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Author Showcase

Spring 2007 Featured Author Cheryl Block

RT: First, congratulations on winning the 2007 Teachers’ Choice Award for the Family from Learning® magazine. As a one-time classroom teacher, this must have been particularly special for you.

Cheryl: Yes, it was. I like to think that I’m creating materials that both parents and teachers can use and appreciate. It makes a difference when your peers value what you do.

RT: You came to creating multi-media science books along a path that started with teaching special needs students. Your comments about how teaching science opened the doors to learning for them intrigue me. What do you think it is about science that opens so many other areas of knowledge?

Cheryl: From an early age, children are curious about the world around them. When kids are excited about a subject, they want to learn more. A simple walk outdoors can start an awareness of shapes in nature or a comparison of sizes. Science stimulates an interest in reading because kids want to learn more about nature. Vocabulary, a key part of reading comprehension, is more easily absorbed when you’re interested in a topic. Think of the five-year-olds who can readily name every dinosaur. The Latin and Greek roots of many science terms also help kids develop an awareness of the structure of language.

RT: In addition to offering factual, scientific data, True Blue Friend and The Rainbow Web are stories with morals. Which comes first: selecting the animal that will be the protagonist or picking the theme and then identifying the animal?

Cheryl: Ideas for the animal and the story seem to come together. The moral unfolds as the story develops. As I write the story, issues evolve that a child could relate to as well. I like the old-fashioned idea of having my characters learn something from their experiences, even when my characters are animals. I also try not to state the theme or moral, because I find people often have their own interpretation of the story.

RT: The SuperKids review website rated the CD that comes with True Blue Friend a 4 (of 5) in Educational Value, and gave it a 5.0 for ease of use and 3.0 for kid appeal. Overall, these are very good marks. Because you offer multimedia content, do you find those kinds of reviews helpful? Do you conduct preview surveys of the CDs with kids before the material goes final?

Cheryl: I think reviews can be very useful. We often make changes in the products based on the feedback we get from our reviewers and customers. We do try to have both teachers and kids try out the materials beforehand. The kids need to understand, though, that the CDs are learning tools, not just games. I hope that the content itself will engage them without a lot of bells and whistles.

RT: Multi-media content is becoming commonplace in the children's book industry. Do you see your material as complementary to the story or as assistive technology?

Cheryl: My software is definitely complementary to the story. The fictional story is intended to engage children in wanting to know more about the animal. The CD content provides factual information so kids can decide which parts of the story were real and which were fantasy. Do spiders spin colored webs? The printable activities on the CD then move them back to traditional learning.

RT: What would you say to parents who think that kids spend too much time with computers? Are there ways to bring your books to life beyond the CDs?

Cheryl: Too often kids are spending time playing games on computers or surfing the net. Just like time watching television, time on the computer should be supervised. The computer is a wonderful tool for learning, but it is only one way of learning. That’s why I include a variety of printable activities on the CD so that kids can go further with the information they learn in the CD lessons. There are many other ways to use the books and CD content. After you view the unit on spider webs, go on a web hunt. Use yarn, string, even spaghetti, to create webs in different shapes. Read Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider and compare the stories. Find out more about different kinds of whales; do experiments with sound location; go to Journey North online to track whale migrations; encourage recycling to keep trash from the ocean.

RT: The Team that creates your Webs to Whales Nature Tales is quite talented. They have extensive experience and backgrounds beyond the animal kingdom, to include plants and other natural sciences. How did the team come together?

Cheryl: I met Gene Takeshita, my illustrator, when I was working for another publisher. I admired his work and contacted him when I was ready to illustrate my book. These are the first books he has ever illustrated, and his attention to detail and eye for design are incredible. Gene put me in contact with Jeff, our multi-media specialist. Jeff and Gene have worked together on a number of projects, so they were already a team. Jeff has a phenomenal range of talents and expertise in both science and multi-media production. I couldn’t have done this without his help. We all share a common belief in producing materials that are of the highest possible quality. We collaborate very closely on every aspect of production. I feel very blessed to be working with both of them.

RT: Do you foresee taking the nature series in a different direction?

Cheryl: Not at this time. I feel there’s still more we can do to make this series even better. We’re focusing on animals and habitats that are endangered. We have a new book on the coral reef that has a little octopus as the main character. The next book will be about an endangered blue butterfly. We will continue to include the CD because it enables us to add so much more science content. The new coral reef CD has hundreds of photos of reef animals and many more activities than our previous CDs.

RT: There is a lot of information in the recent media about autism and the numbers of children who fall on the spectrum of autism. Are there every-day "science" things parents can do to enrich their child's learning?

Cheryl: Observation is the beginning of inquiry, so simply taking the time to look at things carefully can be an eye-opening experience. Get a magnifying glass and observe ordinary objects up close. Do some cooking in the kitchen. It’s a great place for science. You can dissolve things, you can heat things (with supervision), you can freeze and then melt things. There are some great books out there with kitchen chemistry and simple science experiments. Autistic children tend to have trouble focusing, so physically engaging them in the activity may work better than trying to have them watch something. They like repetition, so sort common items by one attribute (color), then two attributes (color and shape), etc.; do repeated experiments and record the results.

RT: A recent study published in the journal Developmental Psychology(American Psychological Association) concludes that photos more than illustrations help children learn. Through the CDs that come with your books you complement the story with photographic information. Would you consider moving toward more photographs than illustrations for your books?

Cheryl: No. The illustrations allow the child to imagine. They enable the animals to show expressions and feelings. For instance, the eyes on the little spider allow us to show expression that wouldn’t be possible with a realistic spider, yet the body is anatomically correct. The photos on the CD then offer a nice counterpoint to the illustrations and open the door for discussion. How do the illustrated animals compare with the real ones?

RT: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to talk about my books. I feel very lucky that I’m able to do what I love. I’ve always enjoyed nature and been fascinated with science and how things work. Writing these books and CDs has let me explore all sorts of new subjects. I can’t imagine being bored when there are so many fascinating things to learn about. And I really enjoy being able to share this knowledge with kids. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the joy and excitement that comes from learning something new. I’d like to see kids get that back.

Website: http://blockpub.com


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