“Welcome to the Chemistry Rocks Summer World Tour 2019! Let’s rock!”
By https://pxhere.com/es/photo/41796 via Wikimedia Commons.
STEM Tuesday fans, sit back, relax with your favorite chemically enhanced or brewed beverage and enjoy the show.
It really does. Qualitative, quantitative, organic, bio, physical, whatever or whichever, they all rock the scene. From the twitch of a muscle to the Fourth of July fireworks display to the explosion of the LH2 (liquid hydrogen) fuel that propels a rocket into space toward Mars, chemistry is there. Reaction after reaction after reaction occurring all around us every microsecond of every day. Sight, smell, taste, touch (If you think about it, we can also technically go with sound when we consider the neurochemistry involved in processing a sound wave) are all affected by chemistry.
Don’t throw your shoe at me! I realize not everyone has had a positive experience with chemistry. I understand. I’ve been there. The struggle was real. I was only able to dig myself out of a “D” hole in high school chemistry because of the additions I was able to add to my science teacher’s herpetological and ichthyological collections for extra credit on the biology side of his classroom. I washed out of Chemistry 101 as an immature, baseball-playing freshman in college and it took three full semesters to dig out of that hole in my transcript.
Chemistry is hard. It’s one of those sciences that is like a completely foreign language. Like the Tower of Babel, one can be confused, frustrated, and want to throw a shoe at that one person who tries to tell you that chemistry is fun. As with language, once you learn the basics, begin to understand the meanings of the words, and learn to navigate those foreign roads, a whole new world opens up. With chemistry comes a new understanding of the world around us and how it operates. We are able to drive our existence toward a better life.
And where else can you perform experiments where colors change, states of matter are shifted, and there’s a potential for explosions?
Celebrate the Periodic Table!
In 1869 Mendeleev proposed the first periodic table of elements. That makes the periodic table 150 years old! In my opinion, it looks just a fresh and vibrant at 150 as it did in it’s 20s. Maybe even better! I guess some things get better with age, right? I’ve always marveled at the beauty of the periodic table. Well, I marveled when I finally gave in, buckled down and learned the basics of the periodic table. The periodic table is a masterpiece. Just as The Beatles had Sgt. Pepper’s, DaVinci the Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo his sculpture of David, chemistry has the periodic table.
Happy Birthday, Periodic Table!
Chemistry has made life better.
I’m sitting on my back patio as I write this section. It’s a beautiful early June Saturday morning. Chemistry surrounds me.
I see the cat eating his store-bought cat food, which has been optimized through a blend of macro and micronutrients. In other words, chemistry.
There’s the gardener table I built from my kids’ old wooden swingset that both got a recent coat of water sealant. Chemistry.
The house paint. Chemistry.
The cement of the patio. Chemistry.
The flowers and vegetables in pots and in the garden which were recently fertilized with BR-61. Chemistry.
I just ate a bowl of rice cereal made from a chemistry-based recipe. The peanut butter on my toast is loaded with chemistry. Heck, even the toasting of the bread by electrical heating elements in a closed chamber is chemistry.
I’m working at a steel patio table painted with a rust deterrent coating while typing on a laptop that relies on rare earth metals. Tell me that’s not some amazing chemistry!
I could go on and on but the point is this:
We are surrounded by chemical marvels every second of every day.
Chemistry makes our lives better.
There’s little argument as to the benefits chemistry brings to society. But to everything good, there’s always a dark side. The dark side of chemistry often is a result of our attempts to develop a fix to one particular problem without consideration of the entire ramification spectrum. Pesticides that are also potent carcinogens. Pharmaceutical chemicals with side effects that almost override the positive effects or cause addiction. Chemical weapons.
I could go on with examples of chemistry gone wrong but the point remains we need to be more vigilant with the power of chemistry. The current and future generations of chemists need to design chemical solutions with an eye to the long-term effects and cost-benefit of the solution. This particular solution may work to solve the issue BUT what else does it do?
Writing With Chemistry
I was going to title this section, Writing Chemically, but had second thoughts about the unintended connotations associated with that title. Most writers would classify chemistry as something on the opposite end of the creative spectrum than writing. I understand but hear me out before launching the other shoe at my head.
An ionic bond forms between two oppositely charged atoms when an atom with the weaker force donates an electron to the atom with a stronger force. Covalent bonds form between two atoms when they share electrons to fill their outer orbitals. Hydrogen bonds are weaker bonds that form when the partial positive charge of the hydrogen is attracted to a negatively charged atom. When thinking about the interactions between story elements or characters, chemistry provides three good ways to explore these interactions and reactions.
Or how about using the principals of exothermic (heat released) and endothermic (heat absorbed) reactions to move the plot forward in your story? You can also think about character development in the structural terms of chemistry, primary structure, secondary structure, tertiary structure, and quaternary structure. All four structures contain the same basic bits; it’s a matter of increasing the complexity of the model.
