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!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

From Goodreads: Victoria hates nonsense. There is no need for it when your life is perfect. The only smudge on her pristine life is her best friend Lawrence. He is a disaster—lazy and dreamy, shirt always untucked, obsessed with his silly piano. Victoria often wonders why she ever bothered being his friend. (Lawrence does too.)

But then Lawrence goes missing. And he’s not the only one. Victoria soon discovers that The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is not what it appears to be. Kids go in but come out…different. Or they don’t come out at all.

If anyone can sort this out, it’s Victoria—even if it means getting a little messy.

My Two Cents: This is a perfectly spooky read for October. But underneath that creepy, mysterious exterior are some really lovely and moving themes of familial love, devoted friendship, individuality, and loving people not in spite of their differences, but because of their differences. And I'm always a sucker for a book with some good classical piano woven in.

Grade Level: 4-6 (might be a little too scary for some younger readers)

Additional Resources:
Claire Legrand's website, including a soundtrack for scenes in the book
Audio of Rachmaninov playing his Piano Concerto No. 3 (The whole song is amazing, but imagine Victoria humming about the first 20 seconds as she tries to avoid being captured in the spooky home.)
Video of the Faure duet that Victoria and Lawrence play together (this song may appear again later in the story...)
Halloween Gingerbread Mansions--yours could look like the Cavendish Home!
A very rare (and spooky) roach from South America that glows in the dark!

More to Read:
Another spooky book about smart, brave girl who discovers a twisted reality nearby: Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Another adventure book with an insect front and center: Masterpiece by Elise Broach
Another story about friendship in a town where nature is more than what it seems: The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

Be sure to check back Thursday for a great science activity from ecologist and author Heather Hawke that goes right along with this book!

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Drinking Juice and Making a Plant Terrarium

This week's science activity comes from my good friend (and a great author) Helen Boswell, whose young adult novel Mythology is in stores now. This is a great activity for young naturalists like Calpurnia Tate from this week's book! Here's we go:

Plants are an important part of the ecosystem and equally interesting. (For instance, did you know that plants can actually tell the time similar to how animals have circadian rhythms? Click here to find out more!)

So here’s a simple exploratory activity I would like to share with teachers. I worked with my own son to test out this activity. He helped me to make some of the visuals for this post.

Activity: Making a Plant Terrarium (by Helen Boswell and her son William)

Materials needed:

Large plastic juice bottle
Rocks or marbles

1)     Buy juice that comes in a plastic bottle. Drink all of the juice and thoroughly wash out the bottle.

2)     Remove the label and cut the top off the bottle, about 1/3 of the way down.


3)     Fill the bottom of the bottle approximately an inch high with small, smooth rocks. Marbles work well, too, but it’s more fun to collect your own rocks from outside. The rocks will serve to allow drainage of water from the soil inside the terrarium. Add approximately 3-4 inches of potting soil to the top of the rocks.  Water the soil so that the layer of rocks is wet.  The soil should be moist from the watering but should not be muddy.

4)     Now for the most fun part (aside from drinking all of that juice). Okay, I’ll rephrase – here’s the most fun and exploratory part of this activity. If you’re an educator, buy some seeds and remove them from the packaging (try different things – grasses, flowering plants) or go to your local nursery and get some fern or moss spores (ferns and mosses do amazingly well in terrariums). Have your students plant the mystery seeds or spores in their terrariums and keep track of their growth. Try to identify the plants as they grow and develop. Or go on a nature walk and find some plants! They need to be very small – make sure you get the roots! – and plant them in your terrarium to monitor their growth and development.

5) Place the bottle top (including the lid) back onto the bottom of the juice bottle. Unscrew the lid to add water to the soil through the opening of the bottle whenever the soil appears dry. After the first initial waterings, you won’t have to water very much at all, because the closed bottle will keep the moisture in the bottle!

Keep your terrarium in a well-lit area, but not direct sun, as the inside of the bottle will get very hot if it’s placed in the sun.

