TREES WE TREASURE by Andrea Alban, children’s author and writing coach

andrea-alban-blogKeep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.  Chinese proverb

The flatbed truck loaded with tree trunks passed my car in Golden Gate Park. I was struck by the contrast of an evergreen-lined boulevard and the dozen redwoods felled by chainsaws, lying in a sad heap on their journey to a lumber yard.

My chest tightened and I tried, but was unable, to hold back tears. In my imagination, the tree sprites whispered their wish for a tree guardian to stop the clear-cutting of land. I pondered how trees provide beauty, shelter, fuel, food, and clean air. Trees inspire art and poetry, by arousing emotions and filling our senses. Trees stand for our best qualities such as peace, courage, compassion, generosity and happiness.

That moment, the seed of a tree poem sprouted into a little sapling. These lines poured from my mind without a single edit:

Everything good begins with me,

the acorn told its mother tree,

and drifted on the dancing breeze.

to find a cloak of golden leaves.

I worked at my writer’s desk for months on my ode to the forest. On the wall above me, was a bulletin board tacked with photos of trees I grew up with. There was the Ponderosa pine at our summer lake home that I measured my height by, the cherry tree I climbed which provided enough sweet fruit to fill a pail (and my belly), and the white pom-pom tree I lay beneath as it shed in the wind and sprinkled me with fairy petals. (My father preferred a pristine lawn so he vacuumed up the “mess” with a Hoover upright every Sunday.)

HTcoverEighteen months later, Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, published The Happiness Tree on recycled paper using soy ink. We included in the back matter an index of state trees and information about how to plant trees through the Arbor Day Foundation. I visited schools with my puppet, TREEna and taught the students—the next generation’s tree guardians—this pledge:

I promise to care for the birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and wildlife nestled in the branches of trees.

I will protect the trees in my community.

I will water my trees.

I will sit beside my trees.

I will start with my heart and my own little patch of earth.

From seed of hope to forest of happiness, I invite tree-huggers of all ages to celebrate Earth Day every day. Adopt a tree in your neighborhood and watch it thrive through the seasons.

Andrea Alban (a.k.a. Andrea Gosline) is the author of three picture books, including The Happiness Tree, currently traveling with the OUT ON A LIMB exhibit through children’s discovery museums in the U.S. and Canada. Her debut novel, Anya’s War, is an A.L.A. honor book. Visit her at www.andreaalban.com

 

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THREE POEMS FOR EARTH DAY by April Halprin Wayland (April is National Poetry Month and Earth Day is the 22nd)

I love this photo of my dad by the Feather River that ran beside our farm

I love this photo of my dad by the Feather River that ran beside our farm

My father was a farmer. He worked and wrote all his life to protect the people,  animals, land and waters of our world.

He farmed acres and acres of walnut trees, but Daddy also planted experimental rows of peanuts, to see if they would grow in our sandy soil. When rabbits began eating the young plants, Daddy wouldn’t poison the rabbits. He figured out another way to protect those peanuts.

PROTECTING THE PEANUTS

“The rabbits,” my dad said,

“are eating the peanut plants

in our garden.”

 

He puzzled over this on the hot tractor,

dragging the disk up and back

thinking about jack rabbits.

 

“One thing we know,”

he said, chewing a peanut butter sandwich,

“is rabbits are afraid of people.”

 

So, he made a scarecrow—

a scarerabbit.

Even gave it his old straw hat.

 

But the next morning

he wrinkled his brow.

“Those darn rabbits,” is all he said.

 

He pondered all morning on the tractor.

“One thing we know,” he said, sipping ice cold ginger ale,

“is rabbits are afraid of the smell of people.”

 

So, he ripped up pieces of his old khaki shirt,

tied them to sticks, and stuck those sticks between the rows of peanut plants.

Looked like a little parade.

 

Who cares,

said the rabbits that night.

We’re not scared.

 

Back disking those long rows in the morning,

Dad deliberated, contemplated, meditated,  ruminated, and speculated.

