I recently reviewed nine books for our Halloween SbookTACULAR Giveaway and one of those was Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices, undoubtedly one of the most original children’s non-fiction books on the market today. You’ve got to get this book for your children. Wait a minute, let’s be honest – you need to get it for yourself too. It’s fascinating and wonderfully gross, looking at photographs and reading the science about how a pumpkin decomposes, especially around Halloween! I can’t think of a better way to get kids interested in science.
I am thrilled that author David M. Schwartz agreed to an interview with Smart Books for Smart Kids. His dedication to teaching math and science will not only impress you, but it will also change the way you think about the way these subjects should be taught. And because this book simply could not have been done without the gloriously grotesque photos, we asked photographer extraordinaire, Dwight Kuhn a few questions too.
Questions for photographer Dwight Kuhn
Dwight, I understand that you are the one who came up with the idea to write Rotten Pumpkin. Can you explain that to our readers?
My three-year-old granddaughter was on her porch with her dad several weeks after Halloween. The pumpkin was already starting to decompose and molds were growing around the mouth and eyes. She said, “Where did my pumpkin go? Why is it doing that? I want my pumpkin back!” Her dad tried to explain what was happening. When I heard this story, I decided this could be a good Halloween book for November, instead of October.
How brilliant! How long did it take that pumpkin to completely decompose?
After Halloween, my pumpkins were put into the garden to decompose. I photographed the birds, mice and squirrels as they came to feed on the seeds and the flesh. Soon after that, small critters took part in the feeding frenzy. Before long the pumpkin was a mass of colorful molds and the shell began to collapse. By winter, the pumpkin was just a hump of seeds and goo. The following spring, I continued photographing the pumpkin’s demise with the sprouting of new plants from the seeds that survived. I then followed the growth of those pumpkins through the summer until the end of October. I now completed the photography cycle and have some new Jack O’ Lanterns for the Halloween season.
That is really impressive! Can you tell us how your amazing close up shots were taken?
The molds and slime molds were taken with a macro lens. The extreme close-up of the bread mold spore cases was photographed with a specially designed macro lens for very small subjects. Yeast cells cannot be seen with any normal lens, so this required using a scanning electron microscope. To get this photograph I used a microscope located at the University of Maine. Before the photo was taken, the yeast cells went though a long process of chemically preparing the specimen.
I find all this incredibly fascinating. Dwight. If it were not for the advanced equipment and your superior skills, we would not be able to see the details with such precision. Your rotting pumpkin project demonstrates the Circle of Life in the purest, most natural form, and I want to thank you for sharing your story with us. I am so pleased that you had the idea to turn your “science project” into a book. You’ve inspired me to rot my own pumpkin this year and photograph the process; I live in Miami and it’s so hot and humid here, our pumpkins start rotting the day after we carve them and attract maggots within 48 hours. Ew!
Check out Dwight’s website here and see the dozens of books Dwight photographed here.
Questions for author David M. Schwartz
Dwight’s work is so impressive. What is it like to collaborate with such a talented photographer? I understand you’ve worked with him on many other books as well.
He is talented indeed, and I envy that talent! I sometimes dream of devoting time to develop my own photographic skills, but I doubt they would approach his level of excellence. In terms of collaboration, his process occurs separately from mine. I’m not there when he takes the pictures and most of them have already been created before I get involved in the project. I once visited him at his home in Maine (I live in Oakland, California) and he showed me some of his set-ups for close-up nature photography. It is amazing to people who admire photography, but those not deeply involved in the process have no idea how much time can be required to get one good shot; it’s mind-boggling!
“I visit many schools for author presentations, and I always tell children, ‘Wondering is wonderful.’”
What inspired you to pursue a degree in biology? And what do you think we can do in the US to encourage more students to get interested in science from an early age?
I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and I never really considered any other subject than biology as a major in college. I think the secret to getting children interested in science is to make it hands-on and not “textbooky.” Parents should ensure their children see the relevance of science in all aspects of their lives, not just school. I also would encourage parents and teachers to get children to think like scientists — to observe phenomena, to wonder about them, to make hypotheses, to test their hypotheses or at least do research to answer their own questions. I visit many schools for author presentations, and I always tell children, “Wondering is wonderful.”
You have written many science and math books and have visited countless schools. How do you get students interested in these subjects that are often thought of as difficult?