See? The principles of chemistry can help out the writer as well as the chemist. Another win for science!
By Thomas Shafee – Own work. Via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom line: Give chemistry a chance because it really does rock.
The benefits far outweigh the detriments.
The rewards in understanding the fundamentals of chemistry are well worth the failures, false starts, and frustrations of the learning process.
We are all a whole lot better off with chemistry than without (and it doesn’t even matter if we don’t understand a lick of the science behind it).
Now go enjoy the show.
By Ian T. McFarland from Los Angeles, USA via Wikimedia Commons.
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training related topics at www.coachhays.comand writer stuff atwww.mikehaysbooks.com. Two of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101, are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.
The O.O.L.F Files
The Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files this month take a look at close look at chemistry from all angles, from industry to academics to studying for med school. Plus, what’s a look at how Chemistry ROCKS! without a look at the chemistry of rocks?
IUPAC, The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
The final word on all things chemistry, from naming molecules to determining accurate molecular weights.
Lara Williamson and I crossed paths more than two decades ago (eek!), in London, while working at J-17 magazine. Lara, who hails from Northern Ireland, was a fledgling beauty editor while I wrote an advice column and edited articles. After I returned to the U.S., Lara and I stayed in touch. First we exchanged emails; then we exchanged manuscripts. (I had the pleasure of reading an early version of Lara’s breakout novel, A BOY CALLED HOPE, hailed by the Sunday Express as: “Warm, heartbreaking, and hilarious in turn,” and shortlisted for the prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.)
Lara’s books—available worldwide—have been translated into Russian, Italian, Korean, Turkish, Estonian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Her latest novel, THE GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, launches in the U.K. on August 1 from Usborne. Find more about Lara on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
MR: Lara! First and foremost, thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files. I am beyond excited to have you here!!! *blows kiss*
LW: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s so lovely to join you on the Mixed-Up Files. And talking about Mixed-Up Files, when I was about ten the first slightly more “grown-up” book I picked for myself, and read by myself, was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. And, not surprisingly, I loved it. I recently bought myself a new copy and must re-read it, and re-live the magic I felt all those years ago.
MR: For readers not familiar with your books, can you tell us a little about your background and your path to publication?
LW: I grew up in Northern Ireland and studied fashion design. After I left college, I worked on a teen magazine called J-17. It was such a creative time and a solid foundation for everything that came after. At work I had to come up with ideas for photoshoots and write copy to a deadline – all good grounding for writing a book. Fast forward a few years and one child later, I wanted to write the MG book I’d always dreamed of writing and naively I thought, “How hard can it be?” Very, was the answer. In the end, I wrote a number of books and got an awful lot of rejections, probably over one hundred in the end. And I can’t say I didn’t feel dejected; I did. But in this business you’ve got to persevere. You’ve got to actively chase your dreams. So in 2013, I got the urge to write a little book – a quiet little book, a book about families, life, heartbreak, and hope. But mostly hope. I thought, for it to be published it might need adventure and zombies and I could expect more rejection. I was wrong. The quiet little book about hope was the very thing that turned everything around. It got snapped up by an agent and a publisher and the rest is, as they say, history.
MR: Your first three books, A BOY CALLED HOPE,THE BOOK WHO SAILED THE OCEAN IN AN ARMCHAIR and JUST CALL ME SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY, all feature male protagonists. What is it about boys’ stories that resonate with you?
LW: Ah, I wish I had the perfect answer for this one. One of the stories I had worked on previously, and had been rejected, was from a girl’s point of view so I had written a girl before. But something in me – call it gut instinct – just felt that these stories were about a boy and I couldn’t shake that feeling, so I had to go with it. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you’ve just got to listen to that inner voice that tells you to go a certain way. Trust and believe in yourself. That’s what I did, in the end. I went with my own instinct and it proved to be right. Also, my books are emotional and full of heart and there are lots of books for girls on those subjects, but I think boys like those stories too.
MR: Your forthcoming novel, THE GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, is the first of your novels to feature a female protagonist—Mabel Mynt. What was it like to write from a girl’s perspective this time? Did it feel different?
LW: To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could achieve it at first. I’d written three books from a boy’s POV. What if I couldn’t be a girl? I know, that sounds daft because I am one. But I did worry about it for a while and I doubted myself in the beginning. In the end though, I decided to go with it and write the way I always do. I figured there was no big difference, because what it came down to was the story and the hope within it – and it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl, because everyone needs hope in their life. It’s universal.
