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What writers write when they 1) aren't writing, 2) are avoiding writing or 3) need a word count to convince their spouses they are writing.

Origami n' Stuff 4 Kids

Monday, April 20, 2009

so you want to write a children's book

It's been said that writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults. I suspect this is passed along by children's authors compensating for the condescension they sometimes face, real or imagined, as the featherweights of literature. Tell someone you write for children and you're likely to hear, "Have you thought about writing a novel?" After all, how difficult can it be to write a children's book? We all have childhood experiences from which to draw, and this is where the misconception of children's writing as child's play arises.

I envy those for whom writing comes easily. I agonize over everything I write and everything I submit. However, as Arnold Lobel once said, "I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children." That having been said, here are a few thoughts for those hoping to write their first children's book.

Your story's length, language, complexity and conflict resolution should be age appropriate, without underestimating the reader's intelligence. Board books, picture books, easy readers, fiction for young adults- children's book formats seem endless and vary widely, depending on the developmental stage of the reader. Likewise, your manuscript's length will depend on the genre. As a general guideline, picture books usually have 32 pages, young middle-grade fiction, 40 to 60 pages, middle-grade fiction, 60 to 100 pages, and young adult novels, 175 to 200 pages. There are, of course, exceptions to everything, as J.K. Rowling has so famously shown us.

Knowing your audience is complicated in today's children's book market- kids don't buy books, adults do. There's an entire genre out there, exemplified in Jon Scieszka's and Lane Smith's twisted fairy tales, that appeals to both adults and children. Still, you mustn't loose sight of who you're writing for. You can't write 90 pages about a kitten's separation anxiety and expect to find an audience.

However, I must confess that unless I am designing a board book, I rarely begin writing with genre and childhood development in mind. If I had to think of my audience from the first sentence, I'd never get started at all! No, writing is a selfish endeavor. It's only after I've written my fourth or fifth draft that I become conscious of the reader. Editing can be just as excruciating as writing (and sometimes more so).

You've edited your story, tested it on a captive audience of kindergartners, gotten constructive criticism from friends, family and if you're lucky, a librarian, and you think you're ready for publication. Where do you go? There's no surefire method to getting published, much less getting out of the slush pile. However, do some research before rushing off to mail your original hand-written, fully illustrated masterpiece, complete with a marketing plan for plush toys and PBS programming. Publishers don't want your big marketing ideas; they want a great story. Make sure, too, before you send anything off, to go online and research manuscript submission guidelines for individual publishing houses.

Go to the library and bookstore and find a publisher that has produced books similar to yours, then obtain their submission guidelines and names of editors. Good resources are "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books" by Harold Underdown and Lynne Rominger, and the "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market." Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Internet resources include The Purple Crayon ( and the SCBWI Home Page (

Remember, you don't need to find an illustrator. Having an illustrator may actually discourage the publisher from considering an otherwise perfectly good manuscript. Editors and art directors are fully capable of visualizing your manuscript without illustrations; it's their livelihood. In addition, publishers have many artists with whom they regularly work, and will select one whose style best fits your writing and their budget. Your manuscript should be strong enough to stand alone.

Above all, persevere and remember to have fun. In the words of Garth Nix, "Never believe the first twenty publishers who reject your work. For the twenty-first, submit something new."

Good luck!

©2009 Tammy Yee

Saturday, April 18, 2009

feed the bears, cull the stupid...

Is it too much to ask people not to hug the bears?

I'm sure even Neanderthals, whose bones reveal crushing fractures sustained during hunting, never wrestled game for the sake of Bambi needing a hug. And look what happened to them–gone forever, because they never thought to throw a stick at a mammoth rather than get up close and poke it in the eye. Every Cro-Magnon knows that just angers Barbar.

But you can't fault Neanderthals for being surly. After all, Barbar did have a nice suit and a spanking set of wheels.

Yet every week, some dope jumps a fence or swims a moat to cuddle with carnivores.

What was that woman thinking, cavorting with polar bears at the Berlin zoo (April 13, 2009)? Just four months earlier, a lonely man jumped into the cage of the zoo's celebrity, Knut. Luckily, the 440-pound polar bear was lured away with a leg of beef. Yet experts have the gall to claim it's Knut who is the psychopath who'll never mate. How ironic.

