Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I Write Books for Children

I write books for young children.

Actually, I write a lot of stuff, but the books I have published (1) and the books that have been accepted with a scheduled release date (4) are all books for young children.

I have been a BIG sci-fi fan for as long as I have read and watched movies, so many people who know me assumed that my first book would be in that genre.  I am an astronomer by training and many folks thought perhaps my first book might be a non-fiction astronomy book.  Since I have written an astronomy column for nearly 30 years, that perhaps wouldn’t be hard to do; just collect the best of those and format them into a coherent book.

I have several answers to the question of why I write books for children.  Writing an adult-length novel takes a long time. My ADHD brain makes it hard for me to focus on a book of that length for long periods of time. I have started several sci-fi and fantasy novels, but since I know how the stories end, I tend to lose interest before they get done.

I have heard from many people (who have never written a children’s book) that because they are shorter, they are easier to write.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Think of it this way: a writer can have, say, 2% of the book be not so good writing before the reader loses interest.  In and adult sci-fi novel of 80,000 words, that’s 1600 words. In a child’s picture book of 400 words, that’s 8 words of weak writing.  That’s the equivalent of ½ to 1 page. In a 24-page book, that’s a lot and the bad writing will really stand out. The shorter the piece, the more critical each and every word is!

I don’t for children because it is easier. I write for children because it is more urgently needed. Children in the 2- to 6-year-old range are at their peak of the capacity to absorb information, to learn. They are at their most vulnerable, too. They can’t always understand why life happens the way it does, or why they act the way the do. I have/am raising 4 kids, so I feel like I have some handle on the psychology of children. What I want my kids to learn, to understand, well, there are not so many books out there that cover those aspects of growing up.

I write children’s books. Not because they are easy, and no, not “because they are hard.” I write for children because I believe that to be the biggest need in literature.

Friday, August 24, 2012

An Apology to my Children's Generation

This is an open letter to my kids and to all others in their generation, and indeed to all creatures and plants of Earth.

I’m sorry. My generation and too many generations before us didn’t appreciate what a special place our planet is, how precious the cargo it carries and how fragile are the environments that support this living cargo.  We stripped the planet of the resources it needs to be healthy.  We altered the genetic mix of plants, preventing the nourishment of the soil and to compensate for this we dumped tons of fertilizers and pesticides. We now measure in hundreds of square miles the size of the “dead zones” at the mouths of major rivers as they carry these poisons into the oceans.

We stopped heating a healthy diet and to support the demand for our unhealthy eating habits, we concentrated the animals needed to make those foods, causing a concentration of wastes the further that depleted the land and water’s ability to clean itself, and that flows into the rivers and aquifers that we ourselves need to survive.  We pumped these animals full of hormones and antibiotics, so they would grow faster but at a cost of the worsening health of the human population and the very real threat of super bacteria that may well be the death knell of the human race.

We built bigger and faster vehicles for personal transportation and the byproducts of the fuel needed to power them is warming our planet, destroying entire ecosystems and threatening all life forms on Earth.  And when we ran out of the fuel, instead of creating better vehicles, we went to war to obtain the fuel from other countries.

We enslave children to create the products they we buy, not because they are superior to other products, but to be “cool,” so we can, for a while at least, imagine that we are like some other human artificially inflated in status because they can run faster or jump higher or throw harder than others.

We have so mechanized all the apparatus that make all these foods and products that people have flocked to the cities at rates that our construction and infrastructure and services can’t support.  We are crowding ourselves together so tightly that our species, not having evolved for this type stress, is creating individuals who vent the pressure of their sorry lives by killing dozens of others.

I apologize to all of your generation, Josh, Rhiannon, Ethan and Azuranna.  My generation, and those before mine, screwed up our world. The heritage we leave you is a sad one.   

I only hope that you can learn from our mistakes and, before it’s too late, fix the mess we’ve made.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Infidelity, or Not.

