LAURENCE PRINGLE'S BLOG
June 17, 2017
Recently sent to my editor: THE SECRET LIFE OF THE SKUNK. It was fun to research and write, particularly because it is narrative nonfiction. In the process of writing I discovered that I needed some specific details not found in my research. So I sent an e-mail to a woman biologist who lives and works on Martha's Vineyard, MA. (I met her ten or more years ago. I was fishing at night on an ocean beach; she came along with an antenna to help her locate skunks that carried little transmitters. We've been in touch ever since.) She helped with some skunk details, and she will also be the expert who checks my writing and the illustrations.
Writing a nonfiction story for young readers allows a writer to play with words. For example, there's this, when young skunks (kits) are led by their mother to a rocky stream: "For the first time the kits hear the music of flowing water. It tinkles, splashes, and sploshes. It gurgles, burbles, and babbles."
One more thing: my wife and I are members of a secret group of people, of unknown numbers. The secret: we like very much the strong, musky scent of skunks!
June 16, 2017
I am one of several dozen nonfiction authors featured on a strangely-named site called iNKThinkTank.org. (No, it is not a place to buy printer ink! The name stands for "interesting nonfiction for kids.) One wonderful feature of the site is called the Nonfiction Minute. There are about 170 there, on a wide range of subjects, and one of mine is called "Watch a Webmaster at Work." Here is how it starts:
"This summer, you may be able to observe an amazing event in nature. You can watch a small animal build a structure much bigger than itself, using materials from inside its own body. This is what happens when a spider spins a web."
In addition to the roughly 400 words there, narrated by me, there is a quick video of a spider spinning. A few weeks ago a librarian in an elementary school told me that she used this Nonfiction Minute to help prepare her students for my author visit. This is the first time a librarian or teacher offered me specifics of how Nonfiction Minutes can be used. We know they ARE used; the site gets many thousands of visits every week, even through summer vacation. In a variety of ways, fascinating bits of nonfiction are getting into schools and homes--a good thing!
June 15, 2017
Long ago (1983) my book FERAL: TAME ANIMALS GONE WILD was published. One chapter was about cats. I especially enjoyed exploring some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY at night, interviewing a female college student who was studying feral cats. More recently, I became attached to a feral cat that visits here. For about 4 years through all seasons, he showed up, often twice a day. Most mornings around 7 a.m. I looked out an upstairs window and saw him waiting, patiently, by an old playhouse. Soon he was given a bowl of cat food (including items not eaten by our indoor cats).
I doubt that he had ever been a pet; he let me get no closer than 7-8 feet. Closer, he bared his teeth and hissed. Definitely feral. I named him Pharrell. We enjoyed seeing him sip water from the garden pond, and lounge in sunny spots on cold days. A handsome "tuxedo" cat (mostly black with white markings), Pharrell became part of my life--until about two weeks ago. No sign of him since. I've inquired at the local animal shelter, and of a neighbor who also fed him occasionally. Nothing. Perhaps he has been captured and is being tamed; perhaps he was killed by a coyote. The not-knowing is troubling. And, so far, each morning I continue to look out the window at Pharrell's spot to see if he's waiting for his breakfast.
April 6, 2017
Sometimes, authors make mistakes in their books. And, often the error is
discovered by a kid reading the book!
That happened to me. I wrote a book called the Scholastic Encyclopedia of
Animals. (You might have a copy in your school library.) It has information about 138 animals, and all of the research and writing took most of a whole year. I know that I sometimes make mistakes, so I asked an animal expert to check my work. She found a few errors. I fixed them, and the book was published. It was my 96th book, and I thought it was perfect. Yeah!
A few weeks later I received a letter from North Carolina. It was from a 6-year old boy named Sebastian, and he had found a big mistake in my book. Here is what he wrote: "I was reading about my favorite animals with my mom and we read on page 62 that Lions are the biggest cats on Earth. But, tigers are bigger than lions! We turned to the Tiger page (page 111) and you wrote "The tiger is Earth's biggest cat." Did you know you wrote that?"
Oops! I had somehow written that two different cats were the biggest. Everybody, including the animal expert, had missed this BIG UGLY error. Quickly, I talked with the book's editor about fixing the mistake when new copies of the book were printed. And I wrote to Sebastian. I congratulated him, thanked him, and promised him a new, corrected copy of the animal encyclopedia when it was printed. When I mailed that new book, I wrote to Sebastian, "No other reader or book reviewer has let me know about this mistake. Hurray for you!"
When I visit schools, I am sometimes asked to autograph a copy of my animal
encyclopedia. When this happens, I always turn to page 62 and see what it says about
Lions. If it is a really old copy, the error is there. I sign the book, and also write, "Beware of the mistake on page 62. Tigers are bigger than lions!"
When I write, I try to do good research, and I ask experts to check my work. Mistakes are rare in my books. But I know that, if I mess up, some school kid--maybe even a 6-year-old--will probably tell me about it.
March 7, 2017
I recently had the great treat of reading, and observing, Melissa Sweet's book, Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White. I say 'observing" because the book is so richly illustrated by Melissa Sweet and with many photos that trace White's life from childhood onward. I've long admired White's writing, especially in Charlotte's Web, and was intrigued by details about his work on that book. I can recite the first sentence (beginning, "Where's Poppa going with that axe?") but learned that White had several other beginnings before choosing that. And the evidence is there on the page: actual copies of White's handwritten first page, his crossed-out sentences. A couple of typewritten pages are shown too, again with White's revising and editing marks. For me these are treasures, revealing the writing process of a great writer. Today most writers, great or not, often edit on a screen or on a printed page. They make changes, save those changes, and instantly print a new version. The first draft, the 4th draft, the 20th draft, etc. vanish, probably never seen again. Maybe this is not a great loss, but I'm glad that some bits of E. B. White's writing process can be seen today.
