Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Wishing you a very happy holiday season filled with good books, great discoveries, and most of all, time spent with those you love!

See you in 2013 with many more book reviews, science activities, guest posts, giveaways, and more!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Tasty Chemical Reactions!

On page 3 of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, we learn that the Herdmans burned down Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse when they started a fire with Leroy Herdman's "Young Einstein" chemistry set. Let's do some chemistry that's more fun and much, much safer!

So what is chemistry anyway? It's studying matter and how it reacts and changes. Everything around you is matter--you are matter! And there are chemical reactions happening all around you and even inside of you right now.

How do we know when we're seeing a chemical reaction? Here are three big clues:

1. A gas is released. Sometimes you'll see this as bubbles or notice an odor (usually a different one than what you started with). And since you're probably thinking of times when your body releases gas, I'll just tell you that farting and burping aren't chemical reactions themselves, but they do mean that chemical reactions are taking place inside your body. (They smell different than the food you eat. Right??)

2. The color changes. Simple enough.

3. There's a temperature change. Sometimes that means things cool down and sometimes that means that a reaction gives off heat (and sometimes light too.) When anything burns, it's a chemical reaction.

Okay, let's put these into action and see some chemical reactions around us! I hope you're hungry for this one...

1. Open a can of soda and pour it into a clear glass. Which of the signs above do you observe? There's a gas forming! There's a chemical reaction taking place right there in your glass! In this one, carbonic acid is splitting into carbon dioxide and water. (If you want to make gumdrop molecules of all three of these from our previous activity, you can find out what carbonic acid looks like here.) So if you think your soda tastes more watery after all the bubbles are gone--you're right! The chemical reaction that makes the bubbles also makes more water molecules.

2. Roast a marshmallow. Which sign of a chemical reaction does this one show? The color is changing! (The chemical reaction here might be a little too complex for our gumdrops.) And as a bonus, there's a temperature change too! The temperature change is going to be pretty small unless you actually set your marshmallow on fire (which makes it taste worse but is still good science!) But any time you burn something, it's a chemical reaction giving off that heat.

3. Pop some popcorn. Which signs does this one show? There's an odor, but it's the same as the unpopped popcorn. There's a temperature change, but that's from the microwave or popper adding heat. The color is changing though, right? The starch in the popcorn is having its own chemical reactions. (Click here and scroll down to the starch section to see why this one would take way too many gumdrops to build a model.)

You did it! Three chemical reactions! Now sit back, eat your snack, and let your body do the rest of the chemical reactions for you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

From Goodreads: Called one of America's favorite Christmas stories, and now a classic television movie, "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" has been a favorite of young readers the world over since 1972. Funny, memorable, and outrageous, it is the story of a family of incorrigible children who discover the Christmas story for the first time and help everyoone else rediscover its true meaning.

My Two Cents: This is the oldest book I've reviewed so far and also the shortest, and I think both work in its favor. Christmas is a time when we love tradition, and this is a book I remember from my childhood that still feels timeless. It's a quick story (108 very small pages in my edition) that parents or teachers could read to their kids (or kids could read on their own) in just a few days. It's irreverent and funny, but it also teaches some important ideas--of acceptance, inclusion, and love rather than judgement.

Grade Level: 2-6

Additional Resources:
Barbara Robinson's website
The script of the play, also written by Barbara Robinson (which should not be
     performed without consent from the publisher.)
A fun Herdman decoding activity from Harper Collins
More teacher resources from Squidoo, including vocabulary words and class activities
Sites where kids can get into the holiday spirit by helping others:
     PBS kids ZOOM A list of ways kids can help, with resources, ideas, and inspiring stories for each.
     Kids Can Make a Difference An educational program for middle- and high school
     students, focuses on the root causes of hunger and poverty, the people most
     affected, solutions, and how students can help.

More to Read: Another timeless Christmas tale that's timeless and relatively short (especially considering who wrote it): A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Another story about seeing beneath and beyond society's judgement of somebody: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
Another book with an imperfect Christmas that features kids on stage: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Check back Thursday for a science activity even the Herdmans could get behind!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Giveaway Winner!

It's (past) time to announce the winner of our signed copy of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas! As chosen by, the winner is...Rosalyn Eves! Congratulations to Rosalyn, and everybody else, keep coming back! I've got fun giveaways in the works for 2013.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Make a Sundial

Lots of attention has been paid to the Mayan calendar lately, but the Mayans actually had many scientific achievements, including astronomy, agriculture, and this week's activity, sundials. Even Max Murphy could handle this one!

This guest post was written by one of my very favorite people, Laura Cotts. Laura has taught math, physics, and astronomy courses and labs at Southern Utah University and gave me my very first job as a TA. (Aww!) But my favorite thing Laura does is an amazing array of science activities and demonstrations each year at a local children's jubilee. Take it away, Laura, and thank you!

What if we had no clocks and no compasses? We could use the sun to help us tell time and to find directions!

We have heard that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But does this mean EXACTLY east and west?  And does the sun ALWAYS rise in the same place?

This is a project you can do several times during the year. The most interesting ones to compare are done in December and June, with one more in either September or March.

