Finding Family Is Not ONLY a STEM Book

This piece first appeared in my January 2023 Small Reads e‑letter for educators. Subscribe here.

On March 7, my first 2023 book will come out: Finding Family: The Duckling Raised by Loons. Because it’s nonfiction, the publisher (Lerner Books) will probably emphasize the science aspect when it markets the book. That makes total sense! And the real life story (and, I hope, the book) is fascinating. Two bird species that don’t get along form a very unlikely family. Not only that, but the duckling learns many loon behaviors—ones that don’t fit its anatomy. Loons dive and have heavy bones. Ducks have light bones and don’t dive. But Duckling actually manages to learn to dive!

There are lots of other cool science facts about this family, and I hope they’ll engage lots of readers.

But.

This book is more than a science book, at least to me. Here are some other aspects that I think are as worthy of focusing on.

We find ways to live with unanswered questions: Loon experts studied this family in the summer of 2019, and I had access to their research. But there are still many unknowns.

  • What happened to the loon chicks?
  • What happened to the duckling’s family?
  • Did the duckling find other mallards when it migrated south?
  • Did the intruder loon come back the next year?
  • Did/will the loon parents and the duckling ever see each other again?

Why is this important? We live in a world where we expect to find all the answers by clicking a link. But there are still mysteries. There are still mysteries for scientists to understand—for kids to grow up and try to solve. I hope the unknowns intrigue readers and make them more curious.

Also, children have questions about life every single day that grown-ups fail to answer. Sometimes that grown-ups can’t answer. Let’s normalize the idea that we can’t always know all the answers, right now. And that we can’t know the future. All we can truly know is right now. Speaking of that…

We can accept what is: Whatever the specifics were, we know that the loon parents and the duckling each lost family members. But that summer, the three birds formed a family and did all the family things. They worked with what was right there in front of them. It seems they made the very best of a hard situation.

Why is this important? I feel certain each of you has one or more students living in bewildering or difficult circumstances. Why are we sleeping in a car? Where did Mommy go? What’s cancer? Why can’t I live with my parents? How come I can’t get new clothes like all my friends? Why do we have to move? The family in this book is a great model of carrying on and taking care of each other—despite their losses. It’s an opportunity to talk about resilience with your students.

We can defy experts and expectations: Duckling adapted behaviors that experts had never seen mallards use. Neither Duckling nor Mother and Father Loon behaved in the way experts expected them to. And yet…there was proof, with Duckling doing things that “couldn’t be done.” And with two species known as groups that don’t get along suddenly living peacefully, affectionately together.

Why is this important? Your students probably have lots of people who think they know everything about your kids. Some expectations are great, and kids will live up to them. Other expectations are limiting. Use Finding Family to show how animals can surprise the experts. Remind them that we’re all animals. People might think they know who we are and what we can do, but sometimes, we can surprise those people! And there are always groups of people (whether that’s political parties, warring countries, different cliques at school) whom “everyone knows” don’t get along. And yet…could they get along? With a little learning and compromise, could we build bridges between the two groups?

I guess for me, the overarching heart message I take from the true story of the loon-mallard family is this: Hard, sad things happen to us, but we don’t have to face them alone. We can have both joy and loss in our life. We must.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the STEM/science aspect of Finding Family. The more I researched, the more amazed I was! But I hope that—if you choose to read and share this picture book with your students—you’ll explore more than just the science!

[My Classroom Connections posts share a way to connect one of my books or poems to a classroom topic–often something timely that you might be covering in the next month or so. Please share this post if you have educator friends who might be interested–thanks!]

4 Responses

  1. Laura, I agree your book is more than a book about science. Your questions and points are important — perfect for teachers to engage students and to start discussions with students beyond science, which could easily lead to creative writing. I am fascinated with the why. Why did the loons adopt the duckling? Why did the duckling go with the loons? The photo of the duckling standing up on the loon’s back, immediately hooked me and made me want to read your book, right now. I am looking forward to reading Finding Family. Nature is amazing.

    1. Thanks so much, Gail! The head of the project speculated (I’m totally paraphrasing here and might be stating this in an unscientific way!) that the loons, having lost both chicks, had high levels of hormones related to parenting, which made them more likely to display parenting activities–even with a duckling. Also, there had just been a big storm, and general speculation is that the duckling somehow got separated from/left behind by the mallard family. But…we really don’t know. And that’s a fact. Even though we want answers :>D Hope you enjoy the book!

      1. Thank you, Laura. Interesting. Hormones make a lot of sense as both you and I know all about wacky mommy hormones. Though, they didn’t say female hormones. But it still makes sense. If a human couple loss a baby, they would both grieve and might want to have another child, quickly, but I guess not as quickly as the loons.

        Thankfully, those loons’ hormones were in high gear and saved the duckling. When the girls were young, we spent a lot of time watching mallard ducks. Many times, I saw a duckling left behind, especially in the water. Though, every time I saw a lost duckling, their mama usually found them quickly. It does seem probable that a mama with ten ducklings in a pond that has other mamas with each having 5 or more ducklings could lose one.

        Thank you. 🙂

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