Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Author Interview with Anna Staniszewski!

Today I'm thrilled to share an interview with Anna Staniszewski, author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail, and the newest book in the series, My Sort Of Fairy Tale Ending, which released just last week! Welcome, Anna! And now, on to the interview...

One of my favorite things about this story is Jenny, especially all her sass and spunk. Which did you come up with first: Jenny the character, or her story?
I'm usually a story-first writer, but in this case, the character definitely came first. The earliest scene I ever wrote about Jenny featured her coming home to find a talking frog sitting on her bed. She was so annoyed by the sight of the talking frog--she actually threw him out a window!--that I knew I had to find out more about her.
In what ways are you like Jenny? How are you two different? And who would win in a crazed-unicorn jousting competition? In a cheesy-saying competition?
Jenny is the kind of person I wish I could be. She's brave and spunky while I'm pretty shy and wimpy. We do share a similar weird sense of humor, though. Jenny would definitely have the upper-hand in a crazed-unicorn jousting competition, but I think we'd be pretty evenly matched when it came to a battle of cheesy sayings.
Jenny grew up a lot from the beginning of book 1 to the end of book 3. What do you think she'll be doing when she grows up even more?
It's been so much fun to see Jenny growing up and embracing her adventurer identity. I imagine that one day she might even mentor young adventurers just like Dr. Bradley has done for her.
Can you tell us what you're writing next? Will Jenny or any of her friends from the magical worlds show up in future books?
I think Jenny is relieved that I'll be leaving her alone and moving on to torturing different characters! Up next is the first book in my next tween series, The Dirt Diary, which comes out in January. The new series is realistic fiction, but I think it has the same type of humor that UnFairy Tale fans have come to expect.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Never stop writing! I speak from experience. I've loved writing for most of my life, but for a few years, I let myself get distracted by all the other things I had on my plate. If you love to write then always make it a priority, no matter what.
What advice would you give to young adventurers (even if they are stuck in this world)?
Hang in there! I know life in a non-magical world can be a little boring, but you can find adventure in our world, too. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open, and always be ready to save the day with a cheesy saying or two. :-)

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their black Labrador, Emma.
When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life and its sequels, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending, all published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Look for the first book in Anna’s next tween series, The Dirt Diary, in January 2014, and visit her at www.annastan.com.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Very UnFairy Tale Life by Anna Staniszewski

From Goodreads: You know all those stories that claim fairies cry sparkle tears and elves travel by rainbow? They're lies. All lies. I've spent my life as an official adventurer. I travel across enchanted kingdoms saving magical creatures and fighting horrible beasts that most of you think are only myths and legends. I've never had a social life. My friends have all forgotten me. And let's not even talk about trying to do my homework. So -- I'm done!! I'm tired and I want to go back to being a normal girl. But then along comes "Prince Charming" asking for help, and, well, what's a tired girl like me supposed to do?

My Two Cents: This book is a great pick for girls who are looking for a little adventure. Jenny is smart and strong, but also totally relatable and an authentic tween. From the opening sequence (involving crazed unicorns!) to the final chapter, this book kept me smiling and turning the pages.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Anna Staniszewski's website
  • Jenny has a special bracelet with purple gemstones. Check out this online gemstone guide and see what you think it was made of. Which are your favorites?
  • Jenny loves to play mini golf. Practice a round here, then go outside and make your own course!
  • The animals in this book have a hard time communicating. Learn lots of cool facts about how real animals communicate from Animal Planet.
  • One of the dangerous things Jenny faces in this book is a poisonous flower. Could there be poisonous flowers near you right now? Find out here.
More to Read:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Witches by Roald Dahl

 From Goodreads: This Roald Dahl classic tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven-year-old boy who has a run-in with some real-life witches! "In fairy tales witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch." Witches, as our hero learns, hate children. With the help of a friend and his somewhat-magical grandmother, our hero tries to expose the witches before they dispose of him.

My Two Cents: I remember being delightfully scared when my teacher read this to the class in elementary school, and I had much the same reaction as an adult. (Okay, not quite as scared, but definitely delighted.) Like all of Dahl's books, this one is funny and a little naughty and unbelievably imaginative.

