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?