Make it visual, make it relevant and make it fun! During my school visits I use a lot of props that kids relate to (including, for example, exponentially growing bags of popcorn), but I use them in unusual ways to make points that tie in with my books and the concepts I talk about.
It is essential that parents and teachers help make science and math concepts – no matter how difficult – relevant to children’s lives. Just asking questions is a great start. Here’s one example: Look at ice. Once you’re looking at it (not before), ask questions about it. Make observations with as many senses as possible — see, hear (yes, ice can make sounds!), touch, smell, taste it. What do you observe? What explanations might be possible? How can we find answers? What if we put it in the fridge? The freezer? The sunny backyard? Will the outcomes be the same or different?
Also, don’t forget to have good non-fiction books around always! Books that engage children on many levels, not just books that stuff in facts. Books that ignite their minds and senses and excite them about learning by making it seem like an adventure, not a chore.
Your suggestions are the best I’ve ever heard for teaching math and science. Making it creative as you do, takes the doldrums right out of it! How often are you on the road visiting schools, and what is that like for you, traveling so often for your work?
I visit, oh, 50 or so schools per year. A few are near my home (Oakland, CA) but most are out of town, out of state or even out of the country (I’ve been to schools on all continents except Antarctica). The bottom line is that I love it! Presenting directly to my readers and seeing how excited they can get about math and science energizes me and motivates me to write more books as well as visit more schools!
It is taxing to do all the travel but I pick up so much energy from the kids that it’s equally invigorating. One downside is that I don’t find it easy to write when I’m on the road visiting schools (and trying to keep up with emails about my next school visits) so I have to discipline myself to do it when I’m home.
Every eye on Schwartz as he gets kids involved in the most creative ways.
Wow, that’s a lot of author visits! I can understand how it would be difficult to concentrate on your writing when you are on the road. Is there a process you go through to come up with the ideas for your books, or do you just wait for inspiration?
Usually the best ideas just pop into my mind and then percolate for a while before I come up with a way to turn the idea into a book. Often the “ah-hah!” moment occurs while I’m doing something else entirely: riding my bike or hiking or cooking dinner. You might know the quote from Louis Pasteur that goes, “In matters of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” It’s something like that with ideas for books.
Without even thinking about it but by being prepared with background information as well as being open to new ideas, I subconsciously filter the myriad thoughts that come into my mind to extract the ones that I think will make the best books. It’s a very personal process and when people say to me they have a great idea for a book I could write, I usually think to myself, “It may be a great idea for a book you can write but that doesn’t mean it will be a great idea for me to write!” I don’t often say this out loud, but it is what I think, and it’s not meant to be unkind in any way. I really do believe that the person who came up with the idea is the one whose mind is best prepared to write that book!
I am sure most other writers would agree with you on that. Having featured a rotting pumpkin in your book, can you think of another plant that would be equally as fascinating to watch decompose?
They’re all pretty fascinating and similar in certain ways, different in others. Even a pumpkin will take a very different journey under different conditions. I suppose I could consider doing a series of rotten books (Rotten Zucchini, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.) but I think the rotten theme would wear thin, so instead Dwight and I are talking about using the voices of different characters to a different sort of ecological drama.
What’s the number one thing you hope children will take away from reading Rotten Pumpkin?
Rot is good, and, in its own way, beautiful! I think they already intuitively know that because they love the gross pictures, and the grosser the better.
How about that awesome prop?!
Gross is indeed wonderful, and it sure does get their attention! What do you most like about being an author?
Getting kids excited about the subjects I’m excited about. In many cases, I have been excited about them since I was a child.
When you’re not working, what do you enjoy spending your time doing?
Hiking, biking, birding, dancing, cooking, eating with friends, talking about things scientific, including rot. (Oh, also, ever since last April, walking my dog. Well, sometimes I enjoy it and sometimes it’s a chore, but I sure spend a lot of time doing it!)
I’m very familiar with the dog walking ritual myself. David, thank you so much for sharing your ultra creative views about teaching science and math and energizing our readers. I so admire what you do, sharing your passion with children and getting them excited about learning. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than that.
For more information about David Schwartz visit his website. Click here to contact David or to schedule an author visit.
It’s not too late to enter our Halloween SbookTACULAR Giveaway, which includes this title for one of the three winners. Or simply buy the book. It’s a definite keeper, and there’s no better way to get your children interested in science!