Mostly Wordless Wednesday: April Flowers

First, an apology. Between tax time and birthday season and spring break, it’s been a while since I have had time to check in here at Caterpickles. I’m sorry to have neglected you curious folks. Rest assured I’ve been regularly pelted with questions in my absence and am further behind than ever. At this rate, I’ll still be answering questions my daughter asked in elementary school after she graduates from high school.

This past weekend, we found ourselves tooling around one of the outdoor malls in our new neighborhood. It being April in California, there were lots of flowers around, one of which I actually knew the name of. Can you guess which one?

A collection of flowers from our recent trip to a Bay Area mall. (Photos: Shala Howell)

Yeah. The pansy. The rest of them I had to look up. I think the purple one is a cineraria while the others are very pretty and very tall.

To make matters worse, I’m terrible at identifying flowers using Google searches and image results. So, if you know what you’re looking at, please leave a comment and tell me. I’d love to know what these are.

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What’s The Eleven-Year-Old reading this week?

I’m taking some shortcuts with the post today, because as sharp-eyed readers will have noticed, somebody’s one year older. I’m due to report to school with the customary birthday batch of homemade Rice Krispy treats in just over an hour. I haven’t actually made the treats yet (planning!), so I’m going to use the book descriptions from Goodreads rather than write descriptions of my own. Thanks, Goodreads!

The Leanin’ Dog by K. A. Nuzum

From the Goodreads blurb:

“More than anything, Dessa Dean needed a friend. A friend to love and confide in, a friend with whom she could share her heart. A friend who would delight in all the beauty and joy and fun of Christmas, only four days away.

Hope had just about run out, but then . . . there came a scratchin’ at the door and Dessa Dean’s life was forever changed.”

Why The Eleven-Year-Old Likes It: “It’s funny and has a good storyline about overcoming fear.”

The Middle Moffatt by Eleaner Estes 

Cover for The Middle Moffatt by Eleanor Estes, it shows a little girl on a swing against a blue and white sky, being watched by a ginger cat on a fence From the Goodreads blurb:

“Who is Jane Moffat, anyway? She isn’t the youngest in the family, and she isn’t the oldest-she is always just Jane. How boring. So Jane decides to become a figure of mystery . . . the mysterious “Middle Moffat.” But being in the middle is a lot harder than it looks.

In between not rescuing stray dogs, and losing and finding best friends, Jane must secretly look after the oldest inhabitant of Cranbury . . . so he can live to be one hundred. Between brushing her hair from her eyes and holding up her stockings, she has to help the girls’ basketball team win the championship. And it falls to Jane-the only person in town with enough courage-to stand up to the frightful mechanical wizard, Wallie Bangs.

Jane is so busy keeping Cranbury in order that she barely has time to be plain old Jane. Sometimes the middle is the most exciting place of all. . . .”

Why The Eleven-Year-Old Likes It: “I like that the main character helps out an old guy, whose name I can’t remember right now. I also like that she introduces herself to the old guy as the Mysterious Middle Moffatt, but the author decided to drop the ‘Mysterious’ part from the book title. That made me think about the author’s choices in setting up the story, especially since the ‘mysterious’ part becomes a recurring plot point.”

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Book Review: Pack of Dorks

book cover for Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel. It has origami wolves on it, which is clear evidence that Beth Vrabel can see directly into my daughter's brain. Pack of Wolves
By Beth Vrabel
Age Range: 8-12
Sky Pony Press, 2015

If I could change one thing about parenting, it would be to have it commonly accepted that parents & kids should keep reading books together well into middle school. My fifth grader and I both read Pack of Dorks this past weekend (she first, me second) and it opened up so many excellent conversations about friendship, bullying, and having the courage to be your own person.

By turns hilarious, painful, and wise, this book is above all real. It’s so easy to relate to Lucy, Sam, and April. We all know Beckys, and many of us have been Becky at one point in our lives.

I especially love how Beth Vrabel makes it clear that being a good friend is something you have to learn. You will make mistakes. Other people will hurt you by making mistakes of their own. The trick is to grow past it.

