Volcanoes, Bridges, and Waterfalls: More from Costa Rica

I’m leaving tomorrow morning for a quick research trip to Oklahoma for my dystopian storm book.  (No, I don’t know what I was thinking scheduling two research trip so close together. My hiking boots aren’t even dry yet.)  But thought I’d share a few more Costa Rica photos before I go.

Morning spider web at Selva Verde Lodge

A few people have asked where we stayed. In the Sarapiqui region, it was a place called Selva Verde Lodge.  The rooms are in buildings, raised up on stilts in the rain forest, and covered walkways lead all over the property so you don’t get drenched going to dinner during the afternoon rains.

And it rains a lot.

Here’s the  hanging bridge that leads from the main property of Selva Verde, over the Sarapiqui River to the primary rain forest. 

And here’s one of the less exotic birds we saw on our morning bird walk around the area.

Chicken with Chili Peppers!

While most of the week was spent in Sarapiqui, we also stayed a couple nights at the Arenal Observatory Lodge near La Fortuna. This was the view from the room.

Arenal is an active volcano, and it was quite active while we were there. We were lucky to have some great views of the cone, since it’s almost always shrouded in clouds.  Every few hours, we’d hear what sounded like very loud, sudden thunder, and then see this.

At night, we could actually see red-hot boulders glowing as they rolled down the side of the mountain – something I’ll never forget.

The property at Arenal Observatory Lodge was lovely, too, and there was a great hike to a waterfall.

My friend Loree Griffin Burns, who was in Costa Rica earlier this year, told me that I absolutely had to go zip-lining while I was there.  I like and respect Loree a lot, so I signed up for the zip-lining thing.  What Loree neglected to mention was that this would involve taking a tram up the side of a mountain…

…and then flying back and forth, down said mountain at 40+ miles per hour on cables that were up to half a mile long and 600 feet above the ground. 

But there is something about Costa Rica, the beauty of the land and the friendliness of the people, that somehow makes this seem like a perfectly good idea. So off I went!

Can you see me? I am that tiny, scared speck zooming along in the middle of the cable.

Tomorrow, I’m off on a different sort of adventure — a quick trip to interview an incredible storm scientist and tornado chaser and to tour the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.  No tornado chasing on this trip, though…at least it’s not in the plans!

Morning Wake-Up Call: The Birds of Costa Rica

The Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica is incredibly quiet and incredibly loud, all at once. At Selva Verde Lodge, where we stayed, the buildings are on stilts in the middle of the forest, and there are no windows — only screens — so all night long, frogs chirp, insects buzz, and critters rustle in the underbrush below.  There was no sleeping in, for a couple reasons. First, the rains came each afternoon at around three or four, so we didn’t want to miss any  of the dry daylight hours. And even if we had wanted to sleep past dawn, there were the birds.  They were LOUD. 

And they were stunning.

Crested Guan near Arenal Observatory Lodge

Montezuma Oropendola – This was one of my favorite birds, with its long yellow tail, and it made the loudest warbling call in the morning.

Here’s a tree full of oropendola nests close to our room at one of the lodges (which explains why the birds were so loud that last morning!)

Here’s a keel billed toucan…and over in the next tree…

…a chestnut mandibled toucan.

Mangrove swallow on the Sarapiqui River

An anhinga dries its wings along the river bank.

Blue crowned motmot.  That’s fun to say, isn’t it?  Motmot.  This one sat on a branch near the deck where we were having breakfast our last morning in Costa Rica, up in the hills of Heredia.

I’ll share more photos later on, and if you’d like to see some of the other wildlife I photographed on the trip, you can check out this post.

Home from Costa Rica: Thoughts and a whole lot of wildlife photos

My blog has been mighty quiet this past week or so because I’ve been in Costa Rica, researching one (and possibly two!) future books set in part in the rain forest.  This is an ecosystem that’s fascinated me since I was in third grade, so getting the chance to spend a few days in the Sarapiqui River area of Costa Rica was just amazing.  I spent most of my days hiking in the forest and staring either up into the trees or down at the ground. Here’s some of what came into focus through the camera lens…

We spotted two kinds of poison dart frogs (and heard them, too! They make a loud chick-chick-chick! sound in the rain.) 

