Saturday, January 31, 2015

Katherine Roy's Neighborhood Sharks - February 7th, 11:00 am

We're excited to have author, illustrator, Center for Cartoon Studies graduate, and NYC resident Katherine Roy coming to the store next Saturday (February 7th). She will be here at 11:00 am as part of our author-educator series. Katherine's debut picture book Neighborhood Sharks vividly recreates a day in the life of a shark and reveals why sharks are essential to our ecosystem and deserve our protection. She'll share behind the scenes information on how she researched this book on the water with Bay Area shark scientists and show how she turns information into storytelling and creates a book from start to finish.

We're excited about this event for several reasons.

Bonus New Reason (as of 2/2/15): Neighborhood Sharks is a Sibert Honor Book. The Robert F. Sibert Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the most distinguished informational books. You can read a description of the medal here.

1. Katherine is a really talented author and illustrator. You may have seen her illustrations before in local author S.S. Taylor's Expeditioners series. Her debut picture book, published under David Macaulay's new imprint at MacMillan, is getting a lot of attention. It uses the feeding patterns of great white sharks to explore biology, ecosystems, and how scientists study key species. The illustrations are just as engaging as Jaws ever was.

Here's a short list of some of the press Katherine has received:
2. Katherine is dedicated to sharing information about how she makes her books and giving readers, students, and teachers resources for learning more about both her subject and her process. Her website ( is worth serious exploration, full of blog posts, pictures, and videos. Here are some examples of Katherine talking about her research and how she makes her books:
3. Katherine is bringing elephant videos from her next project, and last week's speaker Laurel Neme already has us primed to be fascinated by studying wildlife around the world.

4. Katherine is a Center for Cartoon Studies graduate, and we just think that's very cool. 

5. We're getting in some new baking cookbooks and need to try out recipes. There will also be something healthy, but that's less exciting.

Katherine's work is truly interdisciplinary, capturing the best of scientific research and visual storytelling. If you have an interest in science, ecosystem studies, drawing, stories, or just ideas about communicating information in an engaging way, please join us on Saturday, February 7th at 11:00 am! The event is free and open to the public.We provide certificates of attendance to educators who can use these workshops for continuing education credits. And we always offer 20% off books purchased for school classrooms and libraries.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

One Orangutan = Lots of Things to Learn (with Laurel Neme)

Writer Laurel Neme has investigated a lot of wildlife stories over her career, and written for a diverse range of outlets, from the environmental news site to her podcast The WildLife to a new picture book Orangutan Houdini.

Laurel's interest in writing a picture book after writing for an older audience began with the influence books about animals had on her when she was young, sparking an interest in this topic. Laurel channeled this interest in animals and wildlife into writing, but sees how an initial spark of interest can lead in many directions. For example, she says, "wildlife forensics [her primary focus]. . . is a new science, which means that there are a lot of discoveries to be made, a kid today who gets interested in this [field] will have many chances to make a new discovery."

The idea of a starting spark of curiosity begetting more curiosity and branching out into new discoveries informs how Laurel presents her work to classes and educators.

On January 24th, Laurel talked educators through one network of exploring across many subject areas starting with the example of her book Orangutan Houdini. This book tells the story of Fu Manchu, a real life orangutan who lived in a Nebraska zoo. Fu traded treats with an older orangutan for a length of wire she could pull from the light fixture in her cage. He could use that wire to pick the cage locks whenever he felt like roaming outside. The zookeepers knew he used something to pick the locks, but never could find what it was because Fu hid the wire in his mouth. When he was finally moved to a more secure enclosure and his keepers admitted they couldn't figure out his trick, he showed them where the wire was hidden. He never tried using that trick to escape again. As Laurel says "Once he knew the jig was up, he was done."

Fu Manchu wasn't alone. Laurel has heard a lot of orangutan stories like Fu Manchu's. There was Ken Allen, an ape at the San Diego zoo, who liked to escape so he could hang out with the human tourists (the zookeepers brought in Swiss mountaineers to figure out what handholds he might be using). Another orangutan enjoyed the trick of unlocking all the other orangutans' cages at night so they could switch places before the zookeepers returned to let them out in the morning.

This stories aren't just about particularly interesting orangutans. They show orangutans' ability to plan, to use tools, to anticipate what the zookeepers will think or do so that they can hide their tricks, and that they enjoy a challenge. These stories are part of the larger mystery of animal intelligence.

Another example of orangutan intelligence is how some of them learn language. They can't vocalize in the way humans do, but can learn to understand what we say and respond using symbols. For example, Rob Shunaker (currently at the Indianapolis Zoo) has worked for decades with Azy, an orangutan who communicates using symbols on a computer screen. You can see a video of the two working together that Laurel uses in classroom presentations here. Another example is Chantek, an orangutan who uses sign language and has other skills including making jewelry (for fun) and (according to Wikipedia) giving the directions to get from his home at the research center to the nearest Dairy Queen. Chantek is known for inventing words when he doesn't know the exact symbols, for example "tomato" plus "toothpaste" = ketchup.

