Educational Books for Kids


Ball Lightning—Is It Real?

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Boom! Crack! Duck! It’s thunderstorm season!

Lightning can be frightening, but it’s also pretty interesting stuff. Well, it’s not actually stuff. It’s an electrical discharge. But cool anyway. For example, a bolt of lightning is about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. And there’s a lot of lightning around, too. At least 30 million places on the ground are struck by lightning each year in the United States alone. But that’s just ordinary lightning.

What about … ball lightning?

At least since the Middle Ages, people have told wild tales about a very strange type of lightning: glowing orbs of lightning that hover like alien spaceships or drift along like balls of electric feathers.

According to reports from rare sightings, the balls are usually about the size of a tennis ball, though sometimes as big as beach balls. They are often white, but can be orange or yellow or blue. They don’t last long. If you ever do see ball lightning, get a good look while you can; it generally lasts fewer than ten seconds. Sometimes it fades away; other times it burns out with a little bang.

For a long time, people who hadn’t seen ball lightning thought it was a myth. But a lot of people claim to have seen it. Because the set of all people who’ve seen ball lightning and the set of all people who’ve seen Elvis post-1977 don’t overlap too much, scientists started taking these reports a little more seriously. Even so, scientists still weren’t able to capture it on film—until a few years ago. In 2014 a group of researchers in China were setting up an experiment to study regular old garden-variety lightning. To their surprise, ball lightning turned up for the party. The gate-crasher drifted horizontally for about 10 meters (32.8 feet), then shot up about three meters (9.8 feet).

The equipment they’d set up to study the ordinary lightning captured the phenomenon. For the first time, someone saw ball lightning and could prove it. There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to understanding this weird form of lightning, but at least we now have it on film. So if you happen to see ball lightning, you can tell the world about it without having to worry that your friends will give you a tinfoil hat for your next birthday.

19th century engraving of ball lightning. US Public Domain

For further reading:

Check out these places for more information about ball lightning:

Thomas Paine: The Forgotten Founding Father

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Quick! Name a Founding Father. I’ll bet you didn’t even have to stop and think before you said Thomas Jefferson or John Adams or Benjamin Franklin. But the name Thomas Paine probably didn’t spring immediately to your lips. That’s a shame. Modern Americans haven’t exactly forgotten Paine, but he doesn’t get the Founding-Father cred he deserves. So on this Fourth of July, I thought I’d give a shout-out to Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, and the man without whom the American Revolution might not have taken place.

Paine was born in England, but moved to Philadelphia after a series of business and career failures. In 1774, he arrived in the largest city of the colonies, and it was quickly clear that he was the man for his time and place. The colonists were in the midst of a raucous public debate about whether or not to separate from Britain. Paine not only had very firm ideas about the issue, he knew just how to get them across.

Paine was a talented writer and an outspoken champion of freedom. Shortly after arriving in the colonies, he became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine as well as a regular contributor to it. He wrote on all kinds of topics, including science and philosophy. But mostly he wrote about politics and current events. He strongly denounced slavery (which was at that time legal in all thirteen colonies) and argued for equality for women.

A friend suggested he write a pamphlet explaining why the colonies should declare their independence from Britain. (Pamphlets were all the rage in those days; in some sense they were rather like today’s blog posts.)

At this time, very few colonists wanted to go as far as separating from Britain. They wanted to be treated more fairly and get a little respect. But they weren’t ready to declare their independence. The colonies enjoyed a high standard of living—higher than the citizens of England—and at least locally they already had a representative government. They didn’t want to rock the boat. Paine, however, saw things differently. He was a natural and gifted boat-rocker.

He wrote the pamphlet, called Common Sense, and it was like nothing anyone had seen before. He aimed his words at ordinary readers, using examples they could relate to (farming, family life), but his arguments were tight and well-reasoned. He anticipated the response from those who would say that the colonists had it good under the crown and had no need to step out on their own. He wrote, “We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat ….”

Common Sense became an immediate best seller, and historians think that it was a major factor in pushing the colonists toward declaring their independence. So this year on Independence Day, let’s take a moment to pay a little respect to Thomas Paine and his powerful pamphlet.

For Further Reading:

I have a book on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense forthcoming from Cavendish Square publishing. I think you’ll enjoy it. But meanwhile you might enjoy reading Albert Marrin’s Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty. And be sure to read Common Sense itself. You can find it free online, but if you want an edition with a scholarly introduction and notes, I recommend Common Sense and Other Writings, edited by Gordon S. Wood, with notes by George W. Boudreau.

Thomas Paine, Engraving of a 1792 painting by George Romney, courtesy US Library of Congress.

What is Juneteenth and Why Should I Care?

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Fire up the grill and ice down some soda (or pop, or Moxie, whatever you like to call it). Tomorrow is Juneteenth!

