Spotlight on Science Writers: Judith Li

Image - spotlight150.pngA select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&FPrize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Above: The rocky outcroppings of eastern Oregon; Center: Judith Lee Sampling in a stream; Bottom: A Tributary of the Umatilla River. Photos courtesy of Judith Li.

Judith Li on Ricky's Atlas: Image - RickysAtlas-cover.jpg

I love the grand landscapes of eastern Oregon, its wildlife, streams, and forests. Woven into my memories of those places are sweet, pungent aromas of Ponderosa, juniper, and sage. For almost twenty years, I did research in the bubbling streams and grand rivers of those lands, sleeping under the summer stars, snorkeling to watch the trout, and collecting the aquatic insects I find endlessly fascinating. This was the obvious setting for Ricky’s latest adventure in the out-of-doors. In his Atlas he reverses roles with his buddy Ellie (from Ellie’s Log; Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell). This time Ricky gets to introduce Ellie to a place he knows. It’s a story not only about a panorama of special places but also about how it feels to live there.

A great joy of story writing is that my characters become my new friends. I imagined Ricky Zamora as a blend of several smart, lively Mexican American undergraduates I’ve mentored at Oregon State University. I’d learned a few details of their family lives, and there’s a touch of Monty, Jose, and Manuel in Ricky’s way of doing things. Ellie reminds me a little of myself growing up, mixed with the personalities of my now-adult daughter and girls I’ve gotten to know at our local elementary schools.

Ricky and Ellie are the kind of kids who love exploring in the out-of-doors, and recording what they experience. Ricky likes to map out what he sees and observes. His Atlas is a collection of spatial maps, along with timelines and geographical information of all kinds. Ricky’s notebook documents the varied geologies, histories, and life zones he encounters. For sure, it’s remarkable that this diversity really exists east of the mountains!

Image - tributary to Umatilla River.jpg

In the rain shadow of the Cascades dramatic storms are regular summer events. Often great windstorms whipped through our summer camp sites, followed by wild lightning, thunder, and sometimes fire. Besides the excitement of wildfire, Ricky’s Atlas describes the amazing adaptations living things have to recover from fire. Ricky discovers the incredible ways plants and wildlife can survive, even thrive, with fire. The scientist in me makes me curious about those variations, and chasing down the details for this book has been fun. For those parts of the story, I relied on other scientists who have more experience in those parts of the ecosystems than I. Science is a team enterprise, and we learn much by working together. This book was also a rewarding collaboration with Peg Herring who illustrated my ideas and brought new ideas to add to mine. The sense of whimsy, and down-to-earth moments are often because of her. 

Though the special places Ricky visits are not exactly right next to each other, the fantastic landscapes of the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock are actually not far from the cool lodgepole/Ponderosa forests of the Blue Mountains or the native prairie of the Zumwalt. During years of field research, I became familiar with the daily rhythms, common wildlife, and little details of the region. We watched the nighthawks over the John Day near Sheep Rock, followed the golden eagles spiraling above the Imnaha River, and were lulled to sleep by coyotes at the Middle Fork John Day. Magical moments to share with kids and encourage them to explore the great outdoors!

Judith L. Li,  a retired associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, is a stream ecologist. She spent many summers studying stream bugs and fish on the "east side" where Ricky's Atlas takes place and enjoys working with K–12 science teachers. She is the author of Ellie's Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell, the editor of a volume on cultural ecology entitled To Harvest, To Hunt: Stories of Resource Use in the American West, and coeditor of Wading for Bugs: Exploring Streams with the Experts.

Her book, Ricky's Atlas: Mapping a Land on Fire, was the winner of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Hands-On Science Book category.



    • Science NetLinks has created a lesson to accompany this book. Ricky's Atlas helps students understand the role of fire, weather, climate, etc., and their effects on ecosystems through student involvement in environmental monitoring, data collection, journaling, and map production.
    • The Ellie and Ricky website includes related educator resources, recommended books, and connections to standards
    • Smokey Bear offers a comprehensive look at wildfires and includes an educator section for both elementary and middle-school teachers.
    • In the Managing the Everglades Ecosystem lesson, students use the internet to explore the Everglades ecosystem, develop an understanding about conservation of resources (including through the use of controlled burns) in the context of the Everglades, explore relationships between species and habitats, and develop an understanding of how human beings have altered the equilibrium in the Everglades.
    • The Grasslands and Climate Change lesson helps students understand the underlying ecological properties of grassland communities and distinguish between short- and long-term responses to climate change, which allows the prediction of changes in grassland reproductive mechanisms and community.
    • In the Developing an e-Field Notebook for Ecological Study lesson, students create an e-field notebook to better understand classification of species and organismal interactions at higher levels of biological organization (e.g., population, community, and ecosystem) “through scientific natural history.” While this is a high school lesson, middle school teachers may find aspects useful with their students.


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