MR: The loss of a parent is a major theme in all of your novels. In A BOY CALLED HOPE, Dan Hope searches for his absentee dad; in ARMCHAIR, Becket Rumsey is separated from his mom; In SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY, Adam Butters searches to learn more about his biological mom; in GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, Mabel’s dad walked out on the family. What is it about the subject of loss that drives you as an author? What are you trying to say to your readers?
LW: I have slowly realized that all my books are about loss, in one shape or another. Honestly, I’ve tried to write about stuff that resonates with me. I don’t think I could write any other way, particularly when I’m writing about feelings. In our lifetime, we will all experience loss in one way or another. It’s not necessarily the most obvious way, either. There are many ways. I’ve tried to write about it in various forms and then comfort the character in the book, and make them realize that they can come through that loss and out the other side. It’s important to me that at the end of my books, my character will walk away a stronger person. If I didn’t believe that, I don’t think I could write the stories. I’m not saying that within the story everything goes perfectly; it doesn’t. Some of the losses cannot be changed, no matter how much the character wishes for it. But in all my books, there’s always hope for the future, and that’s what I’m trying to say to my readers (and myself) most of all.
MR: Your breakout novel, A BOY CALLED HOPE, was received to wide acclaim and racked up tons of awards. With that it mind, what was it like to write your subsequent books? Did you feel pressured to live up to the success of HOPE?
LW: The second book syndrome! It’s like having a successful first album and then wondering if you can repeat the magic. And sometimes it does feel a bit like magic. There are times when I’ve written a book and can’t even remember all the steps it took to get there. You write and edit for ages and then–whoosh!–it’s done. So, yes, it can feel like a pressure when you’re writing the second book (and third, and so on). I wanted to repeat the magic…do it all over again. But that’s the thing about magic; it’s hard to pin down no matter how much you wish you could. In the end, I’ve learned to be grateful for any successes I have – big or small, because I’ve never forgotten the hundred-plus rejections. We should celebrate everything. Have you written a sentence today, or 500 words, or a chapter? Have you finished writing a book? Pat yourself on the back. It’s a huge achievement. You’re one step closer to your dreams. The real magic is there – it’s within you.
MR: What’s your writing process like, Lara? Do you have a specific routine? Writing rituals?
LW: I’m so chaotic in my writing, for a reason I’ll explain in a minute. Okay, so I know everyone is different. Some writers meticulously plot and, seriously, I’m envious. There are days I wish I had a writing shed with lots of pieces of paper on the wall spelling out the plot. I wish I knew about rise and fall within chapters. I wish I was organized and knew all there was to know about writing. But no, none of those things actually applies to me. I sit at my dining room table and write for a few hours most days. All I know is the beginning of my book, and the end, and I know what the character wants to achieve. Then I write in the most messy, muddled-up way; a sort of outpouring of emotion and feeling. And it works for me. I’m basically writing myself a comforting story: a story of hope. I’m writing about things that matter to me, and if it’s a bit chaotic – fine. Emotions sometimes are. They come slowly… they come in a rush…maybe some don’t make sense to start with; maybe some do. I’ve had to accept that I am the writer I am, and there will probably never be notes or plans on the wall–but I’ve got it all going on in my heart. And because of that, I let my heart take the lead and plan the route; I’m just joining it on the journey. And that’s okay.
MR: Would you care to share what you’re working on now?
LW: I’ve just written a small 10,000 word story for seven-to-nine-year-olds. It’s completely random and was a lot of fun to write. I’d also like to write an adventure too. Again, I wonder if I can. It’s like the writing a girl situation all over again. I’ve never written an adventure before, but I’d like to give it a whirl. I’ve also written a younger book that’s coming out in 2020, but I can’t tell you anything about it yet (sorry!). Oh, and I’ve started another MG but am only 10,000 words in. So, I’m doing a few things at once and will see which one sings to me most–and then go with it.
MR: And finally, no Mixed-Up Files interview is complete without a lightning round. So…
Many writers felt the spark of story in them when they were very young. But many never found the support they needed to develop and hone their skills at a young age.
When I visit schools for my books I often encounter one or two children out of hundreds who are hungry for more interaction than a school visit is designed to offer. Nine years ago I formed the League of Exceptional Writers a free mentoring workshop for young readers ages 8-18.
Because I’m a member of the SCBWI in Oregon, I approached them about providing a small honorarium for the authors and illustrators who were mentors to the League each month. I approached Powells Bookstore about hosting the events and providing promotional materials. Here’s an example of what they made for the last. year. Every month from October to May eager young writers pull up chairs at the bookshop and dig into the nitty gritty of making books with published authors, professional illustrators and other folks who work in the book industry, designers, editors, agents, audio book producers, etc. The League has seen its members grow from shy beginners in 3rd or 4th grade to active writers at their high school newspaper to editors of college literary journals. One has even gone on to work as a designer at a publishing house in Boston.