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.* In those pre-television, pre-Twitter days, word of the end of the war didn’t get around too quickly. And of course, many slaveowners weren’t too eager for their slaves to hear the news. Two months after the end of the war, and two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. The slaves there did not know that they were free and had been for a long time.

US Major General Gordon Granger took to the podium and read this statement to a crowd of onlookers:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

The day was the nineteenth of June, 1865. As you might expect, celebrations broke out, and the news spread quickly. “We’re free!” shouted the people who had been enslaved for so long. “We’re free!”

In and around Galveston, the day became enshrined as Juneteenth, a holiday to celebrate freedom. It soon spread throughout Texas. Freed blacks returned to the state for the holiday, and others celebrated with friends and family wherever they were. Many years later, in 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas. Since then, Juneteenth celebrations have gradually spread to other states and cities. It is still not widely celebrated, but is becoming more common. And it should, for all Americans, not just African Americans.

Juneteenth is a day to remember the suffering of African Americans and to celebrate their contributions to society. It is a time to celebrate and be grateful for freedom, and for the fact that our nation has extended that freedom to all its people. But it is more than that.

As children’s author and illustrator Tom Feelings put it, one of the advantages of Juneteenth celebrations is that

“. . . those chains of the past, those shackles that physically bound us together against our wills could . . . become spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future . . . “

Celebrating Juneteenth, whether you are black, or brown, or white, is a way of bringing us all together as one free people. Continuing to think of it as an African American holiday reinforces the tendency for our nation to have two separate histories: one black and one white. Celebrating Juneteenth as an American holiday shows that we are all brothers and sisters—our responsibility is to love, respect, and care for each other, to celebrate and protect each other’s freedom. It’s a time to remind ourselves that we haven’t always done that, and to pledge to each other that from now on we always will.

So toss some burgers on the grill, pop that soda, and raise a toast to freedom and brotherhood.

* The surrender did not take place in a courthouse building. Appomattox Court House was the name of the town, the county seat of Appomattox County, Virginia, where Grant and Lee met (in a house) to negotiate and sign the surrender.

2016 Juneteenth Celebration at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Dabchicks and Other Small Grebes

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Many years ago I came across a word I didn’t know. I looked it up and the definition was “a dabchick or other small grebe.” Well, that cleared things up; I didn’t know what dabchicks or grebes were either! So I looked those words up ….  Since then, whenever an explanation or information leads to further questions, I think, “A dabchick or other small grebe!” So this is what this blog is about—those interesting questions that come up when you’re talking about or teaching something else.

I write books for children to help them navigate the world they live in now, and create the world they want to live in in the future. These posts are meant to give parents, teachers, and homeschool teachers some ideas and inspiration for helping their kids along that journey.

Reading for Pleasure and . . . Something Else

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When I was a senior in high school, I finally gave in to the pressure and read Moby Dick. My dad had been nagging me to do so for years. I didn’t like it all that much. In fact, I had to force myself through the drier parts. (I just wasn’t that into whaling.) But when I finished it, I had the most thrilling feeling. It really had been an awesome book—even if I couldn’t put my seventeen-year-old finger on exactly what constituted that awesomeness. I wanted very much to talk about this book—to talk about the parts I did like, the parts that confused me, and the parts that put me to sleep. It was late (the ending had definitely not put me to sleep!), but my dad was still up, reading in the living room. I stumbled in, with that special drunkenness only literature can provide, and told him I’d finally finished The Whale. We talked. And talked and talked and talked. It was one of the most wonderful evenings I ever spent with my father.

And I was very happy to have read Moby Dick, even though I wasn’t particularly happy while reading it.

That’s the thing about books. Sometimes you read for pleasure and nothing more. Sometimes you read for something else. And that something else is mysterious and ineffable. How do you get anyone to read a book when you have to admit that it is a difficult read, not a page turner, sometimes annoying, and often impenetrable? This is especially difficult when the people you are trying to persuade are children.

“Harry Potter, it’s not, but you really should give it a try.”

“Why? Is it funny?”

“Not really, not in a way that you’d notice.”

“Is it exciting?”

“Oh yes! . . . in places.”

“Is it boring?”

“Eh, yeah, in a few spots.”

“So why should I read it?”

So at this point, you could answer honestly, and say, “It will enrich your life in some way that I can’t explain and you won’t understand, and it may be many years before the value of it really sinks in.” But if you do that, you might as well give up.

There are ways to pull this off, though, particularly when the literature you have in mind is less daunting than Melville. It’s really not unlike getting kids to eat vegetables. Start with small bites. And eat along with them. Read aloud to them some of the best bits of the books you want them to learn to love. Keep it short and sweet and don’t expect immediate results. Let them see your joy, but don’t pressure them to feel the same way. Talk about the books you love—without expecting them to love them, too. If they are the kind of people for whom literature is a solace and stimulant, they will eventually come around.