February 2, 2017
Groundhog Day is special for me. Long ago on this date I gave gifts to my children Heidi, Jeffrey, and Sean. Their presents were wrapped in plain brown paper, and marked with the "paw print" of the Great Groundhog. And I always link February 2 with spring. Why spring? In the northern half of Earth the day length grows through January and into February, a trigger to male songbirds to give their spring mating songs. So by February 2 we can hear at least 7 or 8 species singing--daily reminders that real spring is on its way.
I'm fond of groundhogs, also known as woodchucks (though not when one feasts on plants in the vegetable garden). However, the myth that a groundhog has the power to predict weeks of future weather is beyond silly. You know the story: if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. On a cloudy day there is no shadow: an early spring! It occurs to me that we don't need a groundhog for this "prediction." We can use a stick in the ground, or a pole, or a tree, or a person--anything standing outdoors! All casting a shadow--or not. Give it a try. Go outside during the day on February 2. If it's sunny, you will see your shadow. If it is cloudy, you won't. Congratulations on your amazing powers of weather prediction!
February 1, 2017
Many people who put out seeds and suet for birds in the winter get to see "the freeze." This is what I call it. Ornithologists (scientists who study birds) and others might call it something else. It is common bird behavior, fascinating to witness. Here's what happens:
A variety of birds are busy, coming and going, grabbing sunflower seeds, pecking at suet. Then they freeze in their positions and don't move. Minute after minute (for as long as 7-8 minutes) they stay--clinging to tree bark, perched on branches and twigs or on the wooden seed feeder. You can probably guess why this happens. A bird gave an alarm call. Sometimes I hear it--for example, the loud cry of a jay. Often I don't hear it, but the birds do. They heard a warning, a "predator alert." Around here the threat can be very real, as a sharp-shinned hawk sometimes darts in to catch a bird for its own food. (By attracting doves, woodpeckers, juncos, and others, I am running a feeder for hawks!) Frequently, the alarms are "false." No hawk zooms in. But the birds always heed the warning and stay still, in "the freeze." Eventually, one or two of the smaller birds move, fly to the feeder, go back to life. Then all species "thaw out"--until the next "freeze."
January 10, 2017
Yesterday I submitted a manuscript of a book--Elephants! Strange and Wonderful--that will be published a long time from now, 2019. I'm excited about it, about the process so far, which includes research on these extraordinary animals, and the writing just ended. The rest of the long process includes comments from my editor and an elephant scientist, both of whom will help make the book better. Then artist Meryl Henderson will devote several months creating her usual wonderful illustrations.
In all writing, and maybe especially in writing nonfiction, a lot has to be left out. That seemed particularly true on this subject. I felt I could write much more about one elephant body part: the trunk. There is no other animal part quite like it. (It can be used to sniff odors, spray water, hug, grab food, and much more.) And so much can be written about the awful reality of wild elephants today, with great loss of their natural habitats, and being killed so that people can have jewelry, trinkets, and other objects carved from the ivory of their tusks. Fortunately, my writing ended on a slightly hopeful note as the Chinese government just vowed to end the whole ivory business in that nation (where more than half of all ivory-made products are sold). Say No to Ivory!
December 22, 2016
For many years, I put beef suet in a wire feeder attached to an oak tree near our house, easily visible from my office window. I watched as birds came for this highly-prized food. I watched red-bellied woodpeckers boss the blue jays and the jays boss the smaller downy woodpeckers and the downies boss the smaller white-breasted nuthatches, etc. There was sharp competition for the "honor" of being at the feeder. (This could be called a "pecking order.")
Witnessed the waiting lines, I tried something new: put a piece of suet in the feeder but also smeared suet on the rough bark all around the general area. Wow, what a difference! Here is what happens at, say, 7 a.m. I spread suet around the rough bark. A nuthatch calls, a long excited message, maybe just meant for nuthatches, but other species hear it. Even before I'm back in the house, several species of birds are sharing the suet. The battle over one specific spot is gone. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, 2-3 species of woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals come in. Even juncos and white-throated sparrows, usually ground-feeders, leap up to share the feast. Of course the suet supply doesn't last a long time, but witnessing this sharing is always a treat--another special moment in the life of a nonfiction nature- and science-writing author!
November 29, 2016
In Trevor Noah's newly published autobiography, BORN A CRIME, he writes this about his childhood: "I didn't have any friends. I didn't know any kids besides my cousins. I wasn't a lonely kid--I was good at being alone. I'd read books, play with a toy that I had, make up imaginary worlds. I lived inside my head. To this day you can leave me alone for hours and I'm perfectly happy entertaining myself."
Though our childhoods were vastly different, mine was like his in this one way. You could say I was a neglected child. My brother and I were very different. We clashed and competed for scare parental attention. So I was alone a lot, but not lonely. I had books to read and--especially--I had the outdoors to explore, usually alone. And it was there, in the woods and fields, and beside the creeks and ponds, in the Hopper Hills area south of Rochester, NY, that the foundation was laid for my fascination with the natural world.
This led to college degrees in wildlife conservation, and writing quite a few books!
So, given my experience, I believe that "being alone, but not lonely" is a good quality,
and one that parents might consider encouraging in their children.