I mention this not to self-congratulate but rather to offer a model that could be easily replicated elsewhere. The SCBWI is a gently aging organization. Their survival depends on drawing in new young members year after year. What better way to promote the organization than to start mentoring young writers now. Most independent bookstores would be receptive to the idea of hosting a writing club for kids. So please consider starting a League of your own in your home town.
Many cities and states have writing enrichment programs in place such as the Writers in the Schools program sponsored by Oregon Literary Arts. Consider volunteering or donating money to these programs.
And finally if you have a young writer in your life, here’s a book they might enjoy. BRAVE THE PAGE: a young writer’s guide to telling epic stories by Rebecca Stern and Grant Faulkner is a kid friendly guide to writing a boo,k taking the NANOWRIMO model. The tone is peppy and practical. The text answers most of the questions even an adult writer has about the process of writing and the focus is solidly on the writing process rather than selling a manuscript. I think it will work well for avid writers as young as 9 and as old as 14 or 15. Brave the Page is on sale in August of 2019 and is available in audio.
It’s a bird; it’s a plane. It’s Superman Day here at Mixed-Up Files (and everywhere else). In 2013, DC Comics declared June 12 to be Superman Day. To celebrate, we’ve gathered some of the greatest middle-grade reads featuring the Man of Steel, his family, and his friends. So, drop that kryptonite, don your capes, and get ready to go up up and away with these super stories.
Super Sons: The Polarshield Project by Ridley Pearson, illustrated by Ile Gonzalez. Super Sons follows Jon Kent (Superman’s son), who moves to the town of Wyndemere when the melting polar ice caps threaten the cities of Coleumbria. With his father away fighting the devastating climate change, and a mysterious illness spreading across Wyndemere, Jon teams up with Damian “Ian” Wayne and a mysterious girl named Candace to find the source of the disease and stop it from spreading. This new out-of-continuity story was one of the first titles to launch DC Zoom, the middle grade imprint of DC Comics.
Secret Hero Society by Derek Fridolfs, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen. In this series, a young Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, and Clark Kent team up for middle school misadventures. The investigate a roving band of clowns, encounter a lake monster, and accidentally time travel. Other DC superhero favorites, such as Green Arrow and Cyborg, join them, and they even face some familiar villains.
Superman Family Adventures by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani. This fun series created by the Eisner Award-winning team behind Tiny Titans brings all the whole super family together. Superman teams up with Supergirl, Superboy (and his dog) to fight classic foes.
Superman: Adventures of the Man of Steel by Scott McCloud and Paul Dini, illustrated by Rick Burchett, Terry Austin, an Bret Blevins. Inspired by the 90’s cartoons, this older collection of comics was made by the show’s creators. It’s essential reading for any Superman fan!
DC Super Pets by various authors, illustrated by Art Baltazar- Even superheros have pets! This chapter book series follows the crime-fighting adventures of the pets of popular DC superheros, including Superman’s monkey Beppo. There’s also Krypto, Superboy’s dog, who appears in Superman Family Adventures, and Supergirl’s pets- a horse and a cat.
Supergirl at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee. When Krypton is destroyed, Supergirl lands on Earth and sent to Super Hero High. Supergirl has bad grades and trouble controlling her powers. But when an alien invasion threatens her new friends, she’ll find out what it really means to be a superhero. Based on the DC Superhero Girls series, this is a superhero story with a lot of heart.
Superman: Solar System Adventures by Steve Korte, illustrated by Dario Brizuela- When Superman’s enemies invade our solar system, he journeys to the different planets to fight them. This series infuses real science facts into superhero action.
And if you like nonfiction, check out the story of how Superman came to be. Boys of Steel by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross Macdonald tells the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman.
Having majored in chemistry in college and then going on to teach the course a couple of times, I know how difficult this topic can be for students to understand. But really, chemistry is just the science of what matter is made up of and how it interacts with other types of matter. See? Not so hard at all. I get it. Some students need to have more to help them become more comfortable with chemistry.
Here’s a list of things you can try:
Hands on Interaction: I like to tell my students that the best way to understand chemistry is to think of it like cooking. Say you’re going to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. You need the ingredients: the flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, and chocolate chips. Those are all different parts of matter. Then you mix them together with a certain amount of force by stirring or using a hand mixer. That gives you the cookie batter– a different kind of matter, but the chemical change hasn’t happened yet. Finally, you put the pan of cookie batter into the oven and voila you have cookies. Can’t you just smell the warm chocolate fresh out of the oven and imagine the first bite of gooey chocolate-y goodness?
