Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Not-So-Alien Language

Today we're taking a break from science activities and doing a language activity! Rosalyn Eves, a talented writer and an English professor, is here to teach us why the alien language in What Came From the Stars might not be as alien as you think...
A battle scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070
One of first things I notice about Gary Schmidt’s novel What Came From the Stars is the detailed alien culture. Not only does the book start with a fierce battle in the world of the Ethelim, but throughout the book, Tommy finds himself spouting more and more alien words the longer he wears the peculiar necklace that landed in his lunch box.
But how alien (as in foreign or strange) is this alien culture? When I first read the book, I kept thinking the alien world seemed sort of familiar. If you’ve read (or seen) any of the Lord of the Rings books, the alien culture may have seemed familiar to you, too.
That’s because Schmidt modeled this culture on Tolkien and on Anglo-Saxon culture (which has some definite similarities with the Old Norse culture that Tolkien modeled Middle Earth after).
And that alien language? Old English—that is, what English looked like until about 1000 years ago. The root of the word “Ethelim” (Ethel), in fact, means native country or homeland. So more than just a group of people, the Ethelim are the people of one’s homeland.
Some of the words that Schmidt uses--especially words for weapons, like Gyldn, Limnae, words for enemies like the O’Mondim, and certain descriptive words (illil, ykrat)—appear to be Schmidt’s creations (they don’t show up in my Old English dictionaries!).
Other words are Old English, but Schmidt seems to use them for different purposes. For instance, “maeglia” in the end glossary means “weak, helpless, or useless.” In Old English, “maegleas” actually means to be without relatives. Given the importance of friendship and kinship ties in Anglo-Saxon culture, it’s significant that someone as unpleasant as Jeremy Hereford would also be friendless and kinless.
Schmidt, who teaches Old English (among other things) at Calvin College, has said this about borrowing Old English for his story:
"What we know about our world—and ourselves—is mediated through language, so when I decided to try a fantasy, it seemed right to enter that alternate world through a fitting medium. And since I wanted a high, noble, epic world for some chapters, I turned to Old English, which, as C. S. Lewis rightly noted, sounds like castles coming out of your mouth—an apt contrast to Tommy’s everyday life. The two languages’representations of their worlds create the conflict—which is echoed in the story’s events." (link)
Ironically, although our present day English and American culture stem in part from the language and the culture in the book, it looks so different from our present day that it feels alien! But Anglo-Saxon culture makes a nice contrast for Tommy’s world partly because it was a culture that celebrated loyalty and friendship, even in the face of violent death. (In fact, many of the writings that survive from this period are stories about war—for the Anglo Saxons, it didn’t matter so much if you died, as long as your death was heroic. This same feeling shows up in the Ethelim world too).
Towards the end of the novel, Tommy and other characters use entire strings of “alien” (Old English) words, and no translation is given.
If you haven’t already, try using the glossary at the end of the book to translate these passages (some are listed below). You can use this link to search for words, or this dictionary of common terms for words that don’t show up in the glossary.
  • P. 256 “gumena weardas”
  • P. 257 “Nu schulon habbe heardre earmas, heale cenre, mod bealda”
  • P. 260 “Ne cynna se weoruld. Na se weoruld.”
  • P. 296 “Mod gethrief. Ethelim gethanc ond se gethanc. Mod strang, heort strang, mod strang.”
    (Highlight the area below this post to see the answers...)
How does your translation change your understanding of what was going on?

Why do you think Schmidt didn’t include translations for all the words?
What words can you still see in their modern English versions (i.e., “strang” for “strong”)? Why do you think the language looks so different today?
Thank you, Rosalyn! What a great way to finish our Stars and Space month. Come back tomorrow to see what's in store for February!
Gumena weardas: literally, “good warriors” (notice that “gumena”is a plural adjective. Thank goodness we don’t have to remember to make adjectives plural today!)
Nu schulon habbe heardre earmas, heale cenre, mod bealda: now should I have strong arms, healthy, brave, (mod=heart, mind, spirit) courage
Ne cynna se weoruld. Na se weoruld. No field in this world. Not this world.
Mod gethrief. Ethelim gethanc ond se gethanc. Mod strang, heort strang, mod strang (Schmidt translates “mod” as “gut” in the glossary—it’s also used for heart, mind, spirit. As with German, the prefix “ge-” indicates the past participle of the verb, so you have to ignore the “ge” to find the word in a dictionary): Spirit (I’m not sure what “gethrief” is—I think it’s some variation on three). The Ethelim thank you and this (meaning himself) thanks you. Spirit strong, heart strong, spirit strong.

