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Tuesday, January 26, 2016


It's SNOW LEOPARD CUBS, of course! You can visit and see what happens in my book Snow School.

Snow School was inspired by my love of cats, especially wild cats. There are none more fascinating than snow leopards.  These wild cats are so rare there are believed to be as few as 3,500 left in the entire world.  

As always, when I want to learn more about a wild animal I go exploring. That’s how I came to spend a winter in Antarctica, the experience that inspired me to write A Mother’s Journey, a story about what female emperor penguins do while the males hatch out the eggs. 

Dr. Tom McCarthy with snow leopard cub
(courtesy of Panthera Snow Leopard Trust)
Sometimes, though, I just can’t get to the places I need to go to explore firsthand.  Then I track down experts who have been able to go to those places and studied the wild animals I want to write about.  That was the case with Snow School.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tom McCarthy who has spent many years climbing the high, rugged mountains of Pakistan in order to learn about the life and behavior of snow leopards.  

To see where snow leopards live and the story of Snow School takes place, go on-line to find out about Pakistan (in red on the globe).  Also search for information about the Hindu Kush Mountains, the setting for the story.  This habitat is one of the harshest on earth and requires the cats to be able to chase fast prey downhill over 
very rocky terrain.

Even during his many years studying snow leopards Dr. McCarthy shared that he only had a chance to watch a few downhill chases as snow leopards caught prey.  He said, “Once, I was lucky enough to see a mother have two cubs with her while she hunted.”  

Dr. McCarthy guessed these cubs were in training.  Snow leopard cubs spend two years with their mothers learning to survive on their own.  That inspired me to wonder what lessons snow leopard cubs need to learn in order to be successful in the extreme conditions of their home habitat.  

For one thing, as soon as they’re big enough, snow leopard cubs travel with their mother. That way they get a close look at the features of their environment.  And they learn the shortest, safest routes to take. 

To get a feel for what the snow leopard cubs are learning, go to your local park or playground with a parent or adult partner.  Take along a pencil and a notepad.  Draw a map of the area.  Use symbols to mark any key landmarks, like fountains or statues, big trees, or benches.  Next, study the map with your partner and plan the fastest, safest path to use to travel across the mapped area.  Then use a watch to time how long it takes you to run across the area following your chosen path.  Afterwards, revisit the map and decide if another way might be easier or safer.  Time your new route.

The snow leopard’s habitat is really a high desert with very steep terrain.  When these cats hunt, they have to chase down prey animals, like ibex, capable of running down steep, rocky slopes without falling.  And they have to pounce at just the right moment to stop their prey without going over a cliff.

Snow leopards do have some natural built-in advantages. One is a very long tail.  Dr. McCarthy reports that a snow leopard’s tail is all muscle and that it’s heavy. He said, “It must even be heavy for the snow leopard.  In snow, I’d see a mark where  a cat would start to drag its tail after every two or three steps.  So holding up its long tail must be tiring.”

Having such a long tail is worth the effort, though, when the snow leopard starts to run.  It swings its tail back and forth and that helps it stay balance while twisting and turning.  To get a feel for how its tail helps a snow leopard stay balanced, try this.  Stand on one foot with your hands at your sides.  Then repeat standing on one foot but this time stretch out your arms and move them forward and backward.  

Snow leopards also have big feet that act like snowshoes, helping them walk on top of fluffy snow.  In fact, Dr. McCarthy reported a snow leopard’s feet leave very round footprints because their feet are about as wide as they are long (about four to five inches in both directions.) Measure the length and width of one of your feet.  How much longer is your foot that it is wide?  And, just for fun, figure out how much longer your foot is than a snow leopard’s.

These cats also have a lot of fur around their toes and the pads of their feet to shield them from the ice and snow.  Like housecats, snow leopards have retractable claws.  They put these out to help them climb and to stop themselves from skidding.

Dr. McCarthy reported that once a snow leopard catches prey it needs a safe place to eat—safer than on a steep mountainside.  Dr. McCarthy said, “I’ve watched a snow leopard drag a big goat that weighs as much, if not slightly more, than the cat does.  And it drags this prey uphill.”   

Imagine pulling something that weighs as much as you do.  Now, imagine doing it the way a snow leopard does.  This cat bites to grab its prey.  Then it drags this weight between its legs.  This is another behavior snow leopard cubs learn by being copycats, doing what their mother does.