Here’s a blue jean poison dart frog, so named for his denim-colored legs.

Giant iguanas were draped over limbs above our heads, sometimes sharing trees with sloths or monkeys.

A two-toed sloth in a tree near the swimming pool…

A white-faced monkey eats breakfast.

There were also lots and lots of bats, swooping in and out of the restaurant when we ate dinner and hanging around in and on trees during the day.

Long-nosed bats on a tree along the Sarapiqui River.

There were caimans all along the river, too — they’re like crocodiles only a bit smaller.

Until this trip, I thought a basilisk was just a mythical Harry Potter snake that could turn you to stone.  But this is a basilisk, too.

It’s an emerald basilisk – Sometimes, they’re also called Jesus Christ lizards because they can run across the water.  I loved the colors in these creatures.

Some of my favorite wildlife sightings happened on our longer hikes, after we’d crossed a hanging bridge over the river to go deeper into the primary rain forest. At one point, our guide, Alex, motioned for us to follow him off the trail and into a stream, where he turned over leaves until he found this.

It’s a glass frog – Isn’t it incredible the way he blends in with both the foliage and the eggs?

There were also leaf-cutter ants, marching in huge armies through the forest and up and down trees.

And there were some rain forest residents that we needed a zoom lens to photograph, like this one…

We actually just hiked around this hognose viper at the edge of the trail.  Alex marked the spot with some sticks so other hikers wouldn’t step on it by accident, since it blends in with the leaf cover. 

This snake, though, was a different story. 

Alex stopped us several yards back and warned us that it was a Fer-de-lance…more venomous, more aggressive, and right in the middle of the trail.  After we snapped a few pictures (this is the only clear one I have….my hands were shaking, so the rest are all blurry), he coaxed it off the trail with a long stick.  We watched as it slithered up onto a tree limb, and then passed by, giving it plenty of space.

After our hike, the rains came as they did each day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon in the hammock outside our lodge room, writing and outlining.  But there was one last visitor from the forest…

This slender anole sat quietly next to me on the hammock for over an hour.  I’ve decided that he must be my muse for this new book.

GIANNA Z. in the September Scholastic Book Clubs!

I just got the coolest note from my talented and kind friend,   –  "Did you see that one of the Scholastic Book Clubs has your book in it for September?"

No!!!  I hadn’t seen that!  I knew that Scholastic had picked up The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. as a book clubs & book fairs selection for this fall, but I didn’t realize that it was actually out.  So I raced over to the Scholastic site and found the Arrow flyer for September.  And then I got a little bit teary.

I’ve always been a big reader.  The youngest of four kids by a long shot, I spent a lot of time with my parents and my books when everyone else was off at school. And I grew up in a small town – Medina, NY.  It has a great indie bookstore now, but The Book Shoppe wasn’t around yet when I was a kid, and so the nearest place to buy books was a chain store at the mall half an hour away.  But every month, my teachers would pass out the Scholastic Book Club flyers, and I’d take them home and circle the books I wanted.  I’d use magic marker, even though I knew it would bleed through those thin pages, and sometimes I couldn’t even tell which book I meant to circle.

So the thought of kids taking home this flyer…

…and maybe drawing a fat magic marker circle around my book?

Pretty amazing.

Five things on a Friday

1. Beautiful weather makes it hard to get work done. Has anyone else noticed that?  Last night, the kids had friends over for swimming and a campfire and s’mores, so my writing  had to wait until well after dark.  So, so worth it.

2. I am still not very good at golf.  I discovered this on yesterday’s all-four-of-us family golf outing.  On the plus side, though, my nine-year-old discovered she is very good at driving golf carts and enjoys this immensely. Plus we saw a great blue heron eat a frog on the 5th hole.