Grade Level: 2-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Roald Dahl's official website. You might be surprised how many books he wrote!
  • Try one of these fun witch crafts (not to be confused with "Try witchcraft!")
  • Some of this story takes place in Norway--learn more about this cool country from National Geographic Kids. Does it seem like a good place for witches to you?
  • There are some...unusual mice in this book. Learn more about regular mice in this animal encyclopedia.
  • Check out this trailer for the movie based on this book.
More to Read:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Homemade Gears

In this week's book, some of the characters had body parts made of tiny, intricate gears. Today we'll make our own gears and learn a little about how they work!

Gears are wheels that turn each other. To start out, make some wheels by cutting different size circles in cardstock. (We traced ours from the bottom of cups, but a compass would be even better because you'd know the exact center of the circle.)

Most gears have teeth to help them spin each other. Take another piece of cardstock and fold it into a fan. Make the folds as even as possible so your teeth will be as even as possible.

Next, cut the fan into strips. These will be the teeth of your gears. Cut a small notch down the center of each strip of teeth, then slide this notch over the edge of your circle. You will probably need multiple strips of teeth to go around even your small circles. Try to space out the teeth as evenly as possible.

When your gears are finished, put a pin through the center and stick them to a corkboard. Now you can make a gear train--a series of gears that turn each other! Watch your gears as they turn. The one you're pushing is the driver gear, and the others are follower gears. Do they all turn the same direction? Can you predict what direction they'll all turn if you change the direction you're turning the driver gear? Is it easier to turn a small gear or a larger gear? Which one goes around the fastest?

For more great info on gears, check out this video or this website. Have fun!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

 From Goodreads: In the town of Zombay, there is a witch named Graba who has clockwork chicken legs and moves her house around—much like the fairy tale figure of Baba Yaga. Graba takes in stray children, and Rownie is the youngest boy in her household. Rownie’s only real relative is his older brother Rowan, who is an actor. But acting is outlawed in Zombay, and Rowan has disappeared.

Desperate to find him, Rownie joins up with a troupe of goblins who skirt the law to put on plays. But their plays are not only for entertainment, and the masks they use are for more than make-believe. The goblins also want to find Rowan—because Rowan might be the only person who can save the town from being flooded by a mighty river.

This accessible, atmospheric fantasy takes a gentle look at love, loss, and family while delivering a fast-paced adventure that is sure to satisfy.

My Two Cents: This National Book Award winner is magical, inventive, and very creepy. Rownie himself is immensely likeable and endearing, and even the creepiest characters are fleshed-out and fascinating. This book would spark interesting discussions and ideas about good guys and bad guys and impossibly amazing inventions. A great pick for kids in the mood for something strange and a little dark.

Grade Level: 5-7

Additional Resources:
  • Visit William Alexander's website.
  • Watch this video of the author reading a section from this book. (He even wears a fox mask for a minute!)
  • Read this fun summary of ten goblin legends from around the world. Which one reminds you most of this book?
  • One of the creatures Rownie encounters is a fish that swims in dust. Watch this video about mudskippers, a real fish that hangs out on dry land.
  • Some of the characters in this story get around on gearwork legs. Watch this great introduction to gears from the Children's Museum of Houston.
  • There are lots of birds doing strange things in this book. Watch the birds around you by going on a bird behavior scavenger hunt.
More to Read:
  • Another magical, fantastical tale of a transient group of misfits: Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones
  • Another story with amazing gearwork and a lost, lonely boy: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • A less creepy tale of "magic, mystery, and a very strange adventure": Horton's Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans
  • Another boy who is surrounded by magical creatures and up against almost-impossible obstacles: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Monday, October 7, 2013

October: Spooky Stories

October is here! A new month means a new theme, and this month, I'll be featuring some spooky (but still kid-friendly) stories on the blog! This month's books feature goblins, ghosts, witches, and...creepy fairies! We'll also have an author interview, and, of course, some fun science activities.

And while I was taking a break last week, I missed my one year blog anniversary! Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and caring about books and kids and science! It's been a great year. :)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Making Recycled Paper

In one of my favorite scenes of Ida B (this week's book), Ida B's dad tells her that they need to take care of the Earth. One of the best ways to do this is by recycling! Let's make our own recycled paper to help take care of the Earth just a little.

  • newspaper
  • water
  • aluminum foil
  • flat strainer
  • corn starch
  • leaves, glitter, or pressed flowers (optional)

 First, take your newspaper and cut it into very small pieces. (We used a paper shredder to speed up the process a little.) Put all the tiny pieces of paper into a bucket or large bowl and cover with warm water. (The ink from the paper might stain the bowl, so maybe don't use your fanciest one.) Let the paper/water mixture sit overnight.

