While I love supporting all of my book creator friends, it’s always particularly wonderful when those friends, like Ellie Peterson, live in the Pacific Northwest. As a STEM educator AND author/illustrator, Ellie meshes her passions for science and art in her kid-friendly picture book explorations of the natural world. She was my Instagram Live Story guest last night on my new semi-regular feature on the craft of writing, “Write Space with Kirby Larson and Friends.” (find it by following me: @kirbylarson) Today, we’re celebrating Ellie’s latest title, The Reason for the Seasons (Boyds Mills Kane).
There are a lot of ways to start a science-based picture book: a startling statistic (“There are 20,000 species of bees!”), a problem (“There is so much trash in our oceans, we have islands of garbage floating around them.”) or an everyday scenario (“My ice cream melted before I could finish eating it!”). However, when I start a nonfiction picture book, like THE REASON FOR THE SEASONS (Boyds Mills Kane), I often begin with what kids think they know.
Addressing scientific misconceptions is my job. I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m a middle school science teacher and have been for the last 20 years. I’ve taught everything from the phases of the moon, to seed dispersal methods, to how mitochondria may have evolved. (Yes, I even taught sex ed before they foisted that unit on the PE teacher.) And after 20 years, I think I’ve come across nearly every scientific misconception a child can harbor.
You may be familiar with some of these misconceptions (sometimes called alternative conceptions or preconceived notions) yourself: dinosaurs and cavemen lived at the same time, prisms add color to light, batteries have electricity inside of them, or the misconception at the heart of my latest picture book – that the changing distance between the sun and earth causes the seasons. (You did know that’s incorrect, right? Phew.)
Why address these misconceptions first? In my experience, if children don’t clearly identify and understand their misconceptions, they can’t form the lasting connections to new concepts necessary for retention. The original misconception will keep surfacing like a stubborn stain – impossible to remove.
In THE REASON FOR THE SEASONS, I begin by acknowledging what kids likely believe about the seasons and even honoring those beliefs with why they seem logical. It does make sense that we’d feel warmer if the Earth was closer to the sun. When you’re closer to a source of heat, you feel warmer! However, after addressing what kids currently believe, I start layering in the evidence that shows them why that line of reasoning will not work. (Believe it or not, we’re actually farther from the sun in July than January!)
Furthermore, I get them on my side by pointing out the ridiculous situations we would be in if that line was reasoning WAS true. For instance, some children believe that summer is caused by the Earth rotating on its axis toward the sun. If this was true, we’d have all the seasons in one day. Illustrating all the seasons in one day adds a humorous incredulity that has a lasting effect on children.
Ellie Peterson is the author/illustrator of IT’S A ROUND, ROUND WORLD! and THE REASON FOR THE SEASONS from Boyds Mills Kane, and illustrated BEA’S BEES by Katherine Pryor. Her work is inspired by her 20 years of teaching experience and upbringing as a biracial army brat. Ellie serves as the Equity Inclusion coordinator for the Western Washington chapter of SCBWI and is a member of The Broad Strokes, an all-female illustration critique group. She is represented by Adria Goetz of Martin Literary Management. Her next book, HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH releases with Roaring Brook Press in 2022.