3. It’s still blueberry season here in Northern NY, which means blueberry pancakes this morning for the sleepy kids who are just starting to stir.

4. My revision book for teachers is coming along (in spite of the whole call-of-the-campfire issue) and has been so much fun to research. Talking with middle grade authors about their revision processes has been more of a blessing than I could have imagined when I agreed to write this book. 

5. I have been stepping over a cardboard box in the garage for two days, assuming it was an empty one that needed to be recycled. (If you have ever been in my garage, you understand exactly how this could happen.)  But last night, I tripped over it and it didn’t bounce lightly out of the way like empty boxes do.  So I picked it up — it was heavy — and brought it inside. And look!

A box of paperback copies of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z!!  The UPS guy must have left it there while we were out.

The announcement of the E.B. White Read Aloud Award in May came down just in time for my publisher to get it onto the paperback cover. I love that the medal includes Charlotte and her web!

The paperback officially releases next month, and I am so excited that Gianna and Zig and all their friends will be available to kids at a more affordable price.  I love the care my publisher took with this edition, too.  There are a whole bunch of extras in the back, including Nonna’s funeral cookie recipe, a discussion guide for classes and book clubs, and an excerpt from SUGAR AND ICE (coming in December!). I should clean out the garage more often.

Middle School, Gang Violence, and Revolution (but not in the same book)

I finished one book and read two more this week. I enjoyed them all for different reasons and will be sharing them with my 7h graders once school starts. I especially love how these three really meet the needs of three different kinds of readers. 

First up is REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly, due out in October from Delacorte.  I had high expectations for this novel because I loved Donnelly’s A NORTHERN LIGHT so much. I wasn’t disappointed with REVOLUTION, and in fact, I think I might have liked it even better.

The book starts in Brooklyn, where gifted but troubled Andi is supposed to be writing her class project on the music of fictional French composer Amade Mahlerbeau and its influences on modern musicians.  What she’s doing instead is barely hanging on.  The death of her younger brother has sent her mother into depression, and Andi herself is getting through the days on her guitar music and some pretty heavy medication. Her parents are divorced, but when her DNA-scientist father discovers what’s going on, he takes Andi with him on a research trip to Paris, where he’s doing work to determine whether an old, shriveled-up heart actually belongs to a persecuted young prince from the Revolution era. 

While she’s in Paris, Andi discovers the diary of a teen girl living during the time of the French Revolution, a girl who has a strong connection to the young prince Andi’s father is studying.  As the days go by, Andi is drawn deeper and deeper into the diary and into the life of the composer Mahlerbeau until one night, she finds herself transported from the modern-day Catacombs to the Paris underground of the late 18th century.

This book combines so many amazing themes: grief and healing, the transformative power of music, and the things we do for love. And of course, there’s also the theme of revolution — that which exists in the bigger world and that which happens in our own souls.  This was a great, compelling read, and it’s a title I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.  I’ll be handing it to some of my more advanced readers — including a few of last year’s 7th graders who loved Donnelly’s A NORTHERN LIGHT. 

I’d be willing to bet that a lot of my new 7th grade girls in September are going to love this book…

THE HARD KIND OF PROMISE (Clarion – June 2010) is actually a title that I think fans of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. will appreciate quite a bit.  It’s similar in that it tackles the everyday struggles of middle school life, and I love the way author Gina Willner-Pardo does this — with characters who are real and flawed and discovering themselves and with dialogue that’s so wonderfully authentic it made me laugh out loud in places. At its heart, this is a book about friendship — about the friend that Sarah had grown up with and finds herself drifting away from as middle school presents new interests and challenges.  It’s a sweet, funny, heartfelt book — one that’s perfect to hand to students who are tired of big flashy vampire books and just want to read something about regular kids like themselves.

And here’s one that I know my reluctant readers — boys and girls alike — are going to love. 