Here's what you'll need to do to make your sundial:

1. Get a large piece of cardboard or foam board and glue a golf tee, flat side down, near the center.

2. Pick a sunny Saturday or holiday, for you will want to visit your board about once an hour, all day long. Find a place that will be in the sun the whole day and tape your board down so it won't blow away, and so it will always be sitting the same way.

3. Starting early in the morning, go out and look at the shadow of your golf tee. How long is it? In which direction is it pointing? Draw a line along the shadow, to its very end, and beside it write the time. Pay attention to the location of the sun.

4. Visit your board about once every hour and draw a line along the shadow. Has the shadow changed?  If so, how? Where is the sun?

5.  At the end of the day you will have many shadow lines. What pattern do they make? How did they change? When was your shadow line the shortest? The longest? Can you think why?

If your board stayed in the same place, could it help you tell the time on another day? You have made a very simple sundial!

Did your changing shadows sweep along a curve?  Could this be why our round clocks and watches run "clockwise"?

If you set the board out a month or two later, will the shadows match your times again, or will there be a change? The shadows come from the sun--will the sun have changed its path? Try it!


It will be the most fun to try this activity again in June.
  • Do you think the picture will be the same as December or March?
  • How are your June shadows different from the December shadows? 
  • How would a March  pattern differ from either? What has caused the changes?
  • Does the sun always rise and set in the same places?  What evidence do you have?
  • Can the shadow patterns tell us about the different paths that the sun traces across the sky?

The sundial you have made would only tell fairly accurate time for a few weeks. As the seasons change the sun's path changes.

Sundials use the shadow of a stick, called a gnomon. To make a more accurate sundial, the gnomon should be at an angle that matches your latitude.

Directions for a simple sundial can be found here. This sundial will tell time most accurately for a mid latitude in March and September.
For more activities with the sun and the seasons, visit here or here. For very complete information on sundials try the British Sundial Society.

Thank you, Laura! I told you she was wonderful. We'd love to have your questions or comments below!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Middleworld by J&P Voelkel

The world is going to end on 12/21/12! Actually, no, it isn't. But the Mayans said it would! Actually, no, they didn't. But still, now is the perfect time for you to read Middleworld (Book 1 of the Jaguar Stones) by husband and wife team J&P Voelkel!

 From Goodreads: An epic adventure that brings together ancient history and modern adolescent angst - as it pits a pampered, pizza-eating, 21st century Boston teenager against the Death Lords of the Maya Underworld. In Book One: "Middleworld," 14-year-old Max Murphy is trying to survive in the perilous rainforest. But poisonous snakes and man-eating jaguars are the least of his problems. It seems the jungle is alive with the spirits of the Ancient Maya. Even worse, his parents have been taken prisoner in the Maya underworld and it's up to him to rescue them. Oh, and - no pressure - but the world will end in five days' time unless Max can win his battle against the villainous Lords of Death. Into this thrilling, and sometimes spine-chilling, adventure story is woven a huge amount of detail about the Maya and life in the rainforest. The authors, have drawn on the latest research to present possibly the most accurate picture of the Maya world in children's literature.

My Two Cents: There is so much action and adventure here it's hard to know where to begin! The setup of this book was great--we grow and learn with Max in a way that doesn't feel forced at all. And the plot is so fast-paced and engaging that kids gobble up the (subtle and well-placed) educational parts as well. In keeping with Mayan culture, there issue of human sacrifice definitely comes up, but of course no humans are sacrificed in our storyline. Note to educators: I've heard that these authors do amazing school visits...

Grade Level: 5-8

Additional Resources:
The Jaguar Stones website, with really outstanding teacher resources that include writing Maya glyphs, Maya math, and a FREE LESSON PLAN CD
A great Mayan Kids site that explores the people, places, and beliefs of Mayan civilization
Howler monkey photos, facts, and videos
The Rainforest Alliance has great games, virtual storybooks, and plant and animal info for kids as well as lesson plans for teachers designed for every grade level.

More to Read:
The beginning of another worldwide adventure series for the same age group: The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan
A series for slightly younger readers about another fun and adventurous boy with the fate of a whole civilization on his shoulders: Elliot and the Goblin War by Jennifer Nielsen
A slightly more sci-fi take on the theme of a boy who solves his family issues, saves a society, and learns a lot about himself in the process: What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

The ancient Mayans were a very scientifically advanced culture. Check back Thursday for a science activity that illustrates one of the tools they developed!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Top 5 Middle Grade Picks of 2012!

I made my list and checked it twice, and I'm ready to reveal my TOP 5 MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS, 2012 EDITION! Of the 48 middle grade books I've read in the last year, these are five that really stood out to me. I tend to read books that get great reviews to begin with, so these really are the best of the best in my book. (Pun absolutely intended.)

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This was the middle grade book that had the greatest impact on me this year. It's told from multiple viewpoints, but the heart of the story is August (Auggie) Pullman, a ten-year-old kid who was born with a craniofacial deformity. This book absolutely avoids being patronizing or manipulative; it's so heartfelt, humorous, and genuine that I fell totally in love. And the precept that surfaces throughout, "Choose Kind," is perhaps the most important lesson of all, both for kids and grownups. I can't say enough great things about this book. (Watch the trailer here.)