Once your mixture has taken on sort of a lumpy-oatmeal texture, it's called pulp. And once you have pulp, you're ready to make paper! Spoon some of the pulp onto a sheet of aluminum foil and spread it into a thin layer. Remove as much of the water as you can by pressing a flat strainer over it. (We used a pizza pan with holes in it, but you could also make a strainer by poking holes in a piece of foil.)

When you've removed as much water as you can, cover your pulp layer with another piece of aluminum foil and flatten it with a rolling pin or heavy books. Carefully peel off the top piece of foil, then leave your project somewhere warm and safe to dry! (This is the part where you can decorate your paper by adding flat leaves, flowers, or even glitter.)

Once your paper is totally dry, just peel off the foil! Then check out this site or watch this video to see how paper is recycled on a much bigger scale. Thanks for helping take care of the Earth!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ida B by Katherine Hannigan

 From Goodreads: Ida B. Applewood believes there is never enough time for fun.

That's why she's so happy to be homeschooled and to spend every free second outside with the trees and the brook.

Then some not-so-great things happen in her world. Ida B has to go back to that Place of Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing Torture—school. She feels her heart getting smaller and smaller and hardening into a sharp, black stone.

How can things go from righter than right to a million miles beyond wrong? Can Ida B put together a plan to get things back to just-about perfect again?

My Two Cents: Ida B is such a compelling character with such a darling, distinctive voice. I don't often re-read books (too many new ones to try!), but I read this one again. And it was every bit as funny and sweet and touching as the first time around. A great example of how kids can be kind and strong and vulnerable all at once.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Katherine Hannigan's website, including this reading group guide for Ida B
  • Ida B's dad tells her to take care of the earth. Learn ways you can help take care of the earth here.
  • If Ida B were an apple, she'd be a McIntosh--"tangy with a thin skin." Check out this directory of apples and decide which kind you'd be and why. (Who knew there were so many?)
  • Id B has some tricks for helping Ronnie remember his multiplication tables. Check out some more multiplication memory tricks here and here.
  • One of the characters in this book has cancer but fights it really well. See how you can help the fight against cancer here and here.
More to Read:
  • Another remarkable book about a kid making the change from home schooling to public schooling: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Another great middle grade pick by Ida B's author: True (...Sort Of) by Katherine Hannigan
  • Another book about a girl who has to start school while her family is changing: Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Apple Science

In this week's book, Sierra got in big trouble when she brought her mom's lunch bag by mistake because there was a knife in it. The knife was probably there so Sierra's mom could cut her apple right before she ate it so it wouldn't go brown. Do you agree? Let's see if we can come up with another way that Sierra's mom could keep her apple fresh!

  • apple slices
  • lemon or lime juice (sugar water works too, but for different reasons)
  • plastic wrap
  • fridge and freezer

Cut the apple into slices and decide what you're going to do with each one. We kept one just on the counter (as the control in our experiment.) We put one in the fridge, one in the freezer, and one outside. Then we wrapped one in plastic wrap and coated another in lime juice. The rest of the apple slices were part of our taste test program--and they tasted great. :)

Then all we had to do was wait and observe! We took pictures of our apples after 24 hours:

And after 48 hours:

After two days, the only one that still looked edible was the frozen apple slice. (The plastic wrap one was close.) It didn't take days to see a difference, though--we definitely started to notice changes in our apples after just a couple of hours! But why? What was happening?

Cutting the apple actually damages the cells on the surfaces where you slice it. That damages the cells on the surface and exposes some of the enzymes, and these enzymes react with the oxygen in the air. These reactions slow down in cold temperatures like in the fridge or especially the freezer. And they should slow down when there's lemon juice on the surface because it has antioxidants (chemicals like citric acid and ascorbic acid that slow down oxidation reactions like the ones happening on the apple.) Plastic wrap keeps most of the oxygen away from the apple too. (Check out this article for more information, or visit this site.)

You can try your own ideas for keeping apples fresh too, or try the experiment with other fruits or vegetables. Have fun!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

From Goodreads: Seventh-grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother's lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the school office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, citing the school's ironclad no weapons policy. While there, Sierra spends time with Luke, a boy who's known as a troublemaker, and discovers that he's not the person she assumed he would be--and that the lines between good and bad aren't as clear as she once thought.