And at the Beijing Zoo, Gu Gu has bitten a third victim, a man who jumped into the panda pit to retrieve his son's–get this–toy panda. Gu Gu's previous victims were a teen who thought the cuddly icon needed a hug (he was mauled so viciously emergency personnel could see "the bones in his legs"), and a drunken man who bit the panda back. What's a 240-pound pseudo-bear gotta do to get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

Obviously these folks never head of Alaska's beloved Binky (1974–1995).

Orphaned near the Beaufort Sea and brought to live at the Alaska Zoo, Binky was notorious for mauling people. In 1994 an Australian tourist, obviously mistaking the bear for a koala, climbed over barriers for a photo up against the cage. With her peripheral vision compromised by her camera's viewfinder, she didn't notice Binky reaching its massive paws through the bars until it was too late. In a much publicized video, the bear caught the victim by the leg, mauled her, and claimed her shoes as its prize.

Hardy Alaskans do not suffer foolish visitors. A star was born. Binky merchandise was hot–bumper stickers, coffee cups and t-shirts with slogans, "Send another tourist, this one got away" and “Binky for Governor: Take a Bite Out of Crime.” The bear even inspired a children's book, "Binky's Trophy," written and illustrated by Millie Spezisly.

Not to be outdone, six weeks after Binky's Aussie appetizer two drunken teens squeezed through the fences around her cage and jumped into her pool for a moonlight swim. Announced an Anchorage editorial cartoon, "Hero bear prevents youth from drowning."

Let's hope they weren't skinny dipping.

©2009 Tammy Yee

crazy for cats

Cats, cats, cats.

With 88.3 million cats in U.S. households, they've replaced dogs (74.8 million) as America's most popular pet. That's a lot of kitty litter.

What is it about these sharp-clawed predators that fascinates us? Ask the ancient Egyptians, who kept them as pets 4000 years ago.

What began as working relationship (mouse eats grain, cat eats mouse–when pharaoh is happy, everyone is happy) later became an obsession as cats became associated with Bastet, the goddess of fertility and motherhood. Pampered at temples devoted to Bastet, they were mummified and buried in huge communal graves.

What most don't know is that this devotion wasn't always pretty. Cat mummies became so popular that by 300 B.C., young kittens were sacrificed in large numbers as temple offerings. So many, that in the late 1800s an English company bought 38,000 pounds to sell as fertilizer. That's 180,000 cat mummies in a single shipment!

However, Egyptians weren't the first cat-lovers.

Kitties have been coughing up hairballs and dead birds on earthen doorsteps far earlier. In 2004, a human and a cat were found together in a 9,500 year-old Cyprus grave. And in 2007, a study in the journal Science found that the granddaddy of all house cats was a desert wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, which roamed the Middle East 10,000 years ago and continues to do so today.

Now that cats are here to stay, here are some funky facts about our fickle feline friends:
  • Wild species of cats are native to all continents except Australia and Antarctica...Sadly, most of the thirty-six cat species are in danger of becoming extinct within the next twenty-five years.
    (Natural History Museum)

  • Cats have remained relatively unchanged since they first appeared 30 million years ago.

  • A house cat can jump nine to ten times its height, the equivalent of a professional basketball player jumping more than 60 feet.

  • A group of cats is referred to as a "clowder", a male cat is called a "tom" (or a "gib", if neutered), and a female is called a "queen".

  • A domestic cat's sense of smell is about fourteen times as strong as a human's.

  • Cats have a third eyelid, the nictitating membrane. And unlike humans, they do not need to blink to lubricate their eyes with tears.

  • Cats lack a gene required to taste sweetness...which would be unnecessary, since such a gene is only advantageous in animals that consume plants.

  • Most cats sleep 12 to 16 hours a day, to conserve energy between hunts.

Cat records:
  • Smallest cat: the Rusty-spotted cat, Prionailurus rubiginosus, found in India and Sri Lanka. Less than half the size of a domestic cat, it stands seven inches high and weighs less than three pounds.

  • Largest cat: the Tiger, Panthera tigris. Males can weigh as much as 700 pounds, are ten to eleven feet long (not including tail), and can eat 80 pounds of meat in a single sitting.

  • Rarest cat: Iberian lynx. Only 100 to 150 are believed to survive in the wild, a result of dwindling habitats and decline in prey.

Be sure to make some Big Cat origami I've designed:

©2009 Tammy Yee. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

is that a sea serpent, or are you happy to see me?