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

In all honesty, foster care isn't something I've spent a great deal of time thinking about, and I can't recall having read a book about it. But I am so, so glad I read this one. It tells the story of twelve-year-old Carley Connors and the time she spends in foster care. I shed more tears over this book than anything else I read this year--children's or adult. One of the things I love about middle grade fiction is the sense of hope and possibility that are so raw and real through a kid's eyes. Hunt managed to do this so beautifully and to make this reader care so deeply for Carley. Beautifully written. (Watch the trailer here.)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

So far, I've featured a book about a boy and a book about a girl. This is absolutely a book about a gorilla. (Okay, a boy gorilla...) Based on the true story of a gorilla who was kept in a shopping mall for 27 years, this is a lovely story of friendship and compassion that will make kids really consider the animals around them--especially those in captivity. The voice is truly unique here since the story is told from the point of view of Ivan the gorilla. Kids will read this very quickly, but I have a feeling it will stay with them for a long time. I know it did with me. (Watch the trailer here.)

Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley

On the surface, this is lighter fare than my previous picks. There's an element of tongue-in-cheek fun in this story of a remarkable town with a mysterious sea creature, a pirate captain, mischieveous twins, and the worlds greatest jelly factory. It's well crafted and fun and full of adventure. But I think it really resonated with me, and will resonate with younger readers, because it's main character, Jane, feels so unremarkable and ordinary. And she saves the day by being precisely that--ordinary--and not by finding some hidden superpower. She saves the day because she is thoughtful and careful and kind and persistent outside of any spotlight. And that is a remarkable thing indeed.

There is a lot to love in this book--elements of mystery, humor, growth, and adventure, all within the scope of a single day and the following morning, all within the setting of a few homes and a very special vacant lot with a single orange tree. There are several main characters here and it's fascinating to watch how well Rocklin tells each of their stories, and to watch the ways those stories conflict and overlap and ultimately connect. I loved it.

There they are! Feel free to debate in the comments below. What books did I miss in 2012 that I need to catch in 2013? (There were a lot of them!) What were your favorites? And (eek!) what do you think of my picks?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Best Middle Grade Books of 2012: A List of Lists

Happy December! This is the season when everyone seems to weigh in on the best of everything. There are so many sites and sources listing their favorite books right now that I wanted to put them all in one place. Here are some lists of the best books for young readers (especially middle grade), just in time for your holiday shopping:

The National Book Awards
     Winner: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander, plus four honor books
Newbery Medal and Honor
     Winner: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, plus two honor books
Amazon's Best Books of the Year
     A top 20 list including Amazon's #1 middle grade pick: Wonder by R.J.
School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year
     A pretty long list of picture books, fiction, and nonfiction. (Middle grade
     is mixed with young adult here.)
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Fiction
     Top 25 list including cover art and brief reviews. Mixes MG and YA.
Kirkus Book Review Best Books of 2012
     100 books from picture books to young adult.
New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2012
    Mostly fiction, and separate lists for young adult, middle grade.
Barnes and Noble Best Kids' Books of 2012
     No ranking, no discernable organization, and being a celebrity seems to be
     a key factor in getting your book on this list. :)
Association for Library Service to Children's 2012 Notable Books
     A long list whose "Middle" category includes fiction, nonfiction, and even
     some picture books.
New York Public Library's 100 Childrens Books for Reading and Sharing
     The middle grade picks on this one are actually under Stories for Older
Oprah's 2012 Kids' Reading List
     This one includes some classics and was developed with help from the ALA
     and ALSC.
Parents' Choice Award Winners
     I had never heard of most of these, and their #1 choice (Star Wars: A
     Galactic Pop-Up Adventure) was a surprise.
National Science Teachers Association's Outstanding Science Trade Books for K-12
     A long list of books on a wide variety of science topics.
American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Middle Grade Finalists
     Four top nonfiction science books for middle grade readers.
Added 12/4/12: Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Middle Grade & Children's
     Chosen by voters, so a popularity contest by definition. But some great
     ones here! The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan was their top pick.
Added 12/17/12: The Wall Street Journal's Best Children's Books of 2012
     Only a few middle grade picks, but they're great ones...
Added 1/11/13: The Children's Literature Association of Utah's Beehive Award Nominees

And just to balance it all out with a little more science:

Squidoo Top 10 Science Toys for Kids

I hope that was helpful! The Goodreads Choice Awards will be announced tomorrow, and they had great picks among their finalists. (I may update this post to include their winners.) Come back Thursday to read MY top 5 middle grade picks for 2012!

Are there any lists I missed? Did your favorite middle grade books of 2012 make the cut?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Elemental Ornaments

In this week's book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, one of the ways Eddy calms himself down is by reciting the elements from the periodic table. Some of the words he recites like chlorine and iron) are probably familiar, while others (scandium!) are...not so familiar.

