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Find more Books and Authors: Talking with Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm
Molly Bang’s My Light (2004) received numerous accolades, including being named a Booklist Editors’ Choice selection and a Notable Children’s Book. Not long afterward, Bang partnered with Penny Chisholm, an ecology professor at MIT, to write the next title in the Sunlight series, Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life (2009), followed by Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas (2012), and Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth (2014).
Friends as well as coauthors, Bang and Chisholm share a passion for educating others on the sun’s importance for life on earth. With Bang’s illustrations and writing experience and Chisholm’s content expertise, the authors’ Sunlight series has been recognized for its stellar attempts at making science content accessible to young readers. Recently, Bang and Chisholm collaborated once again on an e-mail correspondence in which they shared their experience of creating books on complex science topics that are both comprehensible and appealing to children.
BKL: Tell us more about your collaboration and how the Sunlight series first took shape.
BANG and CHISHOLM: We were friends for many years before we started making the books. Penny is a scientist who has long been concerned that most people do not understand fundamental things about how our planet functions as a system. What better place to start this education than with young children? We had many discussions about what we wanted to write together. For many years, our discussions led nowhere, and we were both very busy with other things.
Then Molly wrote My Light, the first book in the Sunlight series, about electricity. Realizing that parts of this book emerged from our discussions years earlier, we decided it was time to begin our formal collaboration. In the meantime, Penny had become preoccupied with the fact that most people simply do not understand photosynthesis or the central role it plays in life on earth. So we decided to write Living Sunlight together, continuing with Molly’s theme of the sun as the narrator. Each book led to another, and we are now working on the fifth book in the series—a book about earth’s water cycle.
BKL: On your website, Molly, you write, “I am not a scientist.” How have you collaborated with Penny to expand your knowledge?
BANG: Both of my parents were scientists who often discussed their work, and I helped them in the lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, so I felt at ease with science, and I thought I knew it. I do not. My knowledge is much more like Swiss cheese. Science comprises an array of facts about how things work, but you cannot really understand the facts without a basic understanding of the whole system. Talking with Penny, I keep realizing that everything I learn is a separate piece of what, to her, is a moving, integrated system of understanding.
Usually, as we begin a book together, Penny comes up with a list of the most important concepts for the chosen topic and a possible narrative thread—a way to tie the concepts together. We brainstorm about how to present the information. Then Penny jots down some key points to be made on each set of pages, and we begin drafting. The document continues to evolve through many revisions (between 100 and 150 drafts) back and forth between us until we finally converge on a final draft for our editor.
The illustrations follow a similar pattern: I make a thumbnail sketch of how I think the pictures will flow, Penny shares ideas, and I start painting. She checks the illustrations as I’m working on them and makes suggestions about what works and what doesn’t. Occasionally, after I have completely finished painting an illustration, we both realize it just does not work, and I have to start over.
BKL: Penny, tell us about the collaboration from your point of view.
CHISHOLM: I knew nothing about children’s books until we started working together. What I have learned is that the biggest challenge is deciding on the most important concepts and at what level of detail we should try to represent them. While talking about global warming and the greenhouse effect, for example, Molly might become fascinated by electrons and neutrons in atoms. It is my job to rein things in and get us back on track with the central concepts. But at the same time, it is this tendency of Molly’s—to be drawn toward fascinating microscopic details of any scientific topic—that leads to some interesting imagery in the illustrations.
BKL: Please tell us more about some of the challenges involved in helping kids to connect with core science concepts.
BANG and CHISHOLM: The books in the Sunlight series all describe scientific concepts that are not obvious to most adults—much less to children. But they are some of the most basic and important concepts about life on earth. From the outset, we wanted to be sure that our books were as scientifically accurate, dramatic, and concise as possible, and we wanted the reader to feel the same sense of awe about the subject—how earth works—that we do. This was fairly difficult. The main challenge has been how to describe in 40 or 48 pages the most basic elements of a very complex system in such a way that children can both understand and relate to them. The second part of the challenge is that most of these concepts can’t be seen. We can’t see photosynthesis or warming air or electricity. How could we visually represent these sorts of concepts?
One of two approaches we have used throughout is to begin each book by relating the material directly to the child through an emotional connection. So, in Living Sunlight, our book about photosynthesis, we begin by talking directly to children and asking them to put their hands over their hearts, to feel the pumping and to feel how warm they are. Then we tell them that this is actually the energy of the sun inside them. The second approach is to have the sun be a sort of all-powerful, mythic-but-living narrator, reminding us how omnipotent it is to life on earth. These two approaches have helped us to clarify our own thinking and kept us focused on the child reader.
BKL: How have you used design elements to further encourage an understanding of the material?
BANG and CHISHOLM: The most consistent and basic imagery is the use of waves of yellow dots to represent sunlight. These waves, and the use of yellow outlines to show the presence of sunlight energy in plants and animals, are leitmotifs that continue throughout the series and are part of what help give it cohesion.
