Snowflake Bentley
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Illustrated by Mary Azarian
Houghton-Mifflin, 1998
Activities 1999 Nancy Polette

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Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt. Why would anyone want to photograph it? But from the time he was a small boy, Wilson Bentley thinks of the icy crystals as small miracles and he determines that one day his camera will capture for others their extraordinary beauty. Often misunderstood in his time, Wilson Bentley took pictures that even today reveal two important truths about snowflakes: First, that no two are alike and second, that each one is startlingly beautiful. Here is the story of a simple farmer who not only had a scientist's vision and perseverance, but a clear passion for the wonders of nature.
Fact: from Duncan, Blanchard. The Snowflake Man. (1970) Weatherwise, 23(6) 260-269
Wilson Bentley was born on a Vermont farm in 1865. He was taught by his mother who gave him a microscope which enabled him to begin a lifelong study of rain and snow..and especially of snowflakes which fascinated him the most. He observed nature with both the eye of the poet and the eye of the scientist. Here are his words: "from a careful study of the internal structure of each wonderfully delicate and exquisite snowflake much may be learned of the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloudland. Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!"
Activity: Answer these questions as if you were a snowflake.
  1. Where do you live?__________________________________________
  2. Favorite colors?______________________________________________
  3. Favorite clothes?____________________________________________
  4. What is your job?___________________________________________
  5. Who are you related to?_____________________________________
  6. Where do you vacation?_____________________________________
  7. Favorite holiday?__________________________________________
  8. How do you move?________________________________________
    Use at least four of your answers in a snow poem. See the pattern for the RAIN poem that follows:

    Silvery orphan bits of wetness
    Cast out from gray clouds
    Clothed in hydrogen and oxygen
    We skip from place to place
    Refreshing the Earth
    We vacation in ice crystals when
    Our cousins, snow and sleet
    Drop by for a visit
    We are raindrops
Fact: (from Weatherwise)
As a teen Willie spent hundreds of hours in a cold room sketching the snow crystals he saw in the microscope. He persuaded his father to buy him a bellows camera with microscope attachment. But in attempting to photograph snowflakes, failure followed upon failure. Finally, through persistence and learning by trial and error he made his first photograph of a snowflake during a snowstorm on the 15th of January 1885. When he arranged a free slide show to share his discoveries with his neighbors only six people came. Most thought him "crazy or a fool or both."
Here is a list of others who were labeled failures or fools at sometime in their lives:

Thomas Edison dropped out of school in the third grade.
Louis Pasteur was considered an average student in science.
At age 18 Einstein's teachers said he showed no promise as a student or scientist.
Anton Leeuwenhoek (the inventor of the microscope) was ridiculed by those who knew him as 'addlebrained.'
Read: The Microscope by Maxine Kumin and compare Leeuwenhoek's life to the life of Wilson Bentley.

Research the life of one of these 'failures' listed above and write a poem about him following directions below.
1. Make a list of things found together (Ex: things found on or in a car, a garden, a kitchen, a boat, clothing etc.)
2. Describe the person you chose by combining items on your list with any of these human qualities: responsibility, dependability, faithfulness, reliability, creativity, industry, courage, cheerfulness, greed, diligence, courtesy, consideration, passion, confidence, honesty, persistence, curiosity, foolishness. (Add others)

He wears a shirt of persistence
With a collar of curiosity.
Ignoring the sleeves of time
He takes his hat off
To small worlds others have never seen.
Some say he has wrapped himself in a scarf of foolishness
He buttons his lip and continues his work.
That's how he gave us the microscope.


1. Question
It takes six inches of wet snow or 30 inches of dry snow to equal one inch of rain. In 1957 Grand Junction, Colorado had a record MONTHLY snowfall of 33 inches. How much rain would that equal in one year? Answer_______________________
What Wilson Bentley discovered:
Each snowflake has six branches and no one design is ever repeated.The direction of a storm produces a predominant type of snowflake. Air temperature determines the form of a snowflake.Changes within a snowflake are caused by the differing air temperatures it passes through.The largest raindrops are a quarter of an inch in diameter. Different sizes of raindrops occur in different types of storms.There is a connection between lightning and raindrop size.
2. Question:
Wilson Bentley had no scientific instruments. How did he manage to measure the size of a raindrop?________________________________
3. Raindrops are made up of molecules.
Water is cohesive (sticks together) because the positive end of one molecule attracts the negative end of another. Cohesion causes water to form a convex skin-like covering called surface tension.
Experiment: Fill a small glass nearly to the top with water. How many pennies can you drop in the glass before it overflows?_________Support or deny your guess by trying the experiment.
4. A Snowflake Report (done as Karaoke by Chuck Roberts and Anita Perez, Gr. 6) The tune is "What Now My Love" .
This is the tale of Wilson Bentley
A curious man
He had what it takes
Hours and hours
He gave to study
Of just what formed Delicate snowflakes.
A molecule
Attracts a brother
And sticks like glue
Each to the other
They grow small branches
And trap some air
To form designs
No two share
A bit less wind
A little cold air
Will form crystals
Very small or bold
So now you know
What makes a snowflake
Next time that you
Venture in the cold.