Who doesn't love a mystery, especially if it involves sailors and serpents on the high seas.

Medieval bestiaries are replete with references to serpents, none of which are flattering. Second only to the bible in popularity, these early accounts, with their fantastic images, gave animals mythical or human qualities to drive home the Christian dichotomy of good and evil.

As is the case with modern crytozoology, some accounts were just plain silly. Take the bonnacon, a delightful bull-like beast. With useless horns that curved backward, the bonnacon's only defense was to blast toxic dung at its adversaries–enough to cover two acres of land, scorching everything in sight. Some accounts replaced dung with flatulence. As if serfs didn't have it hard enough as it is.

So what of sea serpents?

French and Latin bestiaries refer to the whale as the Aspidochelone:
The whale remains floating at the surface for long periods, so its back becomes covered with sand. Approaching sailors, thinking the whale to be an island, land there and build a fire to cook their food. After a time the heat penetrates the whale's thick skin, and it dives to cool itself. The ship is dragged down with it and the sailors drown.

When the whale is hungry it opens its mouth and emits a sweet odor, which attracts small fish. The fish swim into the whale's mouth, which closes on them.

The moral?
The whale who deceives sailors and drags them down to their deaths signifies the devil, who deceives those he drags down to hell. Those of weak faith who give in to the sweet odor of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil.

Similarly, the Serra, or sawfish, grew from a flying fish into a monstrous beast with wings and a serrated back, fond of racing ships and cutting them in half.

Now that whales and sawfishes have been demystified, they've been replaced by the leviathan of the Old Testament and the Scandanavian kraken popularized in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Theories of what these creatures really are abound: from the unlikely plesiosaur to the plausible giant squid.

However, my favorite explanation would have to be that of Scottish fisheries ecologist/statistician Charles Paxton, who wrote in Cetaceans, Sex & Sea Serpents: An analysis of the Egede Accounts of A "Most Dreadful Monster" Seen off the Coast of Greenland in 1734 (Natural History, 2004), that what ancient mariners thought were sea serpents attacking whales, may have been whales mating.

You be the judge:

©2009 Tammy Yee

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

flipper flips the pirates

BEIJING, April 14 (Xinhuanet) -- Thousands of dolphins blocked the suspected Somali pirate ships when they were trying to attack Chinese merchant ships passing the Gulf of Aden, the China Radio International reported on Monday.

The suspected pirates ships stopped and then turned away. The pirates could only lament their littleness before the vast number of dolphins. The spectacular scene continued for a while.

I wondered how a thousand-strong pod of dolphins managed to thwart a fleet of fearsome Somali pirates..then I saw their vessels:

Really, boys, that's the best you can do?

Our heroes of the day are most likely Arabian common dolphins (Delphinus tropicalis), found in the coastal waters of the Arabian Sea, from the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf to the Malabar Coast of India and the South China Sea.

According to,
These animals are very social and often travel in enormous pods of more than a thousand. They're known for their high leaps out of the water, sometimes simultaneously in groups, and they enjoy riding the bow waves of boats for long periods of time. They are a very energetic and highly vocal species that produce a variety of whistles, pulses, and clicks that are easily heard by divers.

All the more reason to protect our flippered friends.

Friday, April 10, 2009

aurora borealis

Astronaut Don Pettit creates a time lapse video of the Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station. NPR Science Friday, April 10, 2009.

candy corn in space...

NASA astronaut Don Pettit experiments with candy corn aboard the International Space Station to demonstrate the hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties of soap. . From NPR's Science Friday, April 10, 2009. Hosted by Ira Flatow.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

is a bird in the pot worth two in the bush?

Let me tell you about a chick named Peep.

I refer not to the marshmallow confections so ubiquitous this time of year, but to a pet. We had returned to the Philippines for my father-in-law's funeral, and my son had more questions than I could answer. The open casket in the living room, the constant stream of visitors during the week-long wake and the oppressive tropical heat left me drained. What better way to occupy a young boy than to give him that everlasting symbol of life, a newly hatched chick? Seeing him smile with a yellow ball of fluff on his shoulder and bird droppings running down his back was the highlight of what was to be a long and somber visit.

So imagine my delight when news of Peep arrived from the Philippines. It was a letter from an aunt, thanking my son. Peep, she wrote, had fed many neighbors and the consensus was that he was exceptionally delicious. Enclosed was a photo of a fat happy chicken, minutes before his neck was wrung.