During the whole process you are mixing and combining different kind of matter, but it isn’t until you apply heat that the chemical change takes place and you have cookies. Yum! This is a great way to get your students comfortable with chemistry.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make cookies with your students in the classroom. Is there a substitute? Yes! Use these books. While it won’t get you a warm chocolate chip cookie to eat in the end, you can do some pretty cool experiments with food.
Edible Science by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen (NGKids, 2015) is chock full of awesome food experiments! Many of these can be done in the classroom. Try the “Inflatable Marshmallow” on page 42. Kids learn about air pressure by watching a marshmallow expand and contract.
Another awesome one is watching how plants get water (page 9) by placing pieces of lettuce into bowls with different colored water (from food coloring). After a few hours students will see how the lettuce absorbed water through its leaves
My favorite one, though, is making slime (page 60). Your students will love it! This book is also great for homeschoolers since you can do a lot of the experiments in your very own kitchen. Happy experimenting!
Kathy Ceceri’s Edible Inventions: Cooking Hacks and Yummy Recipes You Can Build, Mix, and Grow (Maker Media, 2016) also has some amazing experiments for kids to do with chemistry. She, however, goes a little more out-of-the box and discusses how kitchen gadgets can be used to make butter makers. She ventures into creating gelatin dots, and even agar noodles (don’t eat those!).
Finally, there is a whole discussion of 3D food printing and she gives you instructions on how to use your name-brand building blocks to make your own 3D food printer! Wow! This one is definitely for the more adventurous chemistry cook in your house. It will provide hours of fun.
After they perform each experiment have them analyze their outcome and discuss what happened. This is exactly what real scientists do.
Questions could include:
Did you get the outcome you wanted
If not, why do you think this happened
Could you repeat this experiment and get the same result? Why or why not?
How is your result different from another team’s? Explain
By asking questions of your students you can help them to create a model to explain what happened. Perhaps they will end up changing the procedure or adding some requirements of their own, ie. use a hand mixer not a spoon to get a smoother consistency for the product.
2. Add some Fun Facts to your Experiments
Looking for a way to give your students a little more explanation of chemistry terms, and maybe a little history of the subject? Check out these titles, Explore Solids and Liquids! with 25 great experiments by Kathleen M. Reilly (Nomad Press, 2014) and Explore Atoms and Molecules! with 25 great experiments by Janet Slingerland (Nomad Press, 2017) have awesome experiments, but also contain explanations to describe the different parts of chemistry.
They have timelines the show the discovery of important scientific events, and also easy-to-understand definitions of words such as atom, molecule, solid, liquid, gas, states of matter, and mixtures and compounds.
These highly energetic texts and enthusiastic illustrations will grab your student’s attention and the experiments are all easy to do. Just follow the directions and you will have a great time in your classroom or homeschool environment.
After reading this book and doing some of the experiments, have students come up with their own examples of matter, molecules, and solids, liquids and gases.
Ask them to identify these different parts of matter in the things they see around the room or around their house
Did they come up with something that can be both solid and liquid? How would they classify that?
Discuss the types of conditions that might cause these substances to change from one to another.
What types of evidence do they have to indicate the change
3. Tie Chemistry to Literacy
If you have older students who are ready to learn more about chemistry, have them read The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (Little, Brown BFYR, 2018). This book gives a lively and interesting history of the scientists who discovered the different elements of the periodic table.
Discovering an element is not as easy or amazing as you might think. In fact, it can be downright dangerous to your health. Ask Marie Curie. Many of these stories are about scientists who defied all odds to come up with a new element or perhaps stumbles upon it accidentally. It is a compelling read for anyone who is interested in becoming a scientist as it gives a behind-the-scenes look at real-life challenges many of the scientists faced.
After reading this book, have your students break up into discussion groups.
Each group can choose a scientist or element and come up with a way to present it to the rest of the class.
Maybe they dress up as the scientist and have them talk about their challenges
Infographics or posters can show their process
Be sure to include the pros and cons of each element (some of them are quite dangerous to humans)
Have them show the element as it is used today (hint: it’s not just a two-letter symbol on a chart)
This is a great way to promote discussion about the periodic table in a place other than the science classroom!
Whatever way you choose to introduce chemistry into your classroom or homeschool, remember one thing, HAVE FUN with IT! Students will get enthusiastic about a fun, interactive, presentation and who knows, you may just inspire a future generation of STEM/STEAM careers.
Science ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her. www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com
Congratulations to MUF contributor Samantha Clark for her SCBWI Crystal Kite award! Samantha won for her book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster), which was released about a year ago, on June 26, 2018.
The Crystal Kite is a huge honor because it is a peer-given award, with each winner chosen by members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Samantha’s chapter, the Houston SCBWI, also had a winning title last year.
School is barely out for most districts, but perhaps you’ve already heard this from your tween.
Have no fear, the library and your local independent book store are here!
