Category Archives: science

Jedi mind tricks and limited tragedy

superstarLester Musselbaum has a few struggles when he starts fifth grade.  He’s only been homeschooled up to now, so he doesn’t realize his awesomeness might not be seen as such by other kids.  He’s grieving–and his mom is grieving even more–the loss of his astronaut father.  He’s on the autism spectrum, although he doesn’t know it until later in the book.  He also has a name which seems tailor-made for bullies.  (As the book shows, we pretty much all have great names for bullies – they have an impressive creativity with words when they need to put someone down.  Unfortunately, this does not often carry over to most school subjects.)

Compared to a lot of books I’ve read and not written about lately, he’s got sunshine, butterflies, and free ice cream all summer.  Maybe this is why I liked Lester and not them.  Maybe it’s why when I thought, “This is not the book you’re looking for” after reading the inside flap, I was wrong.  I am so tired of middle grade books that pile on the tragedy.  (I have written about this. You can‘t just have one dead sibling; you have to lose at least two family members, have a sibling who’s got issues, and then find out you or your best friend are going to die or be disfigured while also fighting some other injustice.  I know.  I’m exaggerating.  I do that.)

Lester would probably appreciate the Star Wars reference, although Superman is more up his alley.  Lester tells the story and does a fine job of illustrating his world and the other characters in it without trying too hard.  He makes mistakes, a lot of them, and sometimes his words just aren’t going to be understood by others as you might mean things when you operate consistently from a scientific perspective.

This is a first novel from a Midwestern former teacher now living in the state to the north of us.  Yippee!  I can’t wait to see what’s next from her.

Superstar by Mandy Davis

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Beware of plankton and reach for the stars

I’m always looking for smart, science-based picture books.  Being an adult has not stopped me from wanting to learn cool things about the world and occasionally bolster my decades-old knowledge of biology a bit.

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams is really perfect for that particular reading mood.  There are child-friendly (and beautiful) explanations of evolution and how food chains work.  If the sharks go away, all kinds of environmental chaos might ensue.  Coincidentally, I heard Paul Nicklen, a conservation photographer, speaking on a very similar topic on NPR’s Fresh Air just a few days ago. It’s definitely worth a listen, too, if you need any reminders of how fragile our life on this planet is.

Meanwhile, over at NASA in the 1960s, Margaret Hamilton was figuring out how to use computers to get astronauts into space and land the lunar module.  Having questioned why girls were not expected or sometimes even allowed to do certain things at a young age, she charged ahead and rose to the top of her profession, becoming a role model for many women in computer science and engineering.  This is an especially fun read for kids who like thinking outside the box and challenging stereotypes.

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

Margaret and the Moon: how Margaret Hamilton saved the first lunar landing by Dean Robbins and Lucy Knisley


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A banana, a smile, a rowboat

many moonsWhat do you see when you look at the moon?

It can be so many things – a bow, the eye of an owl, an expectant mom. Many Moons is a whimsical conversation starter for little ones, I think, both about what the moon is and why we see different things when we see it, and about shapes and patterns and science.  That might be a lot to pile on to one book, but it’s just the beginning.  And there are croissants baking.  So I’m in.

Many Moons by Rémi Courgeon

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Wild about nature

out of schoolThank you, Anna Comstock, for spending your whole life showing us the value of science education.  I didn’t know you did that.  My high school biology teacher must have been a fan, since I still remember his enthusiasm for taking science outside, even when we were stuck in a basement room without much natural light.  For our big project of the year – to collect and identify 50 examples of something – he approved everything from wildflowers to road kill (pictures only) to wheat samples, but it had to be something you found outdoors. That would have been right up Anna’s alley.

Some of my happiest memories are of being outside, seeing some beautiful part of the landscape, finding hidden flowers, taking a walk around the block and seeing what’s new and green, or going to a nearby lake to look at an eagle’s nest, stick my toes in the water, or look over the bridge to see what’s below.

So her life and her work is a wonderful chapter of history to share with kids before going on a nature walk.  “More about Anna” fills us in with additional details about her life and career, so this book is also a way to talk about changing roles in society, since she was clearly ahead of her time in keeping her profession after marriage and becoming a university professor.

Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade & Jessica Lanan

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Because hirolas and pink fairy armadillos are cool, too

I might have gone with something a little less bizarre for the cover, something cuter like the Amazon river dolphin, but I guess if you’ve got “The World of Weird Animals” on your cover, why not go with the blobfish?  And it seems like there are plenty of weird and wonderful variations out there in the animal world – the Cuban solenodon with the poisonous bite, the pink fairy armadillos, the rare hirola antelope.

Animal facts and animal ickiness appeal to all ages, so I’m sure these two will fit right in with the other great stuff out there.  If you’re needing a break from reality, animal books are a great choice.  Right about the time you get over how creepy the red uakaris look, you’ll be motivated to learn more about how to protect them, and BOOM, you’re back in reality!

Pink is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink by Jess Keating and David DeGrand

Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of by Martin Brown

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Clark and Sharks

9780807521878_swimming-with-sharks-512x636Eugenie Clark spent her childhood weekends observing sharks and other aquatic life at an aquarium and grew up to become an expert in sharks with her own marine lab and aquarium.  How cool is that?  Super cool!  Others might not have believed in her or threw up road blocks because she was a woman and Japanese American, but that didn’t stop her.  She observed, took notes, observed some more, took more notes.  “Sharks are magnificent and misunderstood,” she said, and she set out to prove it and to protect all kinds of sharks from humans.