As my daughter told me when I asked her if she would have given Becky a second chance, “I think you have to give kids a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. You never know when they will actually start meaning it.”

I don’t know if I completely agree. But it’s making for excellent conversations, and I’m learning a lot about how my daughter thinks and where she’s at on her middle school journey. We will be talking about this book and the lessons we can learn from it for days.

And that’s one of the greatest things about reading books with your middle schoolers. You can break open some of these deeply personal issues from a not-so-personal angle. Not having to bring up the names of specific classmates is so helpful. Using book characters instead gives your child a chance to think about how he or she would respond before a similar friendship situation comes up in the real world.

Parenting would be much harder without books like this one.

(Parenting note: This book pairs especially well with Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony, M.A., Ph.D & Reyna Lindert, Ph.D.)

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Wordless Wednesday: Flowering Tree at Edgewood Park

Flowering tree against a dark blue sky

Photo: Shala Howell

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“Is the vulture the state bird of Nevada?”

While driving from Chicago to California last fall, we passed through part of Nevada. There are a lot of vultures in Nevada. So many that The Ten-Year-Old wondered:

“Is the vulture Nevada’s state bird?”

It seemed plausible at the time, what with Nevada having so much desert and all. But no. Nevada’s state bird is the much more photogenic Mountain Bluebird.

The Mountain Bluebird of Nevada has a lovely pale blue head, wings, and back and a pale greyish blue belly. His eyes, beak, and feet are black, and there are black feathers on his wingtips.

The Mountain Bluebird (male), the state bird of Nevada. Photo by Alexandra MacKenzie on Flickr (noncommercial use permitted with attribution / no derivative works).

This little guy swoops around the state’s high country and ranch lands, hunting for berries and insects to fill its belly.

Wait… Nevada isn’t all desert? 

We were really surprised driving through Nevada to see so much land that wasn’t desert. I’ve since learned that Nevada has more mountain ranges than any other state in the U.S, lots of scrubland for wild horses to roam, and some astounding rock formations in the desert areas. It also has places that look like this:


Bonsai Rock in Sand Harbor, on the east side of Lake Tahoe. Photo by the_tahoe_guy

That’s Bonsai Rock in Sand Harbor, on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe.

Looks like Nevada has a lot of surprises waiting for us. We should probably plan a trip out there, in the cooler months.

What about you? Have you been out there? What are some of your favorite spots?

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What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

Unbored: The Essential Guide to Serious Fun by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen

What the Book’s About: Unbored is a 350-page collection of activities designed to get kids to put down their screens and use their tech skills to build things in the real world. Yes, there are science experiments in this book, but there are also instructions for yarn-bombing, upcycling, board games hacking, stop-action movie making, code cracking, and skateboard repairing.  This book is a wonderful combination of old school fun and high-tech flair.  

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “It tells you everything you need to know about how not to be bored. There’s stuff like The Game (which I just lost, by the way), how to make a remote control water blaster, and instructions for building a teepee for folks who have outdoor space. It’s really fun. This is the best book I’ve read in years.”

The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13599, Mirror Lake Internment Camp by Barry Denenberg

What the Book’s About: On February 19, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the round-up and internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Ultimately, some 117,000 Americans were affected by this order.

The Journal of Ben Uchida is a fictional account of what it was like for one family caught up by Roosevelt’s orders. After the Pearl Harbor bombing, Ben’s father is arrested, and Ben, his sister, and his mother are shipped off to the Mirror Lake Internment Camp. Ben copes with the long lines at the mess hall, the dust storms that sweep through the desert, and the experience of being watched over from high by armed guards with baseball references and a healthy dose of humor.    

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “It shows what it was really like to be in one of those internment camps. I can’t believe we ever did that. I want to look into the rest of the series, because this book was really well-written and taught me a lot.”

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Wordless Wednesday: Wildflowers at Edgewood Park

Photo: Shala Howell

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“What killed the sailors on the 1845 Franklin Expedition?”

Oil painting showing John Franklin leaning on his boat, trapped in the Arctic ice and surrounded by the dead bodies of his crew.