 From an early age, the cubs learn the smell of what’s good to hunt because their mother brings home prey.  See if you’ve learned to identify your food by its scent.  Have an adult partner blindfold you. Then have them hold each of the following five food items, one at a time, under your nose for you to sniff.  Test your scent IQ on the following: peanut butter, orange juice, mustard, cheese, and ketchup. 

You might be surprised to learn that snow leopards usually only get a chance to catch big prey about once a week.  So when it does, the cat is likely to stay by its prey and eat as much as 25 pounds of meat a day for two to three days.  How much is that.  Weigh a plate.  Then put the food you’re going to eat for dinner on that plate and weigh it again. Subtract the weight of the plate to see how much your meal weighs.  How many of those meals would you have to eat to equal what a snow leopard eats when food is available?

Can you guess what snow leopards do after such big meals?  You’re right!  They sleep.  Like lions, tigers, and housecats, snow leopards sleep most of the day to save their energy for hunting.  

I hope you enjoy reading Snow School.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Some animals can't wait for it to snow.

And some can't wait for there to be lots of ice.

So those animals would think you're lucky to have cold winter weather.

You definitely can have a special kind of winter fun.  These activities will give you ideas for ways you can make the most out of living where winter is--well--wintery!

Go On A Scavenger Hunt

You might find maple seeds like these.

Try to find:

  • Something older than you are
  • Something younger than you are
  • A seed
  • Something rough
  • Something smooth
  • Something that will change in the spring
  • A bird feather

How wet is the snow? 

 Find out. In an average snowfall, ten inches (25 cm) of snow melts down to one inch (2.5 cm) of water. How much drier or wetter is your current snowfall.

You'll need a can at least ten inches (25 centimeters) tall with straight sides. Try to collect your snow sample shortly after the snow stops falling. Fill your sampling can, but don't pack the snow.

Next, take the can indoors and let the water melt.

Try keeping a record of each new snowfall for the rest of the winter. Which months had the wettest snow? If you keep your tracking going, find out how one year's snowfalls compare to another.

By the way, I spent one winter at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I'd always heard that, if temperatures were below -60F (-51C) boiling water thrown into the air would freeze before it hit the ground. I had a chance to test it because that winter the temperatures dropped as low as -129F. The boiling water immediately turned into tiny sparkling ice crystals.

This is a great winter time read--don't miss it.

The Winter of the Blue Snow

Have you ever heard of Paul Bunyan? He was a giant of a man--and I mean a real giant, so the stories go. There are tales about the lumber camp he ran in the far North. 
One of those is about the winter of the blue snow.

Nobody knew why the snow was blue that winter. Some say it was because it was so terribly cold. How cold was it? It was too cold for thermometers to measure. The men each had sixteen blankets to sleep under, but they still couldn't keep warm. Shot Gunderson, the head woodchopper, slept under forty-two blankets one extra cold night. There were so many blankets he got lost trying to find his way out from under that huge pile. In fact, it took him three whole days to uncover himself. The poor fellow nearly starved to death before he made it to the cook shake.

Not that eating was easy once you got to the table. When Hot Biscuit Slim, the cook, set coffee out to cool, the steaming brew froze so fast that the ice was hot. The men had to eat with their mittens on because the hot biscuits froze solid before they went the distance from plate to mouth.

Conversations around the bunkhouse were slowed down mightily that super-cold winter. Words froze as fast as they were spoken. Piles of icy words had to be heaped behind the stove because nobody could tell what had been said until the words thawed out.

About the time summer was due, the weather got even colder and the blue snow kept on falling. Snowdrifts piled up two hundred feet (60 meters) deep. Elevators were built just to carry the men from the bunkhouse to the surface. To log the trees, Paul had to scoop out holes and lower his men down to the forest.

What you don't believe this wintery tale? 
Make up one of your own packed full of all the things that might happen if it was super cold and the snow was super deep.

One of the most famous blizzards ever recorded was during the winter of 1888. Thirty to forty inches (75-100 cm) of snow and ice was dump on the Northeastern United States. That was before snowplows and entire cities were helpless for weeks. Before the blizzard was over four hundred people had died.

Collect Snowflakes

While no two snowflakes are ever exactly alike (as far as anyone knows), they are all hexagone--six-sided crystals. Snowflakes take several main shapes.