Check out the latest releases for your middle-grade readers. A bit of nonfiction, a dash of fiction and their boredom will be relieved!
Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid, written by Adrienne Wright
Page Street Kids, June 4 release Shop your local indie bookstore
On June 16, 1976, Hector Pieterson, an ordinary boy, lost his life after getting caught up in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Black South African students were marching against a new law requiring that they be taught half of their subjects in Afrikaans, the language of the White government. The story’s events unfold from the perspectives of Hector, his sister, and the photographer who captured their photo in the chaos. This book can serve as a pertinent tool for adults discussing global history and race relations with children. Its graphic novel style and mixed media art portray the vibrancy and grit of Hector’s daily life and untimely death.
Heartbreaking yet relevant, this powerful story gives voice to an ordinary boy and sheds light on events that helped lead to the end of apartheid.
Escape from the Isle of the Lost: A Descendants Novel (The Descendants), written by Melissa de la Cruz
Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos may have once been the baddest of the bad, but their wicked ways are (mostly) behind them-and now graduation is almost here! But before the seniors can don their custom-designed caps and gowns, courtesy of Evie, they’ve got an epic plan to put into action. There are tons of villain kids on the Isle of the Lost who are eager for their chance to come to Auradon Prep-even Celia, Dr. Facilier’s trickster daughter, wants in on the deal!-and Mal’s crew is using their upcoming visit to the Isle to help make it happen. But Auradon’s biggest threat is still at large?
Trapped on the other side of the barrier, Uma is more desperate than ever to get her long-awaited revenge against Mal. When she discovers an underground lair belonging to Hades, god of the underworld, Uma realizes she’s found the perfect partner in crime. Together, they can defeat Mal, bring down the barrier, and escape the Isle for good.
Mal and Uma have a score to settle, and they’ll come face to face in an explosive underwater battle that could determine the fates of Auradon and the Isle of the Lost once and for all.
All the Greys on Greene Street written by Laura Tucker
SoHo, 1981. Twelve-year-old Olympia is an artist–and in her neighborhood, that’s normal. Her dad and his business partner Apollo bring antique paintings back to life, while her mother makes intricate sculptures in a corner of their loft, leaving Ollie to roam the streets of New York with her best friends Richard and Alex, drawing everything that catches her eye.
Then everything falls apart. Ollie’s dad disappears in the middle of the night, leaving her only a cryptic note and instructions to destroy it. Her mom has gone to bed, and she’s not getting up. Apollo is hiding something, Alex is acting strange, and Richard has questions about the mysterious stranger he saw outside. And someone keeps calling, looking for a missing piece of art. . . .
Olympia knows her dad is the key–but first, she has to find him, and time is running out.
Sea Sirens (A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure) written by Amy Chu, illustrated by Janet K. Lee
Trot, a Vietnamese American surfer girl, and Cap’n Bill, her cranky one-eyed cat, catch too big a wave and wipe out, sucked down into a magical underwater kingdom where an ancient deep-sea battle rages. The beautiful Sea Siren mermaids are under attack from the Serpent King and his slithery minions–and Trot and her feline become dangerously entangled in this war of tails and fins.
This beautiful graphic novel was inspired by The Sea Fairies, L. Frank Baum’s “underwater Wizard of Oz.” It weaves Vietnamese mythology, fantastical ocean creatures, a deep-sea setting, quirky but sympathetic main characters, and fast-paced adventure into an imaginative, world-building story.
Maximillian Fly wants no trouble. Yet because he stands at six feet two, with beautiful indigo wings, long antennae, and more arms than you or me, many are frightened of him.
He is a gentle creature who looks like a giant cockroach. This extraordinary human wants to prove his goodness, so he opens his door to two SilverSeed children in search of a place to hide.
Instantly, Maximillian’s quiet, solitary life changes. There are dangerous powers after them and they have eyes everywhere. But in this gray city of Hope trapped under the Orb, is escape even possible?
Maximillian Fly is a masterful story brimming with suspense, plot twists, and phenomenal world building. This compelling novel delves into family dynamics and themes of prejudice, making the case for tolerance, empathy, and understanding.
Midsummer’s Mayhem Hardcover written by Rajani LaRocca
Yellow Jacket, June 11 release Shop your local indie bookstore
Eleven-year-old Mimi Mackson comes from a big Indian American family: Dad’s a renowned food writer, Mom’s a successful businesswoman, and her three older siblings all have their own respective accomplishments. It’s easy to feel invisible in such an impressive family, but Mimi’s dream of proving she’s not the least-talented member of her family seems possible when she discovers a contest at the new bakery in town. Plus, it’ll start her on the path to becoming a celebrity chef like her culinary idol, Puffy Fay.
But when Mimi’s dad returns from a business trip, he’s mysteriously lost his highly honed sense of taste. Without his help, Mimi will never be able to bake something impressive enough to propel her to gastronomic fame.