My Two Cents: Claudia Mills is a master of chapter book school stories, and this middle grade novel was just as good. This book is filled with relatable, real characters, especially Sierra herself. Middle grade readers will really root for not only her triumph, but her growth as well. Such an important look at rules and justice, but also tolerance and compassion. (Parental warning: There's a little mild language here, but it's really relevant to the story and to the character development.)

Grade Level: 5-8

Additional Resources:
  • Sierra misses out on dissecting an earthworm with her science class. You can dissect a virtual worm (still gross, but not as gross) right here!
  • Sierra has to study for a French quiz. You can learn to say the alphabet in French with this (cute? slightly terrifying?) frog!
  • Learn more about Mayan culture (like Sierra does) by checking out this site by the authors of the Jaguar Stones series.
  • Sierra is interviewed by lots of reporters for both TV and newspapers. If you're interested in journalism, check out this great list of journalism resources for students.
  • One of the characters in this story wants to go to Kenya. Find out more about this cool African country here.

More to Read:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The World-Famous Mentos Geyser

In this week's book, Alvin Ho isn't afraid of explosions and loves things that go up in the air. So I thought we'd do a classic science trick that Alvin would probably love--The World-Famous Mentos Geyser! Okay, it's not technically an explosion (or a geyser), but it's the closest thing I can safely encourage kids to try. :)

  • 2 Liter bottle of soda (diet will make the mess a little less sticky, and it works a little better if it's left at room temperature instead of cold)
  • 1 roll of Mentos candy
  • paper, index card (we used a used-up gift card), and tape
  • large, flat outdoor surface
  • microscope (optional)
  1. Unwrap your candy. Roll and tape your paper so it's just the right size to slide the Mentos inside (but not to tight that they won't slide out easily when you're ready.) Use an index card to keep the Mentos from falling out the bottom.
  2. Open the lid of the soda and place it out in the open.
  3. Put the tube of candy over the mouth of the bottle, then quickly remove the card so the candies fall into the bottle.
  4. Stand back and watch the geyser!
(Note: My assistant does have shorts on under her dress. But no, we're not very ladylike. :)
How it works:

The bubbles in your soda are carbon dioxide, and they want to escape. But the carbon dioxide molecules have to find each other and form bubbles before they can float to the surface. To do this, they need a nucleation site. That's a big term and you'll sound smart when you say it, but it's basically just a spot where a bubble can form. It's pretty hard for bubbles to form in a smooth plastic bottle or the side of a glass. (Which is good--otherwise your soda would lose its fizz!)

The great thing about Mentos is that they're not as smooth as they look. If you study them under a microscope, you'll see that they actually have tons of tiny craters, almost like the moon. And every one of these craters can be a nucleation site where bubbles form.

When the candy drops in all at once, the bubbles begin to form in all those tiny craters. And when they all try to escape from the bottom of the bottle, it's a race to get out and a geyser forms!

For more information, check out this MythBusters video and this chemistry site. And if you're feeling really smart, check out this Mentos and Diet Coke article from the American Journal of Physics. (Seriously!)

Good luck! If you try this one, I'd love to hear about it. What soda works best? What happens if you add a little dish soap to the soda right before? I have a theory about this one... :)

And just for your viewing pleasure, here's one more successful geyser and a couple of outtakes:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look

From Goodreads: ALVIN HO is an Asian American second grader who is afraid of everything—elevators, tunnels, girls, and, most of all, school. He’s so afraid of school that, while he’s there, he never, ever, says a word. But at home he’s a very loud superhero named Firecracker Man, a brother to Calvin and Anibelly, and a gentleman-in-training, so he can be just like his dad.

My Two Cents: Alvin Ho is hilarious and a great chapter book choice for reluctant readers. This book is absolutely unique in almost every aspect--especially the characters and the voice--yet it's totally relatable too. Kids will absolutely identify with and root for Alvin, partly because he makes them laugh so much.