An 1895 painting by W. Thomas Smith showing Sir John Franklin dying by his boat. (Photograph © National Maritime Museum, London)

Earlier this year, The Ten-Year-Old’s fifth grade class spent 18 hours learning what it meant to be sailors in 1906 as part of the Age of Sails program at the San Francisco Maritime National Park.  Ever since then, she’s been reading everything she can get her hands on about life on the sea between the mid-1800s and early 1900s.

After learning that the entire crew of the Franklin Expedition of 1845 died in one of that century’s greatest tragedies, The Ten-Year-Old naturally wanted to know why.

First some background for those of us who haven’t been reading everything we can lay our hands on about maritime explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was the Franklin Expedition of 1845?

In 1845, Sir John Franklin sailed from London with two ships and 134 men into the Arctic Circle. His goal was to become the first explorer in almost 350 years to find and map the Northwest Passage, a maritime route connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

Finding a sea route to East Asia that bypassed the North American land mass was critical to expanding trade. Explorers had been searching for a faster sea route to Asia since Henry VIII first sent John Cabot off to find a northwest sea route to East Asia in 1497.

But mapping the Northwest Passage wasn’t Franklin’s only charter. His expedition was also tasked by the British Admiralty with documenting the plant and animal life in the Arctic, making scientific tests of magnetism, observing meteorology at the North Pole, and establishing Britain’s sovereignty in the area.

Franklin’s expedition built on the knowledge gained over the centuries as famous explorers from Sir Frances Drake to Captain James Cook searched for the passage. Those previous expeditions had ended in failure, but Franklin was determined to succeed.

Franklin’s two ships were marvels in their time

Franklin’s drive to succeed led him to spare no expense when it came to the construction of his two ships. He built his two ships to the latest technological specifications. He had the finest navigation systems, of course. But that was just the start. The bows of his ships were reinforced with steel to cut through the ice and equipped with hot water heating systems to combat the cold. Each ship had a steam engine and screw propeller, which enabled it to move at a speed of 3-4 knots, even in the absence of wind. His ships were even equipped with onboard desalination plants, which enabled them to transform seawater into fresh water on their voyage.

Unfortunately, Franklin skimped on provisions. He supplied his ships with only limited amounts of fuel, and while he bought enough canned food to last several years, he bought that food from the lowest-cost supplier.

Which may have been one of the reasons that every single sailor on the 1845 Franklin Expedition died.

A stone etching on Lt. John Irving's grave shows the grim conditions sailors faced in the Arctic. (Photo: Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

A stone etching on Lt. John Irving’s grave shows the grim conditions sailors faced in the Arctic. (Photo: Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

What killed them? 

Most of the bodies were never recovered, so it’s impossible to say precisely. Still, we can make some guesses.

Three of the crew died during the first winter of the expedition. Their bodies were buried on Beechey Island. In 1981, Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta, exhumed the bodies and examined them to determine the cause of death. All three had extraordinarily high lead levels in their bones–up to 30 times higher than the levels found in modern individuals exposed to lead. But while the sailors clearly had lead poisoning, it wasn’t the lead that killed them, but rather TB and pneumonia. Still, Beattie speculated that lead poisoning may have contributed to the loss of the entire expedition.

Where did all that lead come from? 

Beattie’s original analysis of the lead in the remains pointed directly to the canned food the expedition relied on. In 1991, his team performed a lead isotope ratio analysis using a mass spectrometer that showed that the lead in the sailors’ bones matched the lead in the solder used to seal those cans.

A later study in 2013 cast doubt on Beattie’s findings. Chemists at the University of Western Ontario reexamined the bones in 2013 using updated techniques. The team, led by Professor Ron Martin, concluded that the bones were so saturated with lead and the lead so evenly dispersed that it couldn’t have all been ingested in the short time the three sailors had been part of the Franklin expedition. Instead, the team hypothesized that the lead levels in the remains pointed to a lifetime of lead exposure.

In fact, lead was much more prevalent in everyday society in the 1800s.  Drinking water, food, and medicines all commonly contained lead in Victorian times. The lead in the sailor’s bones could have easily come from the food, water, or medicines they consumed at home.