About rabbits.

 

Then, he took a

big aluminum bucket

and peed in it.

 

Added some water

and dribbled a line of demarcation

around the peanuts.

 

The rabbits

got

the picture.

 

“One thing we know,” he said with a wide smile,

“is that people can be as smart as rabbits.

Just give us time.”

Copyright © 2017 April Halprin Wayland. Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.

========================

When he was a boy, Daddy said he stood in awe each fall as a massive wave of birds migrated over our farm.

ENDANGERED

My father says

that every fall when he was a boy

the sky blackened like some huge dark tongue

sticking out over our farm

as hundreds

 

no thousands of wood ducks or terns

flew overhead

in one great flock

hour after hour

all day long.

 

On the haystack, I am between my mother and my sister

On the haystack, I am between my mother and my sister

I am standing in this field searching the sky

waiting for that huge dark tongue.

I haven’t seen thousands

I haven’t seen hundreds

I haven’t seen

 

one bird.

Copyright © 2017 April Halprin Wayland. Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.

======================


Like my father, I love this earth and work to protect it. Sometimes all it takes to begin is one small action.

LISTENING TO OUR OAK TREE

Do you flip your paper over

when you draw or make a list?

I do—our oak tree tells me to—

she’s gentle but insists.
“See this twig?” she asks me.

“A teensy weensy limb.

If you use the back of every page,

you’re saving one of him.
And his sister and her sister

and another limb until

one day you’ll save a grove of trees!

You’ll do it if you will
just use each paper’s blank side

april-waylandso saplings live for years.

You’ll grow up and you’ll change the world;

they’ll have long tree careers.”

Copyright © 2017 April Halprin Wayland. Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.

=================

April Halprin Wayland is the author of seven books, including More Than Enough—a Passover Story, which has been praised by the New York Times, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, the gold medal-winning picture book, New Year at the Pier, and the award-winning novel in poems, Girl Coming in for a Landing. When she is not writing, April plays the fiddle, hikes with her dog, and advocates for world peace. Learn more at www.aprilwayland.com.

Her father’s name was Leahn J. Halprin.

 

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BREATHING WITH THE SEA by Bruce Balan, award-winning children’s author and sailor of the seven seas

bruce-balanThere was a moment—an exact moment—when the docklines were cast off.

Twelve and a half years ago I wrote those words when I left Long Beach, CA aboard my 46-foot sailboat Migration to sail “around” the world. The quotes are there because the intention wasn’t to circumnavigate the earth, but to meander about, visit different cultures, share, and learn.

So far, across 40,000 nautical miles and 26 countries, I’ve done just that… and also discovered facets of my own country, the USA.

There are times when Migration is coasting over the swells, her sails drawing silently, her bow wave singing—the sky is blue, the wind ideal, and I marvel at the immense beauty of the world, and that my home can travel across the sea in such harmonious concert with nature. My heart expands.

There are times when storms rage and life is uncomfortable and wet, and I cower away from the sea and the wind, longing for calm, and my heart contracts to wait for better days.

trash defaces a remote beach in Malaysia

trash mars a beautiful beach in Malaysia

And there are the times when what could be joyful is blighted by scenes all too real: fishermen dynamiting reefs, tour boats casting anchors on pristine coral, bloated bodies of dead seabirds…, and trash. Trash of all kinds: flip-flops are popular, fishing nets and floats, light bulbs (how do they survive?), styrofoam boxes. But the king and queen of trash are plastic bags and water bottles. We find them everywhere: on remote islands, lonely reefs, floating a thousand miles from nowhere. My heart withers.

I fly to the USA every so often to visit family. Because I have been away for a spell, I notice changes. One year, every time I went into a restaurant, my glass of water was served with a straw. This was new. I found that Americans had decided a glass washed in a high-temperature dishwasher might still have germs. That false perception creates a demand for 500 million plastic drinking straws every day. Yes, day. Because we think we might get sick. The same way we mistakenly think drinking water bought in a plastic bottle is somehow healthier.

