|I write children’s books that reflect interests I’ve had since childhood, especially my love of numbers and nature. I try to do it in whimsical ways that make the ideas exciting and fun. Because many people seem to think my books are exciting and fun, and because I love to meet my readers, I spend a good deal of my time at elementary and middle schools all over the United States and abroad. I also speak to teachers and other educators at conferences. I cannot think of a better career than writing and speaking to children and their teachers.Before I began writing children’s books and speaking full-time I had about as many jobs as there are grains of sand on an average beach. OK, not quite, but close. I worked as an elementary school teacher, a journalist, a writing instructor and a Residential College Dean at Yale University. I have also put in time as a lumberjack, a veterinary assistant, a carpenter’s assistant and a highway department worker who painted the lines down the middle of the road. (If you saw some wavy yellow lines a few years ago now you know who made them!) Oh, one more: in my 20s, I could not decide what kind of career I wanted so I became a career counselor to help other people decide!In the early ‘80s, with my friend Neal Weiner, I drove the interstate highways of America to chow down at roadside restaurants that Neal and I reviewed in a series of guidebooks called The Interstate Gourmet. In 1985, I had an idea for a children’s book about big numbers. Considering the fascinations I’ve had since childhood, it’s not surprising that I would have chosen such a topic for my first children’s book.Growing up in the New York area in the 1960s, I was fascinated by both the biggest and smallest things in the universe. I took mental journeys into space, inspired by my imagination and the heavenly wonders I read about and occasionally observed through telescopes. When I peered into a microscope, I was transported to the amazing worlds of hidden life. It always amazed me that I was both a giant (compared to ants, microbes, molecules and atoms) and a dwarf (compared to elephants, whales, the Earth, the stars)— all at the same time! I wondered what was at the end of the universe. Was there such a thing as an end to the universe? If not, why not? If so, where was it?
In 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, I watched a display showing the population of the United States. Every seven seconds, the population increased by one person. I timed it with my watch, and I saw that it was always exactly seven seconds — no more, no less. “How could that be?” I wondered. “Why do those babies come popping out at perfect seven second intervals?” (After thinking about it for a while, I began to understand the concept of average. On average, the population goes up by one person every seven seconds. Sometimes it’s six seconds and sometimes it’s eight seconds,but they average out to seven seconds!)
As a youngster, I read many books, and one of my favorites was Cheaper by the Dozen, the story of a very large family. In the book, the father brings home a large piece of paper with 1,000 vertical lines and 1,000 horizontal lines, and he tells his children that the lines cross to create 1,000,000 tiny squares. This was their chance to see what exactly 1,000,000 of something looked like. I loved the idea of capturing a number as big as one million in such a simple way, for all to see and understand. A million seemed unfathomable, but a grid of 1,000 X 1,000 lines — that, I could understand! I thought about ways that I, too, might be able to “capture” the number 1,000,000.I also took real journeys on my bicycle almost every day. To occupy my mind during long bike rides, I liked to calculate how long it would take to ride a magical bicycle all the way around the Earth. . . or to the Moon. . . or the Sun. . . or a distant star. Could anybody count the trillions of stars, I wondered, and if so, how long would it take? I wanted to understand gigantic numbers like million, billion and trillion. I knew how to write them, but I wanted to have a feeling for what their size really meant. I found it challenging but fun to find ways to comprehend truly huge distances, like the distance light travels in a year, which scientists call a “light year.”I once estimated how many books were in my town’s public library, and thenI told myself, “With so many books, surely I could write just one!” But I never tried to write a book until many years later, after I had graduated from Cornell University where I majored in biology, and after I had taught at an elementary school for a few years.
One night I peered upward at a clear sky studded with stars, and all the wonder and excitement I had experienced as a child came back to me.That night, I decided to write a book that would boggle children’s minds the way my mind had been boggled when I had contemplated the heavens and the large numbers used to describe them. The result was my first book, How Much Is A Million?. I had to write it twelve times before I felt it was good enough to be published. The first 17 publishers I sent it to disagreed. They told me to get lost. The 18th publisher said, “We love it!” How Much Is A Million? came out in 1985. I was very lucky that my book was illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Many people – children and adults alike – seemed to love our book.
My second book was about money. It’s called If You Made A Million, and it is also illustrated by Steven Kellogg. I wrote it to help the many children who sent letters after reading my first book saying, “What I really want to know is: how much is a million dollars?”
I have also written a book based on the true story of a 66-year old Swedish grandfather who rode his bike in a 1,000-mile race, even though the judges had told him he was too old to enter. When I heard about Gustaf Hakansson, I found his story inspiring and heart-warming, and I told it in my book Supergrandpa, illustrated with beautiful water color paintings by Bert Dodson.
In the summer of 1990, I traveled in South America with Victor Englebert, a world-renowned photographer whose pictures have been published in many magazines, including National Geographic. Victor had already spent three months living with the Yanomami people of the Amazon, whose fascinating lives are respectful of their rain forest environment. Victor and I decided to write about these people. Our book is Yanomami: People of the Amazon. It describes their life style and how it is threatened by the modern world. The book also contains a section called “What You Can Do,” in which I describe some ways you can help the Yanomami people survive. (By the way, some books call these people the “Yanomamo” and a few call them the “Yanomama.” These are different spellings for the same group of people.)
