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.
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.
Nonfiction is the New Black
Baseball fans were fascinated by an article in Sports Illustrated magazine just before the start of the 1985 major league baseball season. It profiled Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, a rookie pitcher who was in spring training with the New York Mets. According to the article, he could throw a baseball at a top speed of nearly 170 miles per hour. That was twice as fast as many other pitchers. Photos accompanying the article showed Finch with his excited teammates. Teams that would be playing the Mets contacted the league office. They feared that their batters would be in danger when Finch was on the mound.
There was, however, a problem with the article. “Finch” in the photos was actually Joe Berton, an Illinois junior high school art teacher. The article’s subtitle provided a clue about its real purpose: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letters spell “Happy April Fool’s Day—ah Fib.”
The issue was dated April 1.
The Sidd Finch saga is one of the best-known hoaxes that occur every year on April Fool’s Day. It’s not clear when the custom of playing tricks on this day originated, or even why. The first clear reference seems to come in 1561, in a work by Belgian poet Eduard De Dene. A nobleman orders his servant to run silly errands on April 1. De Dene was almost certainly making a reference to a custom that was already well-established.
By the end of the following century, it had spread to England. In 1698, a London newspaper reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” This was a prank that city dwellers played on bumpkins from rural areas. There were no lions, nor was there any washing.
In Scotland, April Fool’s Day actually became two days. The first day was “hunting the gowk” (a gowk was a cuckoo bird, a symbol of fools), sending people on ridiculous errands. Then came Tailie Day, which involved pinning tails or “kick me” signs on people’s butts.
It’s not clear when April Fool’s Day came to the United States. But today Americans love “celebrating” it. So if someone tells you a story that seems like a hoax or a joke, check the calendar. If it’s April 1, someone is probably fooling you.
Crack! It's going, going, it's gone! Professional players make it look easy to hit a home run. But without science, they’d be left in the batter’s box. In The Science of Hitting a Home Run, you can take a closer look at the science that makes a home run possible. Check this and Jim's many other titles out at his website.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "April Fool's Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 30 Mar.
Nonfiction is the new black
When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
Nonfiction is the New Black
In 1983, shortly before she became America’s first female astronaut to participate in a mission, Sally Ride faced a press conference. Reporters raised questions they would never have asked a man. “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” one inquired. “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” queried another. A third wondered, “Will you wear makeup and a bra in space?” Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked that the flight was delayed because Sally had to find a purse that matched her shoes.
It wasn’t just U.S. media. The Soviet Union had already sent two women into space. When one of them arrived at the space station, a male cosmonaut (the Soviet term for astronauts) said, “An apron is waiting for you in the kitchen.”
By this point, Sally had mastered parachute jumping, water survival, coping with weightlessness and the massive G-forces from a rocket launch, and other highly demanding skills. She flew jet planes. She had a Ph.D. degree in physics from Stanford, one of the nation’s top universities. She helped develop a robotic arm for use on the space shuttle. She was a nationally ranked tennis player who decided not to turn pro because she preferred science.
The general public seemed more accepting. On launch day at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, thousands of people wore “Ride, Sally, Ride!” T-shirts, from the lyrics of the pop song “Mustang Sally.”
The mission went flawlessly, and Sally flew again the following year. She was scheduled for a third flight in 1986, but it was scrubbed when the Challenger space shuttle blew up.
Sally left the space program soon afterward. She was passionate about encouraging young people—especially girls—to become involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Here are some of the things she did toward that achieving that goal.
Sadly, Sally Ride died of cancer in 2012 at the age of 61. Shortly afterward, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
To find information on many of Jim Whiting's books, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "'Ride, Sally, Ride!'" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 May
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council