Look to the Sky

Breaking Through the Clouds book cover

Given my alter ego as Queen Cumulus, I’m naturally drawn to books about clouds! When I discovered Breaking Through the Clouds: The Sometimes Turbulent Life of Meteorologist Joanne Simpson, the excellent picture book biography of the trailblazing scientist whose discoveries about clouds and how they work changed everything we know about weather today, I had to ask author Sandra Nickel if she would share more about Simpson.

A former New York City lawyer who now lives with her family in Switzerland, Sandra holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first book, Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, was awarded a Christopher Award and was a Golden Kite Award finalist. Breaking Through the Clouds was named a 2023 Children’s Favorite by the Children’s Book Council and a Rise Honoree for 2023 by the American Library Association.

We’re so excited to have Sandra here to share her appreciation and enthusiasm for clouds. She has some amazing ideas to lead kids to learning about clouds, weather, and weather-related words and expressions. You and the kids in your life will never look at the sky the same way again!

Rachael Walker

Head in the Clouds by Sandra Nickel

June 23, 2023

Children's author Sandra Nickel

I grew up on the Great Plains of Kansas, with a front row seat to nature’s most impressive cloud show. In fact, my hometown was so excited by clouds, we had a cloud sculpture AND a cloud water tower!

Water tower in Newton, Kansas

It’s no wonder that I got excited about Joanne Simpson when I first discovered her. I like calling Joanne the Queen of Clouds, because before her, meteorologists thought only the sun and the wind were important to weather. We have Joanne to thank for discovering how important clouds are. She found out how powerful they are and created a whole new branch of science, where people put information about clouds into computer models and predict what our weather is going to be.

Joanne wasn’t always treated well by other meteorologists, so when she became the one in charge, she made sure that others felt appreciated. Peggy LeMone, a meteorologist who followed in Joanne’s footsteps, told me that Joanne would cheer on young scientists by giving them stickers for their new ideas and work. As you learn about weather this summer, why not do the same? You can cheer each other on by taping 3-D cloud “stickers” made out of cotton balls to your shirts. Or, you can print and cut out the stickers on this sheet and wear them for the day.

cloud sticker template

Since clouds and weather are such a big part of our lives, we hear lots of weather expressions when we speak with others. Many of these expressions are “idioms,” where we don’t mean exactly what the words say. For example, when we say, “making those stickers was a breeze,” we don’t mean that the stickers were actually a breeze, we mean they were easy to make. If you would like to play around with weather expressions like these, print out Fun with Weather Idioms and have fun drawing the literal meaning of the expression. For extra fun, try to spot all the weather expressions in Breaking Through the Clouds. I counted ten. But I’m not sure I got them all. How many can you find? Hint: Don’t forget to check the title.

Joanne’s love of clouds started in the same way mine did — well, sort of. I looked at clouds and tried to find shapes. Elephants. Horses. Dinosaurs. Joanne looked at clouds and named them by name. Cirrus. Altocumulus. Cumulus. With summer here, it’s a great time to try both kinds of cloud spotting. Make a Cloud Spotter like the one I’ve made below. Simply print it out, cut out the viewfinder and get started finding shapes in clouds. Look for feathery birds in the high-level clouds, the ones we call cirrus. Look for flying saucers in the mid-level clouds, the ones we call altocumulus. And finally, look for the many different shapes that the low-level cumulus create.

cloud spotting printable

As you do your cloud spotting, you might ask, “How much do you think a cloud weighs?” As much as cotton candy? As much as a basket of wool? As much as an elephant? Peggy LeMone, who I mentioned above, wondered about the weight of clouds when she was a child. When Peggy became a meteorologist, she never forgot that. So, she figured out a way to calculate the weight of a cumulus cloud. If you’re interested in trying it for yourself, I’ve set out the steps on the sheet What Weighs More, a Cloud or an Elephant? Simply print it out, grab a calculator, and hop in your car.

After you figure out which weighs more, a cloud or an elephant, I hope you feel like you are on cloud nine! Reward yourselves with stickers. You all deserve it!


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