I have always been fascinated by animals and plants as much as I am fascinated by numbers. In 1989, I wrote a series of nature books called The Hidden Life series, illustrated with photographs from one of the world’s great nature photographers, Dwight Kuhn. Dwight and I have also collaborated on two series of science books for beginning readers. One series is called Look Once, Look Again (we call it LOLA for short!) and the second is Life Cycles. The LOLA books use Dwight’s wonderful close-up photographs like a guessing game. First you see a close-up of just a small part of an animal or plant (the brilliant feather of a peacock, for example, or the warty skin of a toad, or a cluster of seeds inside an apple). My text gives hints about the subject’s true identity. To find out for sure you must turn the page, where you see a picture of the whole animal or plant and more text about about it.More recently, Dwight and I have continued the “guessing game” in an entirely new, exciting format in our three In the Wild books. The first, Where In the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed… and Revealed, is a unique book on animals that hide with their colors. They hide in the pages of the book until the reader opens the double-width, folded page to find them. Across from the photo is a poem that hints at the animal’s identity without revealing it. Figuring it out, and finding it in the photo, is the reader’s job. Where In the Wild? won the SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Literature in the category “Children’s Science Picture Book” (sponsored by Subaru the American Association for the Advancement of Science). It also won the Animal Behavior Society’s Outstanding Children’s Book Award, and it was reviewed in the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote, “That’s coo!”. Where in the Wild? was followed by Where Else in the Wild? More Camouflaged Creatures Concealed … and Revealed. The newest book in the series is What In the Wild? Mysteries of Nature Concealed … and Revealed which focuses on some of life’s stranger phenomena and structures, which the reader is challenged to identify before turning the page.Another duo of books combines my love of math with my interest in science. If You Hopped Like a Frog came first, and then If Dogs Were Dinosaurs. These books use the mathematical concept of proportion to appreciate the abilities of animals and the wonders of relative size.
The idea for If You Hopped came to me while I was showing pictures of animals to an audience of teachers. I demonstrated how a three-inch frog hops five feet. That means the frog is hopping 20 times its own length. If you could hop like a frog, I said, you could sail through the air 20 times your own length (your height). You’d be quite a jumper! How far you could go would depend on your size. If you were 4’6″ tall, you could jump 90 feet. That means you could make it from home plate to first base in one mighty leap! If You Hopped Like a Frog opens with that example and goes on to other examples of what would happen if humans had the amazing abilities of animals. At the back of the book, I explain the math behind each of example.
Finally, I want to tell you about my two alphabet books, G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, and Q is for Quark: A Science Alphabet Book. I got the idea from all the upper elementary and middle school teachers who told me that their students could use some help with math and science vocabulary. First I wrote an alphabet book of my favorite math words, designed for kids in the 8-13 age range. Most people think that reading about math vocabulary is as exciting as eating tofu, but I did everything I could to make my math vocabulary book tasty (even funny). The pictures are by Marissa Moss, the author and illustrator of Amelia’s Notebook and many other great books. In case you’re wondering about the word “googol,” you might be interested to know that it was named by a 9-year old boy. A googol is a huge number – a one followed by 100 zeros. You can write it as a one with 100 zeros, but there’s a much easier way to write it. (You’ll find out how when you read the book.) No doubt a googol is a big number, but how big? Is it more than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth? Is it more than the number of grass blades on all the fields and lawns on Earth? Is it more than the numbers of hairs on all the people and animals on Earth? Yes, yes and yes. A googol is so big that there isn’t a googol of any physical object, anywhere. Do you believe it? It’s true. Or at least physicists think so now. It’s possible that something new could be discovered. G is for Googol won several awards, and I followed it with Q is for Quark, my book of science words. It starts with “A is for Atom” and ends with “Z is for Zzzzzzzz” (about sleep). In between, there’s a whole wide world of science words and ideas, like “B is for Black Hole,” and “R is for Rot,” and “W is for Wow!” – and a visual joke under “C is for Clone.” Quark is illustrated by Kim Doner, whose pictures are so funny that I keep reading the book over and over – not to reread my words, but to appreciate Kim’s delightful sense of humor.
Ever since my first book came out, I have been spending a lot of time speaking traveling and speaking at schools and conferences. The very first time I went to a school I was a little nervous! I had no idea of what I would tell the students but I hit upon an idea for a way to demonstrate how numberswork, and to show how big the big numbers really are. Everyone loved it. (You may be wondering what I did, but I’m not going to reveal it here, because that would ruin the surprise if I ever go to your school.) I had so much fun, and so did the kids (and teachers), that I’ve taken my presentations to hundreds of schools all over United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and many other countries on every continent except Antarctica (where the only schools are for fish).
At schools I have found that the students really do get excited about math and science— just as I want them to — but they also have a lot of questions that have nothing to do with math or science or books. They want to know about me. So now I’ll tell you a little about myself, aside from my books: I live in Oakland, California. Despite living in a city, it is easy for me to get to places where I can see deer, raccoons, opossums, and lots of birds and butterflies. When I’m not writing books or visiting schools I might be working in the garden or cooking in the kitchen. I love to cook — especially if I grew the food myself! Or I may be out hiking or bird-watching or riding one of my bicycles or paddling my kayak. One of my favorite ways to spend a few days or a week is to pack my car with a bicycle, a pair of binoculars and my hiking boots, and head for the mountains. I spend my time hiking or biking, pausing now and then near a gurgling stream or in a protected nook on a mountaintop where I can read or do some writing on a pad of paper. At night I’m likely to be gazing up at the stars. They still fill me with awe, just as they did when I was a child.