All matter (everything that takes up space and has mass) is made up of the elements that Eddy recites. (Check out this video for a very catchy and kid-friendly introduction to this concept.) They're the building blocks of everything around you, the building blocks of YOU. It's just simple differences in the way they're connected and combined that make H2O (water) a vital part of life, but H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) highly hazardous.

So let's build a few models to see what they look like! For this week's activity, you'll need large gumdrops (or colored marshmallows, or foam balls) and toothpicks. We'll use the same color code that chemists do for their models:

Black = carbon
White = hydrogen
Red = oxygen
Blue = nitrogen (Okay, these are purple in the photos since I didn't have blue.)
Green = chlorine
Yellow = sulfur
Orange = phosphorus

Here are some easy ones you can try:

And here are a few that are a little trickier:

In these models, each gumdrop represents one atom. Almost all atoms have tiny particles called electrons that they can use to connect to other atoms. In these models, the toothpicks represent bonds that hold the atoms together. The bonds are formed by the atoms sharing those electrons with each other.

For advanced learners: Notice how every different element has a certain number of bonds. For hydrogen, it's always got just one toothpick coming out if it. For carbon, it's always four. Three for nitrogen, one for chlorine, and usually two for oxygen. Sulfur gets tricky (two or four) and phosphorus usually has three.

Can you design your own molecule that follows these rules? Can you make bigger, more complicated molecules like sugar (sucrose)? How many gumdrops would you need to model even a small section of DNA?

Have fun making molecules!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jacqueline Houtman Interview and Giveaway!

I'm so thrilled that Jacqueline Houtman agreed to be my first author interview ever! I've been a fan of Jacqueline's work since The Reinvention of Edison Thomas first came out. She's a talented author with a great love and gift for science, and I think you'll agree that she gives a great interview as well. And since she's as generous with her books as she is with her time, Jacqueline has offered to give away a signed copy of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas! Read to the end for more details...

EV: The Reinvention of Edision Thomas is a great story about a really endearing character. Which did you come up with first: Eddy the character, or his story?

JH: Eddy definitely came first. The book started off as a series of scenes. I put Eddy into situations that would be difficult for him and see what he did. I came up with situations where he would react differently than most people, but in ways that were entirely consistent with the way he saw things. As I wrote more and more scenes, a story began to develop. Some of those scenes ended up in the book. Some were cut from the book, but stayed in my head as part of Eddy’s character.

Is Eddy based on anyone you know? Are any of the other characters based on real people?

Eddy’s not based on any one person, but he has the characteristics of several people I know, including me. He is a fictional character. Jim, the crossing guard, on the other hand is based on a crossing guard named…wait for it…Jim. He’s the only real person in the story.

One of my favorite things about Eddy is that the way his mind works is so unique. How did you come up with all of the Random Access Memory facts that you use throughout the book? Do facts get stuck in your brain too? (They do in mine!)

My brain attracts obscure facts like a magnet. In fact, it’s sort of a joke around my house. Eddy stores facts in his brain and he accesses a fact when something happens in his life that is somehow related to that fact. I inserted the facts at transitional points in the story and each fact has something to do with the preceding scene. Some of the facts came straight from my head. Some I had to research. All of them were verified.

This book was first published in 2010. If we could fast forward two years in Eddy's life, what would he be up to?

I think he’d be comfortable with a small group of friends. He would continue to find strategies to help him get along in the world. My hope is that a science teacher would take an interest in Eddy and help him put his great mind to use on interesting and useful projects.

Can you tell us what you're writing next? Will any of the characters from The Reinvention of Edison Thomas show up in future books?

I’m working on a couple of manuscripts. They both have boy protagonists, and—surprise!—they both have a lot of science in them. As for future Eddy books, I don’t have any plans for that right now, but I’m not ruling it out.

What advice would you give to young writers?

 Read and keep a journal. Read everything, even outside your favorite genre. If you like what you’re reading, figure out why. If you don’t like it, figure out why. Write down your ideas. Play with words. Make a habit of writing.

What advice would you give to young scientists?

Same answer: Read and keep a journal. Read about things that interest you. Read about people who do interesting things. Write down observations. Make connections. Ask questions. Don’t just accept facts that are handed to you. Dig deeper. Find out why.
Thank you, Jacqueline! To enter the giveaway, make sure you're a follower of the blog (click "Join this Site" on the right sidebar) and then leave a comment below. As always, bonus points for Facebook and Twitter links/mentions, and double bonus points if you refer a friend who becomes a follwer! :) The giveaway closes Wednesday, December 5 at midnight MST.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman

From Goodreads: Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book, but he can't read the emotions on the faces of his classmates at Drayton Middle School. He can spend hours tinkering with an invention, but he can't stand more than a few minutes in a noisy crowd, like the crowd at the science fair, which Eddy fails to win. When the local school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy is haunted by thoughts of the potentially disastrous consequences and invents a traffic-calming device, using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. Eddy also discovers new friends, who appreciate his abilities and respect his unique view of the world. They help Eddy realize that his "friend" Mitch is the person behind the progressively more distressing things that happed to Eddy. By trusting his real friends and accepting their help, Eddy uses his talents to help others and rethinks his purely mechanical definition of success.

