Spotlight on Science Writers: Sara Levine

A select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize 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.

Sara Levine on Tooth by Tooth:

What kind of animal would you be if your two front teeth stuck out of your mouth, even when it was closed? Or what about if your top canine teeth (the pointy ones on the side) were so long that they grew down to your feet? What kind of animal would you be then?

These are the sorts of questions that I ask in my book, Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers. The main point of the book is that all mammals have the same types of teeth: incisors, canines, and molars. But the differences in tooth size can tell us a lot about what an animal eats. The variations are interesting and fun to think about, especially when shown on human faces, as T.S. Spookytooth illustrates in the book.

A drawing from Tooth by Tooth. Used with permission of the author.

My first book, Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons, explains the same thing about bones. Most people don’t realize that humans and other mammals have basically the same organs—lungs, hearts, bones, teeth, and so on—they’re all very similar. And because of this, animals can have the same sorts of things go wrong with their bodies that we humans do, like cancer, diabetes, broken bones, and dental disease. I learned a lot about this in veterinary school. When I got the chance to teach, I wanted to be sure my students also learned how we are similar. So I taught them about the bones in our bodies and then showed them how they are the same in other animals. And I taught them about our teeth and then showed them the same teeth in other animals. I didn’t just tell them, because that’s boring. I taught them with a guessing game. So, here’s one for you: Guess what kind of animal you’d be if you didn’t have any arm bones or leg bones? Imagine that you just had a skull and a spine and ribs. Guess now, because I’m about to tell you the answer: It’s a snake. Still wondering about the tooth questions, above? The answers are at the end of this blog.

It occurred to me that this guessing game comparing bones of different animals would make a good science picture book, so I wrote it. And then I wrote the one on teeth. After that, I wrote one on dinosaur bones, because I know a lot of kids who really enjoy looking at dinosaurs, but what they might not yet know is how dinosaur bones compare to ours. This book is called Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones, and it will be published later this year.

I thought I was done writing books about how humans compare to other animals, but I was recently invited to be a visiting author for the third grade at the MacArthur Elementary School in Waltham, Massachusetts. The kids at this school came up with a great suggestion for another book: Eye by Eye. We brainstormed together and came up with a lot of good examples of wacky types of animal eyes I could include in the book. I’m in the process of writing it now.

If you have an idea for a book comparing humans to animals, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe I can use them to write a new book. Or better yet, maybe you can!

Note: The answer to the first question is a beaver or, really, any rodent (like a rat, a hamster or a mouse).  The answer to the second question is a walrus. 

Kids reading Sara Levine's books. Used with permission.

Sara Levine is an author, veterinarian, and professor of biology. She also teaches classes on plants and animals for children. Sara lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two dogs and a cat, all of which have long canine teeth, and her daughter, whose teeth are all around the same height. Her first children's book, Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons, was a 2014 Cook Prize finalist for best STEM picture book.

Her book, Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers, was the winner of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Picture Book category.

Going Further

  • Book/Author Resources
    • You can visit Sara's website here.
    • T.S. Spookytooth, who illustrated Tooth by Tooth, also has a website. You'll find it here.
  • Teeth
    • At the BBC, you can read more about animal teeth, the future of dental health, and some people with very strong teeth. You also can learn more about teeth and eating.
    • Learn all about human teeth and dental health from Kids Health.
    • Find out interesting teeth and eating facts by playing this game. (You'll need to use a browser that can play Flash-based games, so ask an adult if you have trouble.)
  • Animal Comparisons
    • Animals: Facts, Pictures, and Videos from National Geographic Kids provides a lot of information about a variety of wildlife, including unique teeth and diets, and habitats.
    • Food Chains is an interactive activity that will help you learn about food chains, or what animals eat before they're eaten by something else.
    • Think you know what poison ivy and a firefly have in common? How about some of the ways a dolphin and a goldfish are different? Download Classify It!, an app from Science NetLinks, to test your knowledge of how various organisms can be sorted and grouped.

Related Educator Resources

  • Science NetLinks is working on a lesson for this book. Check back later this summer!
  • In this blog post from PBS, one mom shares her experience of talking teeth with her kids.
  • Just as there is much to learn about animals and what they eat from their teeth, there is also a lot to learn from Bird Beaks (3-5).
  • In this lesson, students explore how animals eat plants or other animals for food by using the books of April Pulley Sayre: Science Explorer (K-2).
  • The Animal Diversity lesson (K-2) will help students understand the difference between actual physical attributes of animals and fictional ones.
  • In the Animal Adaptations lesson (3-5), explore different types of animal features and behaviors that can help or hinder survival in a particular habitat.
  • Introducing Biodiversity (3-5) introduces students to the amazing variety of life around them.
  • In Classification 1: Classification Scheme (3-5), students learn that living things can be sorted into groups using features to decide which things belong to which group.
  • In Classification 2: A Touch of Class (3-5), students learn that living things can be sorted into groups using various features to decide which things belong to which group.
  • Cycle of Life 2: Food Webs (3-5) helps students understand that some insects depend on dead plant material for food and they interact with other organisms in various ways.
  • Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World (K-2) uses a picture book to explore the sibling relationships of different animals. Author Steve Jenkins posted an earlier Spotlight on Science Writers on the book.


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