of a scientific explanation for the presence of static electricity in the room. I find myself wishing that I'd brought my own voice recorder, and wondering whether the two that were running have picked up anything other than us...

In the clear light of the following, caffeine-soaked morning, I settle in for my first panel of the conference. The second paper on the program? "There's an App for That: Legend Tripping With Smartphones." I suspect Matt would have the same opinion of the radar-blipping, random-word generating tech that I do...

Then again, if ghosts exhibit electromagnetic fields, an ability to muddle electronics isn't that far fetched...

Interested in EVPs? Check out some of the recordings Matt's tour groups have made on the Queen Mary.

Want to test a ghost-hunting app at your favourite spooky spot? Click here for reviews.

For a lively and entertaining discussion of history and science in the search for the human spirit, read Spook by Mary Roach.