Our bodies are remarkable. Take care of them and they last a long time and keep all sorts of harmful substances on the outside.

Our planet is remarkable, too. But hardly any of our world is on the outside of our planet. What we seem to have forgotten is that protecting our bodies (or cars, homes, phones, toys, etc.) at the expense of our earth, achieves the opposite. When our mother earth gets sick, so do we. Plastic—including micro-plastic—permeates the sea. It is in turtles, birds, sharks, whales, fish… the fish we eat.

Migration at anchor in the teal waters of Indonesia

Migration at anchor in the teal waters of Indonesia

My heart shrinks at the thought.

Then… I sail, dive, snorkel, meet fascinating people from other lands. My heart expands. Plastic bottles slide along Migration’s hull. My heart shrinks. The wind and sea carry my home gently forward. My heart expands.

We must breathe. The sea must breathe. The earth must breathe.

The immensity of the Big Blue is as overwhelming as the size of the environmental problems we face. But we breathe, ask the waiter to hold the straw, don’t buy plastic bottles, avoid plastic bags, breathe again. Learn. Share. Breathe again. Expand our efforts. And when we are ready, cast off the docklines and venture out into the blue.

Bruce Balan is the author of many books for young readers including The Magic Hippo and Buoy, Home at Sea—a Parents Choice Gold Medal book. You can learn more about his books at www.brucebalan.com and follow his voyage on the occasionally updated site: migrations.brucebalan.com.

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THE POWER OF NATURE BOOKS by children’s author and professional development guru Barbara Gowan

barb-gowan-desertI heard it on a Levi’s jeans commercial when I was in high school and it has become my motto ever since—Do not be afraid to touch the earth and let it touch you.Following those words has been a guiding force in my life offering me respite from a busy world, bringing comfort and rejuvenation. It’s as if my body clock tells me it’s time to take a walk in the desert, to listen to the songs of the birds, to marvel at the beauty of a cactus flower— to let the earth touch me.

Several years ago I attended the Highlights Foundation workshop, Writing from Nature. We waded through Calkins Creek catching aquatic creatures, walked the woods with a forester, and photographed spring wildflowers peeking through the leaf litter. It rekindled childhood memories of making mud pies and watching clouds float by. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, claims that “children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity.” Current research demonstrates that unstructured, outdoor play in nature is fundamental to childhood and that it is as important as food and sleep. But, look at children today. They are spending half as much time outdoors as children did twenty years ago. Louv feels that many are suffering from nature-deficit disorder.

I wondered what I could do to change this? How could I help children learn to love the natural world enough to protect it? In my career as a naturalist with the Cleveland Metroparks, I learned that the first step to conservation of our natural resources is awareness; followed by understanding, appreciation and ultimately, conservation. desert-digitsAs an author, I want not only to inspire and inform young readers but to give teachers the tools to bring nature awareness into their daily routine. Writing books like Desert Digits allows me to contribute to education in a powerful way.

In my professional development workshops, I suggest simple activities. Is there space in the classroom for a Wonder Table displaying an assortment of shells, flowers, seeds or feathers with hand lenses for a close-up view? The Looking Closely book series by Frank Serafini and Look Once/Look Again by David M. Schwartz complement this investigation. Could the class adopt a tree on school property, photograph it every week and write diary entries in its voice? Is there an opportunity to watch clouds drift by changing shapes and igniting the imagination?

As literacy lovers, we all know the power of a picture book. Exploration of the natural world can begin in the classroom with lushly illustrated books and good read-alouds. Can a child learn empathy from a book? The Just for a Day series by Joanne Ryder allows the reader to become a chipmunk, Canada goose, or even a humpback whale experiencing their life for a day. Author Jim Arnosky suggests that after reading his book Arnosky’s Ark, children select an animal to put in the classroom ark and explain why it needs to be cared for. When I asked my adult daughter why she chose to specialize in environmental law, she immediately responded, “Because of The Great Kapok Tree.” Reading Lynn Cherry’s book as a child moved her to action as an adult.