Is this how my dad did it? Not really. Oh he talked about literature all the time and often quoted his favorite passages. But the reason I read the books he loved was because what I loved most about him was his love of and excitement about books. It was one of the ways we bonded. So maybe the best way forward is to just love literature, love your children, and trust that one day they will meet.


Image: The Voyage of the Pequod from the book Moby Dick, painting by Everett Henry (1893–1961)

Group Think: Animal Names Get Strange When They Come in Groups

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A herd of cows is about as ordinary as it gets, but when some animals get together in groups, they go by some pretty strange names—and often apt and funny names as well. A group of kangaroos, for example, is called a mob. Here are a few more:

A parliament of owls

A murder of crows

A shrewdness of apes

A clowder of cats

A bevy of otters

A skulk of foxes

A knot of frogs

A kindle of kittens

It’s fun to make up names for groups of human animals:

A school of teachers

An infection of doctors

A basket of ball players

A gathering of gardeners

A backpack of students

A loan of librarians

Can you think of any fun group names?


Image: A clowder of kittens. Photo by echoe69 CC-2.0

Handwriting—Do We Really Need It?

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This happens to me more often than I should probably admit. I’m at the grocery store, say. Looking at my list. Squinting at my list. T-H—is that an H? And after that, what? U? R, maybe? Trout! Do I need trout? Why? Oh, it’s not trout! It’s truth. Now why on earth would I have put ‘truth’ on my grocery list?

You see, I can rarely read my own handwriting. Fortunately, I rarely need to. These days I can even type my grocery list into my phone.

So the question is: In today’s increasingly digital world, do kids really need to learn to write by hand?

Even though we wonder if they’ll ever use the skill, there are some good arguments for teaching small children to print and older ones to write in cursive.

According to some research, learning to print letters helps develop the neural circuitry used in reading. Some studies have shown that kids who learn to print and/or write in cursive are better readers, better spellers, and enjoy more academic success overall. Writing by hand may help improve memory as well, even for adults (so maybe if I practice my handwriting a bit, I won’t even need my list). At least one study showed that college students who took notes by hand retained more than those who used a laptop.

I’m all for teaching handwriting, but I also tend to be wary of arguments that suggest new technologies are somehow bad for us. Socrates, in the Phaedrus, was very critical of a new technology that was beginning to catch on at the time—writing. He didn’t like writing because it weakened our powers of memory. If we wrote everything down, we would soon forget how to memorize things. Socrates was more or less right about that. But what we gained almost certainly made up for the loss. No, I can’t recite The Iliad, but because we now write things down, I can read pretty much any book I want any time I want. That’s a trade I’m willing to make. And who says I can’t still work to develop my memory skills? Just because I can read Homer doesn’t mean I can’t memorize him as well. (Though, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll start with a few sonnets, maybe a limerick or two just to get warmed up.)

So all I’m saying here is that not teaching kids to write may not be as devastating as some people might make you think. Who knows, there may be some as yet undiscovered advantages of learning to think with your fingers.

This is a recipe for sweet bread, written in suetterlin. It is NOT one of my grocery lists. Photograph by Fedora Umarov. CC 2.0

Thomas Jefferson: Paleontologist

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Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents. He was an architect, a meteorologist, a vegetable breeder, an engineer, an inventor, a violinist, the founder of the University of Virginia—the list goes on. He was an accomplished scholar and could read and write six languages (and could speak four).

And, oh yeah, he was a founding father of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States.*

But here I want to celebrate one of Jefferson’s talents that doesn’t get very much attention. Before it was even considered much of a field of study, Thomas Jefferson was a paleontologist. He collected and studied fossils, and was particularly interested in mammoths. An entire room at Monticello was turned into a natural-history museum that showcased his many fossils. He once stored bones in the East Room of the White House. In 1796 Jefferson wrote a scientific paper describing the bones of a large prehistoric creature discovered in the mountains near his home. The first giant sloth found in North America was named in his honor, Megalonyx jefersonii.

Because he was so open to new ideas and interested in just about everything, it makes sense that Jefferson would have been involved in the brand-new science of paleontology. If he had lived just a little later, a dinosaur might have been named after him.

* Jefferson was also a man of huge contradictions. He wrote “all men are created equal,” spent a large part of his legislative career trying to bring an end to slavery, which he called “a moral depravity,” yet he never freed his own slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale.


You can find out more about Thomas Jefferson and find photos and interactive online exhibits at the website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

Are you interested in learning some fascinating facts about dinosaurs and a few other prehistoric beasts? Would you like to read some cool stories about paleontologists (including the story of the bone wars, and how children make good fossil hunters)? Then check out my book Dino Records (written with Jen Agresta).

