Percy the coal black cat is a born wanderer. The former barn cat sleeps by the woodstove in winter. But in summer, he leaves after breakfast and stays out all night. For years, his owners, Anne and Yale Michael, never knew where he went. Then a friend called to tell them that Percy had made the front page of the local newspaper.
The Michaels live in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom, a pretty seaside town on the Atlantic coast. Tourists flock there in summer to go to the beach and ride the miniature train that runs along it. According to the newspaper, their Percy was also riding the rails!
“We were shocked,” Yale says. “I wondered if it was really our cat.” Because the frisky feline was always losing his collar and tags, no one knew who owned Percy or where he lived. But after their friend recognized him in that front-page newspaper article, radio and television stories followed. Percy became famous.
The train station is half a mile (0.8 km) from the Michaels’ home. To get there, Percy has to walk down the alley beside their house and cross the neighbor’s yard and a golf club parking lot (where he occasionally stops for meaty handouts). Finally, he trots over to the sea cliff and through some woods down to the railway. Once Percy arrives at the train station, he dozes on a mat the railway workers have laid out for him until he hears the train whistle. Then, every day, he boards the train, takes a seat, and rides to the Sea Life Centre. Perhaps the smell of fish drew him there originally. But that isn’t why he visits now. The curious cat behaves like any human tourist and visits the marine sanctuary to view the exhibits. The penguins are his favorite. Percy might watch them strut about for half an hour, before he strolls into the office where aquarium workers have been welcoming him for years. When it’s time to leave, the furry penguin watcher hops back on the train for the trip home.
The Michaels rode the tourist train once. “He got off, as we got on,” says Yale. “We said, ‘Hi, Percy.’“ He turned around and came to us.” But only in greeting. Then their popular, wandering pet continued on his independent way. Now that they know about his daytime adventures, they’re waiting to hear what he does at night. Perhaps a local disco?
Percy enjoying the penguins at the Sea Center.
Percy’s choice of transit: The North Bay Railroad running from Scarborough to the Sea Life Centre.
Aline Alexander Newman is a lifelong animal lover who has written more than 50 magazine stories about animals from dogs to cheetahs to dolphins. Her love of cats is reflected in her recently published Cat Tales: True Stories of Kindness and Companionship with Kittens.
MLA 8 Citation
Newman, Aline Alexander. "Percy the Cat." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Percy-the-cat.
Giving Voice to Children in History
In 1843, thirty-one-year-old Charles Dickens had money problems. His wife was expecting their sixth child, he was in debt, and he supported a slew of needy relatives. He was known for long novels that were published in weekly installments, but because time was of the essence, he decided to write a short story (actually a long story by our standards, but short by his) that he could publish quickly.
The British were enamored with the paranormal, so he decided it would be a ghost story. To increase interest, he included THREE ghosts. And to seal the deal, he added a bonus apparition that appeared at the stroke of midnight, dragging its chains from hell. That would get readers’ attention.
He didn’t intend to simply entertain them. He was Charles Dickens, after all, and his writing was also meant to inspire. His family had once been poor, and his quest, as always, was to help the less fortunate. The tale he crafted happened at Christmas, a holiday that in England included charitable giving—the perfect setting for his message that charity must come from the heart, and that it’s never too late for redemption.
From his fertile imagination he conjured up Ebenezer Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” whose refrain to anything distasteful was “Bah, Humbug!” Scrooge represented the self-serving upper classes, while his poorly paid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family, including sickly Tiny Tim, represent the deserving poor.
Dickens sent Scrooge on a wild night’s journey, led by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Scrooge visited his childhood and learned why he’d become such a miserable miser, and he saw a grim future awaiting him if he didn’t change his ways. By sunrise Christmas morning he was a new man: his hard heart had melted and he became a good friend to the poor, beginning with the Cratchit family. He resolved to “honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
To Dickens’ delight, his readers did the same. In example after example, A Christmas Carol inspired the upper classes to be more charitable to the lower classes. And because the book became a bestseller, it eased Dickens’ financial worries.
Dickens’ ghost story remains popular today, reminding us all that it’s never too late to do the right thing, and allowing us to proclaim with Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
You can learn more about Charles Dickens and his stories in Andrea Warren’s book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London and on her website.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Dickens' A Christmas Carol: How a Short Story with a Big Message Helped the Poor." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Dickens-a-christmas-carol.
Nonfiction is the new black
When the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE after his brother was assassinated, he insisted on being called Antiochus Epiphanes (“Antiochus the Visible God”). To the Jews who had the misfortune to be among his subjects, he was Antiochus Epimanes (“Antiochus the lunatic”).
No matter his name, he was definitely bad news to the Jews. Because of his Greek background, Antiochus believed in many gods. The Jews, on the other hand, were monotheistic. Antiochus soon began imposing his beliefs on the Jews and making it much more difficult for them to practice their religion. For example, anyone caught circumcising their newborn children would be put to death.
In 168 he sacked Jerusalem. His forces cut down thousands of defenseless Jews of all ages, looted and desecrated the Second Temple, and erected a massive statue of the chief Greek god Zeus (using himself as a model for the sculptor who created the statue). Soon the altar ran red with the blood of swine that were slaughtered as sacrifices. For good measure, Antiochus also outlawed the Hebrew religion.