I challenge you to be moved into action, to share nature books and activities with the children in your life and to let the earth touch you.

Barbara Gowan lives in the Sonoran desert and is the author of G is for Grand Canyon, Desert Digits and D is for Desert – a World Desert Alphabet recognized as an Outstanding Science Trade Book. As a teaching artist with the Arizona Commission of the Arts, Barb is known for her outstanding professional development workshops for educators. Look on her website for more nature activities and a Sharing Nature through Picture Books bibliography: www.barbaragowan.com.

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A4ED Announces 2016 GREEN AUTHORs

green-author-blogMany of our authors & illustrators have become multi-year participants in our mission to education and empower young readers. To honor the achievements of those who exhibit an enduring commitment to mentorship through Authors for Earth Day, we hereby designate them GREEN AUTHORs.

Our GREEN AUTHOR icon, created by beloved American illustrator Jim Paillot, symbolizes each recipient as a true environmental steward.

Please help celebrate our very first GREEN AUTHORs: Dan Gutman and Barb Rosenstock. As steadfast members of our Author for Earth Day coalition, both have donated to conservation through at least five annual A4ED school visits. We applaud their advocacy for children’s literacy—and their unabashed compassion for the natural world.

barb-gaBarb Rosenstock (www.barbrosenstock.com) has been with Authors for Earth Day since 2012. Every year, based on the enthusiastic vote of students, she has donated her entire speaking fee to an charity dedicated to forest preservation. The beneficiaries of her generous outreach have ranged from national organizations, including Sierra Club, The National Park Foundation and Save America’s Forests to the locally focused Forest Preserve District of Lake County Illinois. Barb is the author of several award-winning biographies for young readers, including The Noisy Paintbox, which earned a 2015 Caldecott Honor. In Barb’s A4ED blog, she shares the backstory to her book The Camping Trip That Changed America about the history of the American National Park system—a book that speaks directly to the importance of nature.


ga-dan-gutmanDan Gutman
(www.dangutman.com) has authored over 120 books, including the popular My Weird School series and The Genius Files series. In addition to supporting reluctant readers and promoting laughter in the library, Dan pushes kids to use their noggins—especially when it comes to solving problems of ecological sustainability. Since 2011, he has contributed a whopping $12,000 to conservation organizations, as directed by student research at his A4ED events. As our coalition’s greatest champion and ally, he has brought many prestigious members into our ranks and rallied us to protect our planet. He’s written several A4ED blogs, too, including a compelling  5-part series for kids on climate change.

We all owe thanks to these 2016 GREEN AUTHORS for their inspiration and generosity as eco-minded role models: For speaking on behalf of our earth and its inhabitants and for giving youth the opportunity to cast their vote for a brighter tomorrow. Learn more about Authors for Earth Day at www.authorsforearthday.org.

afed-logo-white

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BIRDS vs. BLADES by scientist and multi-book author Rebecca Hirsch

rebeccaA conversation with a seabird biologist launched me into a book on marine birds and wind farms. During an interview with Iain Stenhouse from the Biodiversity Research Institute, I learned about a group of scientists doing an ambitious study of Atlantic seabirds. The group was trying to learn where birds lived and traveled in the wide blue waters off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Finding answers was urgent. These same waters were being eyed for offshore wind farms. Keeping the ocean safe for birds means constructing wind farms away from the places birds use. The more I learned, the more I knew I wanted to tell this story.

Rebecca (right) wears a survival suit as she and the team get ready for a bird-capture mission.

Rebecca (right) wears a survival suit as she and the team get ready for a bird-capture mission.

The scientists were studying the birds and their habitat in different ways. I chose to focus on their efforts to track birds using satellite tags. The scientists were generous with their time, granting me repeated interviews, inviting me aboard night-time capture missions, and letting me observe surgery while they implanted tags. Although several birds were under study, the star of the book became a daredevil known as the northern gannet. I’m very proud of the book that resulted.