YUMMY: THE LAST DAYS OF A SOUTHSIDE SHORTY (Lee & Low-July 2010) is a graphic novel written by G. Neri with illustrations by Randy DuBurke.  It’s a quick read that packs a punch because its title character, Robert "Yummy" Sandifer was a real-life Chicago gang member who killed and died when he was just eleven years old.  How could a kid get trapped so deep in gang life, so fast? Neri and DuBurke take a chilling look at the neighborhood and community that raised Yummy, and ultimately failed him.  This is going to be a great choice for literature circles — I can already imagine the discussions about how responsible he was or wasn’t for his actions, how much this was a kid shaped by the rough world into which he was born.

So as you can see, it was a very good reading week for me. Three winners.

Now it’s your turn. What have you read lately that you loved??

Friday Five

1. Now that my latest novel is back with my editor, I’ve been working on the teacher resource book I’m writing for Stenhouse, about teaching the revision process, and I’m loving it, even more than I thought I would. It’s been exciting to pull together all the author quotes and strategies to share with teachers.I’m pretty sure I squealed when I clicked on the very first interview response and found that it was from Jane Yolen. (Jane Yolen!!!) Also, putting my own revision process under the microscope and taking time to reflect has given me some new ideas for when that novel comes home with notes from my editor.

2. I am looking for a few good men. Seriously. While I’m getting amazing responses to my online revision interview from middle grade authors, almost all of them (except one…so thank you,  ) have been from women writers, and I’d love to have a few more guys featured as "mentor authors."  Boys write, too, after all.  If you know someone who might be game to answer a few online questions and be included, please drop me a note!

3. We’ve been reading some great books this summer.  Right now, I’m reading an ARC of Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION (amazing!), son just finished Watt Key’s DIRT ROAD HOME, a companion to ALABAMA MOON (great!), and daughter is enjoying Gitty Daneshvari’s SCHOOL OF FEAR. I saw her waving it in her friend’s face at skating the other night, saying, "You have to read this," a very good sign indeed.

4.I’m trying to get back to running every morning but have had a sticky go of it this week. My asthma and I are not fans of the humidity, but today feels much better.

5. It’s been nice to see more monarchs around this summer. Two monarch caterpillars are munching their way though milkweed leaves in a butterfly house on my porch. No signs yet that either is ready to make a chrysalis, but I will keep you posted.

Revision is like…

As many of you know, I’m writing a book about revision for teachers for Stenhouse Publishers.  It’s going to talk about the process, strategies that authors use, and ways to use those same kinds of strategies in the classroom.  And I thought it would be fun to include some quotes about revision from writers of all kinds, young and old, published and unpublished.  So if you write and are okay with maybe being quoted, I’d love it if you’d fill in the blanks in this sentence:

Revision is like ______________  because _________________.

Your thoughts?


When my daughter and I learned that Loree Griffin Burns was giving a presentation about her new book, THE HIVE DETECTIVES: CHRONICLE OF A HONEY BEE CATASTROPHE, in Vermont, we planned a spur-of-the-moment road trip to go see her.  We’re big Loree fans and besides, we’d never been to  Manchester before.  The event was at Hildene, the Lincoln family home, which is one of the most gorgeous properties I’ve ever seen.

The gardens were stunning, full of bees and butterflies.

We spotted a Monarch caterpillar on the milkweed. Can you see it?

How about now?

Hildene offers wagon rides in summer, so we took the opportunity to go through the woods to the barn where the goats are cared for and milked to make cheese.

Then it was time for Loree’s presentation. 

Her presentation was fascinating, and Loree managed to capture everyone in the room, from toddlers on up to grownups. Even though I’m in a critique group with Loree and read an earlier draft of THE HIVE DETECTIVES, I learned a lot today! After her talk, we headed out to see Hildene’s observation hive and have books signed.

Just in case you haven’t seen THE HIVE DETECTIVES yet, it’s incredible — full of amazing storytelling about an ecological mystery and gorgeous photographs.  Hope your weekend was full of good friends and good books, too!