If you want to catch some snowflakes, chill a clean glass slide or a small mirror in the refrigerator. Take the cold glass outside and allow a few flakes to collect on it. You may need a magnifying glass to see the snowflakes if they are very small.

To preserve snowflakes so you can even take them inside with you you'll need a can of plastic spray--the kind artists use on chalk drawings.

Chill the spray along with the clean glass slide. Carry the glass slide outside on a piece of cardboard. This keeps your body heat from warming the glass. Spray the glass lightly with the plastic coating. Let snowflakes collect on the glass. Take the preserved snowflakes inside and let the plastic coating completely dry (about fifteen minutes).

Check out this book about Wilson Bentley.
His photos of snowflakes became world famous.

Now you can examine the snowflakes with a magnifying glass or a microscope if you have one. No need to rush. These snowflakes will stay crystal-clear forever.

Go Tracking

Duck Tracks

Rabbit Tracks

When the ground's covered with snow, it's the perfect time to collect animal tracks like these.

Take along an adult partner and a digital camera. Snap photos of any animal tracks you find. Back home, look on-line to match the prints you found to the animal. Google images is one good source to check out.

While you're at it try to decide what the animal might have been doing at the time it left its tracks. Was it running or walking? How do you think you could tell? Try making tracks of your own running and walking and observe the difference. It's even more fun if you find overlapping sets of tracks from different animals. Now, make up a story for what might have happened. Was one animal there first? Was one animal chasing the other? There's a new story in every set of snow tracks you find--even if they're people footprints.

Treat The Birds

You can get a good look at birds that spend the winter in your neighborhood, if you invite them to dinner. An easy treat to make is a peanut butter pinecone. Loop a string around the top of a pine cone and tie a knot. Next, smear peanut butter on the cone and roll the cone in birdseed. Then have an adult partner hang the pinecone where birds will be able to perch and eat. 

Now, keep watch. Use bird books and search on-line to help you identify the birds visiting your bird diner. Also, answer these questions:
1. What time of day do the birds come to eat? 
2. Do the birds come more on stormy or sunny days?
3. Do the birds take turns and feed one at a time? Or do they compete to eat?
4. Which birds usually chase other birds away?

Create a colorful bar graph to share the data you collect about your dinner guests.

Remember, to replace your pinecone with a fresh treat from time-to-time to keep the dinners coming back for more.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Most of the time, we roll along without really noticing how our personal history intertwines with the world's history. Then there are moments when the two collide and what touches the world effects us with life-changing force. That's actually happened to me more than once. But one moment that happened thirty years ago is what's on mind and in my heart today as it's anniversary looms. So I'll share.

While I'm best known for writing about wildlife and conservation issues, I have a long history of being involved with NASA and the space program. It was an exciting, totally amazing experience. You could say I grew into writing about science and striving to bring science to life for children because of that experience. 

My relationship with NASA began because I was writing the "Hands-On, Minds-On" column for Instructor Magazine (something I did for eleven years). Plus I was simply fascinated by the space program. After all, when I was in elementary school the space race was just starting. 

I remember standing outside at night with my mom and dad, watching for Sputnik to zip by overhead. In college, rushing to the Student Union between classes to elbow into the crowd around the TV watching John Glenn's return from earth orbit. And the summer of 1969 driving for hours to get back to the girl's camp I was working at in time to watch Neil Armstrong step on the moon. The space program was in my blood.

How exciting to have the opportunity as a writer to go inside NASA first for Instructor Magazine. Later, for NASA and the Martin Marietta Corporation on assignment to produce educational materials for the backs of posters and handouts for schools. I actually sat in a room with moon rocks. Climbed around inside the Space Shuttle trainer. Tried out the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) trainer. 

And I had a chance to interview astronauts. I remember asking George "Pinky" Nelson what it felt like to launch in the Space Shuttle. He said, "Like being smacked in the back with a baseball bat."

In 2007, I was blessed to interview Scott Carpenter toward the end of his life. He was amazing to talk to because, while he was the fourth American to fly into space and the second to orbit the earth, he'd also lived and worked for 30 days in SeaLab II--deep down at the bottom of the ocean. 

