Monday, April 9, 2012

MMGM: Loree Griffin Burns

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brain child of middle grade (and young adult) author Shannon Messenger, who wanted to highlight the fabulous books out there for middle grade readers. 

I know most people who blog about MG books focus on novels, but there's some outstanding (fun, informative) non-fiction, too.

Please welcome Loree Griffin Burns, author of Tracking Trash, The Hive Detectives, and, most recently, Citizen Scientists. I first learned of Loree's books from Kathy Erskine at the Highlights Foundation's Children's Writers Workshop last summer, and I am SO glad Kathy pointed them out.

Goodreads blurb for Citizen Scientists:  
Anyone can get involved in gathering data for ongoing, actual scientific studies such as the Audubon Bird Count and FrogWatch USA. Just get out into a field, urban park, or your own backyard. You can put your nose to a monarch pupa or listen for raucous frog calls. You can tally woodpeckers or sweep the grass for ladybugs. This book, full of engaging photos and useful tips, will show you how.

As a former scientist and general lover of all things nature, this is my kind of book. Loree provides a seasonal progression of science-based activities for kids, each of which not only broadens a child's understanding of the natural world, but also contributes to scientific understanding of the world around us.

Loree has a remarkable ability to make science accessible. Her writing is engaging and her topics salient. And she even agreed to an interview! Please welcome Loree Griffin Burns.

Most Ph.D.s write for adults; what got you started writing for kids (and how difficult was it for you to make the switch, after writing for other academics)?

I’ve been a reader and a writer my whole life. For some reason, though, it never occurred to me to write about science. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories and even attempted longer works of fiction—from middle school right through to my graduate school days—always believing this hobby of mine was simply a nice outlet, a break from the intensity of a life focused on subjects like math and biochemistry. When my husband and I started our family, I decided to put my research career on hold while our three children were young. It was while I was home with them, reading lots of children’s literature and thinking hard about the things I most wanted to share with my own kids, that it finally hit me: perhaps I should write about the topics I was most passionate about. And so I began to write true stories of science and nature.

I should add that I honestly don’t think of my work as being just for children. I write for curious people of any age who are interested in the same things I am interested in: our world, the creatures that live in it, the people who explore it, and the ways they explore it. Of course, most of my readers ARE children, and I do consider that when I am choosing topics, structuring stories, and thinking about things like context and voice and word choice. My first drafts are always riddled with technical language that I slowly, through several rounds of revision and with the help of patient editors, smooth out. I do blame this tendency toward techno-speak on my science training!

What gave you the idea for your first book, Tracking Trash?

In the spring of 2003, I read a newspaper article about a decade-old cargo spill that had dumped nearly 30K plastic tub toys into the Pacific Ocean. The article predicted some of those toys would wash ashore in New England, where I live, over the following summer. This story captivated me. Who knew plastic ducks would float in the ocean that long? I wondered what route they followed from the Pacific to the Atlantic—across Arctic Ocean? around South America and through the Southern Ocean? short-cut through the Panama Canal? It was also clear from the predictions that someone, somewhere, was following these ducks. Who was that person? How was s/he following them? And, for the love of Pete, why was s/he following them? I began to look for more information on the story, and as I uncovered it, became convinced it would make a great hook for a book about the ocean, how it moves, and what it moves. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (Houghton, 2007) was published four years later.

After writing about the plight of the honey bees, what state do you think our apiaries are in? Are we headed for bee-mageddon (and the resulting loss of human food), or can science help turn things around? (Or can native species pick up the slack)?

I’m truly not qualified to answer this question; it would be better posed to one of the hive detectives. But from what I’ve read and heard from my beekeeping friends, our apiaries are in terrible shape, at least compared to the apiaries of the 1980s, a time before Varroa mites and the bee diseases they help to spread, before systemic pesticides and the enormous expansion of our agricultural system. It’s clear that each of these changes is impacting the overall state of apiculture. Just this week, the results of two new studies were published that seem to indicate, once again, that systemic pesticides are harmful to bees. We’ve got a lot to figure out.

As for a bee-mageddon, though, I don’t think that is where we are headed. I am an eternal optimist. Part of the message I hoped to share in The Hive Detectives is that we humans are very good at detecting problems, analyzing them, and figuring out ways to circumvent and overcome them. Some truly fine scientists are working to understand Colony Collapse Disorder, and they are learning things that will help us figure out how to help the honey bee survive.

Your newest book, Citizen Scientists, is an account of the many opportunities for kids to get involved with citizen science projects. Why do you think this is important?

Firstly, I think citizen science is an incredible tool for empowering people of all ages in these days of environmental uncertainty. Bad environmental news can be overwhelming sometimes—trash in our oceans, decline in honey bee populations, changing climate, disappearing species, oil spills, natural disasters. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I find that having something to do—something concrete that I can do with my own two hands and that will make a difference—is comforting. Citizen science can be that something.

Even more than that, though, I like the way practicing citizen science—carefully observing the world around me, recording what I see, and sharing that record with professional scientists who are interested in the information—slows me down, reconnects me to the natural world I live in, better acquaints me with my one small patch of the Earth, reminds me of just how incredibly beautiful our world is.

I hear criticism sometimes that the data collected by citizen scientists—children or youth or adults who are not trained as scientists—is not as dependable as data collected by professionals. These critics worry about protocols being followed properly, data being misunderstood or misreported. They also point out that data collection is not, in itself, science. While these are valid concerns for those who use the data collected by citizen scientists, for me—and for parents and educators and naturalists everywhere—citizen science is about tuning people in to the living, breathing natural world. It’s a learning tool. It connects people with their environment. It invites them to participate in human discovery. For me, these are the deeper value of citizen science; the data is a bonus.

What project are you working on right now?

I'm working on two books at the moment: my first picture book and a new Scientists in the Field book. Both will be illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz ( The picture book is a butterfly life cycle book with a twist: did you know that most of the butterflies flitting about the live butterfly exhibit at your favorite museum or butterfly house very likely spent their caterpillar days in Central America? Our new SITF book is called Beetle Busters, and its about a tree-munching invasive beetle that has invaded North America and, of course, the men and women who are studying it.

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Thank you Loree! I can't wait to see what your next books bring.

Join us next week for Marketing Monday to learn how Loree and her publishers get her books into the hands of middle graders, teacher, librarians, and parents.

And check here for more terrific MMGM reviews.

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Loree writes books about science for children ... and she loves her job. From an oceanographer who tracks plastic ducks through the world ocean to an entomologist who studied mason bees in his backyard to an astronomer who spent her life puzzling over ground drawings in the desert of Peru, the scientists she meets every day — in person or through her research — are fascinating and passionate people. She loves to share their stories through her  books.


  1. Great interview! Very interesting how your first drafts have lots of technical lingo and it gets slowly weeded out. Thanks, ladies!

  2. Hi, Christie,

    For me, there's a constant give-and-take between terms that are too-technical and terms that are just-technical-(and important)-enough to leave in the text, along with some great context clues, as a challenge to readers. This morning I'm looking at the word "assessing" in a picture book manuscript intended for second graders and wondering what the heck I was thinking when I wrote it!