William wanted me to share with you a picture of his terrarium (shown above with the top off). We found some tiny ferns (no bigger than his pinky nail) and planted them and this is what it looks like now! We water it about once a month. It’s a great way to spark a student’s interest in plants, and especially great for his or her parent who might not have the best of green thumbs!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

From Goodreads: Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones.With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

My Two Cents: There is so much to love about this book. Gorgeous language that challenges young readers without overwhelming them. A smart, endearing main character who grows so much. Humor and family and a great sense of history. And lots of science, carefully woven through the book so that it doesn't hold the story back--it actually drives it forward. When my daughters are old enough, I will absolutely read this with them. Lots to learn, lots to discuss.

Grade level: 5-7 (some challenging vocabulary)

Additional Resources:
Jacqueline Kelly's website
Discussion questions from the publisher
An in-depth Novel Study (for purchase)
Charles Darwin links for teachers and kids

More to Read:
Another smart, strong heroine figuring out her family: Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
Another brave, lonely girl who finds herself in nature: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
More on Charles Darwin (nonfiction): Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Be sure to check back Thursday for a great science activity from biologist Helen Boswell that fits perfectly with this book!

I always love comments! Have you read this book? Any activities, resources, or companion books to recommend? Let me know! One lucky commenter will win a copy of this book! Just click "Join this site" to follow the blog, then leave your comment.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the Horizon

Now that MMGG is over (and thanks once again for making it such a success!), I wanted to let you know what's on the horizon for this blog in the coming weeks and months.

As you'll notice, I changed the subtitle of the blog to reflect the direction we'll be going. Here's the plan:

On Mondays, I'll review a middle grade book and give links to activities and sites that go along with it. This will often include a giveaway of the week's book. On Thursdays, we'll dig a little deeper and pull the science out of these books, including a mind-blowingly (that's a word) fun and educational science activity for families and/or classrooms that ties into Monday's book. In some cases, the science is right there at the forefront of the story. In other cases, we'll have to dig a little deeper. But that's part of the fun!

Since I'm just a part-time scientist who happens to love books, I'm calling in the experts. And I'm so excited about my experts! So far, I've enlisted the help of talented authors who also happen to be a biologist, an ecologist, an astronomer, and an immunologist, as well as an award-winning elementary school teacher. These science activities are going to be fabulous!

If you are an author, scientist, teacher, or parent who'd like to participate, please let me know!

I hope you'll check back in Monday, when we'll start off with the first book review. And then come back Thursday to see where the science takes us!

Honestly, I can't wait. :)

Now it's your turn: What books and topics should we cover? Any ideas or thoughts? I'd love your input!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mighty Middle Grade Giveaway: WINNERS!

Thank you so much to all who followed, blogged, tweeted, and were otherwise so supportive, enthusiastic, and kind during the last week! I never anticipated such an awesome response, and I'm so grateful.

Without further ado, here are the MMGG winners, as chosen by

The Graveyard Book: distinctleigh

Cosmic: Anna

When You Reach Me: Kendra and Emily W.

True (...Sort Of): Gunn and Elizabeth Seckman

Missing on Superstition Mountain: Emily C.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg: Erin Shakespear

Esperanza Rising: Jenilyn Collings

Joey Pigza Loses Control: Catherine Noble

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: Bridget and Sage Souza

The Wednesday Wars: Dee

Congratulations to all of the winners! Please send your mailing address to me at elainebvickers(at)hotmail(dot)com to claim your prize and start reading.

For those who didn't win this time, don't despair! I'm anticipating many middle grade giveaways in the future. Check back soon (next week, perhaps) for another chance!

I'll be posting again Thursday with some more information about my upcoming giveaways, guests, and, most importantly, books. :) Hope to see you then!

(FYI, the reason there are two winners on some of the books is that I divided the entries of those on the original giveaway post so that they had an equal chance of winning the most popular books, since I obviously wasn't clear enough in my instructions. If you want the mathematical details of this process, shoot me an email.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

MMGG: Mighty Middle Grade Giveaway!

