Friday, September 12, 2014

A Credit to our Ancestors

I am a history nerd. I get shivers of excitement standing in some historic place I’ve written about. Just knowing that I am really there gives me chills. I call those goose bump moments.

I went looking for those goose bumps when I was researching The White House is Burning: August 24, 1814. I wanted to be in those places in Washington I’d been reading and writing about. I was extremely fortunate to be given a private tour of the White House to see the still-visible scorch marks on old blocks of stone (mega goose bumps!). I tramped through the Congressional Cemetery to find the gravestones of Stephen Pleasanton, who’d carried the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to safety, and of Mordecai Booth, who had been so horrified at his orders to burn the Navy Yard. I felt honored to be there.

But I have to say, mostly the magic of the place felt tantalizingly out of reach. I knew just where nine-year-old Michael Shiner must have been standing when he first spied enemy troops, and where I should find the building where British officers dined by the light of a burning White House. I could point to those places on my circa 1814 maps. Well just try exiting the Metro stop and finding those places now! Hard to find any magic when you’re just trying to get across the street.

And then I was invited to Brookeville, Maryland. The little town had played a small part in the story of the burning of Washington. It had given refuge to President James Madison as he fled the burning capital. Madison was later joined by Secretary of State James Monroe as well as the capital’s treasury and government papers. By noon the next day, the president’s party had left, but for one day the quiet Quaker village of Brookeville was the seat of a government-in-exile. 

That small role became part of the town’s identity. The house where the president stayed is now known as “the Madison House,” and a plaque marks the historic spot. A sign on the main street proclaims historic Brookeville the “United States Capital for a Day.”

Two hundred years later I was invited to Brookeville’s bicentennial US Capital for a Day celebration to sign copies of The White House is Burning. And I found magic. This was not some small celebration marking a small moment in history. The entire town was involved. Streets were closed down—all the streets. There were tours of the Madison House. Townspeople dressed in very authentic period costumes and reenacted the roles of their 1814 counterparts. Those who were descendants of 1814 residents—and there were many—proudly displayed their ancestor’s name on badges. This was a town that didn’t just know its history. It embraced it.

On the second day I was introduced to a very busy Katherine Farquhar, called the “mayor” of Brookeville. (She’s actually the president of the Town Commissioners.) I remarked that I had never seen so many people so enthusiastic about history, and I told her how impressed I was with the town and its US Capital for a Day celebration. 

“Well,” she answered, “it’s a labor of love and a credit to our ancestors.” She hurried away before I had finished my double take. “A credit to our ancestors.” Had she really said that?

It must have been ninety degrees in Brookeville, Maryland that day. And I had goose bumps.

Jane Sutcliffe is the author of The White House Is Burning

ISBN  978-1-58089-656-6
$19.95 Ages 9-12

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Journey Through Time with Christine Liu-Perkins

I first learned of the Mawangdui tombs in November 1999, at a special exhibit at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.  Seeing objects of the Li family’s daily life and then staring at a model of Lady Dai “sleeping” created for me an irresistible connection to her.  I was gripped by the vivid awareness that Lady Dai had been an actual person who had combed her hair, suffered illnesses, and enjoyed good food and music.

My Desire to learn more about the Li family and their world led me to track down materials of all kinds on Mawangdui and on life in the early Han dynasty.  I prowled university libraries for articles, haunted bookstores in American and Asian cities, scoured websites, and was spellbound by videos.  Every source’s bibliography launched a search to track down its sources. 

In 2002 I traveled to the city of Changsha to see the tomb site, as well as Lady Dai and the artifacts in the Hunan Provincial Museum.  Seeing the full range of artifacts impressed upon me so many new details—the astounding preservation of the two-thousand-year-old food, the glamour of the silk clothes, the massiveness of the burial chamber timbers.  Seeing Lady Dai’s actual body was mesmerizing.

The next year I published an article, “Silk Treasures of Mawangdui,” in Dig magazine.  But writing one article wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity; I wanted to keep exploring by writing a book about the tombs.

Pieces of information about Mawangdui lay scattered about my mind like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  How could I fit them together into a book?  Finally I recognized that the Mawangdui tombs are like a time capsule: every artifact reveals something about life in the early Han dynasty.  Each artifact tells a story—what it meant to the mourners who buried it, how it expresses the artisans’ knowledge and skills, and what it was like to live in that time and place.  Within this framework I could not only describe the Mawangdui artifacts but also explore the history and culture of the early Han dynasty.

