Monday, June 18, 2012

Author visits show kids books are important enough to travel across the country to share

I’m excited to report that my Canadian Children's Book Centre tour in May 2012 resulted in more than 1000 children in Newfoundland learning a trick to find the North Star. One of the wonderful parts about presenting to children as an author and storyteller is being able to instantly respond to curiosity. It was wonderful to hear student comments like: "I didn't know I was interested in space, but I am!"  

As well as providing a natural lead to talking about the writing process, sharing mythology on how ancient cultures viewed the night sky provided an ideal opening to fire off my favorite space facts. 

Nonfiction is for everyone and black holes definitely garnered a great amount of interest. The range of questions asked shows that kids don't care if the nearest black hole is 1700 light years away. They want to know what would happen if you got too close!

The students I met were remarkably polite. One young boy, upon hearing I live in Alberta, asked "Do you know Ashley?" When someone lives in a community where it's possible to know everyone else, having someone "come from away" as they say in Newfoundland, is extremely important. Just as books expose readers to different ideas, author visits are essential for showing kids that reading skills are vital, good writing is essential, and that some people consider books important enough to travel across the country to share.

My five days took me to 12 venues for 18 presentations. 
Newfoundland Public Library visits included Cormack, Grand Falls-Windsor, Harmsworth, Mount Pearl, and St. John's. Welcoming and knowledgeable library staff shuttled me everywhere and shared the island culture with enthusiasm. In their company, I enjoyed fantastic scenery, spotted two bald eagles, visited Signal Hill, and even saw a growler—a new term I learned to describe small chunks of iceberg (which are not as small as bergy bits).

I truly hope I have the opportunity to visit Newfoundland students again, if not in person, at least via Skype—perhaps to share my upcoming historical picture book The Discovery of Longitude.

Much thanks to the CCBC organizers, library staff, hosts, and audience members who made this trip so memorable. The tour, organized by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, was sponsored by the Toronto Dominion Bank as part of Canadian Children’s Book Week 2012. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taurus, the Bull: April 20 - May 20

You probably know you have a zodiac sign relating to your birthday, but did you ever look at the stars at night and wonder how to find your own zodiac constellation? Have you ever gazed skyward and questioned how the scattering of star groups came to be named?
Image courtesy of NASA

Ancient Babylonians divided the sky into the twelve constellations of the zodiac. They show where the Sun, Moon, and planets appear to travel when seen from Earth. The early Babylonians and Greeks believed the planets, Sun, and Moon were gods walking across the sky. They noticed the gods always passed through certain groups of stars and imagined these parts of the sky must be very important. These star groups became known as the zodiac constellations.

The early Greeks spread these symbols to many other cultures. One of the earliest constellation lists was compiled in about 120 BC by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. Like a celestial map, the zodiac constellations are still used to describe the locations of the Sun, Moon, and planets.

Taurus, the Bull, represents the second sign of the zodiac. It is the constellation of people born between April 20 and May 20. Horoscope dates mark the time the Sun was in the constellation in ancient eras. This means that long ago on your birthday, at 12 noon, your constellation was once straight overhead—right behind the Sun. If you want to find the constellation that represents your sign, look in the early evening, six months later. For example, if you were born in May under the sign of Taurus, look for the Bull in October, in the early evening.

Bulls represent strength and fertility in more than one ancient story. One Greek myth involving cattle tells the story of Zeus and the beautiful Princess Io, daughter of the River God Inachus. Zeus fell in love with the princess and let her know about his feelings by sending messages through her dreams.

Unfortunately, Zeus’s love for the princess was a problem for he was married to Hera¬—the easily angered and jealous queen of the Olympians and goddess of marriage and birth. Hera was a smart goddess and tried to keep track of what Zeus was doing at all times. One day she noticed a dark cloud enveloping the Earth and suspected her husband was being deceitful. She made the cloud evaporate and scanned the Earth for her husband.

About to be caught with Io, Zeus turned the princess into a beautiful white heifer—just seconds before his wife came into sight. Hera was not fooled and made it very difficult for the heifer to escape by ordering Argus, a giant with one hundred eyes, to guard Io. The tale of the princess’s rescue involves Hermes, the messenger god and god of luck.