Welcome, everybody, to my brand new blog!

This blog will focus on a few of the things that I'm most passionate about: reading, writing, and teaching. I'm hoping to create a site that's fun for middle grade readers (ages 9-12) as well as all the adults who teach them, write for them, and love them.

I hope you'll check out the content on the sidebars and the tabs above to read a little more about me and see some of my favorite middle grade books as well as fun ideas for science and math, at home or in the classroom. (This is a work in progress and I'll definitely be adding content in the coming weeks.)

And now for the important part: THE MIGHTY MIDDLE GRADE GIVEAWAY!

I'm kicking things off by giving away copies of ten (10!) of my favorite middle grade books. To enter, do as many of the following as you'd like:

1. Follow this blog! (Click "Join This Site" on the right sidebar.)
2. Follow me on Twitter
3. Tweet about the giveaway/blog launch
4. Follow my writing group blog, Thinking Through Our Fingers
5. Promote or link to this blog on your Facebook account
6. Promote or link to this blog on your blog

For everything you do on the list, you'll earn a comment on one of the posts below. Your comment is your raffle ticket to win that book. You can put all of your tickets on one book that you really want, or spread them out if there are a few that catch your eye.

The contest will end at midnight (MDT) on Monday, October 8, so you have a week to enter.

Good luck, spread the word, and thanks for stopping by!


MMGG Book 1: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family . . .

Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic Coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, The Graveyard Book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages.

Why it's MIGHTY:

This is a suspenseful, spooky retelling of The Jungle Book that includes a cast of ghosts, a witch, a monster, and plenty of other Halloweenish characters. In other words, it's the perfect book to read in October. The initial scene where the family is killed is by far the scariest, so if kids can handle that, I'm willing to bet they'll love the rest of the book.

MMGG Book 2: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

From Goodreads:

Liam is too big for his boots. And his football strip. And his school blazer. But being super-sized height-wise has its advantages: he's the only eleven-year-old to ever ride the G-force defying Cosmic rollercoaster--or be offered the chance to drive a Porsche. Long-legged Liam makes a giant leap for boy-kind by competing with a group of adults for the chance to go into space. Is Liam the best boy for the job? Sometimes being big isn't all about being a grown-up.

Why it's MIGHTY:

This one has a mighty sense of adventure (Kids flying a shuttle to the moon! With no grownups on board!), but it also has a really beautiful underlying theme of familial love. Boyce is one of my favorite middle grade authors, and any kid who loves Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will probably love this as well.

MMGG Book 3: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

From Goodreads:

Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

Why it's MIGHTY:

This Newbery winner has a mighty twist/surprise ending that kids will love. This is a great example of a book with beautiful writing that also keeps the pages turning.

MMGG Book 4: True (...Sort Of) by Katherine Hannigan

From Goodreads:

True: Delly Pattison likes surpresents (presents that are a surprise). The day the Boyds come to town, Delly's sure a special surpresent is on its way. But lately, everything that she thinks will be good and fun turns into trouble. She's never needed a surpresent more than now.

True: Brud Kinney wants to play basketball like nothing anybody's ever seen. When the Boyds arrive, though, Brud meets someone who plays like nothing he's ever seen.

True: Ferris Boyd isn't like anyone Delly or Brud have ever met. Ferris is a real mysturiosity (an extremely curious mystery).

True: Katherine Hannigan's first novel since her acclaimed Ida B is a compelling look at the ways friendships and truths are discovered.

It's all true ( . . . sort of).

Why it's MIGHTY:

This book, like Hannigan's Ida B, has a mighty amount of voice. This book is so funny and clever and chock full of kid-size adventure. But it's the characters that will grab hold of you and make you want to follow them to the very last page.