Grade Level: 1-4

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Lenore Look's blog.
  • Alvin lives in a very historic part of the country! Learn more about some of the things and people he mentions, like the Revolutionary War, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.
  • Calvin tells Alvin that "stewardesses" is the longest word you can type with just the left hand. Is he right? What's the longest word you can type with just the right hand? Click here for some other opinions.
  • Flea says Alvin has expressive eyes and draws them lots of different ways. Learn how to draw eyes (and cheeks, and faces in general) to show lots of emotions here.
  • Alvin's family is Chinese American, and he talks about cool Chinese things like Feng Shui and Chinese New Year. Learn a little more about Chinese culture here.
  • Alvin gets in a little trouble for using Shakespearean curses. Make up some of your own, or generate some at this handy site. But don't use them on anybody! :)

More to Read:
  • Another book about a kid who finds the courage to speak up: A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean
  • Another school story about a boy who means well but gets himself into a little trouble: Roscoe Riley Rules (series) by Katherine Applegate
  • Another funny, feel-good series with great school and family themes: Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
  • Another shy kid who's nervous about starting school and in need of a friend: Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Liquid Chromatography: Separating Plant Pigments

In this week's book, Gianna had to identify lots of leaves for a school project. We're going to learn about leaves too with this awesome chromatography experiment by ecologist Heather Hawke. Take it away, Heather!

Have you ever wondered why leaves turn color in the fall? They don’t really switch colors – some of those yellows and oranges are there all along!

Plants need food just like we do, only thing is, they make their own. They use a type of molecule, pigments, to capture sunlight. The plants can then use that energy to make sugar from carbon dioxide and water (photosynthesis).

Each kind of pigment works best at certain wavelengths (the different colors in a rainbow). The most common pigment group, chlorophyll, is really good at using most of the spectrum, except green. Then why are leaves green? That’s because chlorophylls soak up all the other colors. The green light bounces off, hits your eyes, and you see green.

Some pigments are better at absorbing other parts of the spectrum. The carotenoids give plants such as carrots or bananas bright yellows and oranges. The anthocyanins appear red to blue and are mostly present in flower petals and fruits such as cranberries or cherries. The uncommon betalains are found in only a few plants, but are responsible for red beets and colorful bougainvillea! Plants use a mixture of pigments in their leaves to capture as much of the energy in sunlight as possible.
In the fall, as the days get shorter, plants slowly stop making the chlorophylls and eventually their green fades away. Once the carotenoids are not swamped out anymore, their colors are finally revealed! Some plants will make anthocyanins as the days get shorter, and so will turn red.
In this experiment, you will try to find out how many pigments are in different leaves. You will separate the pigments using filter paper and rubbing alcohol, a solvent.
  • Filter paper (coffee filter paper works though high-quality filter paper gives the crispest results), cut into long rectangular strips
  • Rubbing alcohol Supervise young children! Rubbing alcohol is toxic if ingested!
  • A pencil
  • Tape
  • A quarter
  • A small, clear glass
  • Leaves – choose some you know will turn color in the Fall
1. Tape top of paper strip to a pencil. Balance pencil on top of glass. Trim bottom of strip so it is close to, but not touching the bottom of the glass.
2. Lay paper strip on flat surface. Place leaf near bottom of strip and rub a dark line onto the paper, parallel to the bottom of the strip (see photo). The neater and darker your line, the better your results will be.
3. Replace pencil on glass. Make sure the paper is hanging straight down. Carefully pour in the rubbing alcohol until it just touches the bottom of the paper, but does not cover your pigment line. Try not to splash the paper.
4. Observe over the next hour as the alcohol reaches the top of the strip. Remove the strip and lay flat to dry.
As the rubbing alcohol moves up the paper (by capillary action), it carries the pigment molecules. Some of the pigments are larger than others. The smallest ones travel fastest so are nearer the top. The bigger ones are closer to the bottom.
This chromatography strip is from a beet leaf. Notice the purple betalain pigment at the top.


1. How many pigments do you see (there can be different shades of the same type of pigment – for instance, “chlorophyll a” is almost teal-colored as compared to the darker “chlorophyll b.”

2. Which of your pigments are the largest?

3. Did you get different results from different types of leaves?

4. If you repeated this experiment every couple of weeks until the leaves drop, what would you expect to see?

5. If plants did not have pigments, and so could not make sugar, what would you eat? Think this one through.

*Fun tip. Plant pigments are important for us humans! For instance, the carotinoids are powerful antioxidants and help your eyes stay healthy (eat your carrots and tomatoes!).
Thank you so much, Heather! I can't wait to try this with my kids. And if you're looking for more fun science from Heather, check out this awesome Rainbow of Ants activity!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

From Goodreads: Gianna Z has less than one week to collect, identify, and creatively display 25 leaves for her science project—or else she won’t be able to compete in the upcoming cross-country race. As the deadline for her leaf project draws near, life keeps getting in the way. Some things are within Gee’s control, like her own procrastination, but others aren’t, like Bianca Rinaldi’s attempts at sabotage and Nonna’s declining health. If it weren’t for her best friend Zig, Gee wouldn’t have a chance at finishing. His knowledge of trees and leaves in their rural Vermont town comes in very handy, as does his loyalty to Gee. But when Nonna disappears one afternoon, things like leaves and cross-country meets suddenly seem less important.