Look for Taurus between Aries and Gemini. One of the most distinctive constellations, it is easily recognized as a bright V marked by Aldebaran, the Bull’s red eye. You can find more stories like this in Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Zodiac, published by Whitecap Books.

Sky Facts

• The star cluster marking the head of Taurus the Bull is called the Hyades. One of the closest open clusters to Earth, it is large, bright, and easily seen. Binoculars show many bright stars, including Aldebaran.

• Remnants of a supernova called the Crab Nebula (M1) can be found in Taurus.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Aries-the Ram: First Sign of the Zodiac

Like most of the star groups making up the 88 official constellations, the zodiac stars are associated with stories about the exploits of mythical gods, animals, creatures, and heroes. The myths were first told to explain events ancient cultures did not understand, as well as being used to explore and describe human feelings.

Consider the constellation of Aries, the Ram—a figure that appears in more than one Greek myth. There is the intriguing story of Odysseus’s escape from the man-eating Cyclops, thanks to a flock of sheep. Another story tells of the origin of the Golden Fleece, later sought by Jason and the Argonauts. This story takes place in the land of Thessaly.

After the goddess Nephele married King Athamas, they had two children—a boy called Phrixus and a girl, Helle. Athamas tired of his wife and drove her away, keeping the children and eventually marrying Ino, daughter of the goddess Harmonia. Nephele heard the king was marrying again and resentfully complained of this betrayal to Hera, goddess of marriage and birth.

Ino was a poor stepmother. She did not like the king’s children and wanted one of her own son’s to be the one to eventually take over the throne. She constantly worried about her sons’ inheritance, finally coming up with a plan to be rid of Phrixes.

Ino arranged the roasting of some seed corn, ensuring it would not sprout when planted. The seeds were placed in the ground but no crop grew. Athamus sent messengers to ask an oracle for advice but Ino bribed the messengers to report that the oracle said “If Phrixus is sacrificed, the fields will grow a bountiful crop.”

Athamas ordered Phrixes to be placed on an alter. He was about to be sacrificed when Nephele saw her precious son in danger. She sent a ram with golden fleece to spirit both her children away. The ram flew through the air with Phrixes and Helle on its back, but Helle fell off the ram over the straits between the northern Aegean and the Propontis—a spot still called Hellespont.

Phrixus arrived safely at Colchis, where he married the daughter of King Aeetes. To show thanks for his survival, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Golden Fleece to Aeetes. The king kept the fleece in an oak tree, guarded by a dragon. It remained here until Jason and the Argonauts arrived on their quest to claim the Golden Fleece for King Pelias of Iolcos.

Remember the story of the Golden Fleece as you search the sky for the constellation Aries—the Ram. It is the second smallest of the zodiac constellations. Start at Taurus and jump through the Pleiades to the Ram. Aries represents the first sign of the zodiac. It is traditionally considered the constellation of people born between March 21 and April 19.

NASA/courtesy of

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ophiuchus: the 13th Zodiac Sign

Recent news reports the constellation Ophiuchus is the 13th sign of the zodiac. This is hardly news. Our view of the heavens has been gradually changing for thousands of years. Why? Because gravity from the Sun and Moon cause the Earth to wobble on its axis.

For stargazers, the result of this wobble is the Sun appears in each zodiac constellation on diferent dates than those originally described in horoscopes. The Sun is in the constellation Ophiuchus during the first half of December. Look for the stars of Ophiuchus, the snake bearer, in the sky near Scorpius. He was placed in the sky to honor Aesculapius, who saved Orion, the hunter's life.

Like most of the star groups making up the 88 official constellations, the zodiac stars are associated with stories about the exploits of mythical gods, animals, creatures, and heroes. The myths were first told to explain events ancient cultures did not understand, as well as being used to explore and describe human feelings.

Ophiuchus was referred to as the 13th zodiac constellation long before I told his story in Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Zodiac (published by Whitecap books in 2007). I encourage you to look up and search the sky for constellations. Discover the stories associated with each zodiac constellation, even if yours is not the one you always thought!