On one two-page spread in Ocean Sunlight, we illustrate the concept of how quickly phytoplankton reproduces by including a series of circles increasing in size, each with a close-up view of these microscopic organisms. The first circle has a scant few; by only the fifth circle, it is chock-full. The series of circles is at a diagonal to give a greater impression of movement over time. Sometimes there are features in the pictures that we do not discuss in the narrative. For example, Molly felt strongly about putting the edge of a net in the picture of the top predator fish in Ocean Sunlight to indicate the whole subject of human use of the seas, something we do not touch on in the book.
In Living Sunlight, when showing how photosynthesis worked, Molly used a technique you might find in comics. For example, on one two-page spread, the background of the illustration is a cross section of a plant, with [blue] roots in the ground and waves of yellow dots—sunlight—coming down into it from the sky. Superimposed on that are rectangles showing four steps of photosynthesis in extreme close-up: molecules of water going into the roots; yellow dots of sunlight filling a green chlorophyll vessel; energy emanating from one side of the chlorophyll vessel and splitting the water into two separate streams of oxygen and hydrogen; and energy emanating from the other side of the chlorophyll vessel, which demonstrates how the sun’s energy is “trapped as little packets.” To have a visual understanding of the process, children can follow these four pictures as they read or listen to the text.
BKL: Do you have any tips that librarians and teachers can share with students to help them write informational or explanatory texts?
BANG and CHISHOLM: Choose one small, specific science topic at a time and be sure that the child has a strong grasp of the topic. Have the students write the assignment as an explanation for children two to three years younger than themselves. If possible, have students partner with a specific class and, on a class visit, read their explanations to the younger students. Encourage the young writers to also draw pictures that represent their explanations—that really show what their words say. Ask the children to look at their peers’ work to get ideas for their own drawing and writing.
BKL: How do you hope that the books in the Sunlight series will help kids develop an awareness of how we use earth’s resources?
BANG and CHISHOLM: Our emphasis throughout our work has been not to focus on environmental problems. Instead, our goal has been to offer a basic scientific understanding of how natural ecosystems work and how they sustain life on earth. That said, in our newest book, Buried Sunlight, we do discuss the effects of human use of natural resources. The purpose of this book is to explain how the earth system works over evolutionary time. We explain the origin of fossil fuels, a by-product of earth’s long-term “metabolism,” and how our burning of fossil fuels is leading to changes in our climate. We explain that no one can predict exactly how the changes will affect our lives or the planet. We hesitated to describe climate change, as many children are already worried about it, but we feel that an understanding of exactly how it works is essential for the decisions we will all have to make as the changes increase over our lifetimes.
Sampling Bang and Chisholm
Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. By Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. Illus. by Molly Bang. 2014. 48p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $17.99 (9780545577854); e-book, $18.99 (9780545577861) 333.8. K–Gr. 3.
Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life. By Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. Illus. by Molly Bang. 2009. 40p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $16.99 (9780545044226). 572. PreS–Gr. 3.
My Light. By Molly Bang. Illus. by the author. 2004. 48p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $16.95 (9780439489614). 621. Gr. 1–3.
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas. By Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. Illus. by Molly Bang. 2012. 48p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $18.99 (9780545273220). 571.4. K–Gr. 3.
Sunday Cummins is the author of Close Reading of Informational Texts: Assessment-Driven Instruction in Grades 3–8 (2013).
The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with books in the Sunlight series, written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm and illustrated by Molly Bang. Although the books have appeal to a wide age range, the activities below target an upper-elementary audience. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: After reading aloud Molly Bang’s My Light, turn to a two-page spread and discuss the connections between the text and the illustrations with students. Use prompts, such as the following: What did you learn from the words in the text? What do you notice in the illustration? How does the illustration help you understand the words? How can we summarize what we learned from both the words and the artwork?
One example is to use the spread in My Light that begins, “A dam! You humans stop the flow. My energy is trapped.” When viewing the illustration on these pages, students will notice that for each event the author describes, there is a corresponding section of the artwork, beginning with illustrated swirls of sunlight being drawn into the turbines of the dam.
Common Core Connection
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.7. Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).
In the Classroom: After reading aloud a book in Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s Sunlight series, discuss the overall structure of the title with students. The structure of these books can be described as a series of interconnected events (usually starting with exposure to sunlight). The authors also employ sequencing and causal structures at the sentence level. For example, on one page in Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life, readers learn about how the human body burns oxygen and sugar from plants (cause) to make energy (effect). Highlight these causal structures by studying particular sections of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.5. Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.
In the Classroom: Provide opportunities for students to compare the content in the Sunlight series with other sources. For example, while reading aloud Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, pause to record with students the details learned about the importance of plankton in the ocean’s ecosystem and on earth in general. Then watch a short, related video, such as National Geographic’s Plankton Revealed: Component of Life on Earth. Ask the students to take notes on what they learn about the critical role of plankton as they view the video. Follow with a discussion comparing the similarities and differences in content in Ocean Sunlight and Plankton Revealed. Finally, students can further integrate content from the two sources in a written response on the vital role of plankton.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.7. Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.
In the Classroom: Ask small groups of students to study a text in the Sunlight series, including the newest title, Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. Challenge each group to create a multimedia presentation or visual performance of their own to explain the overarching concept described, based on specific information in their assigned text. After the group presentations, discuss as a class the relationships among all the concepts presented.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.3. Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a scientific text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.4. Report on a topic or text in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.
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