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Sylvia A. Johnson Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born in Indianapolis, IN. Education: Marian College (IN), graduate; University of Illinois, M.A.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Lerner Publishing Group, 1251 Washington Ave. N, Minneapolis, MN 55401.


Writer and freelance children's book editor.

Honors Awards

New York Academy of Sciences special award, 1983, for Apple Trees, Beetles, Crabs, Frogs and Toads, Inside an Egg, Ladybugs, Mosses, Mushrooms, Penguins, Potatoes, Silkworms, and Snails.



(With Jim Hargrove) Mountain Climbing, photographs by John Yaworsky, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.

(With Alice Aamodt) Wolf Pack: Tracking Wolves in the Wild, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1985.

(With Louis B. Casagrande) Focus on Mexico: Modern Life in an Ancient Land, photographs by Phillips Bourns, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

Albatrosses of Midway Island ("Nature Watch" series), photographs by Frans Lanting, Carolrhoda Books (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Roses Red, Violets Blue: Why Flowers Have Colors, photographs by Yuko Sato, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1991.

A Beekeeper's Year, photographs by Nick Von Ohlen, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.

Raptor Rescue!: An Eagle Flies Free, photographs by Ron Winch, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.

Ferrets ("Nature Watch" series), Carolrhoda Books (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.

Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating around the World, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1997.

Mapping the World, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1999.

(Editor) Denise Burt, Koalas, Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

(Editor) Denise Burt, Kangaroos, Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 2000.

(Editor) Becka Anders, Mae: A Peregrine Falcon's True Story, Northern States Power Company (Minneapolis, MN), 2000.

Songbirds: The Language of Song ("Nature Watch" series), Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 2001.

Crows ("Nature Watch" series), Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 2005.


Animals of the Deserts, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

Animals of the Grasslands, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

Animals of the Mountains, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

Animals of the Polar Regions, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

Animals of the Temperate Forests, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

Animals of the Tropical Forests, illustrated by Alcuin C. Dornisch, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1976.

The Wildlife Atlas (series compilation), Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.


(With Kunihiko Hisa) The Dinosaur Family Tree, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

(With Kunihiko Hisa) How Did Dinosaurs Live?, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

(With Kunihiko Hisa) What Were Dinosaurs?, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.


Penguins, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1981.

Beetles, photographs by Isao Kishida, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Crabs, photographs by Atsushi Sakurai, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

(With Jane Dallinger) Frogs and Toads, photographs by Hiroshi Tanemura, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Inside an Egg, photographs by Kiyoshi Shimuzi, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Ladybugs, photographs by Yuko Sato, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Mushrooms, photographs by Masana Izawa, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Silkworms, photographs by Isao Kishida, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Snails, photographs by Modoki Masuda, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

Mosses, photographs by Masana Izawa, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.

Apple Trees, photographs by Hiroo Koike, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.

Potatoes, photographs by Masaharu Suzuki, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Coral Reefs, photographs by Shohei Shirai, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Mantises, photographs by Satoshi Kuribayashi, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Wasps, photographs by Hiroshi Ogawa, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

Bats, photographs by Modoki Masuda, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1985.

Rice, photographs by Noburo Moriya, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1985.

Morning Glories, photographs by Yuko Sato, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1985.

Snakes, photographs by Modoki Masuda, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

Tree Frogs, photographs by Modoki Masuda, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

Chirping Insects, photographs by Yuko Sato, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

How Leaves Change, photographs by Yuko Sato, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

Fireflies, photographs by Satoshi Kuribayashi, Lerner, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.

Elephant Seals, photographs by Frans Lanting, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

Hermit Crabs, photographs by Kazunari Kawashima, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

Water Insects, photographs by Modoki Masuda, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

Wheat, photographs by Masaharu Suzuki, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Johnson has also adapted books from translation for "The Animal Friends" series, Carolrhoda Books, and co-authored, with Karlind T. Moller and Clark D. Starr, A Parent's Guide to Cleft Lip and Palate, University of Minnesota Press, 1990.