The outraged Jews fought back. An elderly priest named Mattathias and some of his men killed a group of Seleucid soldiers. That ignited a revolt against Antiochus’s rule. When Mattathias died, his son Judah assumed the leadership role. Judah soon acquired the surname of Maccabee (“the hammer”) for his skill in battle. After a series of successful guerrilla operations, he led his vastly outnumbered forces to two decisive victories that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 165.
The first order of business was cleansing the temple so it could be rededicated. The ceremony began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. According to legend, the small amount of purified oil that was readily available for the rites was expected to burn just a single night. Instead it burned for eight nights, when a new supply became available. That miracle gave rise to the ceremony of lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which means “dedication.”
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the dates of Hanukkah change each year. This year Hanukkah begins [December 12] at sunset and lasts until sunset on December .
To the Jewish families who celebrate the holiday, Happy Hanukkah!
The holidays are approaching and millions of people will be listening to Handel’s Messiah. Read all about the composer in Jim Whiting’s Masters of Music biography.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Story of Hanukkah." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-story-of-hanukkah.
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Ever wonder how an idea becomes a book? How does an author gather information, decide what goes in book or what doesn't and when it is complete? Get your answers straight from award-winning nonfiction author Carla Killough McClafferty. Join Carla on December 14th at 11:00 am EST see her live, face-to-face in our amazing Zoom Room! This is using technology for a personal connection! All you need is a computer, wifi and a screen and projector. We supply the virtual meeting place. Read more about it and sign up here.
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
How do you know it’s the holiday season? There are lights everywhere sending that message. But that’s not the only kind of message light can send. A little more than 100 years ago when a telegraph began to become popular, people sent wireless messages called heliographs. They were made of flashes of light in Morse code (the same pattern of short and long as used in telegraphs) by reflecting the sun’s rays with a mirror. When the mirror was at a particular angle to the sun, it reflected a flash of bright light to observer miles away.
Maybe there’s another way to send light. Put a holiday light on one rim of a heavy glass measuring cup or dish. See where the light emerges on the rim on the opposite side. Move the light back and forth and watch what happens on the other side. The light travels down the side, and bends to go across the bottom and up the other side, but if you look at the cup sideways you can’t see the beam. Light stays inside the glass as it travels from rim to rim.
Could we make something like a wire from glass that can transmit light? Absolutely! An optical fiber is a flexible, transparent fiber made of glass or plastic that acts as a wire for light. Imagine a beam of light entering a fiber at exactly the right angle to bounce off the inside wall of the fiber where it meets the air. It is then reflected at exactly the same angle to bounce off the opposite wall making a zig-zag path until it reaches the end of the fiber. This internally reflected light stays inside the glass fiber as it travels at the speed of light.
HUGE quantities of all kinds of information—words, pictures, music, and videos—can now be sent through optical fibers, much more than through wires. A modern network with copper wiring can handle about 3,000 telephone calls at the same time, while a similar system using fiber optics can carry more than 30,000!
So when you hit “send,” know that your holiday message is a blinking beam of light, bouncing off the inside walls of a glass fiber on its speedy journey to friends and family. How ‘bout that!
Want to know more about optics? Have a look at Vicki Cobb's book Light Action! She co-authored it with her son, Josh, who is an optical engineer and her other son, Theo, drew the pictures. It's full of experiments that let you use optics to:
-Bend light around corners
- Stop time with a pair of sunglasses
- Capture light on a silver tray
- Magnify pictures with an ice cube
- Pour light into your palm
- Project a big-screen image from your small TV
- Fool a doorbell with a bike reflector!
For more information, go here.
Vicki is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "What Can You Learn from a Holiday Light and a Glass Cup?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ What-Can-You-Learn-from-a-Holiday-Light-and-a-Glass-Cup.
Nonfiction is the new black
During the Middle Ages, “going to the bathroom” or “relieving oneself” meant using a privy. A privy typically consisted of a raised board with one or more openings cut in the middle where the users would sit. Their fecal matter would plop into large holes called cesspits beneath them. Over time, the cesspits would fill up and start overflowing. When that happened, gong farmers had to empty them.
“Gong” came from a word that means “going.” And the farmers “harvested” the accumulation of months or even years of “going.” To make sure all the foul material was removed, the workers would hop down into the pits, where the feces came up their waists or even higher. Because of the relative ease of getting them in and out, small boys were often employed. The cesspool contents were dumped into carts and taken to larger dump sites on the edge of town, where more conventional farmers would use it as fertilizer.
People in the Middle Ages rarely bathed. So gong farmers stunk. Really. Stunk. Because of their horrible stench, they were often restricted in where they could live. They were allowed to work only at night to spare their fellow citizens from seeing and smelling them.
Besides the horrible smell and probable lack of friends, gong farmers encountered specific occupational hazards. Decaying fecal matter could produce poisonous gases. At least one gong farmer stumbled into a cesspool he was cleaning and drowned. Violators of the rules for collecting the refuse and disposing of it were submerged in barrels up to their necks and placed on public display for hours on end.
On the other hand, gong farmers were well paid, often earning in a day what other workers might make in a week. They had another potential source of income as well. Careless crappers occasionally dropped rings or coins into the cesspits. Enterprising gong farmers combed through the mess with their bare hands in search of those treasures.
The advent of better sanitary methods in the 19th century ended gong farmers in many countries. However, it is still practiced in some areas of the world.
You can learn more about Jim Whiting with a visit to his website. He is an interesting fellow with an interest in music and sports and has written lots of books in both fields.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Gong Farmers: Their Crop Was ...Crap." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Gong-Farmers.
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