Ideas for discussion and activities:

1) If you wanted to name a new dinosaur after Thomas Jefferson, what would you name it?

2) Make a natural-history museum somewhere in your house. Collect rocks, bird feathers, or even animal bones. Include anything you can find outside around your home.

3) Do you know the names of any other paleontologists?

The Founding Fathers and Their Ciphers

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In the early days of the United States, no one had to worry about hacked emails or data dumps from Wikileaks. In some ways, though, keeping state secrets secret may have been even more difficult then than it is now. Before emails and cell phones, all spies had to do was get their hands on a document, pass it along to their leaders, and the plans for revolution could be foiled. If the plans of the Founding Fathers had been intercepted, the United States might never have existed. And the Founders might have been executed for treason.

So the Founding Fathers tended to write in code.

Thomas Jefferson began playing around with codes when he was in college. Later he designed a mechanical device, called a wheel cipher, for encoding messages.  George Washington was fond of using invisible ink in messages to spies who were working for him during the Revolution. The Founders continued to use codes even after the Revolution. In May of 1789, James Madison sent an encoded letter to Thomas Jefferson. It was a discussion of the Bill of Rights they were planning to add to the Constitution. Ben Franklin invented some codes that were used by the Continental Congress.

The Founders used several different kinds of codes and ciphers.* Substitution codes were common. Substitution codes replace the letters in a message with other letters. “Hello” might be written as “Pqrru,” replacing H with P, E with Q, the Ls with Rs, and the O with U.

Sometimes they used book codes. Book codes are fun and can be very difficult to break. Only the person sending and the person receiving the message know what book is the key to the code. Here’s an example of a book code I made using the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. **

61,4/123,53/265,19/90, 29

The first number in each set is a page number in the book. The second number tells you which word on that page you’re looking for. You count the words on that page until you get to the second number. This is the word you’re trying to decode. For example, in the first set of numbers, the page is 61, the fourth word on the page. The fourth word on page 61 is the first word of the message. ***

Codes and ciphers can be fun. But when used by people plotting a Revolution, they can be matters of life and death.

* There is a technical difference between a code and a cipher, but most people use the terms interchangeably.

** It’s important that the sender and the receiver have the same edition of the book. This code set is from the 1999 Scholastic hardback edition. (See, bibliographies really are important!)

*** Here’s the decoded message—in case you don’t have the right edition of the book: “How have you been?” Yeah, it’s a lame message, I know. But book ciphers are a pain to make. No wonder Jefferson invented a wheel cipher!

Ideas for activities and discussion:

What did the Founding Fathers risk if their letters were intercepted by the British?

What do you think would have happened if the colonies had lost the Revolutionary War?

Can you make up a code of your own? Can you think of a way to make a code that would be easy for your family to decode, but uncrackable by anyone outside your family?

Read more about Jefferson’s ciphers.

How a Scientist Saved an Old Lady from Being Burned for Witchcraft

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For Halloween, I thought I’d post something about a real witch trial. Johannes Kepler had to drop his scientific research to travel home to defend his mother, who had been accused of being a witch. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Scientists Are Strange Enough.

Johannes Kepler was an astronomer and mathematician. He is the dude who discovered that planets move not in circles, but in ellipses. He helped convince the world that Galileo was right—the sun really is the center of the solar system. But in 1620, he had to interrupt his scientific career to keep his mother from being burned for being a witch.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe went through occasional bouts of witch hunting. Between 1500 and the late 1600s, as many as 50,000 people—mostly older, often poor or widowed women—were executed because their neighbors thought they were witches. Kepler’s mom, Katharina Kepler, was a 68-year-old widow when her neighbors in the small town of Leonberg, Germany, had her arrested for being a witch. She was accused of using magic to make her neighbors ill, of killing her neighbors’ animals, and of turning herself into a cat. It sounds a little goofy, but it was anything but harmless. Mrs. Kepler was kept chained to the floor of her prison cell for fourteen months of the six years it took to resolve her case. Her captors threatened her with torture. They generally did this by showing the potential victim the torture instruments they planned to use, in the hopes that the fear of it would cause the accused to confess—which of course had she done, they would have burned her at the stake.

In the midst of all this, her son, Johannes Kepler, moved his family from Austria, where he was working at the time, to Germany to defend his mother against the charges. Johannes Kepler was a very good choice for defense attorney in a witch trial. He was exceptionally clever at spotting inconsistencies in the stories of his mother’s accusers. However, his main virtue as a defense attorney was that he could use his scientific expertise and a good dose of common sense to refute the charges. What had seemed like magical illnesses to the people of Leonberg, Kepler showed to have very un-magical medical causes. Mrs. Kepler was freed in 1621—six years after the first accusation—but sadly the experience had been hard on her. She died only six months later. But at least, thanks to the efforts of her son, she died quietly in her bed rather than at the stake.