Sylvia A. Johnson, a prolific author of science and nature books, delves into topics ranging from wolves to mushrooms. Praised for her ability to simplify complex topics, Johnson has written many well-received titles in Lerner's "Natural Science" series and has also produced standalone nonfiction titles such as A Beekeeper's Year, Wolf Pack: Tracking Wolves in the Wild, and Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Food of the Americas Changed Eating around the World. Reviewing Wolf Pack for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, a reviewer called Johnson's work "scientific without being pedantic" and "full of engrossing, well-selected information." Called a "handsome and informative resource" by School Library Journal contributor Joy Fleishhacker, Johnson's Mapping the World follows the history of human efforts to create visual representations of the multidimensional Earth, from the clay tablets created by the Babylonians to the satellite images of the late twentieth century. The work is of special interest to students due to the author's approach; she presents each development in the history of cartography in terms of "the particular mapmaker's knowledge and view of the world," as Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper noted.

Johnson, who has also worked as a freelance book editor in Minnesota, has done most of her writing for the Minneapolis-based Lerner Publications. Her first published work comprises six titles in the "Lerner Wildlife Library" series: Animals of the Deserts, Animals of the Grasslands, Animals of the Mountains, Animals of the Polar Regions, Animals of the Temperate Forests, and Animals of the Tropical Forests. Each book briefly describes a specific geographic region, discussing climatic conditions as well as flora and fauna. Johnson also includes one-page descriptions of the ten animals that best represent each region, from the giant panda in the mountain regions to the anteater in the tropical forests. Noting the brief text, Barbara Elleman wrote in Booklist that the author's focus "is limited to the physical characteristics, such as camouflage or eating habits, which enable the animal to survive in its particular environment." Reviewing Animals of the Deserts for Appraisal, Marjorie E. Smith praised the book as "an easy way to introduce a study of the desert, animals, conservation, the effects of lack of water on plant and animal life, and much more." Linda L. Mills, reviewing the "Lerner Wildlife Library" overall, maintained in School Library In Mapping the World Johnson explains the history of map-making, and shows how the work of cartographers tells more about their personal world view than it does about the almost-unchanged Earth.Journal that the books are "unusual for their division of animals by climate" and useful for both "the older intermediate grades" and "advanced third graders." Johnsons's wildlife series has more recently been published in a single volume as The Wildlife Atlas.

The bulk of Johnson's work has been for Lerner's "Natural Science Book" series, each volume which features scientific terminology in boldface type along with appended glossaries that further define words. Series' installments focus on a particular life form ranging from penguins to mosses, and illustrations include diagrams and close-up color photographs. In addition to providing original texts, Johnson has also adapted the translation of writings by Japanese authors for English-speaking readers.

Johnson's first contribution to the series, Penguins, features a text that "should appeal not only to budding naturalists but to all children (and grownups) who are captivated by the unique birds at home in the icy Antarctic," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. The reviewer went on to praise Penguins as an "outstanding addition" to the series. "I hope this series goes on forever," Terry Lawhead exclaimed, reviewing Johnson's Beetles and Silkworms for School Library Journal. Noting the "lovely writing," Lawhead added that the author's "attention to highly accurate anatomy, life cycles and detailed close-up photographs never ceases to amaze me." Elisabeth LeBris praised Bats in School Library Journal, calling it an "excellent book" and one which "no library should be without," while Martha T. Kane wrote in Appraisal that Bats is "a beautiful book" that "will hold its readers spellbound." The lumbering amphibians of California's Año Nuevo Island are examined in Elephant Seals, another of Johnson's "winning addition" to the Lerner series, according to School Library Journal contributor Kathryn Weisman. "Johnson's book will appeal to browsers as well as report writers and should be a part of most natural history collections," Weisman concluded.

