Bob Palmatier

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The Tiny Turtle
The Science of Tiny Turtle · Diamondback Terrapin Research · Reading Level

Story Summary

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The Marsh House

The Tiny Turtle of the Marsh is an illustrated children’s book about Tiny, a diamondback terrapin, the unique turtle of our coastal salt marshes. We meet Tiny after Matt and his father free him from a crab trap that has been left out too long by renters at Matt’s family vacation house on the salt marsh.

Matt and his father spend a week each year, father and son, fishing and exploring the salt marsh in their old rowboat. This year the week becomes all about life in the marsh as a terrapin would see it, as Tiny returns each night in Matt’s dreams to tell him stories from his life: hatching with brother and sister terrapins from the nest his mother made on a high dune...

Tiny ventures out into the sound to explore and finds a colony of nesting Pelicans! When he realizes he’s lost, they get all excited and take to the air! A polite “NOW JUST HOLD IT!” from Tiny calms them down, and two Pelican guides take him home.

As the week draws to its end, Matt realizes he wants to see The Tiny Turtle again in person. But how? Matt and his dad spend their last day fishing and rowing the marsh to get a peek of him. Finally Tiny appears and surfaces long enough for Matt to say a teary good bye.

Nest on a High Dune

An Enchanting Encounter!

"Now Just Hold It!"


The story is all about helping each other, and the value of asking questions from wiser ones to help make good decisions. Readers should also get a good sense of how all the plants and animals of the salt marsh ecosystem fit together.


The Science of Tiny Turtle

Barrier Island Map and Guide

Readers of previous books have seemed to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the various opportunities for learning that the books offer. The Tiny Turtle of the Marsh should not disappoint in this respect. Immediately after the story comes a colorful Barrier Island Map and Guide. If terms used in the book such as “Tidal Creek” or “Sound” confuse at all, this is the place to turn to! (Can you find Matt’s blue house on the marsh?)

Illustrated Glossary of
Salt Marsh Plants and Animals

The illustrated glossary gives readers young and old a chance to learn more about plants and animals in the story illustrations. It’s fun just to browse through the glossary by itself, or to answer a child’s question about something in a page illustration that catches their eye. On p.42 a horseshoe crab shell lays on the beach near Tiny but is not part of the story. “What’s that, Mom?” (You know where to find the answer!)

Diamondback Terrapin Research

Seven Subspecies Diamondback Terrapin Research

I have spent close to 20 years studying diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) in various salt marsh habitats in North Carolina. I did a four year population study of terrapins at Oak Island, Brunswick Co, NC in the early 1990’s. In 1992, NC assigned diamondback terrapins Special Concern status, so I continued the study with an endangered species permit, which I still hold. My study population of 23 turtles became victims of one ghost crab pot in 1995. The terrapins in that habitat never repopulated. (See the story under the Nature Adventures button: “Why I Don’t Like Crab Pots.”)

When I began writing The Tiny Turtle of the Marsh, I definitely wanted to make a statement about the dangers diamondbacks face, especially as unintentional by-catch in blue crab pots. On the other hand, I wanted to create a story that children would enjoy and keep coming back to, a gentle story that would win parents’ and children’s hearts to these beautiful and unique turtles of the East Coast and Gulf salt marshes.

When I started designing the illustrations, I found that I had a somewhat superficial knowledge of salt marshes. The solution was five trips to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where I spent hours in the salt marshes in and out of my ocean kayak, at different tides, wind and weather conditions. I saw diamondback terrapins doing things I had never even read about!

During the writing and creation of the different sections of the book, I met (mostly by email) diamondback terrapin researchers in different parts of their 16 state range. My present preoccupation is to visit each of the seven subspecies of Diamondbacks in their home habitats. As I write this, I am planning a trip to visit the Ornate Diamondback terrapins on some Mangrove Keys on the West Coast of Florida. A new book in the making? We’ll see!


Reading Level

It might surprise some our readers to hear that The Tiny Turtle of the Marsh was going to be a “normal” children’s picture book with a 32 page format and a couple of sentences to a page. I knew books like that would be cheaper to produce and easier to market. Just imagine the price difference: Stormy’s Return and The Tiny Turtle are both 96 pages long, three times the length of a standard children’s book. After teaching public elementary school for 26 years, you would also think I would “get the message” about what different grade levels are supposed to be able to read.

What I found teaching, though, was that each child is different. There are some 5 year olds who can read at 5th grade level, and some 5th graders who are still struggling. I’m sure there is an average, but in this age of standardized testing, it’s about time we remind ourselves of what every parent, and especially every mother, knows about her children: they are all different. Yet each has special gifts that can be developed to increase that child’s confidence and likelihood of success in life. It’s not all about test scores: It has always seemed to me more to be about figuring out where each individual child is, and then helping them to build a love for learning that will stay with them for a lifetime.

In these books, I try to create a compelling central story that also deals with issues important to children: family, home, friends, strategies for dealing with difficulties, and many other similar themes. I know that nature, and especially animals, fascinate children (and all of us!), and I try to use this in my stories as a means to expose children to facts and phenomenon that are normally only seen by researchers in the field. Are Egrets (who we see in freshwater swamps close to where we live) really related somehow to the terrapins in the salt marsh? Do Hermit Crabs (which most children have kept as pets, or seen in pet stores) really have a role in salt marsh habitats?) It is “cool” to see that all these creatures live together in our Coastal Marshes, and are each important players in real ecosystems.

What about the “little, little” ones? Maybe they don’t read yet. But I have learned from talking to mothers and grandmothers, who buy 85% of my books, that many of them expose tiny ones to books and reading much earlier than we might think. I knew from educational research that sitting close to your children and reading to them from a very young age has everything to do with their developing a lifelong love for reading. That’s why, when I am designing illustrations, I am very sensitive to using bright, appealing colors. I also like to include visual interest in all parts of each page illustration by means of “breaking the line”, with animals playfully flying out of the box, or hanging out of it. Photographs don’t work that way, and I’m thinking it just might attract a little one’s attention. I also include specific plants and species of animals that are not mentioned in the story to likewise provide more visual interest.

When I do “readings” with young children, I’ve found that telling the story, using the page illustrations to help them follow the story, works much better than reading the text word for word. They definitely love “voices”, and I try to write the animals’ dialogue (and the people, for that matter) in such a way that it gives personality and interest to the story: ( “Oh, Dad! I can smell the crabs! Whoah! One got my finger! Ooh, look! The eel is getting his head out! Dad! Watch it!” from p.9, Tiny Turtle) Now, if you can read that in a calm voice, with even volume, the more power to you! After teaching elementary school for 26 years, I watch their eyes, and if I’m losing their attention…. Look out!

Why would a 10 year old read a “picture book”? Well, I’ve stood in the media center in my old elementary school with students of all ages. You’d be surprised what 5th graders pick! It’s not all “Little House on the Prairie” or chapter books. Librarians use the term “high interest books.” Again, it depends on the individual, but for the older readers especially, I’ve tried to “layer” the reading and learning experience in the books, so that there are many, many things to learn on repeat visits to the books, and many different places in the book to explore: glossaries with color illustrations, up to date maps and conservation programs that kids and parents can get involved in. What I can’t understand are parents who wait for the schools to teach their children to read. I’m wondering…Is that too late?