That interview happened because Tuffy, the dolphin, brought mail and supplies from the surface to the deep habitat. But what I was most interested in was his take on being in those two extreme environments. Scott said, "In space flight, you sense the acceleration but not the reduced pressure once you're weightless. Weightlessness is unimportant to you. Likewise, once you're underwater, you're insensitive to the great pressure. What's exciting always for someone who's curious, like me, is the chance to learn all sorts of things and do all sorts of things that had not been done before."

For me, being curious led to some incredible, unforgettable moments connected with the space program. One of those was June 18, 1983. That was when Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman astronaut to fly into space. 

Because of my long involvement with NASA and the space program by that time, I was honored to be invited to be one of the women journalists to attend a three-day celebration of that event. The culminating moment, of course, was standing with the press for the launch. 

We were as close as viewers are allowed to be. The weather was perfect. And it was as spectacular as you can possibly imagine. The ground shook under my feet. The air around me quivered so that I felt that launch to my bones. Tears filled my eyes but that blur only made the image of the rising Space Shuttle all the more soul-stirring. I was so proud to know a woman had now accomplished this--proving WE CAN DO ANYTHING! 

I was determined from that moment on to let children know science careers were exciting--full of possibilities. And for young girls to know there are no doors their curiosity can't open. 

So I proposed and sold the idea for a book about the Space Shuttle and the in-space experiments it was making possible. Through my research for that book, I interviewed scientists involved in developing the latest technology for the Shuttle. I also had the opportunity to stand under the Challenger as tiles which had been damaged or dropped off during reentry were replaced. And I talked to more astronauts preparing to work in space. I was very excited that a teacher would soon be going into space. In fact, would be launching just before my book would be published.

Then January 28, 1986 happened. Thirty years ago this January I was working on some revision notes my editor had sent me for my book on the Space Shuttle. I'd meant to watch the launch on television but my revision was due and I was intent on my work. Then the phone rang. 

Had I seen it? Had I watched the explosion?

I raced to the television. I was watching the replay of the Challenger disaster when the phone rang. It was my editor saying they couldn't possibly publish my book. Not now.

Over the next few weeks as the world stumbled from shock to grief, my publisher reeled between "No Way!" to "We'll publish it!" and back again. I even flew to New York for one long discussion on the subject. Ultimately, the publisher was simply too afraid children couldn't read about the Space Shuttle after this tragedy. So I accepted that this was also the end of my book--until one afternoon when the phone rang.

I was cooking dinner and the kitchen had a wall phone within reach so I grabbed it. I expected it to be one of my children needing a ride but it was June Scobee, wife of Major General Richard "Dick" Scobee, Commander of the Challenger who'd been killed in that fateful launch. It was a hot day and yet I remember feeling a shiver tremble through me. 

June asked if I had time to talk. 

Of course.

My phone had a long, stretchy cord and so I slipped up onto the kitchen counter to sit with my legs dangling and the phone clutched to my ear. I listened. June talked. And of what she said one part  burned into my memory.

June said, "You have to get that book published. Children need to read it. If people had stopped going West when something terrible happened, we would never have settled the West. So promise me, you'll get it published."

It took me eight years to keep that promise. Took changing the book a lot by then. Took finding a different publisher. But I did publish PIONEERING SPACE. 

It was well reviewed and had a good run. But, after a while, PIONEERING SPACE went out-of-print. I turned my focus to conservation issues. Voyaged three times to Antarctica and even spent a nine-month long winter there. I also loosed my NASA ties as people moved on or retired.  But I never stopped feeling the explorer's spirit being involved with the space program had ignited in me. Never wavered in working to inspire children to feel it too. 

Then, just recently, I was searching for a scientist to interview because of her involvement studying an amazing bird I'm writing about. She seemed to have left her university position but I was determined to connect. So I tracked her from one possible place to another. And, finally, found her. She had joined NASA following her childhood dream. I pursued a chance to interview her and was put through a series of clearance tests until someone asked if I'd ever had any previous clearance by NASA. "Well, yes, I said." And shared, briefly.

I was given a time to call and when the young woman came on the line, I was able to congratulate her. You see, she'd just successfully completed her astronaut training. What's more, her class is the first to be designated as NASA's Mars Astronauts. 

So we talked about her bird research but we also talked about her goals for the future in today's space program. And I felt that long-damped spark of interest in space flicker to life inside me. My curiosity swell to bursting. When we said, good-bye with the mutual promise of staying in touch, I thought,"What if?!"

And if there is anything I've learned in my years of writing WHAT IF has life-changing force.