My Two Cents: This lovely contemporary story won an E.B. White Read Aloud Award, and it's not hard to see why. Messner weaves together the ligher themes of school projects and cross country with deeper issues like the aging and loss of loved ones. The characters are memorable and relatable, especially Gianna and Nonna. It's a gentle, well-told story with touches of humor and a lot of heart.

Grade Level: 4-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Kate Messner's website
  • Download the book's discussion and study guide
  • Go on your own leaf hunt, then identify the leaves using a guide like What Tree Is That?
  • Get outside and run like Gianna! Find some tips and ideas for getting started at JustRun.org.
  • Make some of Nonna's funeral cookies with this official recipe
  • Gianna and her family are worried about Alzheimer's disease, but she knows there are ways to help. Get involved with a Walk to End Alzheimer's (Gianna would probably run!), sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association.
More to Read:
  • A high-adventure book (part of a series) by Gianna's author: Capture the Flag by Kate Messner
  • Another book about a girl who gets behind in school when things are tricky at home: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
  • Another very likeable girl whose relationship with her best friend is changing: Shug by Jenny Han
  • Another nice contemporary story (in spite of the title :) about a New England boy and girl: Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face by Paul Acampora
Check back Thursday for a great leaf activity by ecologist Heather Hawke!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Coming Up in September: Back to School Stories

It's back-to-school time again! We had so much fun with the Backyard Book Club this summer, but it feels great to be getting back into the regular routine of middle grade spotlights on Mondays and science activities on Thursdays.

I've spent the summer reading a LOT of middle grade and chapter books (over 60 so far in 2013) and I've found such great ones! Here's what's on the schedule for September: A boy who's allergic to school, a girl who has to give it another try after years of homeschooling, a runner whose science project might mess up her cross country season, and an honors student who gets in big trouble for bringing a "weapon" to school.

I can't wait! Check back next week to see who's up first...

This was a hard one for me to narrow down to four! What are your favorite middle grade or chapter book school stories?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms Overview

Our August Backyard Book Club meeting may have been the best of all! Once again, here's an overview of everything we did. (Click the links below for detailed instructions and more information.)

For this month's meeting, the kids read Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms. It was a little longer than our previous picks, so we made sure everybody knew they could still come even if they hadn't finished. (Click here for the book spotlight with online resources and other ideas.)

Our book trivia challenge took the form of Beech Road Bingo (click for printable) where the kids each filled out their own bingo card with significant numbers and letters from the book.

Next, we took a page from April, May, and June's book and tried to make our own edition of the Beech Road Guardian. We divided the kids up into teams and gave them an assignment for our newspaper. We had news, weather, a fabulous feature article, and several movie reviewers. Click here for the PowerPoint template I used to put the newspaper together after the meeting was over. (I emailed the finished project to the parents so the kids could print their own copies of the paper.)

If we'd had more time (and hadn't been quite so noisy) we would have done the Bird Behavior Scavenger Hunt. But since we were running a little late, we went straight to the main event...

The magic show! The kids watched with great attention while I performed the tricks and couldn't wait to learn how to do them themselves. And hopefully their careers as magicians are just beginning thanks to their take-home magic kits. :)

We finished up the meeting by eating brownies and cupcakes (just like Stuart and the triplets). We had so much fun this summer and the wheels are already turning for next summer's meetings...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Magic Show

The most popular activity at our August Backyard Book Club meeting was definitely the magic show and lesson. The kids were impressed with my meager magic skills and loved learning all the tricks themselves!

There are tons of great resources for learning magic tricks online, but we started with the very basics. We learned classic tricks like The Jumping Rubber Band, The Necklace, The Jumping Paper Clips, The Rubber Pencil, The Magnetic Pencil, and a couple of card tricks from my youth (similar to the ones found here.)

