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CHILDREN'S SCIENCE BOOKS:

The Weatherbirds

Background Information

Why is it so foggy around the rainforest? It looks like a cloud got stuck in all the leaves. The moisture that the rainforest plants spew out makes a fog. It can 'rain' in the middle of the rainforest even if the skies above are sunny.
Where does all the water come from? Won't it ever run out? The same water has been cycling around the world for millions of years. In every glass of water, some water particles will once have been drunk by a dinosaur--and some water particles will have been urinated into the Nile by an ancient Egyptian.
Yechh! That's gross. Ah, but only the pure water in the urine evaporates from the rivers and oceans, leaving the nasty stuff behind. When you drink, sweat and pee, you join in the great global water cycle.

A few years ago, my agent told me she was having trouble finding an engaging children's book about the weather. When I looked into this for myself, I noticed that many of the books had a tendency to rely on the dramatic impact of weather photos and illustrations while being a bit hazy on what actually caused the amazing looking phenomena. I could sympathize with the trouble these writers must have had in trying to make the subject comprehensible. The physics of weather is difficult to explain without getting into a quagmire of physical principles. For instance, the formation of rainbows are only fully understood if one has an understanding of refraction, reflection, the visual spectrum of sunlight, parallax, and a skilled mind at thinking in three-dimensions.

At the time, I was interested in narrative science books, so I had a stab at doing one about the weather. Although I taught physics for five years, and gone on to illustrate non fiction books, I hadn't actually written children's non-fiction before. I was aware of the risk I ran that my science story could be dismissed as sugar coating on a science education pill, so I made sure the story pulled its weight. I remembered being impressed with Galileo's Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, an imaginary debate between Salviati, the forward-thinking Copernican, and Simplicio, the Ptolemaic. In between them stood Sagredo, an open-minded intelligent layman. The work was written in popular Italian rather than scholarly Latin in order that his ideas would be accessible to the public. (It had the unfortunate effect of insulting the Pope--he reckoned Simplicio was an insulting caricature of himself which landed Galileo in a heap of trouble with the church.)

The Weatherbirds features Professor Stork (my 'Salviati') and Elmer the Dodo (my 'Simplicio') debating the relative merits of scientific vs. superstitious explanations for the weather. The 'Sagredo' in between these two is the young orphan Sparrow, the protagonist, who, along with Captain Goose and Ariel the poetic Parrot, travel around the world in Stork's home-made airship. Under the guidance of Stork, Sparrow eventually takes her place as the airship's Weatherbird. Stork was losely inspired by my high school biology teacher, Laura Krich, who I finally met up with again here in Oxford in 2002 and was able to give her a copy of the book in person.

I included other details in the story that I hoped would support some of the key weather science concepts. The birds travel in a hot air balloon in the story which provides a demonstration of one of the main principles of meteorology, that of hot air's tendency to rise above cold air. The constraints of geography, season, conceptual hierarchy, drama, and number of pages, all played their part in shaping the story. (The story takes place only within the Northern and Western Hemisphere--blame the prevailing winds for that!). Completing The Weatherbirds felt like finally solving a difficult matrix algebra problem.

The book is dedicated to my father, Dr. Edmond M. Dewan, an atmospheric physicist for the US government. He introduced me to the newest theory on thunderstorms, championed by the late Bernard Vonnegut. The new theory, which appears in The Weatherbirds, is currently gaining favour within the scientific community although it is still cutting edge and controversial. Some of the experimental evidence to back the theory was gathered by a scientist friend of my father's who actually flew up into a thunderstorm sitting in a child's swing seat hung beneath a weather balloon. It's no coincidence that the birds end up doing the same.

My hope is that The Weatherbirds has the right balance of drama, information, and pathos to inspire kids and teachers. I hope one such person will be Laura Krich, my former science teacher and the model for Professor Stork. She still teaches science in the USA, and I've already sent her The Weatherbirds. I do hope she doesn't mind being caricatured as a stork. Even if she did, I don't suppose I'd get into as much trouble as Galileo.