Laurel has discovered that younger children particularly enjoy seeing how the orangutans learn language because it mirrors how they study parts of speech (Azy, for example, knows nouns and verbs) and also connecting symbols to words (known in human parlance as "reading").

How did orangutans get so smart? 

One theory is because they spent a lot of time sitting in trees and thinking. Orangutans are the only fully arboreal ape. They don't have many natural predators, and they pretty much sit up out of reach anyway. That gave their ancestors time to look around and ponder.

Fully Rotating Hips - Picture of a Sumatran Orangutan from Wikipedia
Whatever the connection to trees and thinking, you can see clear evidence how the orangutan's body matches its tree-to-tree existence. They have an arm span that is 1.5 times their height - or about the same as an NBA basketball player's arm span. They also have fully rotating hips, in addition to rotating shoulders. Laurel's teacher's guide to Orangutan Houdini includes examples of building math lessons from these measurements.

In addition to looking at the engineering of an orangutan's body, you can also study their movement patterns - and how these patterns suggest a different personality than other great apes (Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Bonobos). In this YouTube clip, movement coach Terry Notary demonstrates the differences.

Apes have no tails. Monkey have tails. Curious George? No tail

Tree top life is only one component of the orangutans' habitat. These trees grow in the rainforest of only two islands: Borneo and Sumatra. The peat swamps common on these islands help explain some of the orangutan's color. They create a muddy, orange-ish color that reflects up from the ground, while the sunlight filtering down through the trees' canopies reflects green and absorbs some of the orange colors . . . making muddy orange an excellent camouflage. Laurel's teacher's guide includes activities for discussing the rainforest ecosystem.

Orangutans play an important role in the traditional cultures in the places where they're found. The name "orangutan" means "Man of the Forest" in the Dayak language of that region. These cultures have strong beliefs about protecting orangutans, which are not necessarily honored by others. Like many animals adapted to habitats that cover only a small area, the orangutans face threats from loss of those habitats due to human activity.

Palm oil production is one major factor in destroying the places where orangutans live. Palm oil is very common in food manufacturing. In some ways it's a great oil to use - it's plant-based, stable, and the oil palm trees require relatively little land to grow. However, orangutan habitat is being cleared and peat swamps burned to open space for planting the oil palms. Burning or draining the peat swamps additionally releases large amounts of carbon (20 times more than with neighboring forests not on peat according to Mongabay). A switch to "deforestation-free" palm oil that focuses on using land that has already been disturbed instead of clearing new land is one solution. "That's a harder story to tell," Laurel notes, "It's easier to say 'no' to palm oil. . . but the goal is really sustainable oil production."

Other concerns for orangutans are the capture of babies for the illegal pet trade and treatment of animals in the entertainment industry.

A lot of Laurel's writing has to do with the threats facing wildlife. She's found that kids can take an active, effective part in advocacy. We have an entire post focused on kids and advocacy, which we've updated with new information following Laurel's talk.

That's a snapshot of some of the things you can learn from the starting point of one story about an orangutan playing a trick on its keepers. Laurel has more ideas written out as classroom activities in her Teacher's Guide for Orangutan Houdini found on her website She encourages any feedback teachers have to offer.

And get ready for our next workshop with Katherine Roy, author / illustrator of Neighborhood Sharks. Find out how she does her research and how she turns that research into storytelling, Saturday, February 7th, 11:00 am.

Laurel signs copies of Orangutan Houdini

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Students Take On International Wildlife Issues

As part of our author-educator event series, we're excited to have author Laurel Neme coming to the store on Saturday, January 24th at 11:00 am to talk about creating global connections from the classroom. As with all events in this series, this workshop is free and open to the public. There will be coffee and light refreshments. 

Author Laurel Neme tackles many big, global problems in her journalism about wildlife. You can see many of these issues on the website and in National Geographic. She wrote about international crimes against wildlife in her adult book Animal Investigators and her recent picture book Orangutan Houdini profiles a real life orangutan whose behavior helped give new insight into how these primates think.

While the story of Orangutan Houdini doesn't deal directly with current threats to orangutans in the wild, Laurel does connect the story with these current issues when she speaks about the book. One particular problem is the loss of habitat due to palm oil production. She also addresses these topics in her Teacher's Guide to Orangutan Houdini (available on her website here).

One of the questions Laurel gets asked -- from students, teachers, and parents -- is "what can kids do?" if they're concerned about global issues like the ones discussed in her writing. Part of the answer is to connect with organizations dedicated to addressing whatever the particular cause may be. These organizations have resources dedicated to researching the problem and possible responses, as well as to coordinating campaigns with a global reach. They often offer "What Can I Do?" answers that cover a range of possible responses. For example, Laurel works with the Sumatran Orangutan Society on the palm oil issue.