"What's that, Mommy, is it Peep?"

"Yes it is, and look how he's grown!"

Thus began a series of small lies, The Legend of Peep, if you will. Fifteen years later, he still doesn't know the truth. Was I squeamish discussing death with him? No. I was simply at a loss for words having to explain why anyone on a U.S. pension in the Philippines would need to eat a pet, especially one associated with a dead grandfather.

Which brings us to the Worcester's buttonquail, an elusive, flightless bird found only in the Philippines. Last seen 100 years ago, the spotted quail has never before been photographed, and was thought to be extinct. Its appearance in a bird trapping documentary astonished Desmond Allen, the World Bird Club member who identified it, and soon the world of ornithology was abuzz.

The problem? The only Worcester's buttonquail ever caught on film was sold for 10 pence, simmered in a delicate broth of vinegar, and eaten as quail adobo. I have no evidence for the exact preparation, but adobo is as good a guess as any.

The name of the documentary? Bye-Bye Birdie.

But it doesn't end there.

According to the AFP (Ultra-Rare Shark Caught and Eaten, April 7, 2009),
"A megamouth shark, one of the world's most elusive species, was caught, carved up and eaten by fishermen from a town in the Philippines, the environmental conservation group WWF said Tuesday."

Discovered in 1976 off the shores of Hawaii, only 41 specimens of this ancient shark have ever been found. And this time I do have a recipe. Take 500 kilos of megamouth, stew in coconut milk, and you have enough kinuout to feed a village!

As humans encroach on natural habitat, more such encounters shall occur. However, it would be naive to expect that education and strict poaching regulations will solve the problem. Fueled by civil unrest, dwindling resources and deforestation, the bushmeat trade has become a wildfire:
"Because there is nowhere else for people to turn for protein, and because of poor enforcement, bushmeat hunting has continued in many parts of the world, despite regulations that make most of the hunting illegal. (Discovery News, Bushmeat Ban Not the Answer)"

A fire that not only endangers biodiversity, it endangers us.

There have been 14 ebola epidemics in Africa since 1976, in which 80% of the victims hemorrhaged to death within a few days, and which have been traced to bushmeat. Outbreaks coincide with the dry season and the birthing cycles of the virus's reservoir, fruit bats. Because primates often inhabit the same trees, they are exposed to blood and placental fluid released during bat birthing. Villagers contract ebola through contact and consumption of primates and fruit bats:
"Consequently, public awareness programmes and an input of food supplies essential for the needs of remote villages during the dry season should help avoid Ebola virus transmission from the bats to humans." (News Medical: Fruit bats a reservoir for Ebola virus, Jan 2006)

Ah, but that's in Africa, you say. So was HIV. Evolved from SIV, the simian or primate variant, HIV has jumped from primates to humans at least seven times.
"That suggests that new strains of an HIV-like virus are circulating in wild animals and infecting people who eat them, sparking fears that such strains could fuel an already disastrous global HIV pandemic." (New Scientist: Bush-meat trade breeds new HIV, Aug 2004)

And in December 2008, Ebola-Reston was confirmed in four pig farms in the Philippines, raising fears that the disease may someday be transmitted from pigs to humans.

So stick to the marshmallow Peeps, peeps. Once we, and biodiversity, are gone, I doubt we'll be resurrected.

©2009 Tammy Yee

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

april's fools and nature's fury

I suppose I should engage in light-hearted banter this April Fool's Day, but fools conspire to foil my bubbly demeanor. Witness the purported threat of the Conficker worm, poised to strike this day, burrowing through PCs, harvesting user names and passwords and erasing hard disks.

We all know what a con is, but what the hell is a ficker, aside from a domain name a web realtor hopes to sell for $4,350 and the surname of an obscure German historian? Sorry, historians and academicians, but Julius von Ficker doesn't ring a bell with me. I am told he "advocated and defended the theory that Austria, on account of its blending of races, was best fitted as successor of the old empire to secure the political advancement both of Central Europe and of Germany." Point to Mr. von Ficker for the blending of races; strike for all that empire talk.

Maybe if we imposed mandatory keyboard laws insuring the functionality of our consonants, malicious Mr. Conficker Hacker wouldn't be so darned testy. After all, without the letter L (turning ficker into flicker, for those who aren't following), there can be no Love.