Drawn into the woods behind her house by a strangely familiar song, Mimi meets Vik, a boy who brings her to parts of the forest she’s never seen. Who knew there were banyan trees and wild boars in Massachusetts? Together they discover exotic ingredients and bake them into delectable and enchanting treats.
But as her dad acts stranger every day, and her siblings’ romantic entanglements cause trouble in their town, Mimi begins to wonder whether the ingredients she and Vik found are somehow the cause of it all. She needs to use her skills, deductive and epicurean, to uncover what’s happened. In the process, she learns that in life, as in baking, not everything is sweet.
It’s the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, whenthe town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has itthat after drifting out of sight, they’ll soar off to the Milky Way andturn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year,Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanternsreally go, and to ensure success in their mission, they’ve made a pactwith two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.
The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes tolearn the truth, but it isn’t long before the pact is broken by allexcept for Ben, and (much to Ben’s disappointment) Nathaniel, the onekid who just doesn’t seem to fit in.
Together,Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down awinding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.
*And a talking bear.
The Girl Who Sailed the Stars written by Matilda Woods, illustrated by Anuska Allepuz
Shop your local indie bookstore
When Oona Britt was born in the magical town of Nordlor, where all of the homes are built from wrecked ships, her parents never expected her to be a girl. Having listened to a faulty prediction from a washed-up soothsayer, they were promised a “bold and brave son,” so as the youngest of seven sisters, Oona’s birth became a disappointment — especially to her sea captain father, who doesn’t believe there’s a place for girls aboard ships.
But Oona is different from the rest of her family. She longs for adventure and knowledge. So she steals aboard her father’s ship just as he’s about to set sail for his annual winter whale hunt, and suddenly finds herself in the midst of a grand adventure! The ship has its own sea cat, Barnacles, and a navigator named Haroyld, who show Oona how to follow the stars. But for all that, Oona’s father is furious. Can she prove to him that she’s worth his love and pride, even though she’s not the bold and brave son he was promised?
The Boy, the Boat and the Beast written by Samantha M. Clark
Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster, Paperback release June 25
A boy washes up on a mysterious, seemingly uninhabited beach. Who is he? How did he get there? The boy can’t remember. When he sees a light shining over the foreboding wall of trees that surrounds the shore, he decides to follow it, in the hopes that it will lead him to answers. The boy’s journey is a struggle for survival and a search for the truth—a terrifying truth that once uncovered, will force him to face his greatest fear of all if he is to go home.
Our mission is to cultivate a general public informed by science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future.
The World Science Festival gathers great minds in science and the arts to produce live and digital content that allows a broad general audience to engage with scientific discoveries. Through discussions, debates, theatrical works, interactive explorations, musical performances, intimate salons, and major outdoor experiences, the Festival takes science out of the laboratory and into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and premier performing arts venues of New York City and beyond.
I bolded the last part of their work. That is because I think that’s the most important thing that this organization does, gets science OUT to the real world, where the people are. If you know me, you know that I am very passionate about science, particularly as it applies to technology and engineering. So being a part of this amazing organization was a definite career and personal high.
Why am I telling you this? Because they invited me to be a part of this event not for my science degree, or the fact that I am a middle school science instructor, but because I write science books for kids! Yes, this weekend was a true mix of science and literacy.
Saturday night I was a part of the Saturday Night Lights: Stargazing at Brooklyn Bridge Park event.
We played science trivia mostly centered around my book, Astronaut- Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact (NGKids, 2018). As you can see on the screen, I asked questions and they voted on which they’d rather be– astronaut or aquanaut. It was close, but astronauts won (not surprising since the entire night was focused on space).
The rest of the night was an exciting mix of on-stage science experiments (who doesn’t like to see things blow up?) and scientists talking about Dark Matter. (wow!) But the literacy/STEM tie-in wasn’t done. Another scientist/children’s author came to the stage to share her book, but in a unique way. It was a journey of what you might see while “vacationing” on Mars. Jana Grcevich has her PhD in astronomy and wrote this fun book:
The final part of the night was truly amazing because world-famous conductor and composer Eric Whitacre played the music that he wrote to Deep Field, the images of over 3,000 galaxies that were found using the Hubble Space Telescope. Eric shared his artistic journey for creating this piece of music. To my surprise, it was similar to how I write a book. As the music poured out of the speakers, we all stood in awe and watched the awesome images of galaxies millions of miles away from us appear on the big screen. To have the music mixed with the science made a a true STEAM moment if I’ve ever seen one. It was quite simply… magical.
Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of our Universe - YouTube
Even if you aren’t into science, you will mostly likely be enthralled by this video. It is spectacular. That, my friends, is the feeling of science that I would love everyone to experience. I endeavor to show my passion and excitement for science through my books. Eric does it so well with his music. Both ways are wonderful. Science and the arts are not separate, but are intertwined. They both engage the senses, inspire passion, and show passion for science in similar ways. It is my hope that kids and adults everywhere can see that science is not scary, or boring, but surrounds us every day in everything we do. However you choose to do science, is perfectly correct.
I’ve been looking forward to telling you all about Kurt Kirchmeier’s recent middle-grade novel, The Absence of Sparrows (a Junior Library Guild Selection), for a couple of weeks now. It’s been described as Stranger Things meets Alfred Hitchcock. So all you fans of the hit Netflix series and the Master of Suspense: settle in and read all about the book, the author, and how the novel came to be. (For a chance to win a copy of the book, leave a comment.)
In the small town of Griever’s Mill, eleven-year-old Ben Cameron is expecting to finish off his summer of relaxing and bird-watching without a hitch. But everything goes wrong when dark clouds roll in.
Old Man Crandall is the first to change–human one minute and a glass statue the next. Soon it’s happening across the world. Dark clouds fill the sky and, at random, people are turned into frozen versions of themselves. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one knows how to stop it.
With his mom on the verge of a breakdown, and his brother intent on following the dubious plans put forth by a nameless voice on the radio, Ben must hold out hope that his town’s missing sparrows will return with everyone’s souls before the glass plague takes them away forever.
Kurt Kirchmeier lives and writes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and has a soft spot for contemporary fantasy and dark coming-of-age stories. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines including Shimmer, Space & Time, Weird Tales, Tesseracts 15, and elsewhere. When he isn’t reading or working on his next middle grade novel, he can often be found outside, connecting with nature and photographing birds. Visit Kurt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/saskwriter or at his website www.kurtkirchmeier.net.
What was the inspiration behind The Absence of Sparrows?
The idea for this story sprang from a dream I had of my own father turning to obsidian. I explored the concept first in a piece of short fiction, which was published in a speculative fiction magazine in Ireland back in 2009. I thought that would be the end of it, but the two brothers from that story wouldn’t leave me alone, and kept on pestering me until finally I decided I needed to give them a larger stage. Books like Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury inspired me to make it a coming-of-age story.
Are you a birder like your character or did you become one for the novel?
I am indeed a bird-lover like my main character, Ben. I got into birding and bird photography maybe two or three years before I started to write this book, and some of my own experiences with certain species—bohemian waxwings, notably—are mirrored in the story. All of the species represented in the book are species that appear here in Saskatchewan. There were others I wanted to include, but since the bird insights are used to help Ben glean truths about the human condition as well, I couldn’t always make it work. I still wish I’d found a place for an owl!
I love the title The Absence of Sparrows. What was the inspiration behind it?
In the book, the main character comes up with a theory about why his neighborhood sparrows are missing and what their absence might mean for him and his family, so that’s part of the inspiration. The title also has a dual meaning in that birds are often seen as being symbolic of freedom, and the loss of freedom and control is very much central to the story.
What would you like readers to come away with after reading the novel?
First and foremost, I would hope they would come away thinking that what they just read was thrilling and cool, and that birds might be more interesting than they previously imagined. It’s also my hope that this book will resonate with kids who, for whatever reason, have had their childhoods cut short and who might be feeling lonely or isolated in their situation. Lastly, I’d like readers to come away wanting to think and talk about some of the challenges Ben faces in the book, like having to stand against his own brother, and weighing the fate of his own family against the fate of the community at large. These would be hard things for anyone to deal with, let alone an eleven-year-old boy.
Readers have called The Absence of Sparrows a page-turner. Do you have any tips on how to write that type of suspense that keeps readers engaged?
I think the unpredictable nature of the glass plague kind of lends itself to suspense, but I guess the important thing is for the stakes to be real and present so that momentum can build and be sustained. Lively pacing goes a long way, too. I try to omit unnecessary description and exposition wherever I can so the narrative never becomes “dense.” Huge blocks of unbroken text can slow readers down and cause their minds to wander. There’s no suspense in a wandering mind.
What are you working on now?
I just recently finished working on an upper MG novel that’s sort of a mix of adventure fantasy and post-apocalyptic road story, featuring dual protagonists (one boy, one girl), parallel storylines, and a twist on dragons. I’m also working on another MG novel about two boys who are obsessed with comic books and superheroes, and who are trying to solve a local mystery that might offer clues about a larger mystery going on in the world. This one has an environmental twist, and has been a lot of fun to write so far.
Thanks so much, Kurt, for this great interview!
For a chance to win a copy of The Absence of Sparrows, leave a comment. I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday afternoon at 3 PM, and announce a winner shortly after. (U.S. Only, please.)