My Two Cents: There's so much here to love. A protagonist who is totally unique and instantly earns our loyalty. Clever chapter titles and fun facts from Eddy's "Random Access Memory." Natural and poignant lessons on problem solving, community, and friendship. And, as a bonus, a pretty decent helping of science. There are a growing number of books about kids with autism and Aspergers, and this is among the best.

Grade Level: 5-8

Additional Resources:
Jacqueline Houtman's website
A fun activity that demonstrates eddy currents
Interactive animation showing position, velocity, and acceleration
A useful site for kids who want to learn morse code like Eddy, and a game to test their skills
A fun photographic periodic table
A printable guide from Indiana University to help kids understand autism

More to Read:
Another book for middle grade readers that deals with autism from a kid's perspective: Rules by Cynthia Lord
Another book about a kid who would rather spend time doing scientific research than anything else: Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head by Nancy Viau
Another book about a boy who has a learning disability (but absolutely isn't defined by it): Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

Also, I'm thrilled to say that I've scored an interview with Jacqueline and a signed (!) copy of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas to give away here! Check back Wednesday for the interview and details about the givaway, and click back here Thursday for a fun holiday science post that Eddy himself would enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you'll forgive me for getting a little personal on this post. This seemed like the perfect time to take a moment to thank all of the people who have helped me out with this blog.

Thank you, Robbie, for being so supportive. And also hilarious, handsome, smart, and strong.

Thanks to my kids, for giving my life so much more meaning, and for being the main reason I'm passionate about education in the first place.

Thanks to my parents for teaching me and supporting me all my life, and in every way possible.

Thank you, guest posters past and future, for making this blog so much more than I ever could on my own. Helen Boswell, Heather Hawke, Tasha Seegmiller, Jacqueline Houtman (coming next week!), Laura Cotts, Natalie Clark, Jayne Moraski.

Thank you, middle grade authors, who write the kind of books that make a difference. (See sidebar for many, many links.)

And finally, thank you, supportive readers and followers, for making me feel like the work that I've put in to this blog means something to somebody. Lori Clark, Jenilyn Collings, Tasha Seegmiller, Kate Birch, Rosalyn Eves, Helen Boswell, Bridget Lee, Charmayne Orton, Deanna Romito, and everyone who has read the blog or shared it with others. You are wonderful!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Here Comes Science


Happy Thanksgiving! Since we've got a holiday this week, I thought I'd mix it up a little by reviewing a great science album for kids, Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants. If you're like me, you remember They Might Be Giants from the days when they were recording songs like Istanbul for adults. Now they have several albums for kids that are fun, educational, and often very funny.

This CD is also available as a DVD that contains videos for each song. The videos have been posted on YouTube, but I hope that you'll support these artists if you love the songs as much as I do by purchasing some form of the music.

Some of the songs on this album actually seemed vaguely political and/or seemed to be more interested in proving a point or persuading people that, for instance, "Science is Real." (Although I agree with their viewpoints, I don't know that anybody who discredits scientific principles is going to be persuaded by kid rock songs, no matter how catchy they may be.) And things get confusing when they have a song about how the sun is a ball of gas, followed immediately by a song about how the sun is NOT a ball of gas. Which I understand from a scientific point of view thanks to this NASA link, but why confuse kids?

My favorite songs were the ones who dispensed with the politics and persuasion (and gas ball confusion) and went straight for the science in the most understandable way possible. So, without further ado, I give you my top 9 songs from Here Comes Science:

1. Meet the Elements

2. Bloodmobile

3. Roy G. Biv

4. I Am a Paleontologist

5. What Is a Shooting Star?

6. Photosynthesis

7. Speed and Velocity

8. Solid Liquid Gas

9. Cells

Are there scientific inaccuracies in each of these videos? Probably. (One that jumped out at me was that the stars are in front of the clouds in What Is a Shooting Star.) But parents and teachers can use any errors as just one more teaching tool. "What is wrong with this picture?"

My bottom line: Anything that makes science more accessible, understandable, and fun to kids gets my stamp of approval.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Feed the Birds

For Groovy Robinson in The Year the Swallows Came Early, the best time for birdwatching was in March. But in many parts of the world, winter is a great time for birding!

Birds around a bird feeder made from a Coke bottle in Johannesburg, South Africa. From left to right, a male Southern Masked Weaver, a male Cape Sparrow, a female Cape Sparrows, and two male Cape Sparrows. Photo credit here.

If you want to be an amateur ornithologist (even for a day), you'll probably want a bird feeder, a pencil and notebook, and a sharp pair of eyes.

Don't have a birdfeeder? Not a problem! All you need to make one is an empty plastic bottle, a pair of sharp scissors, and a few dowels, chopsticks, or twigs. And don't forget the birdseed!

1. Wash, dry, and remove the labels from an empty plastic bottle. Cut four dime-size holes about 3 inches from the bottom of the bottle. These will be the holes that the birds feed from. Cut four pea-size holes about 1 inch from the bottom of the bottle. Slide your chopsticks (or twigs or dowels) through the holes. These will serve as perches for the birds. If you want your feeder to be extra fancy, you can cut off the tops of other bottles and attach them to the feeding holes as shown in the picture above.