So how did I get from fools to fury? Well, we all know about fools and fury, courtesy of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Mind you, I have nothing against good Mr. Jindal, his policies, or his 2012 presidential aspirations. For all I know, the man is competent, knowledgeable, and the life of the dinner party. My beef, as is that of anyone living in Alaska, Washington state, Hawaii or anywhere along the Ring of Fire, is with his ignorant stance on volcanoes, questioning why "something called 'volcano monitoring' " was included in the economic stimulus bill. Says Bobby the expert,
"Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington."

Which brings us to April Fool's Day and nature's fury.

On April 1, 1946 an earthquake off the Aleutian Islands with a surface magnitude of 7.8 triggered a Pacific-wide tsunami that killed 165 people (159 on Hawaii and six in Alaska). According to the Scripps Institute,
"The waves traveled southward to Hawaii with an average speed of roughly 490 miles an hour, a wave length of nearly 100 miles, and a height in the open sea which is thought to have been 2 feet or less. The height and violence of the wave attack on Hawaiian shores varied greatly: at some points the waves dashed up on the shore with great violence and to heights as great as 55 feet above sea level; elsewhere they rose slowly and without turbulence."

Two years later, the predecessor of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was established—this day, April 1, forever marks the start of Tsunami Awareness Month. More recently, on March 19, 2009 an undersea volcanic eruption in Tonga generated a five-hour tsunami watch across the Pacific Basin.

The death and destruction caused by the 2004 Sumatran Tsunami reminds us that we are at the mercy of geological forces. And not only from tsunamis—according to the Unites States Geological Service, there are 169 active volcanoes in the United States, two of which are now famous, Mount St. Helens and Kilauea (which has been erupting continuously since 1983).

The threat from volcanoes is real. In the past 500 years, over 200,000 people have lost their lives due to volcanic eruptions, and an estimated 500 million people will be at risk from volcanic hazards by the year 2000. We're talking earthquakes, toxic gases, lava, avalanches, landslides, tsunamis, pyroclastic flows (remember Pompeii?) and lahars.

Word out, Bobby. You lay off my volcanoes, and I'll lay off your hurricanes.

Tsunami statistics:
10 Deadliest Pacific Tsunamis
Date Source Deaths
22 May 1782 Taiwan 40000
20 Sep 1498 Japan 31000
28 Oct 1707 Japan 30000
15 Jun 1896 Japan 27122
13 Aug 1868 Chile 25674
27 May 1293 Japan 23024
21 May 1792 Japan 15030
29 Aug 1741 Hokkaido 15000
24 Apr 1771 Ryukyu Islands 13486
May 1765 China 10000

10 Deadliest Indian Ocean Tsunamis
Date Source Deaths
26 Dec 2004 Sumatra 225000
27 Aug 1883 Java/Sumatra 36500
26 Jun 1941 Andaman Sea 5000
3 Sep 1861 Sumatra 1700
16 Jun 1819 Arabian Sea 1543
28 Nov 1945 Arabian Sea 1000+
16 Feb 1861 Sumatra 905
2 Apr 1762 Bay of Bengal 500
19 Aug 1977 Sunda Islands 500
4 Jan 1907 Sumatra 400

10 Deadliest Atlantic Tsunamis
Date Source Deaths
1 Nov 1755 Portugal 60000
7 Jun 1692 Jamaica 2000
30 Jan 1607 England/Wales 2000
3 Oct 1780 Jamaica 300
7 May 1842 Haiti 300
6 Dec 1917 Nova Scotia 200
4 Aug 1946 Dominican Rep 100
7 Sep 1882 Panama 65
11 Oct 1918 Puerto Rico 42
18 Nov 1929 Newfoundland 29

10 Deadliest Mediterranean Sea Tsunamis
Date Source Deaths
1410 BCE Greek islands 100000+
28 Dec 1908 Italy 10000+
6 Feb 1783 Italy 1500+
11 Jan 1693 Italy 1000+
20 Sep 1867 Greece 12
16 Oct 1979 France 10
13 Dec 1990 Italy 6
9 Jul 1956 Greece 4
20 Oct 1859 Greece 2
11 Sep 1930 Italy 2

LiveScience: Mystery of Deadly 1946 Tsunami Deepens

Geological Engineering and Sciences at Michigan Tech: Volcanic Hazards

©2009 Tammy Yee

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