We asked Laurel if she has good examples of kids and / or classes working on wildlife issues that she has come across in her recent work. She's got a lot of examples and sent us a few:
To learn more, come join Laurel at Bear Pond Books on Saturday, January 24th at 11:00 am!

For other posts related to this event, check out this Q&A with Laurel and this list of recommended reading.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Laurel Neme - Orangutan Houdini & Creating Global Connections

Laurel Neme travels around the world to learn about, and write about, animals. She is a contributor to National Geographic, host of "The WildLife" podcast, and author of the book Animal Investigators about the world's first wildlife forensics lab to investigate poaching, smuggling and other wildlife crimes. In 2014, Bunker Hill published her first picture book Orangutan Houdini. On January 24th, she will be at Bear Pond Books at 11:00 am speaking to educations about animals, conservation, and making global connections from Vermont classrooms.

In preparation for her workshop, we sent Laurel some interview questions, which are answered below. She also gave us a list of her favorite wildlife-related books for kids, which are linked here (with some added ideas from us).

Come join us on Saturday, January 24th. As always, this workshop is free, open to the public, and coffee and snacks will be served. We have certificates of attendance available for educators who can use these workshops towards continuing education credits.

How did you first get interested in wildlife and wildlife protection?
I suspect it was a confluence of people and books that first got me interested in animals. My mother was a science teacher (and later a writer), and as a kid we’d watch Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau television specials. In third or fourth grade (it was a multi-age class), my teacher, Mrs. Savitt, fostered that love through reading and writing. She “published” her students’ stories. Mine was “Zeebie the Zebra”.  She also encouraged us to read fun books. My favorites were Doctor Doolittle and James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which allowed me to dream about a career helping animals.

You've written about many animals, what stood out about orangutans that made you choose them for your first picture book?

Their intelligence and similarity to humans. They’re problem solvers, like us, and they thrive on challenging themselves. Fu Manchu is probably the most famous orangutan escape artist, but there are several others who easily could have been the subject of this story. They also have a sense of humor. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some very special, and devious, orangutan individuals myself – and the more I get to know them, the more I’m enchanted.

I’ve always been interested in primates. Like many young women, I wanted to be the next Jane Goodall, and even studied primatology in college. But while researching my first book, ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS (on wildlife forensics), I discovered the prevalence of orangutans in the illegal pet trade. They’re incredibly cute when young, so people want them. But because mothers won’t relinquish their infants, poachers typically kill them to get the babies. It’s a sad story. Even worse, their forest habitat is being cut down to make way for palm oil. That has two impacts: it’s easier to find them (for pets) and they no longer have their homes.

While orangutans are endangered, there is a lot we can do to help them. However, the first step is to care. I wrote ORANGUTAN HOUDINI not only because it’s a funny story but also because when a reader gets to know an individual animal, they start to care. I hope that when children and their parents meet Fu (admittedly, one very special ape), they’ll come away with a love of orangutans.

What are some ways that you've seen kids and / or teachers get involved in conservation? Any examples from Vermont?

There are many things kids and their parents can do to help protect orangutans and other endangered species. Most important is to create awareness.

There are many ways you can do that: school projects, sharing articles on social media, or writing letters to local newspapers. You may have heard of Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, two young women I know and admire who, when they were in middle school, gained national media attention for trying to get Girl Scouts cookies to use more sustainable palm oil in their cookies. What’s interesting is that their campaign started very small, with a school project and sharing information with friends.

Another girl I know, Allie Boyer from California, started raising awareness when she was just 9-years-old. She created “Borneo Bob”, a flat cutout of an orangutan that she sent to friends along with a letter explaining the plight of orangutans, similar to Flat Stanley.

You can get creative. For instance, after I spoke at Moretown Elementary School in central Vermont, a group of third graders decided to wear orange to show how much they loved orangutans.

You can also write to policy makers or companies, or raise money to support specific organizations. But remember, it doesn’t have to be about orangutans. You can have an impact on whatever you care about. You can do that very effectively by simply sharing your passion.

If you want more information, I have a wonderful Teacher’s Guide that was developed in collaboration with educators and scientists that you can download free from my website. In addition to activities for language arts, mathematics, science and social studies, it contains a number of ideas to help students take action to help orangutans or any other species.

What animals / issues are on your mind right now for future writing projects?

I’ve got several writing projects underway right now, including more picture books and several articles for National Geographic. My son and I also volunteer at Outreach for Earth Stewardship, which rehabilitates injured birds of prey (like owls, hawks and peregrine falcons), and I’m planning to tell some of their stories.

Laurel Neme is speaking at Bear Pond Books on Saturday, January 24th, from 11:00 - noon.