This expedition has lasted fourteen years so far, yet my fascination with Mawangdui and Lady Dai is as intense as ever.  Next?  I would love to go back to Changsha to see the artifacts and tomb site again, and to silently thank Lady Dai and her family for inspiring my marvelous journey through time.

Author's Note From:

Friday, August 1, 2014

Science? It's Sedimentary, My Dear Watson!

Want a sure-fire way to make your summer rock this year? Think geology and food! As the weeks of summer stretch by, one way to keep kids engaged (and learning) is to head to the kitchen and cook up some science! Not only is this a fun way to tap into a child’s curiosity, but it maintains the momentum of learning that often stalagmites—I mean stagnates—during the summer.

Let’s get rocking! Actually, rocks come in three basic "flavors": metamorphic, sedimentary, and igneous. Metamorphic rocks are those that have "morphed" or been changed through heat and pressure. If you visit a museum this summer, you may notice the marble floor and statues. Marble is an example of metamorphic rock.  Sedimentary rock is formed from small pieces of other rocks and minerals fused together. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have a chance to walk on a sandy beach this summer. If you do, think of sandstone--a sedimentary rock formed by particles of sand cemented together. Then there’s igneous rock which is formed from liquid rock beneath the earth’s surface that has cooled and hardened.

Are you still on solid ground with all this science? Think again! Like a piece of delicious summer fruit, the earth has an outer "skin," but the inside is a whole different matter. In thickness, the surface of the earth is like the skin of a peach—only 4- 44 miles (6- 70 km) deep, compared to the rest of the earth which measures nearly 4000 miles (6400 km) to the center. Phew! Travel down to this center of the earth and you’ll find a solid metal core. This is surrounded by a thick layer of liquid metal—mostly iron and nickel. Even though the inner core has a temperature similar to the surface of the sun (9800°F / 5505°C), it is solid because of the enormous pressure pushing in on it. The next layer is called the mantle and the part of the earth that we live on is called the crust. The mantle is where the pockets of magma—molten rock—come from that erupt and form lava.

I don’t know about you, but all this talk about rocks makes me hungry. Head over to the kitchen to make this yummy Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna. Mmmm! 

Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna  
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Leeza Hernandez.

Before You Begin
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Oven temperature: 375°
Yield: 4-6 servings
Difficulty: medium

Frying pan
Spoon or spatula
Rectangular pan (8 x 10 inches or larger)
Heavy duty aluminum foil
Small bowl

1/2 pound (8 ounces) ground turkey or beef
2 cups pizza sauce
1 egg
1 cup ricotta cheese
Oven-ready lasagna noodles
Sliced pepperoni
1–2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

  1. With an adult’s help, cook the ground meat in a frying pan until it is brown. Drain off any fat. Add the pizza sauce and mix well. 
  2. Spread about 1/2 cup of the meat sauce on the bottom of the rectangular pan. Top with oven-ready lasagna noodles, overlapping slightly to cover the whole pan. Top with more sauce—about 1/2 cup. 
  3. Crack and beat the egg, then mix thoroughly with ricotta cheese. Spread half this mixture over the noodles.
  4. Arrange a layer of pepperoni next, followed by a sprinkling of cheese. Top with a layer of lasagna noodles.
  5. Repeat the layers. Cover the final layer of lasagna noodles with the remaining meat sauce and a generous amount of mozzarella cheese.
  6. Cover the pan with heavy-duty foil. Bake in a 375°F oven for 35 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 10 minutes. Can you still identify the individual ingredients?


Posted by Ann McCallum, author of Eat Your Science Homework.

Remember the old excuse: the dog ate my homework? Did it ever work? Teachers are more savvy than that. But try saying that YOU ate your homework and you’ll put a smile on Teacher’s face. You know why? The kitchen is a laboratory, recipes are experiments, and food is science. Eat Your Science Homework releases August 5, 2014.

Ann McCallum is the author of several books for children including Eat Your Math Homework, Rabbits Rabbits Everywhere, and Beanstalk: The Measure of a Giant. Eat Your Science Homework: Recipes for Inquiring Minds, was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection. Ann lives in Kensington, MD with her family.

Leeza Hernandez has illustrated several children’s books, including Eat Your Math Homework. She is also an author and graphic designer whose art has been featured in books, magazines, and newspapers. She is the recipient of the Tomie dePaola Illustrator Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Leeza lives in central New Jersey. Visit her online at