Monday, January 28, 2013

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

From Goodreads: The Valorim are about to fall to a dark lord when they send a necklace containing their planet across the cosmos, hurtling past a trillion stars all the way into the lunchbox of Tommy Pepper, sixth grader, of Plymouth, Mass. Mourning his late mother, Tommy doesn't notice much about the chain he found, but soon he is drawing the twin suns and humming the music of a hanorah. As Tommy absorbs the art and language of the Valorim, their enemies target him. When a creature begins ransacking Plymouth in search of the chain, Tommy learns he must protect his family from villains far worse than he's ever imagined.

My Two Cents: I am a huge fan of all of Schmidt's books, and this did not disappoint. He makes me care about his main characters more than almost any other author. The language here is lovely (and, at times, challenging), but there's also enough excitement to keep kids totally engaged. A really smart, touching story with elements of not only fantasy, but adventure and mystery as well.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • Gary D. Schmidt's website
  • Listen to some accordion music like Patrick plays. If Tommy can play the piano, could he play the accordion? Could you?
  • Tommy looks at the Cardiff Giant at the Plymouth Fall Festival. Take a look at the Cardiff Giant here. Is this similar to how you pictured an O'Mondim?
  • Why do you think Gary D. Schmidt chose to set this book in Plymouth and talk about the Mayflower a little? Why do you think he chose The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as the book the Pepper family reads together?
  • Tommy's class studies the circulatory system, and you can learn more about it here or, for a more musical version, here. Which version do you like? Which is closer to being thrimble?
  • Tommy's class also studies the solar system. Even if it's not Halloween, you can probably make a model of the solar system like this one.
  • Get outside like Tommy's family and see what shrubs and trees you can identify! There are some good resources here.
  • Most of all, listen to the Bach piece that Tommy plays. His mom was right. It's beautiful.

More to Read: 
Check back Thursday for an activity related to this book. Here's a hint: It's not science this time, and it has to do with the language Tommy starts speaking in this book...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Exploration and Observation: Galaxy Art!

Jacob Wonderbar and his friends broke the universe and were afraid that they'd destroyed their own galaxy. You probably know that a galaxy is a big, big group of stars, and that the galaxy we live in is called the Milky Way. But let's learn some more about galaxies and make our own galaxy art!

There are three kinds of galaxies: elliptical, irregular, and spiral. Elliptical galaxies have most of their stars in a sort of lemon-shaped (elliptical) area. You could make a model of an elliptical galaxy by making a ball of Play-Doh, then rolling it just a little flat in one direction. Irregular galaxies are just a bunch of stars grouped together in no particular shape. You could make a model of an irregular galaxy by dropping a handful of dry rice grains in the center of a plate, then dropping another handful across the whole plate. (And then you'd want to imagine the whole thing in three dimensions instead of flat.)

The third kind of galaxy is the kind we live in--a spiral galaxy. The Milky Way has hundreds of billions of stars scattered around in three main parts: the nucleus, the spiral arms, and the disk. Learn lots more about what kinds of stars are in each of these parts here.

To make your own galaxy art, get a piece of paper, two pencils, and a partner. Have one partner hold a pencil in the center of the paper and spin the page slowly and steadily while the other partner draws lines from the pencil in the center out toward their body. As the paper spins, the lines you draw will make nice curves like the spiral arms of our galaxy!

Next, attach your paper to a piece of black construction paper or card stock. Take a push pin and carefully poke holes through both pieces of paper along your spiral arms. Poke extra holes in the center to make the nuclues. Try to make different sizes of stars with your pin or the point of a sharp pencil. Label the nucleus, the disk, and the spiral arms of your galaxy, then hang it in a window (or hold it up to a glowing computer screen) and check out your beautiful galaxy!

For more on galaxies, check out NASA's galaxy page or at

Monday, January 21, 2013

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford

From Goodreads: Jacob Wonderbar is used to detentions, but when a spaceship crashes near his house, he finds himself in a whole new level of trouble. After swapping a corn dog for the ship, he and his two best friends, Sarah Daisy and Dexter, take off on a madcap adventure. They accidentally cause an epic explosion, get kidnapped by a space pirate, and are marooned on planets like Numonia and Paisley, where the air smells like burp breath and revenge-hungry substitute teachers rule. And that's only the beginning . . . It turns out that there's an entire colony of space humans, and Jacob's long-lost father just might be one of them.