I think it is important to inspire kids with solutions. We hear a lot of bad news about big environmental problems. Sometimes, solving these problems can feel like a lost cause. But that simply isn’t true. And that is why I love writing about scientists and conservationists who are hard at work solving big problems. I love to inspire readers and show them that with hard work, dedication, and cutting-edge science, we can find solutions.

birds-vs-blades

Rebecca E. Hirsch is a scientist and the award-winning author of over four dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Birds vs. Blades? Offshore Wind Power and the Race to Protect Seabirds is a Junior Library Guild Selection. For more details, visit www.rebeccahirsch.com.

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THE CREATION OF AUTHORS FOR EARTH DAY by Brooke Bessesen, A4ED founder and director

tree-huggerAs the author of several children’s books about wildlife, I strive to educate and inspire young (and not-so-young) readers to protect natural habitats, and the great and small creatures who call those habitats home. That’s why I created Authors for Earth Day—A4ED .

It took a lot of work. But with the generosity of our members and participants, A4ED is now an international coalition of over 120 award-winning children’s authors and illustrators. Through our special school visits, students are empowered to research organizations and direct their author’s speaking fee to fund conservation. Our amazing team has already mentored young readers in the United States, Australia, Canada and Israel. And contributed nearly $52,000 to environmental causes!

Like all grassroots efforts, Authors for Earth Day began simply:

In spring 2008, I decided to donate my April 22nd (Earth Day) school visit fee to a conservation organization. I got to thinking, what if the students voted to determine the donation recipient? I was excited to demonstrate the power of voice in such a straight-forward manner—excited for each child to see how they could impact the environment as a voter. And maybe as a writer too. [wink]

I coordinated with my school contact, Reading Specialist Patt Walker. After sending a list of five conservation organizations, classrooms researched my “nominees.” They discussed the democratic process and the importance of Nature. Then, during my author-illustrator visit, we held a paperless vote.

The event was so much fun! The teachers and kids really got into it—they made tons of posters and even wore Earth Day pins and t-shirts. Based on student ballots, the winning organization was The Humane Society of the United States. I wrote a check in honor of Encanto School in Phoenix, Arizona, and was touched when Patt wrote, “Thanks, Brooke, for making this possible with your generous gift.”

logoInspired and motivated, I became determined to see the concept grow to a larger scale. And began working toward that goal.

My 2009 Earth Day school visit was hosted by Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary, where the kids and I celebrated making the world a wee bit better. By then, I had talked with some author friends and launched the A4ED website. But there remained an abundance of work ahead to make my dream a reality.

I spent the remainder of the year emailing authors, expanding our website and building support materials. I spoke with dozens of renowned authors and illustrators and everyone showed definite interested, but with the economy crumbling, it was a challenging time for charity. I became convinced that the whole idea was kaput, finished, a complete waste of time and energy.

My lack of faith proved short-sighted.

In January 2010, authors started confirming events. First Bruce Hale, then Debbie Dadey. Nancy Castaldo and Barbara Gowan. Our small but mighty inaugural team was on the way to success! That spring, I spent the day at Rhodes Junior High in Arizona, while my teammates held similar school visits from California to New York. Together we contributed over $5500 to conservation.

first-year

Now our school visit program now runs year-round. Thanks to my friend and ally Dan Gutman, our coalition has supported more than 45 popular kidlit participants. Through 94 events in 4 countries (22 U.S. states), we’ve contributed nearly $52,000 to over 60 organizations worldwide. Dedicated members, Yolanda Ridge and Nancy Castaldo, post an Eco-Book of the Month list on Facebook. And this blog offers yet another avenue for readers to connect with their favorite authors in a meaningful way.

We’ve come a long way.

