CORVALLIS, Ore. – A curious 11-year-old visiting his uncle’s ranch witnesses a wildfire in the arid forestlands of eastern Oregon. He pours his impressions into a diary with maps, timelines and sketches of landscapes and wildlife.
That colorful journal is the centerpiece of a new book for young readers: Ricky’s Atlas, Mapping a Land on Fire, published last year by Oregon State University Press. The book this week received a national prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.
Author Judith Li and illustrator M.L. Herring, both associate professors at Oregon State University, won one of five awards for outstanding science writing from AAAS and Subaru of America, Inc. Ricky’s Atlas was named the best “hands-on science book.”
“Children can be seized by the excitement, power and beauty of science and the admirable people who do it. And they can develop a lifelong reverence for evidence that will serve them well, whether or not they become professional scientists,” said Rush Holt, the chief executive officer of AAAS and publisher of the Science family of research journals, in lauding the awards.
Among their many adventures in Ricky’s Atlas, Ricky and his friend Ellie climb a fire lookout tower, handle fossils millions of years old, hike through a burned-out forest and listen to coyotes singing in the hills above the ranch. Along the way they learn about the geology, geography and history of Oregon’s eastern semi-arid plateau.
“For myself, I remember ideas best when they are accompanied with an interesting context, a memorable story,” said Li, a stream ecologist now retired from OSU. “I wrote these books with story structure to help young readers remember the landscapes and ways of exploring nature.”
Li’s storytelling is enhanced by Herring’s line drawings and watercolors, which include maps, charts and hand-written field notes that show how real scientists work.
“It’s both a science book and an adventure story,” said Herring, trained as a fisheries biologist and now a science writer with OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “More than that, it’s an invitation for children to explore the world around them.”
Ricky’s Atlas is the second collaboration by Li and Herring. Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell (OSU Press 2013), features 10-year-old Ellie learning about the old-growth forests on the west slopes of the Cascade Mountains.
Li, whose research took her frequently to the streams of eastern Oregon, drew on professional and personal influences to create her stories about children learning to be scientists in natural settings. Ricky’s fascination with maps “reminds me of many boys and young men I’ve taught,” she said. “And Ellie’s curiosity about living things reflects the way I saw the world at her age, and her adventurous spirit mirrors my memories of my son and daughter as kids.”
The science in both books adheres to established educational standards, Herring said. Li coordinated teachers’ materials with the National Next Generation Science Standards and Oregon’s benchmarks. In addition, in Ricky’s Atlas, Herring adhered to national standards for geosciences education developed by the National Geographic Society.
Li and Herring plan two more books in the series: a third story set on the Pacific Coast and a fourth set in Portland, Oregon’s largest city.