After the magic show, I passed out a magic kit to each book clubber. The kits contained a deck of cards, paper clips, pencil, string, beads, and a dollar bill--everything they'd need to do all the tricks from the magic show! I demonstrated each trick for the kids in super-slow motion with detailed instructions. Then we had practice time and the kids helped each other work on the tricks.

I had many reports from parents afterward about kids enthusiastically performing magic shows for their families, which totally made my day. :)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms (Backyard Book Club)

by Lissa Evans

From Goodreads:

As if being small for his age and also having "S. Horten" as his name isn't bad enough, now 10-year-old Stuart is forced to move far away from all his friends. But on his very first day in his new home, Stuart's swept up in an extraordinary adventure: the quest to find his great-uncle Tony--a famous magician who literally disappeared off the face of the earth--and Tony's marvelous, long-lost workshop.  Along the way, Stuart reluctantly accepts help from the annoying triplets next door… and encounters trouble from another magician who's also desperate to get hold of Tony's treasures.

My Two Cents: This is a lovely little British book that has so many elements that appeal to kids--humor, puzzles, mysteries, magic, and even a very fun set of triplets. It's exciting and adventurous without being scary or threatening. My kids loved Stuart and his family and it certainly introduced them to fun new words and concepts. There's a bit of set-up in the first third (as there needs to be), but once the mystery got going, they were always begging for one more chapter.

Grade Level: 2-5

Additional Resources:
  • Be like Stuart's dad and create your own crossword puzzle.
  • Learn a little more about what life was like for people like Great Uncle Tony during the Battle of Britain.
  • Stuart thinks "GRAVEST FLATE" must be an anagram. What words can you make by rearranging the letters in your name? (Try it on your own first, then plug the letters in here for a big list!)
  • Go on a bird behavior scavenger hunt like the birdwatchers in the book.

More to Read:
  • Another boy who is excellent at getting to the bottom things: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin
  • Another book about a boy in Britain who has to solve a very big mystery: Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Another (more sentimental) book about unlocking family secrets: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
  • Another book of miraculous mechanisms and a boy unlocking the secrets of his past: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik
Check back in the coming weeks to see what we did for our Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms meeting of the Backyard Book Club!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Ellie McDoodle Overview

We had tons of fun at our Backyard Book Club meeting in July! Once again, here's an overview of everything we did. (Click the links below for detailed instructions and more information.)

For this month's meeting, the kids read The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Have Pen, Will Travel. (Click here for the book spotlight with online resources and other ideas.)

We started with a double art activity, learning to draw Ellie (the kids were really good at this!) and learning to keep a sketch journal.

Then it was time for a science activity. We learned how to distinguish between pine, fir and spruce needles, then went on a leaf hunt. This is just a small sample of what we found!

After the leaf hunt, it was game time! There are so many great games in Ellie McDoodle that we just chose a few. We tried Blob Tag, Human Pretzel, Sardines, and Fing Fang Fooey. So fun, and so much energy burned! :) (You can see one of our casualties in this picture.)

Finally, it was snack time. I set bowls of dried fruit, cereal, nuts, and chocolate chips and let everybody make their own bag of trail mix. Then the kids munched and relaxed while they worked on their sketch journals. Another Backyard Book Club success, thanks to these great kids!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Leaf Hunt

During the month of July, our Backyard Book Club read The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Have Pen, Will Travel. One of the thing I loved most about Ellie is that she's an artist, but she's a scientist too. She's always observing, recording, trying new things, and using all this info to really figure out the world around her.

One of the things Ellie pays attention to is the plant life around her. (She's definitely on the lookout for poison ivy!) So our club did a little leaf hunt right in our own backyard! The challenge was to see who could find the most different kinds of leaves.

Before heading out, we discussed different kinds of leaves. We talked about how things like grass and pine needles are actually leaves. We also talked about conifers and how to tell the difference between three main types of conifers using the handy Square Spruce, Flat Fir, Packet Pine trick (on the last page of the linked pdf). In our yard, we have two out of three kinds of conifers, so I challenged the kids to figure out which one we don't have. (And they totally figured it out!)

Look at all the different kinds of leaves they found! I challenged the kids to do the same thing in their own yard or a local park. Leaves would also make a great thing to add to a sketch journal, wouldn't they?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Sketch Journal

During the month of July, our Backyard Book Club read The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Have Pen, Will Travel. So of course we had to learn how to start our own sketch journals!