My Two Cents: This book is all kinds of fun. It's laugh-out-loud funny, full of adventure, and really well written. There are tons of mini-adventures within the overall arc that will keep kids flipping the pages. I kept expecting Bransford's characters to settle into stereotypes...and they never did. I'm guessing even reluctant readers will devour this one.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • The official Jacob Wonderbar book trailer!
  • Jacob talks about the Brandenburg Concertos in chapter 4. Did you know that NASA put a "Golden Record" of some of Earth's best music on its Voyager space probe, and one of the Brandenburg Concertos was on that golden record? You can listen to the Brandenburg here, and while you're at it, make your own list of Earth's best music.
  • Sarah says her hero is Betty Friedan. Read a little about Betty here and see why you think Sarah chose her. Who do you think Jacob's hero is? Who is Dexter's hero?
  • Jacob notices that the moon looks orange sometimes from Earth. He thinks it's from pollution, and he's right. But there's another reason you can read about here.
  • Jacob's class is supposed to recite the elements of the periodic table. It would be more fun to memorize them if you used this periodic table (although even college chemistry teachers don't usually make you memorize it!)
  • The scientists on Planet Archimedes think it's funny that they can spell a word by typing numbers into their calculator and turning it upside down. What words can you spell on your calculator? Here's a hint to get you started:
0 = O, 1 = I, 3 = E, 4 = h, 5 = S, 6 = g, 7 = L and 8 = B

More to Read:
  • Another story about a kid's wild adventures and the cool science machines he uses along the way: Popular Clone by M.E. Castle
  • Another unbelievable adventure featuring two boys, one girl, and a LOT of humor: Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger
  • Another boy who's not always on his best behavior at school...and the trouble it gets him into: The Rat Brain Fiasco by Julie Berry
  • Another funny story of a kid who encounters a whole other civilization: Elliot and the Goblin War by Jennifer Nielsen

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Exploration and Observation: North-South and Local Noon (Sundials, Part 2)

In Kepler's Dream, Ella adjusts to life in a new place and is challenged to find her true north. For today's science activity, you'll find your true north and learn something about the place you live!

It's time for part 2 of our sundials activity from astronomer and physicist Laura Cotts! For this activity, you'll just need a piece of cardboard (I used the top of a pizza box) with a golf tee attached to the center, flat side down. In sundial terms, the golf tee is called a gnomon.

Find a sunny spot for your experiment and anchor it firmly. Draw the shadow of your gnomon every 15 minutes from 10:30 to 1:30. Record the time for each shadow. Find your very shortest shadow. It should point to the North because when the sun is at the highest point in its path, the sun is in the South.

The time of your shortest shadow is called “local noon”, when the sun is highest in the sky at your location. But this time may or may not match 12 noon on your clock! This is because the world is divided into “time zones” to make it easier for people to communicate. For instance, everyone in the Mountain Time Zone has clocks that say 12 noon at the same time, but the sun will cross its highest spot sooner for people in the eastern part of the time zone and later for people in the western part. (You can tell from the photo above that I'm in the western part of my time zone.)

Ever since there have been people, they have used the sun to help them find their way and to help them mark the passage of time. See what else you can learn!

What time was local noon for you? Was it before or after 12:00? Based on your local noon, do you think you live on the east or west side of your time zone? Check your answer here for a US time zone map or here for a world time zone map!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Kepler's Dream by Juliet Bell

From Goodreads: When eleven-year-old Ella's mother has to be hospitalized to undergo a dangerous cancer treatment, Ella spends the summer at "Broken Family Camp" with her eccentric grandmother, whom she's never met. The situation is hardly ideal for either of them. Ella is scared her mother may die, but her grandmother seems to care more about her library full of books than she does about her very own granddaughter.

But when a rare and beloved book, Kepler's Dream of the Moon, is stolen from her grandmother's amazing library, Ella and her new friend Rosie make up their minds to find it. Finding the beautiful book her grandmother loves so much could even be the key to healing Ella's broken family.

My Two Cents: This is a lovely book filled with memorable characters, dynamic relationships, and enough mystery to keep even this adult reader guessing. Bell's story is as layered and complex as the characters within. There are a lot of threads to follow, and they are all woven together beautifully.