In study after study on human sexuality, in particular marriage fidelity, men are found to cheat more often than women. You can find dozens of papers and articles that ultimately explain this in terms of the evolutionary drive to “spread our genes.”  This line of reasoning goes like this: men use two mating strategies to spread their genes.  Make lots of babies with random women and some will be good at making lots more babies, thus spreading your genes around, or make a few babies with one woman and stay to raise, train and protect them to ensure quality.

It is easy to understand how both strategies can lead to spreading one’s genetic material.  And in studies of other species, even ones like birds who take a single mate and stay together for a season or for life and jointly raise their offspring, male infidelity is not uncommon.

The American divorce rate of 50% certainly implies that one or another of the couple is seeking a “better” mate.  Many studies show that such divorces are not uncommonly cause by male infidelity.

Those who study this subject say that female infidelity doesn’t make nearly as much evolutionary sense.  A female can only have one child at a time, regardless of how many males she might be sexually active with (although this isn’t universally true across all species; with some animals, a female can have a single litter with different fathers).  Her best strategy is to pick the fittest male she can - hence the sometime dramatic courtship displays by many animal species - and try to keep him around to protect and help raise the infants.

 But female infidelity DOES exist.  In a study by Jane Reid, a biologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, in a group of wild song sparrows, 28% of the hatchlings were from fathers other than the female’s mate.  A suggested motive for this female infidelity was that perhaps she mated with males even better fit than her mate.  Reid’s study showed that wasn’t true.  The “bastard” hatchlings actually produced fewer offspring creating somewhat of a genetic bottleneck for the founding female’s gene line.

In the end, it may all be due to male promiscuity after all.  If there is a gene that causes some males to choose the “promiscuous” route to spreading his genes, as opposed to the “nurturing” route, perhaps those genes are spread to his female offspring, making more likely to engage in similar behavior.

To bring this to a personal level, I’d like to suggest that if humans, and possibly other species, find the right mate, all this infidelity might vanish.  Perhaps the 50% of marriages that DON’T end in divorce mean that at least half of us are better are picking the right mate.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Life, the Universe and Everything

Used to be that the discovery of a new planet orbiting another star, an exoplanet, was cause for a large press event announcing it and excitement among the scientific community and the public alike.

Now it’s more like the Apollo 13 mission before the accident, hardly anyone watches or cares, it is so common.  As of February 1, 2012, there are 755 confirmed exoplanets and many hundreds more potential candidates that await confirmation.  As one astronomer put it, “The more we look, the more we find.”  In fact, we now estimate that there are, on average, 1.6 planets for every star in the Milky Way galaxy.  That comes out to more than 200,000,000,000 planets, just in our galaxy alone, not to mention all those other galaxies far, far away.

Now, astronomers have discovered the exoplanet most likely to be able to support life.  It’s a bit bigger than our Earth, at 4.5 times our planet’s mass, what astronomers term a “super-Earth.”  But it is located in the habitable zone of its star, the narrow range of orbits where temperatures support liquid water, an essential requirement for life as we know.  One interesting aspect about this planet designated, GJ 667Cc – aside from the possibility that it can support life – is that its parent star is actually part of a triple-star system.  The other two are so far away that they add little energy to this planet, but would make for pretty interesting sunrises, sunsets and eclipses.

The parent star, GJ 667C, located in the constellation Scorpius, sits a mere 22 light years from Earth and can be seen in a modest telescope.  Not quite our next door neighbor, but on the same block as us.  GJ 667C is an M-class dwarf star, about a third the mass of the sun and therefore quite a bit fainter.  But the planet is in a 28-day orbit, meaning it is close enough to this dim star to be in its habitable zone.

