Writing Non-Fiction, PLASTIC AHOY! & “What I did last summer”…

Patti Newman and plasticHow did author Patricia Newman’s new book, PLASTIC, AHOY! change my summer plans?  No, this isn’t a throwback to that annual prompt my teachers greeted us with:

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

This post celebrates an important non-fiction title that can alter a seemingly harmless mindset in your class or your family, and teach kids ways to help save our planet.

Patti Newman new cover 6.3.13In PLASTIC, AHOY!, Newman (pictured above with her own plastic discoveries) and award-winning photographer Annie Crawley chronicle a research expedition known as SEAPLEX, and scientists who study the massive “island” of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean known as

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

PLASTIC, AHOY! (Millbrook/ Lerner) not only shows how the scientific method is used in this investigation, it opens readers’ eyes to the basics of ocean science and

the hazards of our dependency on plastics.

Patti and I have been writing pals for years, and Co-Regional Advisors of SCBWI CA North/Central, so I took the message of her book to Fine Arts Camp where I teach Theater and–

IMG_0390–we’ll get to how PLASTIC, AHOY! helped to change our habits at Sugarloaf below… 

IMG_0455But first, a short interview to to thank Patricia Newman and PLASTIC, AHOY! for the nudge I needed to decrease my plastic consumption:

Q: Which best describes the process of writing a non-fiction book like PLASTIC, AHOY!

  1. The Scientific Method
  2. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
  3. The North Pacific Central Gyre
  4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle   

Patti: I’d never thought about the writing process in terms of the vocabulary in PLASTIC, AHOY! before. Actually the writing process has elements of all four items in your list.

Like the scientific method, I began with a tiny snippet of information, a news article,
from which questions grew. Research is a bit of an experiment to find answers to those questions and to uncover others. The results make their way into the book in the form of story, scientific facts, and the conclusions I draw.

But if you saw my office and my floor-as-file-drawer filing system, you might conclude that my writing process resembles the swirling currents that surround the North Pacific Central Gyre and spit trash into the Garbage Patch.

With any nonfiction project, I gather more material than I can possibly use in one book, so I’m forced to Reduce. I Reuse and Recycle information in various blog posts about PLASTIC, AHOY! and new projects on the horizon.

Q: What was the most surprising fact or discovery you made while writing this book?

Patti: Scientists in Woods Hole, MA counted 7,000 different kinds of bacteria–not individuals–rafting on a tiny piece of plastic no larger than your pinky fingernail. The bacteria attract single-celled grazers which in turn attract larger consumers and predators. Before you know it, an entire Who-ville (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss) hitchhikes aboard a confetti-sized floating piece of trash.

7,000 different kinds of bacteria!

Q: Who are some of your environmental heroes?

Patti:  The three scientists who take center stage in PLASTIC, AHOY! top the list:

Miriam Goldstein, Darcy Tanaguchi, and Chelsea Rochman

(To see where they are now, visit the Ocean Plastics thread on Newman’s blog).

My award-winning photographer Annie Crawley protects the ocean every day through school visits and diving programs that teach kids to respect it. By the way, everyone calls her Ocean Annie!

Since the release of PLASTIC, AHOY! Newman says she’s met many other heroes, too:

o Mike Biddle is a Walnut Creek, California resident and the CEO of MBA Polymers, a plastics recycling company. Mike not only recycles plastic, he strips it down to its essence and reprocesses it into the basic building blocks–or nurdles if you’ve read Plastic, Ahoy!–which he sells back to manufacturers of electronics, coffee machines, and vacuum cleaners, to name a few (listen to his TED talk). Popular Science profiled Mike in the March 2014 issue as “the man who could free the world from making new plastic. Forever.” Mike also founded the Plasticity Forum, an influential dialogue on our world of plastic.

o COASST, a team of citizen scientists from Washington, have noticed patterns in the debris that washes ashore from ocean currents and wave action. They categorize the debris to see what kinds of trash washes up and when. From these data, they hope to determine if different species are more vulnerable during different times of the year based on the patterns.

Newman is quick to add that, “Adults aren’t the only ones saving the environment. I’ve Skyped with two groups of students who win Environmental Hero status.”

o First grade students at W. E. Striplin Elementary School in Alabama decided to reduce the amount of Styrofoam in their lunchroom. The students received permission to switch to reusable trays for several weeks to understand how much Styrofoam first graders alone could eliminate. The lunchroom produced an average of eight garbage bags of trash a day. The first graders cut the garbage output by two bags per day with reusable trays. Now their focus is to eliminate Styrofoam in the lunchroom for all grades.

o The Recycling Club at Calf Pen Meadow School in Milford, Connecticut initiates projects for the entire school that encourage fellow students to focus on the environment.

Q: What are some other ways that PLASTIC, AHOY! readers have reduced their plastic footprint? 

Patti: People love to tell me how they are saving the ocean. I’ve had reports of readers reminding themselves to carry reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic ones. My daughter spreads the news through the San Diego Zoo blog for which she writes. Others have said no to Styrofoam “doggie bags” and instead wrapped their leftovers in aluminum foil. Some participate in coastal cleanups. One friend took one of my blog posts to her local Safeway to argue against their use of plastic grocery sacks.

The point is that everyone can be an environmental hero. Reduce your single-use plastic consumption. Reuse what you already have on hand. And Recycle what you can’t use–chances are your local waste department recycles more kinds of plastic than you think. Have you checked the list lately?

For more information about Patti and PLASTIC, AHOY! check out these blog posts:

“Chatting Non-fiction Writing with Patricia Newman” by Joy Preble.

“Naturally Speaking” by Nancy Castaldo.

“Patricia Newman Has a Cause, and once kids read her NF book, they will too!” on the SCBWI blog by Lee Wind

And since you’re still reading, for decades at Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp, where I am “Drama Mama,” aka head of the Theater program, I’ve purchased flats of plastic bottled water to give our thirsty performers after the final production. After reading PLASTIC, AHOY!, I did the math: Forty-eight water bottles X two sessions each year for over twenty years adds up.

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This summer, each student filled their own reusable SUGARLOAF water bottle which we had ready for them after final bows.

IMG_0388 - CopySuch a simple solution, right?

Pass it on!

Accept the challenge:

Share PLASTIC, AHOY! with your school, or class, or family. I’d love to hear what solutions they come up with to take care of our planet!

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