Grade Level: 4-6

Additional Resources:
  • Check out Juliet Bell's fun website!
  • Read a summary of Hamlet. Do you think there's a reason the author chose Hamlet as the book Ella's dad returns to the librerery?
  • Read about Somnium and draw your own illustrations of the Earth, the moon, and the demons.
  • Draw a map of your house or your room like Ella does! Printable graph paper might help, and this book might too.
  • Play Boggle like Ella and her grandmother.
  • Learn more about peacocks and constellations.
More to Read:
  • Another story that weaves together an old book, curious girls, and a dash of mystery: Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams
  • Another strong young girl who's worried about her mom and trying to make things work in a new environment: Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
  • More memorable grandparents who help their granddaughter: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
  • Another book with dashes of mystery and connections to history: Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach
  • A fun picture book where a girl draws maps of her room, her house, her town, and even the world:  Me on the Map by Joan Sweeney

Friday, January 11, 2013

Exploration and Observation: Balloon Rocket Launch

In Cosmic, Liam gets to go on "The Biggest Thrill Ride in the History of the World"--a trip to the moon! Let's make some indoor rockets and see if we can launch them all the way to the ceiling.

Materials needed: fishing line or string, drinking straws, balloons, shuttle picture, masking tape

1. Prepare the launch site. String fishing line from the ceiling--more than one line, if you want to launch more than one rocket at the same time.

2. Prepare your rocket. Color and decorate your shuttle, then cut it out and attach a straw to the back with masking tape. Blow up a balloon, but don't tie off the end! The air in the balloon is the force that will launch your rocket.

3. Prepare for liftoff. Attach your balloon to the straw with masking tape (keep pinching the end!), then slide the straw over the bottom end of the fishing line. Hold the bottom of the fishing line against the floor so it forms a straight vertical line. (If you allow slack in the line, the rocket won't launch as high.)

4. Launch! When your line is tight, count down and launch your rocket! Then perform experiments to answer the following questions, and see if you can come up with some questions of your own:

Does the rocket launch higher if I put more air in the balloon?
How would I design a rocket that would launch even higher? What changes could I make to this design--what could I add, and what could I take away?
What happens if I launch the rocket without sliding the straw over the fishing line?
Can I attach other things (paper clips, paper people, etc.) and still launch it all the way up the line?
How many times can you use the same balloon before it loses some of its launching power? Why do you think this happens?

Happy launching!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

January: Stars and Space!

By ESO/Y. Beletsky ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I'll have a science post tomorrow to go with Cosmic, but I wanted to make a fun announcement today:

NEW FOR 2013: Monthly themes and giveaways!

As you can see, January's theme is "Stars and Space!" All of the books I review in January will have something to do with this theme. At the end of the month, I'll draw a winner (or winners, depending on how much traffic I can generate) who will get to choose any of the month's books as their prize! All comments on January blog posts (including this one) will be your giveaway entries. The more you stop by and comment, the better your odds! New followers get an automatic entry too.

So check back in tomorrow and the rest of January and be sure to comment for your chance to win out-of-this world middle grade books!

Monday, January 7, 2013

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.

My Two Cents: Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of my very favorite middle grade authors, and this is the first book of his I read. In addition to being a middle grade author, he's a screenwriter who even wrote the London 2012 Opening Ceremonies. (Remember all of the references to children's literature?) 

As for the book...I love Cosmic. It is funny and smart and touching in ways expected and unexpected. There is plenty of humor and adventure for younger readers. And it's wonderful to see a main character in middle grade with two really strong parents, and to see how Liam's love for his father actually grows throughout the book as he goes off on his own adventures. As for a rating, Cosmic deserves a whole galaxy of stars.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • Try to think of a vacation destination that Liam's mom wouldn't think was too dangerous, or try to think of the most dangerous vacations possible!
  • Design your own Biggest Thrill Ride in the History of the World! Or take virtual rides on rollercoasters via YouTube and decide which would be the biggest thrill.
  • Learn about Gustav Holst and listen to The Planets like Liam and his class. You can draw your own pictures of planets while you listen.
  • Find all of Liam's Waterloos on a map--in England, Belgium, Siberia, and Sierra Leone. Where else can you find a Waterloo?

More to Read:
But really, you should just read all of Boyce's books and fall in love with their characters, including:
  • Two brothers who happen upon a bag of money and need to spend a lot of pounds before Britain switches to Euros in Millions 
  • A nine-year-old from a family with "criminal instincts" who prevents (or causes?) a major art heist in Framed
  • The hilarious and adventurous Tooting family and their flying camper van in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (follow-up to Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1964)