Astronomers believed that planets can only form around stars that have a chemical makeup not too dissimilar to our sun.  About 98% of our sun is hydrogen and helium but that remaining 2%, comprised of all the other elements, is enough to make dense, rocky planets like Earth. Astronomers believed that stars with a lower metal content couldn’t make dense planets, only gas or ice giants like Jupiter, Saturn Uranus and Neptune.  In stellar astrophysical parlance, “metals” refers to all elements farther up the periodic table than helium.  GJ 667C has a much lower metal content than our sun.

All that means is that, once again, we humans have been too narrowly focused what conditions are necessary for life to flourish.  Life will find a way. 

And now we have a whole lot more places to look for life.  Is that good, or bad?  Who knows, but it is exciting!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review of My Book "Why Am I Me?"

This is from the January 9 edition of the  Daily Oklahoman newspaper.  It's a short review of my children's picture book "Why Am I Me?".  Thank you, Charlotte!

Family, friends stand out
Charlotte Lankard

Being an only child, I never had a brother or sister looking out for me and cheering me on, so I particularly like it when readers give me a glimpse of what that is like.
   A few weeks ago I wrote about three Oklahomans who authored books published in Oklahoma and sold at one of our Oklahoma independent bookstores. The next day I received an email from Randy Wyrick of Leander, Texas, who asked me why I didn’t mention his brother’s book. So I went right out and bought a copy.

   His brother is Wayne Harris-Wyrick, director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium and author of a children’s book, “Why Am I Me?”
   Dedicated to his son Ethan, Harris-Wyrick’s book explains the importance of things like dogs and cats, mountains and water, sunrises and sunsets, butterflies and flowers, rabbits and even skunks. About trees he writes, “Trees make fruit to eat and oxygen to breathe, give shade on a hot summer day and a place to climb and study the world from up high, with the birds.” Then he answers the child’s question, “What is special about me?” It is a good book for any adult to share with a child.
   Since Harris-Wyrick, who writes a column for The Oklahoman, is an Oklahoman and easy to find at the planetarium, have him sign a book for that special child in your life.
   And to purchase the book, try another one of Oklahoma’s independent bookstores — Best of Books in Edmond’s Kickingbird Square. Julie Hovis will take good care of you.
   While I don’t have a brother like Randy Wyrick, I do have great friends, and because of this column I have met people all across the state. One of those folks is Jacquelyn Duncan, a retired Custer County associate district judge.
   Jackie has invited me to her part of the state and we have visited here when she is in town.
   After reading the column I wrote about my friend Arlene Johnson and her love of animals, I received the following email from Jackie and her own animal companions:
   “Booray the Bichon Frise dog, Sookie the Maltese mix dog, Diva the calico cat and Red Beard the tiger stripe cat all join me in wishing you a 2012 filled with love, peace, health and happiness.”
   I wish the same for each of you.
   Charlotte Lankard is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. Contact her at

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Aliens and UFO's

As the director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium, a big part of Science Museum Oklahoma, I answer lots of questions about space-related topics.  One of the questions I am asked most often is if I believe in aliens.  I say I firmly believe life exists all over the universe.  There are some four hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone.  We believe that as many as one-fourth of them harbor planets.  The likeliness of only one planet out of hundreds of billions has life on it seems worse than odds of winning back to back to back to back lotteries.

But what they really want to know is if I believe that aliens ever visit Earth in their spaceships.  Are UFO’s really alien spacecraft buzzing our little planet?

I have a bigger problem with that. 

Stars are separated by mind-boggling distances.  The closest stars likely to have life-bearing planets are very far away.  Let’s set things to scale to better understand this.  Say Earth was a ball one foot across.  Our Moon would be a ball three inches in diameter 30 feet away.  The sun would be over two miles away.  The next closest to Earth, Proxima Centauri, would be 555,880 miles away.  In real space, that corresponds to about 24,000,000,000,000 miles away.

It would take us humans more than fifty thousand years to get there with our current best technology, and the radiation in space would kill everyone on board long before they arrived, even if we HAD some sort of suspended animation.  Traveling in space farther than to our own moon remains too difficult for us.