So, was it worth all the work to create Authors for Earth Day? When I get letters from students like Zach, who wrote, “You showed us that every day should be Earth Day. And you showed us all ways to protect the planet,” it’s worth every minute.

Brooke Bessesen is a research naturalist and the award-winning author of several books. She is also the founder and director of Authors for Earth Day. Take a trip around her world of words and wildlife at www.brookebessesen.com.

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NEFERTITI, THE SPIDERNAUT: How a Jumping Spider Learned to Hunt in Space by award-winning author Darcy Pattison

Darcy visits Stefanie Countryman (right) at BioServe Space Technologies

Darcy visits Stefanie Countryman (right) at BioServe Space Technologies

True stories about animals fascinate me. But it has to be a really great story. I’m not teary-eyed about a sweet kitten who jumps after a ball. And I’m not a fan of cat videos. But give me a true story of a wild animal who has come into contact with humans and amazed us—that gets me excited.

So when I heard about a spider that went to space, I had to investigate. The story began with a YouTube video competition. In October, 2011, YouTube and its partners asked 14-18 year old students from around the world to suggest a science experiment to send to the International Space Station (ISS). One of the two projects chosen was proposed by 18-year-old Amr Mohamed of Alexandria, Egypt. Amr wondered what would happen when a spider jumped in a microgravity environment.

Most spiders are passive hunters. They simple spin a web and wait for their food to come to them. Jumping spiders, however, actively hunt. When they spot food, they lay down a drag line silk, and then jump. What would happen when they had to jump in space? Without gravity, they’d float. Would they be able to hunt and eat?

To research the story I traveled, but not to the International Space Station. Instead, I went to Boulder, Colorado to meet Stefanie Countryman who works for BioServe Space Technologies, a center at the University of Colorado that specializes 
in creating space flight habitats that enable living organisms to exist as naturally as possible in an unnatural environment. Stefanie is in charge of all the live animal projects that are sent to the ISS. Bioserve had already sent up 14 spiders to space to study how they spun webs in microgravity.

microhabitatStefanie showed me the habitat they had used before and explained the problems. Keeping a spider alive in space is a huge problem. First, it needs food and water. The habitat had a chamber for water and several other chambers available. The obvious choice would be to fill the chambers with fruit flies and let them out for the spider to hunt. But time was a big factor. The spider would be on the space station for 100 days, and fruit flies only live about 40 days. The engineers and scientists decided to try to raise several generations of fruit flies. In chamber one, they put fruit fly eggs timed to hatch just as the spider reached the ISS. In chamber two, they put fruit fly food, and they hoped it would allow the fruit flies to mate, lay eggs and produce a second generation. In chamber three, which would be opened even later, they repeated the food and hoped for a third generation. Did it work?

There’s so much to tell you about this story! What kind of spider was sent? What did they name her and why? Did she survive in space?

9781629440613-Perfect.inddAnswering those questions is why I write biographies of individual animals. When a bird survives for over 65 years in the wild, like Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, I’m amazed. When Abayomi, an orphaned puma cub, survives on his own, I’m astounded. When a Nefertiti, a jumping spider faces the dark and cold of space, I find my own courage.  I write about animals—a bird, a mammal and an arachnid—but I write to stir the human heart with hope that we, too, can survive and make a difference.

Darcy Pattison is the author of over 20 children’s books. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub was named a 2015 National Science Teacher’s Association Outstanding Science Trade Book. Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for Over 60 Years was the first book in the animal biography series and it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. For more, see MimsHouse.com

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CLIMATE ACTION by Canadian middle-grade author (and A4ED Eco-Book co-director) Yolanda Ridge

yo-and-boysEarlier this summer, our federal politicians held a Climate Action Town Hall Meeting in my small, rural community of Rossland, British Columbia. Doing my part to fill the hall and send a strong message to the Canadian capital, I attended the meeting with my husband, Tim, and 10-year-old twin sons, Oliver & Spencer.