2. Fill your birdfeeder with birdseed. A standard mixture will usually work, but black-oil sunflower seed is the best attractant in many areas. (Click here for more information on what birdseed to use.)

3. Find a place to hang your feeder. Look for a tree or overhang where the feeder will be well off the ground, visible to the birds, and inaccessible to other animals like cats and squirrels.

4. Step back and observe! Count the number of birds you observe each day and graph the results. (Math!) See if you can identify the different species of birds using an online field guide or these posters. (Science!) Sketch the birds you see most often (Art!) or write a story about them. (Language Arts!) Listen for the bird calls and see if you can identify the birds by sound as well as sight. Keep a field notebook and record what types of seeds work best and what times of day birds come. The possibilities are endless!

Most importantly, get outside and appreciate those birds!

Additional Resources:
Fun birding games and activities from the National Audubon Society
Record your results on Cornell's free birding calendar
Sign up to get a Project FeederWatch Research Kit and join Cornell's team for $15 (or download their free guide)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing

And now for something completely different...

I'll be back tomorrow with a science activity for The Year the Swallows Came Early, but today I get the chance to talk about my own book! I was asked to participate in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop by the lovely Jayne Moraski. Jayne's website is called 365 TV-Free Kid Activities, and you should definitely go check it out!
A replica of a 1672 Isaac Newton Telescope
Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing Blog Hop:
1. What is the working title of your book? Discovering Isaac
2. Where did the idea come from for the book? I was reading a brief history of Isaac Newton (who overcame a terrible childhood) and thought, "This would make a great middle grade book!"

3. What genre does your book fall under? Contemporary Middle Grade (Translation: a book for kids ages 9-12 with no fantasy, ghostly, or magical elements. Just fun, regular kids.)

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? There isn't anybody who jumps out at me for the main character, Isaac, but I can picture Eva Mendes as his mom (possibly because the character is named Eva) and Luke from Modern Family as Isaac's friend Connor. (Confession: I don't watch many movies. At all.)

5. What is the synopsis of your book?
Eleven-year-old Isaac Sanchez didn’t know what to expect when his deadbeat mom came back, but it definitely wasn’t this: a secret code, a new best friend, and a strange connection to the greatest scientist of all time. Isaac’s experiments sometimes end in disaster, but he may discover what he was looking for all along: his own place in the universe.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I've got several agents reading it right now, so I'm hoping to go that route!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I drafted it in a summer, then did almost nothing with it for a year (and had a baby in the meantime.) When Rosalyn Eves invited me to be in her writing group (thank you, Rosalyn!), I pulled it out and got serious about being a writer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Agents have compared it to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Chasing Vermeer, both of which are books I really, really admire.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book? Reading about Isaac Newton and wanting to tell the story of a kid who finds his own potential (and loves science.)

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I hope it has relatable, endearing characters and a great plot, but I think the science and history woven through the story might be what make it distinctive.

Whew! That was much more fun to write than I expected it to be. :) And the fun continues next week on Kate Birch's blog. I'm so excited to see how she'll answer these questions. (And which of her awesome books she'll answer them for!)

If you would like to read some more blogs about writing, go to Barbara Bockman’s blog or to read more about new books, go to Penelope Ann’s blog and work backward:

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

From Goodreads: Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson loves cooking and plans to go to culinary school just as soon as she's old enough. But even Groovy's thoughtfully-planned menus won't fix the things that start to go wrong the year she turns eleven--suddenly, her father is in jail, her best friend's long-absent mother reappears, and the swallows that make their annual migration to her hometown arrive surprisingly early. As Groovy begins to expect the unexpected, she learns about the importance of forgiveness, understands the complex stories of the people around her, and realizes that even an earthquake can't get in the way of a family that needs to come together.

Kathryn Fitzmaurice's lovely debut novel is distinctively Californian in its flavor. Her rich characters and strong sense of place feel both familiar and fresh at first meeting--and worth revisiting, again and again.

My Two Cents: This is a lovely book that's not loud or overbearing, set firmly and beautifully on the California coast. Groovy has a realistic set of problems and a realistic set of strengths, and the way both develop over the pages of this book are really touching. A great lesson in loving, accepting, and forgiving imperfect parents, being a loyal friend, and pursuing your passions.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
Kathryn Fitzmaurice's website, including discussion questions
An article for kids on the swallows--and how they're starting to skip San Juan Capistrano
Recipe for Chocolate Covered Strawberry Pops (I think Groovy would approve!)
Earthquake overview, facts, and activities
A fun migratory bird game--it's like Oregon Trail for birds! :)

More to Read:
Another book with a strong heroine where both animals and a complicated parental relationship factor in: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog by Gennifer Choldenko
Another seaside story about a young girl figuring out her place in the world: Junonia by Kevin Henkes
Another book with a strong sense of place and a girl who finds strength beyond her family: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Power of Audio Books (Plus a Giveaway!)

