Teaching the Power of Wonder
Long before we celebrated Halloween, Celtic people in the British Isles honored the dead during Samhain (which we pronounce “SOW-ren”). Some scholars think that Samhain was a Celtic version of New Year’s Eve. It was a holiday filled with ritual. Folks believed that in late fall, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its very thinnest.
To light their way at this dark time of year, they carved out vegetables, and popped glowing coals inside. A popular choice was the humble turnip, which they grew, cooked, and ate, of course.
Why turnips, you may ask? Think! Pumpkins didn’t grow in Europe—they are a New World vegetable. In fact, an old drawing shows how Indians in Virginia grew pumpkins in their villages in the late 1500s.
Why not give turnip carving a try? Order big ones at your farm market. When you first bring them home, they might be hard as rocks. Let them sit out in the open for several days until they soften up a bit.
To carve yourself some examples of the original “jack-o-lantern,” grab the turnips, some tea lights, a small knife, and a pointy spoon. Hold the turnip root tip up. Use a marker to draw the circle for the lid. Then trace or draw eyes, nose, mouth—whatever you’d like.
Now be sure there’s an adult to help you! Use the knife to carve around the circle. Remove the top of the turnip and set it aside. That’s your lid. Use the spoon to scoop out the turnip just like a pumpkin. Be sure to leave a nice thick wall. Then pierce the turnip with your knife and gently carve out the features.
Pop the tea light inside. Find a dark spot. Have the grownup help you light the wick and… LET IT GLOW!
Today, folks grow pumpkins in the Old World, so kids all over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales carve jack-o-lanterns just like you do. Turnips are out….unless you want to feed the cows.
Kerrie Hollihan's biography of Isaac Newton sheds light on a lot of ideas people thought were mysterious. If you liked the turnip activity, there are lots more in this book.
Kerrie Hollihan is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Often we think of Memorial Day as a day for parades, picnics, and opening swimming pools, but it’s a lot more than a day for celebrating summer’s beginning. In fact, Memorial Day got its start way back during the Civil War, when women from both North and South decorated soldier graves with flowers. This practice spread across the country, and in 1873 New York State was the first to established Memorial Day as a state holiday.
In 1887, the US government made May 30 a Memorial Day holiday for government workers, and most Northern states followed suit. But in the South, this tradition became known as Confederate Memorial Day, which is still celebrated in some of the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared the fourth Monday in May as Memorial Day, a national holiday.
Well into the 1900s, many called this day “Decoration Day,” and families visited cemeteries to tidy up family graves and plant them with flowers. When American soldiers died during World War I, the celebration evolved from remembering Civil War soldiers to memorialize all our soldiers who fought or died in war. Wherever we are on Memorial Day, we Americans are asked to observe a moment of silence at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday
Across the country this Memorial Day, tiny flags will mark soldier graves, and solemn ceremonies will mark their sacrifice. The US President or Vice President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Often “Taps” ring out from bugles in memory of the dead.
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
My grandfather, a World War I bugler, played taps for years at a national cemetery in Illinois with Civil War graves of Northern and Confederate soldiers. Grandpa bugled the “echo” from afar as taps was played to close every Memorial Day ceremony.
Grandpa is buried in this cemetery now, and someone else plays taps on Memorial Day. I live far away, but every year I celebrate this day by remembering him. Are there people you think about on Memorial Day?
Kerrie Hollihan's Theodore Roosevelt for Kids brings to life this fascinating man, an American giant whose flaws were there for all the world to see. Twenty-one hands-on activities offer a useful glimpse at Roosevelt’s work and times. Readers will create a Native American toy, explore the effects of erosion, go on a modern big game hunt with a camera, and make felted teddy bears. The text includes a time line, online resources, and reading list for further study. And through it all, readers will appreciate how one man lived a “Bully!” life and made the word his very own.
MLA 8 Citation
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "Memorial Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25
May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Memorial-Day.
The Running Encyclopedia
While Cinco de Mayo is not officially a holiday, many U.S. communities celebrate Mexican culture and heritage on May 5 with parades, mariachi music, street festivals, and much more. Most celebrants, though, would probably not be able to tell you what really happened on that date.
After thrusting off centuries of Spanish rule in 1821, Mexico endured several decades of economic and political instability. In 1861, Mexican president Benito Juárez suspended payment of his country’s debts to France, Spain, and Great Britain. The three countries immediately sent warships to Mexico. Juárez negotiated with Spain and Britain and their ships went home. But French emperor Napoleon III saw an opportunity to expand his country’s colonial empire and landed troops at Veracruz. They planned on capturing Mexico City, the capital. The French army at that time was generally regarded as the world’s finest and anticipated little difficulty in reaching its objective.
With the Civil War having just begun, the US government couldn’t divert resources to Mexico. The first target of the invaders was the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles. More than six thousand French troops, supported by cannons, assaulted a ragtag army of inexperienced, ill-equipped Mexican defenders about half that size on May 5, 1862. Somehow the Mexicans overcame their disadvantages and defeated the French.
The following year Napoleon dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers to Mexico. They seized control and installed Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the US leaned on France to leave Mexico. The final French troops departed two years later. Mexican forces seized Maximilian and executed him.
Today Cinco de Mayo barely causes a ripple in Mexico outside of the province of Puebla. It is not a national holiday so nearly everyone goes to work as usual.