But let's assume that some alien race has solved these problems.  They can travel faster than light (and NOT end up in the far distant future), or at least so close to light speed that they can arrive in a reasonable amount of time.  Maybe they have discovered some kind of star gate or wormhole technology to shortcut the astronomical distances in the universe.  They possess technology to shield themselves from cosmic radiation. 

They travel hundreds or thousands of light years to study us.  Now does it make any sense to anyone that a race with those capabilities would travel all that way and just crash in the New Mexico desert?  If they are that good, I can't understand why they crash so often.

And what’s up with them impregnating our women or castrating or gutting our cows?  Why do they take us humans to their ships and do horrible things inside our bodily cavities?  Supposedly they are learning about our physiology.  Heck, even we lowly humans have x-rays, CAT scans and MRI machines to study the body non-invasively.  Wouldn't advanced aliens that can cross interstellar distances have better medical tools?

If they ARE here, they are likely invisible to all of our technologies and senses (unless and until they WANT us to see them).  They may even exist in a parallel dimension, sort of like a one-way quantum mirror where they can see us but we can’t see them. 

Reports of alien encounters seem to imply that these aliens have technology that is, at best a few decades ahead of ours.  The Milky Way galaxy is thirteen billion years old.  Our solar system is a mere four and a half billion years old, and we humans barely crack the fifty thousand year barrier.  Any other civilizations are likely to thousands or millions of year ahead of us.  One hundred years ago, we had barely left the ground in airplanes and all “sane” scientists thought spaceflight was impossible.  Where will our technology be in a few hundred or a few thousand years from now?  We wouldn’t even recognize ourselves.

And yet, we keep seeing us in them.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Flash Your Story

I am a writer.  I have authored more than 300 non-fiction articles, mostly on various aspects of astronomy (my day job is the director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium of Science Museum Oklahoma).  I have a few articles on the subject of ghost hunting, a passionate hobby of mine.  I’ve published a few short stories – science fiction, of course – and a couple of poems.

Last year I published my first book.  It’s a children’s picture book “Why Am I Me?” (  I have spent countless hours and many thousands of words writing science fiction novels.  And though I love reading the genre, I just don’t seem to have the patience to write one.  I get a great plot, but I seem to get bored about half way through. “Why Am I Me?” has been in my brain and heart for several years as I watched my son go through the kind of self doubt that this book teaches kids how to overcome. Writing it was more of an exercise on writing: I wanted to see if I could write a 400 word book, since I had so much trouble writing 80,000 word books.

One of the methods I use to kickstart my hesitant creativity (what we sometimes call writer’s block) is to flash my current project.  Well done flash fiction excites me like few other forms of writing.  I learned about flash fiction writing from Harvey Stanbrough ( when I took a workshop on this process a few years ago.  We have kept in touch off and on since then.  Unlike some forms of flash fiction, which are often defined as stories under 1000 words, Harvey claims it must contain less than 100 words.  I call this very strict flash version “micro-fiction” although that just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as flash fiction.

The way I use this technique is to “flash” whatever manuscript I am currently on.  The way I see it, if I can write my story, novel or article in 99 words or less, then I really understand the piece and where it is going.  If I can’t get the essence of the story in that number of words, then I am likely as confused as any of my readers would be if I didn’t improve the manuscript.

I haven’t published any of these micro-fiction efforts.  In fact, I really haven’t even tried to.  The point of these stories is to improve my writing.  But by now I have a decent sized collection of them.  Maybe I’ll put them in an anthology sometime.

This one of numerous tricks I use to re-ignite my artistic juices.  I will share this and other block-busters with the attendees at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation annual conference May 3-5 (see And, hey, even if my ideas don’t excite you, there are a number of quality speakers coming to share their writing secrets.  And you can meet with and even take to lunch any of a number of editors and agents.  Make plans; it’ll be a great weekend.