I'm breaking from the normal schedule of science posts on Thursdays. One reason is that M.E. Castle (the author of Popular Clone) already has lots of great experiments that you can find here. So I've called in another guest poster, the lovely and smart Tasha Seegmiller. You can find her blog here and follow her on Twitter here. I highly recommend both! Tasha is an English teacher who has a really great personal story of instilling a love of reading in her son. And it even involves Popular Clone! Take it away, Tasha!

(not Tasha's son)

There seems to be a strange phenomenon happening in the world of boys and books. If the boys like fantasy books, their love of reading tends to be high. If they don’t, often they don’t read at all. 

And I have a son who doesn’t like much fantasy.

This was the case with my son. He only wanted to read comic books, but often didn’t really read them, and his reading level was dropping with each parent teacher conference from above level to on level to below level. When he left 5th grade of elementary school at the end of last year, his reading level was 4.2. Yup, he was almost two grades below reading level. I couldn’t get him to read at all. I visited with him and he said he liked listening to the books be read in school, but didn’t like reading things to himself.  

My mother in law suggested letting him listen to audiobooks while reading, and I was ready to try anything. The first book we tried this with was Popular Clone. And within a chapter or two, I heard something I had not heard from my son ever when reading. He laughed. And again. And after the reading, my son wanted to tell me what had happened in the book. 

Sold on this idea, we started frequenting the library, trying to find audiobooks and hard copies of books to let him get his reading in over the summer. We worked through the “Fudge” books and he remembered he didn’t mind The Ranger’s Apprentice series.
Soon, the amount of times he asked how much longer to read decreased, and several times I had to tell him he had to go to sleep after the chapter. 
Not long after this started working for us, I heard him try to read something in a store out loud to me and I realized the reason for the success. His vocabulary, his ability to sound out the words, had him pronouncing letter combinations and diphthongs in such bizarre ways I couldn’t figure out the word. By having access to the audiobooks, he was able to build the vocabulary while still understanding and finding enjoyment from the stories he was reading. 
Remember that 4.2 reading level at the end of his 5thgrade year? When the same assessment was given at the beginning of his 6th grade year, it came back as an 8.3. 
My son’s reading level went up FOUR grade levels in the months over summer.
If you have a reluctant reader, I highly recommend this technique. And I’m not going to lie to you and tell you he loves to read any chance he can get, but it provides a way for him to access the world of reading, to find enjoyment in it, to realize it doesn’t just have to be the thing he has to do for 25 minutes a night to get a good grade.
And that’s enough to bring joy to the heart of this book-loving mom.
Thank you, Tasha! To enter to win a copy of the AUDIO book of Popular Clone, just make sure you're a follower of the blog and leave a comment below!

Amended 11/20: The winner of the Audiobook is barrettandaudrey! Congratulations! Send me an email and I'll give you the details.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Popular Clone by M.E. Castle

From Goodreads: Meet Fisher Bas: 12 years-old, growth-stunted, a geeky science genius, and son of the Nobel Prize-winning creators of the Bas-Hermaphrodite-Sea-Slug-Hypothesis. No surprise: Fisher isn't exactly the most popular kid in his middle-school, tormented daily by the beefy, overgrown goons he calls The Vikings. But he senses relief when he comes upon the idea of cloning himself--creating a second Fisher to go to school each day while he stays at home playing video games and eating cheetos with ketchup. It's an ingenious plan that works brilliantly, until Fisher's clone turns out to be more popular than him--and soon after gets clone-napped by the evil scientist Dr. Xander.

My Two Cents: This is a fun, sometimes silly book that reluctant readers will probably love. There's plenty of zany science fiction here that's rooted just enough in real science that it might make kids curious enough to experiment themselves.

Grade Level: 4-7 (some challenging science vocabulary and middle school themes)

Additional Resources:
The Clone Chronicles website--especially the Experiments section!
Do your own cloning experiment: How to Clone a Potato from the Biotechnology Learning Lab at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
History of Vikings (for kids) Why do you think Fischer called the bullies at his school Vikings?
Insight into Gassy Greg: The Science of Farting (Proceed with caution)

More to Read:
Another unlikely hero who triumphs in spite of industrial espionage: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
More smart kids whose curiosity gets them into trouble: The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
Another self-described wimp who'd probably be happy to eat junk food with Fischer Bas: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

I always love comments! Have you read this book? Any activities, resources, or companion books to recommend? Let me know!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Giveaway Winners!

It's time to announce the winners of the last two giveaways!

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate goes to Tasha Seegmiller

How Oliver Olson Changed the World goes to Lori Clark

Congratulations to the winners! Send me an email or leave a comment to let me know whether you'd like a paper copy or an ecopy (and if electronic, what format). If you didn't win this time, don't worry. There will be many, many more chances. Keep those comments and new followers coming. :)

Stay tuned for a slightly different giveaway with our next book!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Solar System Model

In this week's book, Oliver Olson makes a solar system model for his school project. So let's make one too! Here's how to make a scale model of the solar system using stuff you probably have left over from Halloween.

     Materials needed:

     2 small pumpkins
     2 mini pumpkins
     3 suckers (Tootsie Pops, etc. You can cut the sticks off.)
     1 Whopper candy
     1 Skittle candy
     2 Nerds candies

The planets and objects in our solar system are very, very different sizes. Which is the biggest? Which is the smallest? Which four items do you think represent the gas giants? Which four are the terrestrial planets? Which items do you think represent our moon and Pluto? If we added more Nerds to our solar system, what could they represent?

