GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.

See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020

Guest post by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

How do you come up with your ideas? It’s a question I love to be asked when I visit schools. Many of the books I write would be classified as “activity books,” although I try to include the same kind of rich information that readers might find in a more straightforward nonfiction book. And how I come up with my ideas? I use a process that looks an awful lot like the work of a scientist or engineer.

Read, Read, Read says Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

When I start on a book, I read everything on the topic that I can get my hands on. I look in science journals, textbooks, books for everyday readers, books for professionals. And as I read, I constantly ask myself, “what would this idea look like in the real world?”

Dog Science: Unleashed by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

For example, while researching Dog Science Unleashed: fun activities to do with your canine companion, I read that dogs change from puppy to adult more than any other mammal, and this change is what allows us to breed dogs that can vary so much in size and shape. I thought on this idea, and I wondered if this meant that puppies looked more alike than adult dogs. I hit up the internet for images of puppies from different breeds, and was amazed: sure enough, it was much harder to tell the puppies apart than the adults. Check out this line-up. Can you match the puppy with the adult dog?*

Puppy Match from Jodi Wheeler Toppen

Play, play, play! Step 2 of Writing Non-Fiction for Kids

So this is the next stage in my research. I take the information I read about and look for ways to play with it. That might be messing around with pictures, like the puppy matching. It might mean grabbing my dog, and say, feeling the underside of her ears to see if I can tell how hot she is before and after exercise or seeing if I can trick her into yawning. Or it might mean asking a scientist if I can visit his lab and watch him give a dog an MRI.

This is where my work most replicates the work of researchers and engineers. They are constantly looking for how an idea plays out in the real world. I work with the Hu Biolocomotion Lab at Georgia Tech, and Bo Lee, a graduate student, was talking to me recently about his work with star-nosed moles. These moles sniff underwater (without getting a nose-full of liquid!). It was thought that their funny-shaped faces helped them sniff, but the mechanics were not understood. Bo wanted to figure out how, but no one even knew how to study the question. So he began by playing with straws,  blowing bubbles in corn syrup and trying to figure out what it would take to blow a bubble out and suck it back in without having it float away. Eventually, he hit on a method of trimming the straws into a shape that helped the bubbles stay in place–a shape that had a lot in common with a star-nosed mole’s face. He moved from just playing with corn syrup and straws to more sophisticated methods, but it was through looking in real-life at the ideas he had read about that he found a way to tackle the problem.

In Dog Science Unleashed: fun activities to do with your Canine Companion, I spell out ways that readers can use information about dogs to get up and discover something for themselves.  I also included “Take it Further” suggestions that provide just the seed of an idea for readers to develop. But my real hope is that by using an information-rich activity book as  a model, readers will begin to see all of the books they read as springboards to research in the real world.

*Answers: A-Yorkie; B-Rottweiler; C-Weimaraner

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former science teacher and the author of the Once Upon A Science Book series (NSTA Press) on integrating science and reading instruction.  She also writes for children, with her most recent book being Dog Science Unleashed: Fun Activities to do with Your Canine Companion. Visit for more information on her books and staff development offerings.

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