The first thing we tried was drawing Ellie from the step-by-step instructions in the book. (If you look closely at the photo above, the Ellie on the whiteboard was drawn by my 6-year-old!) The kids concentrated really hard on this! Then we talked about different ways to show emotions when drawing faces with the help of this great guide.

We read How to Keep a Sketch Journal (from the bonus material of the book) and talked about what the kids would want to include in their own sketch journals as well as some really basic drawing techniques (don't start with super-dark lines, look at the shapes in an object, etc.)

Then we handed out tiny notebooks and pencils and let the kids loose! I'm excited to see what they record in their sketch journals.

Check out some of Ruth McNally Barshaw's own sketch journals here. What a great way to keep a record of all your cool experiences! And learn more about how Ruth's sketches turn into the actual illustrations in Ellie books here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Have Pen, Will Travel (Backyard Book Club)

by Ruth McNally Barshaw

From Goodreads: One girl. One sketchbook. One week with the world's most annoying relatives.

When Ellie McDougal's parents go out of town, she's forced to go on a camping trip with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and baby brother, Ben-Ben. Ellie can handle mosquitos and poison ivy, but sharing a cabin with her crazy relatives? No way! From her aunt's many rules to her cousin Eric's constant teasing, Ellie needs her sketchbook to survive this family vacation.

My Two Cents: My kids and I loved Ellie McDoodle! They laughed out loud and begged for more every night. The text and illustrations work perfectly together, and Ellie is such a realistic and relatable character. My kids were crazy about her, even when she was being naughty, and the book gave us lots of opportunities to talk about sibling and family dynamics and having empathy for each other. We'll definitely be reading the rest of the series!

Grade Level: 1-4

Additional Resources:
  • Check out Ruth McNally Barshaw's wonderful website.
  • Learn how to draw different facial expressions like Ellie can.
  • Ellie is good at identifying plants. Go for a nature walk and see how many you can identify! For the ones you can't, find them in an online field guide for plants or trees.
  • Do the Hokey-Pokey (even if it's not Ellie's favorite.)
  • Ellie draws great maps. See if you can draw a map of your room or your house, or make one online.
  • Play blob tag like Ellie, or play one of these other fun tag variations.
  • Ellie and her cousins caught one kind of amphibian and told a story about another kind. What other kinds of animals were in this book? (Dead or alive...)
  • Start keeping your own sketch journal or nature journal! (There are great ideas for how to do this at the back of Ellie McDoodle, too...)

More to Read:
  • Another creative, artistic kid with realistic family relationships: The Adventures of Beanboy by Lisa Hardraker
  • Another book about a girl getting to know her cousins better on a camping trip: I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson
  • Another story about a kid who likes to doodle and takes a memorable summer trip: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian
  • Another funny illustrated journal (although I much prefer Ellie): Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Check back in the coming weeks to see what we did for our Ellie McDoodle meeting of the Backyard Book Club!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Backyard Book Club: Ivy + Bean Overview

We had a great time at our first Backyard Book Club meeting! I'm considering it a success, especially since one of the kids requested that we hold book club every day. :)

Here's an overview of everything we did, all in one place! (Click the links below for detailed instructions and more information.)

For this month's meeting, the kids read Ivy and Bean Break the Fossil Record. (Click here for the book spotlight with online resources and other ideas.)

After weeks of waiting, it was time to meet in person! We did our fossil-making activity first so the plaster could dry before the kids had to go home.

Then it was time for the Excavation Trivia Challenge! The kids loved digging up "artifacts" from the book and figuring out how each one was connected to the story. (Although they never found the M&M's...)

Next, it was time for physical challenges and relay races! We used some of the items we'd excavated to see who could stick the most spoons on their face, which team could carry an M&M in their spoon (and the spoon in their mouth) the fastest, and which kid could blow a berry across the patio with their straw the quickest.

Finally, it was time for refreshments. Just like Ivy and Bean, we enjoyed some banana bread (and some more M&M's) and played until it was time to go home.

Thanks so much, kids and parents, for making our first meeting such a success! And a special shout-out to one amazing mom, Sherie, for baking the banana bread and helping out! Couldn't have done it without you. :)

Have you held your own Backyard Book Club yet? Do you have questions or suggestions for ours? I'd love to hear them!

Check back next week to see what book we've picked for July!