Plants also have their place in the "Natural Science" series, and Johnson has contributed many titles with a horticultural focus. Reviewing Mosses for Horn Book, Sarah S. Gagne observed that the "reproductive cycle of moss … is so well illustrated that one can form mental images of the structures and so readily follow the cycle." William D. Perkins commented in Appraisal that Johnson "has done an excellent job of packaging information in manageable bits which build upon one another to give the reader a solid sense of what is important about these fascinating plants." Nancy Curtin observed in School Library Journal that Johnson's Apple Trees offers fine detail on the fertilization and development of the apple, and that though other books have looked at the same topic, "none cover the subject better." Other plants Johnson examines in the series include potatoes, rice, and wheat. "Here is everything anyone always wanted to know about potatoes, but didn't even know enough to ask," wrote Eldon Younce in a School Library Journal review of Potatoes. "The text is well written and the color photography is excellent," Younce concluded, calling the volume "an informative book about a very versatile vegetable." Summing up the series in general, Booklist reviewer Elleman called it "lucid" and "handsomely photographed," while Althea L. Phillips deemed the series as a whole "extremely attractive and well-written" in Appraisal.

Johnson has also expanded Carolrhoda's "Nature Watch" series with the volumes Albatrosses of Midway Island and Ferrets. The former title captures "the mystery of the world's largest flighted bird," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic who called the book "informative, funny," and "a delight for nature browser or bird lover." What do bird songs mean? Do birds have more than one song? These and other questions are the subject of Johnson's Songbirds: The Language of Song.The possibility of keeping ferrets as pets is explored in the second volume. Ellen M. Riordan, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "good quality, full-color photographs accompany a clear, readable text in this comprehensive book." A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded a review of Ferrets by stating that the "presentation of information is straightforward and easy to follow," while Booklist reviewer Irene Wood cited the balanced discussion of "these furry, stubby-legged, energetic creatures."

One of Johnson's individual titles, Wolf Pack explains that wolves, essentially wild dogs, display all the traits generally associated with domesticated dogs, including loyalty and social cohesion. Like dogs, who are related to them, wolves structure themselves socially in packs and mate for life. Lee Jeffers Brami, writing in Appraisal, remarked that Wolf Pack "conveys these facts and many others through simple, flowing prose and superb color photographs." Cynthia M. Sturgis observed in School Library Journal that Johnson's text is "well-written" and the combination of text, diagrams, and photographs provided in the volume "make this an excellent candidate for school or public library collections."

A Beekeeper's Year focuses on the work of a Minnesota beekeeper, tracing the man's labors through the seasons Most people see crows every day, and almost everywhere, but these common birds have several interesting habits, as Johnson explains in Crows, part of the "Nature Watch" series.from the time he removes the protective winter trappings on the hives in April until he seals them up again in autumn. "From the arresting jacket photograph to the recipes on the last page of the text, this is a most intriguing book," commented Stephanie Zvirin in a Booklist review; "Pair this with books on honeybee behavior and physiology, and you may find a few budding apiarists in your midst." Horn Book reviewer Margaret A. Bush called A Beekeeper's Year "informative" and "useful," commenting particularly on Johnson's descriptions of the extracting and packaging of the honey as well as what happens following the introduction of a foreign queen bee to the hive.

Birds of a different feather are the focus of several other books by Johnson, among them Songbirds: The Language of Song and Crows. Part of the "Nature Watch" series, Songbirds discusses the way ornithologists approached the process of describing, recording, and studying bird song, and also presents several theories that attempt to reveal its meaning. In Crows a bird unique to the Americas is profiled, along with the myths surrounding the genus Corvidae and its involvement in the spread of the West Nile virus. School Library Journal writer Cynde Marcengill praised Songbirds as a "factual … peek into a fascinating phenomenon," while Nancy Call maintained in her review of Crows for the same periodical that in Johnson's "interesting text," young "report writers will get all the information they need" regarding the ubiquitous bird and its life cycle.

Johnson tells the story of a bald eagle, patient S-137, at an animal rescue center in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Raptor Rescue! An Eagle Flies Free. The victim of a gunshot wound, this bald eagle recovered and was ultimately released back into nature. Along with this true tale, the author also related the story of raptors in general and how they have become endangered due to the spread of human settlements. "Flowing text and striking close-ups present the rehabilitation of a bald eagle," commented Tippen McDaniel in Appraisal, while Susan Dove Lempke noted in Booklist that Raptor Rescue! combines "the appeal of an animal book, a veterinary career book, and a conservation book."

With Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans Johnson shows how the eating habits of people all over the world changed as a consequence of the discovery and exportation of foods from the Americas. She "blends history, botany, geography, folklore, cookery, and art in a fascinating account of how Columbus' 'discovery' in 1492 began an exchange of foods between the Americas and the Old World that improved the lives of millions," Hazel Rochman explained in Booklist. Ironically, these foodstuffs from the Americas turned out to be of ultimately greater value to Europe than the gold and silver for which Columbus and other explorers were searching. Johnson also includes peppers and peanuts in her informational stew, creating a book that Lois McCulley described in School Library Journal as "useful for social-history collections as well as any library needing information about the history of foodstuffs." Writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, Joyce Hamilton observed that Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans "contains information that will be difficult to find elsewhere," and also noted that "the numerous anecdotes, such as those on the origination of peanut butter and potato chips, are entertaining."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Appraisal, winter, 1977, Marjorie E. Smith, review of Animals of the Deserts, pp. 24-25; winter, 1983, Althea L. Phillips, review of "Natural Science" series, pp. 65-66; spring-summer, 1984, William D. Perkins, review of Mosses, pp. 52-53; summer, 1986, Lee Jeffers Brami, review of Wolf Pack, p. 39; fall, 1986, Martha T. Kane, review of Bats, pp. 58-59; summer, 1989, p. 46; summer, 1990, pp. 70-71; winter, 1992, pp. 35-36; winter, 1996, Tippen McDaniel, review of Raptor Rescue!, pp. 31-32; July, 1997, Irene Wood, review of Ferrets, p. 1814.

Booklist, September 1, 1976, Barbara Elleman, review of "Lerner Wildlife Library" series, p. 39; September 1, 1981, Barbara Elleman, review of "Natural Science" series, p. 43; December 1, 1991, p. 693; March 15, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of A Beekeeper's Year, p. 1348; September 15, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Raptor Rescue!, p. 155; April 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans, p. 1415; December 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Mapping the World, p. 700.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1985, review of Wolf Pack, pp. 69-70; December, 1991, p. 94; July-August, 1994, pp. 361-362; July-August, 1997, p. 399; November, 1999, review of Mapping the World, p. 97.

Horn Book, June, 1984, Sarah S. Gagne, "Views on Science Books," p. 370; September-October, 1994, Margaret A. Bush, review of A Beekeeper's Year, p. 612; January-February, 1996, p. 91.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1986, p. 1730; January 1, 1990, review of Albatrosses of Midway Island, p. 47; September 15, 1991, p. 1223; February 15, 1997, p. 301; June 1, 1997, review of Ferrets, p. 874.

Publishers Weekly, May 22, 1981, review of Penguins, p. 76.

School Library Journal, September, 1976, Linda L. Mills, review of "Lerner Wildlife Library" series, p. 118; November, 1982, Terry Lawhead, review of Beetles and Silkworms, p. 80; April, 1984, Nancy Curtin, review of Apple Trees, pp. 115-116; November, 1984, Eldon Younce, review of Potatoes, p. 126; January, 1986, Cynthia M. Sturgis, review of Wolf Pack, p. 69; February, 1986, Elisabeth LeBris, review of Bats, p. 86; March, 1987, p. 160; July, 1990, p. 80; March, 1989, Kathryn Weisman, review of Elephant Seals, p. 192; October, 1995, p. 148; May, 1997, Lois McCulley, review of Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans, p. 146; August, 1997, Ellen M. Riordan, review of Ferrets, p. 148; December, 1999, Donna L. Scanlan, review of Mapping the World, p. 152; April, 2001, Cynde Marcengill, review of Songbirds, p. 162; January, 2004, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Mapping the World, p. 78; April, 2005, Nancy Call, review of Crows, p. 152.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, Joyce Hamilton, review of Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans, pp. 334-335.

Additional topics

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