Still, given the wide ranging backgrounds of the crew on the Franklin Expedition, some researchers find it hard to believe that they could have all independently been exposed to quite that much lead. As a 2008 report from William Battersby pointed out, there was a plentiful and unique source of lead available to the crew on Franklin’s ships — the lead pipes used in the onboard desalination system.

Those lead pipes carried all of the water on the ship — the crew’s drinking water, the fresh water used in the engine’s steam boiler, and the hot water for the ships’ heating systems. As Battersby points out, you can get really high concentrations of lead in water that is freshly distilled, warm, and transported through a new lead installation that hasn’t yet built up a layer of scale.

Still, while all of the sailors on the Franklin Expedition recovered so far have had remarkable levels of lead in their systems, most researchers don’t believe lead poisoning was the actual cause of death in most cases.

Lead was a contributing factor, but not the only culprit

Pneumonia and TB were the immediate cause of death for the sailors Beattie examined. The bodies of all three sailors also showed evidence of scurvy.

One of the three sailors had spores in his intestines that indicated he may have suffered from food poisoning as well — botulism is apparently quite common in the Arctic. There is also some reason to believe that Stephen Goldner, the man Franklin contracted to supply the food for the journey, didn’t cook the food properly before he canned it.

Additionally, a 2016 study by Jennie Christensen, a toxicologist at TrichAnalytics in North Saanich, Canada indicates that at least one of the sailors found on Beech Island suffered from a severe zinc deficiency, which would have compromised his immune system and made him more susceptible to the pneumonia and TB that ultimately killed him.

The remains of a second batch of sailors were discovered on King William Island in the late 1980s and 1990s. These bones had knife marks on them, leading researchers to speculate that the last members of the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism.

In each case, the lead in their bones is thought to have weakened the sailors, by impairing their health, making it harder for them to survive exposure to the Arctic’s cruel climate, and clouding their judgement. The mental confusion from lead poisoning could certainly explain some of the odd decisions Franklin’s crew made, such as abandoning their provisions, dragging heavy lifeboats filled with silverware over the tundra, and, you know, cannibalism.

Zinc deficiencies, TB, pneumonia, scurvy, botulism, exposure, mental confusion, and cannibalism. No wonder Richard Bayliss, MD FRCP described the Franklin Expedition in his 2002 article for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine as a “medical disaster.”

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What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas

Book cover for The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas

What the Book’s About: The powerful magician Nevery has just returned to Wellmet after a 22-year absence, when a young thief robs him. The thief, a pickpocket named Conn, steals Nevery’s locus magicalicus, the source of his power. Being so close to that much power should have killed Conn, but it doesn’t. Intrigued by this, Nevery takes Conn on as his apprentice. Conn doesn’t have much time for magic lessons, though, as the magic in Wellmet is slowly draining away and it’s up to Nevery and Conn to figure out why.

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “It has characters you can relate to, and it’s set in exactly the kind of fantasy/sci-fi universe I like — kind of medieval, kind of Victorian, kind of right now.”

Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Creatures by John Malam and Steve Parker

Book cover for Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Creatures

What the Book’s About: John Malam and Steve Parker’s encyclopedia presents brief blurbs on hundreds of different dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, grouped by type. Most species just get a paragraph or two summarizing their major features, but a few of the more famous ones, such as the T. Rex and the Triceratops, receive a two-page spread.

The Ten-Year-Old loves this format, because it makes it easy for her to compare several similar species and identify their differences. The book provides just enough information to keep her intrigued, and not enough to be overwhelming.

This is an older reference book on dinosaurs, and in places it shows its age. Careful readers will notice some out-of-date facts and gaps in the species list in this fifteen-year-0ld book, but it still provides a nice overview of the various dinosaurs paleontologists knew about when the book was published in 2003.

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “I like that it puts a lot of similar species on the same page, so it’s easy to see their differences. I also like that it has lots of drawings, all done by hand. Can you imagine being able to draw like that? When I try to draw the dinosaurs from this book, they end up looking like beans with hats.”

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Wordless Wednesday: Deer at Edgewood Park

Photo: Shala Howell

Went hiking last week. Saw some deer.

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