From meeting the little-known woman who discovered global warming, to exploring a child’s world dominated by 800,000 Sandhill Cranes, and from visiting Planet Earth the last time the climate changed to the exuberant story of a small girl making her bicycle into a rocket, readers will be inspired to see the world in new ways.
The short stories I write are especially geared toward kids from five to twelve years old, but anyone can enjoy them. Explore science and nature, little-known heroines and heroes, as well as heart-forward stories of love, hope, and a better future for all. And…oh, yes…some are written just for fun or bedtime reading!
On this page, you'll always find a free short story to read. If you want to read more stories, head over to the Bookshop and you'll find a constantly expanding collection available to download.
Currently Featured Story
Dance of Life: The Cranes and the River
Dance of Life: The Cranes and the River explores a central big idea—the Dance of Life—and expresses a child’s joyful and infectious enthusiasm for the river and cranes they love. The book showcases one of the greatest spectacles of nature. Each year, 600,000 Sandhill Cranes use the same 80-mile stretch of the Platte River as a main stopping place on their migration. The breathtaking story of the Cranes and the River illustrates the interdependence of life and suggests that humans are also part of this great Dance of Life. The story is based on the real-life experiences of the author.
Dance of Life: The Cranes and the River
By Rick Johnson
“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness…When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” – Aldo Leopold, Marshland Elegy (describing the call of Sandhill Cranes)
The cranes have come again
for the twelve-thousandth time…
for that long, and longer…
the Platte River has been a stopping place—
Sandhill Cranes arriving, first ones and twos,
nervous and excited…
then the others
raining from the sky on their stilt-like legs…
floating down on wings, like parachutes.
Covering the sandbars, walking in the shallow water,
their bugle-like calls sounding odd to human ears.
Dawn. Still, starry horizon—
thousands of cranes silhouetted—
as a child, I crept in the weeds, close to them,
lying on my belly, listening, wide-eyed,
avoiding the sentry keeping watch while the flock rests and feeds.
They are skittish of predators: eagles, coyotes, bobcats—
and when they get spooked—
up they fly…so fast…and so many…
that your eyes can’t keep up…
even the sun is lost for a moment
behind the thousands and more, leaping airborne at once…
like fingers of a single hand,
and circling again,
encouraging the others to fly.
And it goes on, and on, and on,
each flight of each bird as unpredictable
as the ragged spring clouds swirling across the sky,
yet happening long enough to be forever.
As it has always been.
Each year, between late February and early April,
six hundred thousand cranes stop to rest and feed
along this single eighty-mile stretch of river.
Seeking, catching, eating—
small birds, eggs, mice, crayfish, snakes,
lizards, insects, frogs, roots, and seeds—
cow chips turned over for grubs and undigested grain.
Seeking and eating,
kar-r-r-r-o-o-o-ing their calls across river and fields,
building strength for their long migration
and the hard work of raising young in a harsh environment.
There is no other river quite like the Platte,
midway between wintering areas and nesting grounds.
Sometimes, there are twenty thousand birds dancing in a single meadow.
Heads bobbing, wings flapping,
jumping and bowing, tossing twigs in the air.
That is a lot of dancing.
It’s worth the effort. Cranes mate for life.
As they move on.
It is the heart and spirit of life
that turns them away across the world,
that moves on a billion billion wing beats…
each separate from the others,
but all returning each year to this place,
for peace and peace and peace,
to make the wings beat and beat and beat.
As they move on.
Within the river valley there is a peace,
that even large birds, the size of children,
cannot have and take with them, once and for all.
The peace of the river brings them back,
as surely as gravity brings the river to the sea.
which feeds them again and again and again
as they fly that long and longer and longer still
journey south to north, over and over again.
The river carries dust blown from of the mountain of Moses
and the desert of Muhammad…
and water swirled across the world from the brow of Buddha…
and reflects the same sun that lighted Mayan temples.
It has been flowing that long and longer.
Although no longer a child, I still creep through the weeds,
crawling on my belly, showing young friends how to find wide-eyed astonishment…
how when, for these precious moments, we become perfectly silent and awe-filled,
the dancing thrives in the absence of our noise.
And in the graceful, leaping, wings outstretched, dance of life…
I also see that, as Bendu, and Kalim, and Rosa, and Keo, and I…
learn to find spell-bound wonder without disturbing the cranes,
we also learn something about being with each other,
about joining in the Dance of Life with astonishment,
and care for one another.
Size: About 4-feet tall, with a 6-foot wing span, and weighing about 7 lbs. Males are larger than the females. Juveniles are called colts.
Family: A pair of cranes mate for life. The family group remains together from birth through the first part of their migration. Young cranes find mates and start nesting between 3 to 8 years of age. After the cranes leave the Platte River, parental ties are severed and the young are on their own.
Nesting: Nests are mounds of vegetation made in shallow water (less than 12 inches deep). They are often two to three feet high and up to six feet in diameter. Usually, two eggs are laid, but often only one of the colts survives. Both parents share equal duties in building the nest, tending the eggs, and caring for the young.
Red Head: Sandhill Cranes have a prominent featherless area on their forehead, exposing their red-colored skin. Some cranes have few feathers on their heads, and the entire top of their head is red.
Migration: Those migrating through the Platte Valley breed during the summer in the far north, primarily in Alaska, and then fly 2,500 miles south to winter in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, returning annually to the exact same sites.
Diet: Primarily grains and seeds, but also roots, tubers, mice, small birds, lizards, frogs, and insects.
Predators: Coyotes, wolves, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and, in some places, hunters. They defend themselves and their nests by flying at the predator, kicking with their feet, and hissing. Cranes also stab with their bill, which can pierce the skull of a small carnivore.
Living Fossils: The oldest Sandhill Crane fossil—identical to the modern Sandhill Crane—is 2.5 million years old, making Sandhills Cranes one of the oldest known surviving bird species.
How Many: In spring 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate of Sandhill Cranes in the Central Platte River Valley, Nebraska, was 685,476 birds.
Name: “Sandhill” Cranes are named for the Sandhills region of Nebraska, a huge grassy prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes.
Call: Typical rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” sound from a male crane can be heard over a mile away! Female call is lower in tone. Juveniles (colts) make a distinctive “peep” call.
Platte River: Sandhill Cranes are believed to have been stopping at the Platte River since the river’s origins some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.
A Flock of Cranes is Called: A sedge, a construction, a dance, or a swoop!
National Audubon Society
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
Iain Nicolson Audubon Center
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service