It’s a much bigger deal in the United States, which may be fitting. Some historians believe that if the French had not been defeated at Puebla de Los Angeles and seized Mexico City, Napoleon would have made an alliance with the Confederate States. The Civil War was not going well for the Union at that time and French assistance could well have swung the conflict in the South’s favor. The result would have been two separate nations.
Jim Whiting has written a biography of the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés. To some people, he was heroic. Even though he was greatly outnumbered, he was able to defeat the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and conquer the Aztec empire centered in modern-day Mexico. To others, including many Mexicans, he was a villain because he destroyed the Aztecs way of life. They believed he was a cruel man. He was also a symbol of Spanish domination. For more information, click here.
Whiting, Jim. "Cinco de Mayo." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 May 2018,
For some of us, spring begins when you can go outside in your shorts and not get cold legs. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring’s official start is at the vernal equinox, when the sun shines directly on the earth’s equator. For me, here in Missouri, that was March 20, 5:45 P.M. CDT. The autumnal equinox arrives in September— when spring begins in the southern hemisphere! But I digress from today’s theme: May Day. For thousands of years, it’s been a day for celebrating spring, but that’s not all it’s been.
Since the oldest olden days, winter-weary people have gloried when the weather warms and the cold earth comes back to life. Some of their ancient festivals still happen every spring, such as Sham el Nissim, in Egypt. In India, on Holi, dancing Hindus still shower one another with colors; and Iranians still fix a special supper at Norooz, as did their ancient Persian ancestors.
When the Roman armies invaded ancient Britain, in 55 B.C.E. they brought along their spring holy day, Floralia, when they gathered bouquets of flowers for their goddess, Flora. The Celts, who’d been living in Britain for years, celebrated the earth mother’s reawakening with dances and bonfires at Beltane, around the end of April. Over the years, the holidays blended into May Day, a time for giving gifts of flowers and dancing about a Maypole, strung with ribbons.
Then, in the 1880s, May Day celebrations changed. It was like this: For decades, factory owners had been making their employees work anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week (even children!), often in unsafe, nasty conditions. The workers were sick of it! They organized themselves into labor unions. At a Chicago gathering, in 1884, they started a worldwide movement for an 8-hour workday. With a huge demonstration in the city, on May 1, 1886, May Day came to be the first Labor Day, a day of parades. It’s still celebrated as International Workers’ Day in many countries.
But one more thing happened, in 1923. Because ‘May Day’ sounds like the French phrase, ‘m’aidez’ or ‘help me,’ a London radioman turned it into an international distress call. So if you hear “Mayday! Mayday!” on your radio, no one’s wishing you ‘Happy Spring!’ Someone’s in trouble! And once he or she is saved, I’ll bet he or she would like to have some pretty flowers.
Cheryl Harness is the author and illustrator of Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women. One of the 100 Ladies is the great and heroic labor union activist "Mother" Mary Harris Jones. She was born on May Day, 1830. Click here to find out more about about Mary, and about a lot of other great Americans.
MLA 8 CItation
Harness, Cheryl. "May Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 1 May 2018,
Who doesn’t like penguins? Their waddling gait is fun to watch. They have little fear of humans so it’s easy to get next to them. Penguin movies such as Happy Feet and The Penguins of Madagascar are box office hits.
World Penguin Day on April 25 focuses attention on these loveable flightless fowl. Some people dress up in black and white clothing. Many read books about penguins or watch penguin movies.
I was fortunate to get up close and personal to thousands of penguins during a trip to Antarctica. As our ship neared the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the closest point to the southern tip of South America which had been our departure point—we marveled at how effortlessly they skimmed through the water beside us. Soon we marveled at another characteristic. We were at least two or three miles offshore when the harsh odor of the poop generated by all those penguins wafted over the ship.
We relished the opportunity to go ashore and wander through their rookeries. There were lots of juveniles, covered with gray fuzz that would eventually fall off and be replaced by their characteristic black and white plumage. None of them seemed to mind our presence.
But we had several harsh reminders that we weren’t in a zoo. Several century-old stone huts provided shelter for explorers who slaughtered hundreds of penguins to eat during the long, harsh Antarctic winters. Skuas, nasty predatory birds, routinely feed on penguin chicks. We saw the discarded remains of several skua meals. Danger can also come from the depths. A couple of times we observed large seals relaxing on ice floes with bright red stains next to them.
The saddest sight came one afternoon when we took a Zodiac inflatable boat to shore. A penguin stood forlornly on top of a small ice floe, a leopard seal thrashing the water next to it. We asked our guide if we could rescue the doomed bird. He shook his head. “The water is too rough,” he said. “Too much chance of falling in if anyone tried to step out onto the floe. And you don’t want to be anywhere near an angry half-ton leopard seal that feels his dinner is being taken away from him.”
On our way back to the ship, there was no sign of the lone penguin. We had to accept that we couldn’t interfere in the natural course of things.
All images ©Jen Goode
Jim Whiting has written more than 100 titles and edited another 150 or so, with subjects ranging from authors to zoologists and including classical musicians and contemporary pop icons, saints and scientists, emperors and explorers. Many of his books have received glowing reviews.
He's also ventured into a number of classrooms and served as a presenter at writers' conferences, conveying the enthusiasm for writing and for a good story that still animates him. Check out his work here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "World Penguin Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Apr.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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