What do scientists do in their laboratories and on their research expeditions? How do they become interested in the subjects they pursue? Biographies and introductions to professionals in the field can introduce young readers and listeners to the excitement that motivates a lifetime of study. They can also encourage students to consider such pursuits themselves—now and in the future.
Consider two well-known picture book biographies of Jane Goodall published in 2011. In addition to including scenes from the primatologist’s childhood these titles reveal how authors who start with the same source material might write very different accounts about an individual. In The Watcher (Random; K-Gr 3), Jeanette Winter emphasizes Goodall’s observation of the natural world throughout her life. Images from the books she read and her dreams of jungles break through boundaries of boxed illustrations of her early years in England. Once Goodall arrives in Africa, hills and forests fill the pages. Dozens of eyes peer through leaves as the human watcher becomes the one observed by resident chimpanzees. Patrick McDonnell’s Me . . . Jane (Little, Brown; PreS-Gr 2) focuses on Goodall’s childhood as “a magical world full of joy and wonder.” Lush ink-and-watercolor illustrations add animals from her imaginings (elephants and giraffes) to the English countryside where she spends her days.
Both books include some of the same incidents, such as Goodall’s wait in a chicken coop to observe a hen laying an egg, and comment on her stuffed monkey companion. Both authors also make use of the scientist’s work: Winter quotes from her autobiographies while McDonnell incorporates some of her the drawings and photos into his visual presentation. After hearing both books read aloud, students can help create a chart noting such similarities and differences. They can also talk about which illustrations they prefer and point out specific pages that support their choice.
Like Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle has devoted her life to observing animals and advocating for preservation of their environment. Claire Nivola traces the oceanographer’s fascination with Life in the Ocean (Farrar, 2012; Gr 1-4) from her childhood investigations through her adult achievements. After Earle’s family moved near the Gulf of Mexico in Florida when she was 12, Earle discovered her passion for underwater exploration. Nivola uses a series of small illustrations and brief explanations to document her dives to ever greater ocean depths, in equipment she helped design.
Larger images illustrate Earle’s own words that the author incorporates into the text. A humpback whale stares with “grapefruit-size” eyes at the tiny diver. Fish in a kaleidoscope of shapes and color surround her while she explores a coral reef. A breathtaking panorama pulses with hundreds of small lights against a deep blue background, creating the wonder the oceanographer experienced 3000 feet below the surface, like “diving into a galaxy.” An extensive author’s note provides additional information about Earle’s work and the degradation of the ocean that has occurred in her lifetime. Citations for interviews with and books by the scientist included in the bibliography provide additional resources for students who want to learn more about the ocean and her work.
Sophie Webb takes readers with her as she journeys Far From Shore (Houghton, 2011; Gr 4-6) with a research team studying seabirds and marine mammals. Her first-person account describes her work as one of a group of 37 people on a four-month voyage in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Detailed drawings provide glimpses of Webb’s life and work onboard.
The author’s conversational style allows her to incorporate information about various birds and animals as she notes how scientists conduct their research. Numerous charts and graphs provide additional information about topics such as water temperature and changes in animal populations. Webb doesn’t minimize the hardships that come with inclement weather or the grind of daily work shifts. She also includes the joys of small celebrations and the rest periods in port while the ship resupplies and refuels. Webb’s passion for her work is evident—even her onshore breaks include time spent bird watching.
The author/illustrator also carefully distinguishes between her observational paintings and those that depict what she imagined below the ocean surface. Have students identify which images fall into each category and talk about why the distinction is important in information resources. Webb includes a small map of the entire study area at the opening of the book, and then provides longitude and latitude positions for each journal entry. Using these coordinates, make a large classroom map to pinpoint locations where specific events occurred. Based on Webb’s account, have students write a journal entry by someone else on the ship, perhaps another scientist, a cook, or a crew member.
Laurie Lawlor introduces another woman who observed life in the ocean and the birds that fly overhead in Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (Holiday House, 2012; Gr 2-4). Like Earle and Goodall, Carson spent hours outdoors as a child. Her plans to become a writer changed when a professor encourage her to pursue career in science. Studying marine biology ignited Carson’s interest in the ocean, but scientific curiosity clashed with economic reality. Having to support her mother, sister, and nieces during the Great Depression, Carson left her studies to search for a job. When she was offered a chance to revise radio scripts about sea life, she accepted. Her success on the project led to a more permanent position as a biologist, but she also continued to write for lay readers. Her bestselling book, The Sea Around Us, introduced thousands to the importance of ocean life in our ecosystem.
Carson’s growing concern about the devastating effects of DDT on bird populations resulted in her most influential work, Silent Spring. Laura Beingessner’s paintings provide historical context as readers move through Carson’s life: a model-T Ford, lines at soup kitchens, an upright typewriter, DDT canisters on pickup trucks. An epilogue provides more information about Silent Spring’s publication, its importance in preserving bird populations, and its continued influence in the environmental movement. Have students identify Carson’s quotations in the text. Help them find the source notes at the end and talk about resources Lawlor used, including letters, books, and magazine articles.
Roger Tory Peterson also called attention to the harmful effects of DDT because of his concern For the Birds (Boyds Mills, 2012: Gr 3-5). Peggy Thomas includes incidents from his boyhood that reveal his lifelong passion for nature. When Peterson needed to study moths after dark, he persuaded the police chief to issue a special permit so he could stay out after curfew. While tramping his early morning paper route, he hauled a sack of sunflower seeds to fill his birdfeeders along the way. He couldn’t afford to attend college, but when two of his paintings were accepted for an exhibition, Peterson met renowned bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Bolstered by Fuertes’ encouragement, Peterson moved to New York, where he attended art school and joined a birding club.
Peterson’s passion for birds inspired him to develop a new type of field guide for campers and the students in his natural history classes. Using brief, clear descriptions and simple paintings, he created an easy-to-carry pocket resource that met with immediate popularity. Laura Jacques based some of her illustrations on that guide. The glorious double-page image of a flicker lets readers share Peterson’s boyhood excitement when he saw the bird burst into flight. Peterson’s identification system is used in more than 50 field guides. Many libraries will have at least one to use in the classroom. Have students analyze the essential components of his system such as size, color, and shape. Using Peterson’s guide or other sources, take the class outside for some bird watching. Thomas frequently uses bird imagery in her text. Have students identify some of the images and talk about the effectiveness of the comparisons.
Below find a sampling of the Common Core State Standards referenced in the above texts and activities.
RI. 1.9 Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic.
SL. 1.2 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud.
RI. 4.7 Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively. . . and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
W. 4.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
W. 4.8 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
RI. 4.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.
RI. 4.1 Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inference from the text.
L. 5.5a Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.
RI. 3.6 Distinguish their own point of view from that of the author of a text.
RI. 4.3 Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.
RI. 4.5 Describe the overall structure . . . of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.
RI. 5.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).
RI 3.5 Use text features and search tools to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.
RI. 5.3 Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.
W. 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
Eds. note: This is part one of a two-part article. The second part of A Lifetime of Study will appear in the October, 2012 issue of Curriculum Connections.
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