Write down which planet (plus the moon and Pluto) you think goes with each item and why you chose it on this Solar System Recording Sheet.

Why isn't the sun one of our items? Because we'd need a pumpkin that was as tall as a grown-up! On this scale, the Earth would revolve at a distance of about two football fields from the sun, and the moon would revolve around the Earth at a distance of about 30 inches. Jupiter would be about 1 km away from the giant pumpkin sun, and Pluto would be about 8 km away!

Adapted from NASA's Solar System Scale and Size lesson plan. For NASA's full lesson plan, click here.

Additional resources:

Solar System Scale Model Calculator
Planet Size Comparison

Don't forget to click "Join this site", then leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of this week's book, How Oliver Olson Changed the World!

Monday, October 29, 2012

How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills

From Goodreads: Oliver Olson’s teacher is always saying that one person with a big idea can change the world. But how is Oliver supposed to change the world when his parents won’t let him do anything on his own – not his class projects or even attending activities such as the space sleepover at school. Afraid he will become an outsider like ex-planet Pluto, Oliver decides to take control of his corner of the universe!

In this irresistible chapter book featuring lively illustrations, Oliver Olson learns that before you can change the world, sometimes you need to change yourself.

My Two Cents: There are no zombies in this book. No car chases or buried treasure or really bad bad guys. And that, for me, is the charm of Claudia Mills' books. I love all kinds of stories, but few writers do regular kids in everyday situations with as much heart and humor as Mills. Kids will identify with Oliver Olson, they'll root for him, and they'll love him.

Grade Level: 2-4

Additional Resources:
Claudia Mills' website
Is Pluto a Planet? video on YouTube
Mars video from NASA: Mars in a Minute
NASA's asteroid-naming contest: Students can enter until December 2 to name an actual asteroid!
An astronomy summer camp for kids in Flagstaff, Arizona

More to Read:
Another clever kid whose school project turns into something more: Frindle by Andrew Clements
Another well-meaning family who makes life difficult for our hero: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Another story of friends with big ideas: Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows

Be sure to check back Thursday for a great science activity that goes right along with this book!

GIVEAWAY: Because I love this book so much, I'm giving away TWO copies--one to a previous follower and one to a new follower! To follow, just click "Join this Site" on the right side of the screen.

To enter, just comment on either today's post or Thursday's science post. Mention whether you're a new follower or a previous follower, and earn extra chances by giving this book and giveaway a shout-out on your twitter, facebook, or blog! Good luck!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Exploration and Observation: A Rainbow of Ants

This week's guest post is by author and ecologist (and all-around nice person) Heather Hawke. Thank you, Heather! Here we go:

Halloween is soon upon us and few books are creepy and crawly as The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. Mrs. Cavendish’s roaches are shiver-worthy with too many legs even for bugs! But here is a project to examine insects with, as our heroine Victoria would say, the proper number of legs.
[photo pending AP approval, but see it here now]
by Mohamed Babu/Solent News/Rex F/AP Images

Dr. Mohamed Babu, India, took this stunning picture. See more here!

***CAUTION*** Many ant species sting like bees (particularly fire ants).  Other stinging insects may also visit. Exercise care while observing.


Very sweet sugar water
Food dye (red, blue, yellow, green)
Wax paper
Eyedropper (or chopstick if you don’t have one)
Pour sugar water into four small containers. Add a few drops of food dye to each one.

When the day warms up, place a piece of wax paper outside in a shady location where you have seen ants. Weigh the corners of the wax paper down so it doesn’t blow away. With an eyedropper, put 10 drops of the red sugar water on one corner of the paper. Do the same for the other three colors.

Now you can do different things.
1.      Just watch! Come back in a couple of hours and count how many ants are feeding from each color. Which colors do they prefer? You can research “ant vision” to learn more. Can you see the dye in the ants’ bodies? Are any other kinds of insects such as butterflies or bees coming to visit? If so, are they attracted to the same colors as the ants or different ones?
2.      Make it an experiment! Try to observe when the first ants arrive and then count the ants at each color every 15 minutes. Make a bar graph or two (x-axis: time or color, y-axis: # ants). Do the ants change their color preferences over time? If so, why do you think? Are there more ants at some times than others? Why could that be? If you can’t get enough of bugs, research “ant communication.”
3.      For scientists in training! You can really ramp up the experiment by performing it in different places. If you get away from where people live, you are likely to find ants native to your area. Try to identify your ants using a local taxonomic key.

For those who are fascinated by waving antennae and clicking mandibles, here are some related concepts:

  1.      Physics and biology. What wavelengths can insects see? Here's one link...
  2.      Invasive species and preserving native species. Around human dwellings, you likely observed Argentinean, fire ants or some other non-native ant species. Where have your own ants gone? Here's one guide to ant species.
  3.      What do you get if you feed M&Ms to honeybees?     

Questions???? Have a photo of your colored ants? Post it in the comments!