MMGG Book 5: Missing on Superstition Mountain

From Goodreads:

It’s summer and the three Barker brothers—Simon, Henry, and Jack—just moved from Illinois to Arizona. Their parents have warned them repeatedly not to explore Superstition Mountain, which is near their home. But when their cat Josie goes missing, they see no other choice. There’s something unusually creepy about the mountain and after the boys find three human skulls, they grow determined to uncover the mystery. Have people really gone missing over the years, and could there be someone or some thing lurking in the woods? Together with their new neighbor Delilah, the Barker boys are dead-set on cracking the case even if it means putting themselves in harm’s way.

Why it's MIGHTY:

For me, the thing that stood out about this book was the setting. Broach's descriptions of the desert town of Superstition, Arizona created the perfect backdrop for fun characters and a great mystery. Plus, I love any book that will get kids excited about asking their own questions and learning more about a subject, and all of Broach's books do this really well.

MMGG Book 6: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick

From Goodreads:

Master storyteller Rodman Philbrick takes readers on a colorful journey as young Homer Figg sets off to follow his brother into the thick of the Civil War. Through a series of fascinating events, Homer's older brother has been illegally sold to the Union Army. It is up to Homer to find him and save him. Along the way, he encounters strange but real people of that era: two tricksters who steal his money, a snake-oil salesman, a hot-air balloonist, and finally, the Maine regiment who saved Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg and won the war for the Union.

Why it's MIGHTY:

The storytelling, pure and simple. Homer P. Figg may not always tell the reader the truth, but we wouldn't want it any other way. This book tells a story that's heartfelt, funny, suspenseful, and enormously entertaining with a narrator you'll never forget. FYI, there are two covers to this book and neither one of them do it justice. :)

MMGG Book 7: Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

From Goodreads:

Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico--she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances--Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

Why it's MIGHTY:

This book won plenty of awards and starred reviews, and it's easy to see why. Esperanza is a character to root for, and this book will immerse kids in a whole new culture and get them thinking about history, family, and what's most important.

MMGG Book 8: Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

From Goodreads:

Joey Pigza really wants his six-week visit with his dad to count, to show him he's not as wired as he used to be, to show his dad how much he loves him. But Carter Pigza's not an easy guy to love. He's eager to make it up to Joey for past wrongs and to show him how to be a winner, to take control of his life. With his coaching, Joey's even learned how to pitch a baseball, and he's good at it. The trouble is, Joey's dad thinks taking control means giving up the things that keep Joey safe. And if he wants to please his dad, he's going to have to play by his rules, even when the rules don't make sense.

Why it's MIGHTY:

The main character, Joey Pigza, is one of the most endearing characters I've ever read. Every kid knows somebody like him: obnoxious, loud, and totally out of control. But Gantos writes him so well that we love him, and by loving Joey, we're able to do a little better at loving those around us who may seem the least loveable. Yes, I used variations of the word "love" four times in that sentence, which tells you how I feel about this book. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is actually the first book in this series, but this was the one that got to me most.

MMGG Book 9: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

From Goodreads:

Grace Lin, author of the beloved Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, returns with a wondrous story of happiness, family, and friendship. A fantasy crossed with Chinese folklore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a timeless adventure story in the classic tradition of The Wizard of Oz.

In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Why it's MIGHTY:

I love a story with a strong, smart, adventurous heroine. And stories that immerse the reader in another culture. And stories with gorgeous illustrations, especially if they're done by the author herself. And stories that make kids feel like they are in control of their own lives, but also that their lives are part of something greater. I'll stop there, but this is definitely one to read and to share with both boys and girls.

Lin's companion novel, Starry River of the Sky, came out recently and is already garnering praise and starred reviews!

MMGG Book 10: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

From Goodreads:

Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesn’t like Holling—he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation—the Big M—in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.

Why it's MIGHTY:

Honestly, because Gary D. Schmidt wrote it. This novel takes so many elements that kids relate to--family, school, friends, acceptance--and weaves them into a beautiful story set in 1967 that will resonate with both kids and adults. And the companion novel, Okay for Now, may be even better.