Both my boys were engaged in the experience and suitably horrified by the climate change statistics presented, specifically the fact that global temperatures have risen 1.6°C/35°F in Canada since 1880 (compared to an average of 0.85°C across the globe). None of this came as a surprise to them, however. Our province was devastated by forest fires last summer and I am unapologetically trying to raise activists that are aware of their impact on the environment.

What did come as a surprise was the fact that so few children and young adults attended the meeting. And when it came time for the audience to present ideas on how to meet our commitment to the Paris agreement, not one person under the age of forty spoke up.

It made me wonder whether the next generation is being raised in a world where climate change is a given. Are we “activists” guilty of talking about the potential consequences of global warming ad nauseam without actually taking much action?

When asked for out-of-the-box solutions, all my sons could come up with were the conventional ideas—electric cars, plant based diets, renewable energy—that have been on the table for years but still not fully executed. To keep the global temperature rise under 2°C and reverse the affects of climate change we are going to have to do more.

This is one of the many reasons why I feel so passionate about Authors for Earth Day. Not only does it give young people a new way of thinking about their environment and the challenge of protecting our planet, it introduces them to groups that are taking action and provides them with the opportunity to make choices and participate.

Addressing climate change is all about the next generation. But it’s up to this generation to lead by example and raise activists who are actually willing to take action. My thanks to all the authors, host schools and libraries that are doing their part to make that happen.

Yolanda Ridge is the acclaimed author of three middle grade novels. She is also the Eco-Book of the Month co-director for Authors for Earth Day. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her hiking, biking or skiing in the mountains with her family. Learn about her books at www.yolandaridge.com.

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Award-winning Australian author Christopher Cheng once had a job at a zoo—it actually led to his luminous writing career

with python b-wBack in a previous work life I was a teacher and one of my posts was at Taronga Zoo in Sydney as Education Officer with the specific task of implementing and operating Australia’s first travelling zoo—the Zoomobile. It was a magnificent time. I met amazing people who knew way too much about their specific animal charges (human as well as the non-human sort) but were always willing to share their knowledge with me.

While there it was suggested that I write a book about animals for Scholastic and one book became two books and two books became more books. There were squillions of other animal books around but mine I knew were accurate. Why? Because I had the resources to make sure they were correct. Zoo staff checked my every word. They knew the facts, but I knew the way to write those facts … and so it became a fantastic time of writing.

One book I am especially proud of that was created at this time evolved after a lesson with a class of 16-year-old students, who decided that one child couldn’t make a difference to the world. We discussed this exhaustively and eventually agreed that maybe they could. How? Well that became the genesis for my award winning picture book One child.

christopher-cheng with pythonI have continued to burn a spark for non-fiction so, when the opportunity came to write about pythons I jumped at it—all fingers twitching. I love pythons … they are close to being one of my favourite animals. Their beautiful silky and luminescent body covering, their ease of movement (you just try slithering around a tree branch or dangle from the forest limbs and say it’s easy!), their wonderfully developed senses, and the glorious way they massage as they wrap their bodies around their soon to be prey—or to just to hold on! People have the totally wrong idea about pythons! Just watch a child reach out to touch the python as the supervising adult pulls them away. Sure pythons bite—but so do cats and dogs and people if you do the wrong thing. Sure pythons move in a way that is not perambulatory but so do fish. Sure pythons are very, very quiet. But these are all great characteristics. So crafting the book Python was a joy. As was discovering Mark Jackson’ illustrations, exquisite—and accurate!

Do I set out trying to preach? Never. Am I trying to tell a great story—I sure hope so! After all it’s all about the story drawing the reader in to find out more, and more, and more! Then hopefully my readers will love the natural environment as much as I do!

Christopher Cheng is the author of more than 40 children’s books, from picture books to non-fiction to Chinese-themed historical fiction. He wrote the libretto for a children’s musical, is co-chair of the Advisory Board for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and a recipient of the Lady Cutler Award for Children’s Literature. Python was recently released in paperback from Candlewick Press. Learn more at www.chrischeng.com.

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