How much do I love all the books coming out about women in science?  A TON!  A BUNCH!  A LOT!  Add this one to the list.

For more on women in science and/or math, see these previous posts:

Pathfinders & visionaries —

Not so hidden now —

Women in science & math —

Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang and Jordi Solano

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Not so hidden now

hidden-figuresI haven’t seen Hidden Figures in the theater yet, but having just finished the young readers’ edition of the book, I can appreciate what we’ve been missing all these years—one more chapter of our history that should have included much, much more.  The African American women “computers,” mathematicians, and engineers who worked on the race to build better and faster aircraft and then the space program were up against a host of low expectations, not because they weren’t good at what they were doing, but because they were not white and not men.  It’s an inspiring story, and one that will be interesting to kids and teens on its own or as part of any curriculum that addresses the civil rights movement or how the workplace has changed for women since World War II.

Looking for more on women in science?  See this post for even more recent resources.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Women in science and math – a few favorites


I happened to notice that Hidden Figures, a book about African-American women mathematicians, will be available in a youth edition soon.  (I’m on the list for it when it comes into the library already – woo hoo!)  That got me thinking about all the great books about women in science I’ve come across lately.  So, today I offer a short list of recent goodies:

 Finding Wonders:  Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins.  Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell had a few things in common – they loved science and they lived in times which didn’t accept women as scientists.  This novel in verse imagines their lives and research.  It’s very accessible and would be a new way to get younger readers thinking about the wonders they see in their own lives and the extent to which they’d be willing to fight for the right to investigate them.  What matters enough?  When do you stand up for yourself, even if it’s uncomfortable?  Do others still face these challenges now?  So much to think about…

I am Jane Goodall by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos.  This one’s part of the “Ordinary People Change the World series, and it’s a keeper.  It’s a sort of picture book-graphic novel blend, and it really shows how the kid who hid in the hay to observe chickens became the woman who studied chimpanzees and taught us so much about animal relationships.  This one was so fun that I’ll be adding the others in the series to my TBR pile.

Ada Lovelace:  Poet of Science by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland.  I mentioned this one in an earlier post.  When I checked it out again to show to a friend, I reread it.  Still great!

Trailblazers:  33 Women in Science Who Changed the World by Rachel Swaby.  You’ll find Ada Lovelace, Maria Mitchell and Mary Anning in this one, along with thirty other amazing women – some well-known and others not so much.  Their biographies are short but very readable, and a nice way to find out about someone you might want to learn even more about!

Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz.  These books cover everyone from political leaders to athletes and singers, but some of the noted women are scientists, mathematicians, and environmental activists.  Like the Trailblazers, these biographies are quick bites, not in-depth, but they’re perfect for kids looking for report subjects (they can research them more through other sources) and adults who are looking for shorter pieces to read on a commute, while waiting at a doctor’s office, eating lunch or whatever.

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs & Sophia Foster-Dimino.  This one’s super sassy and full of unexpected fun.  Annie Smith Peck was both a suffragist and a mountaineer.  Brita Tott was a spy and forger. Jacqueline Felice De Almania was a physician.  Again, it’s all in quick bites, but when you think about women from what seems like long ago doing all these amazing things…. well, the future looks a little brighter.

So much to learn!  So much to uncover!  So much fun!



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Smartypants biographies with zing

You might not guess this from all the reading I supposedly do, but I have an extremely short attention span.  One of my former co-workers used to joke about how easily distracted I was by “shiny objects”.  We could be talking about some huge problem we were trying to solve, and suddenly my mind would make a connection to something about women’s history or a book I’d read a few weeks before.  Often the connection was not an especially clear one.  And there were not usually shiny things around.  Still, you get the idea.  I can be a little scattered.

As time has gone on, this has only gotten worse.  Not only do I live with two people who are constantly making references to movies, tv shows and music, but there’s all the technology.  Between the smart phones and iPads and Google Maps, getting through any adult nonfiction is pretty hard, and even middle grade books longer than 200 pages sometimes look overwhelming.

But lately, thanks to the Common Core movement, there have been a heap of new nonfiction picture books.  (I know many people loathe the Common Core, but hey—here’s one good thing about it!) These are perfect for me–pictures to look at, sometimes really amazing art, facts about people I either don’t know or don’t know much about, appendices with extra information, HOORAY!  I think every nerdy kid and adult should just make a pile of these and then sit and enjoy.  It’s hard to be distracted from this amazing stuff, whether it’s technical drawings or Matisse’s cutouts or art about the art of photography.

If you’re so inclined, the following three are especially good ones:

Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature by Cindy Jensen-Elliot and Christy Hale.  You might wonder why you even need illustrations if you’re doing a book about Ansel Adams, but these take the story of his life to a whole different level.  It’s also a wonderful reminder of how we don’t all fit within the same educational boxes, and when someone special is set free to do what they need to do, the results can be amazing.

Mr. Matisse and His Cutouts by Annemarie van Haeringen.  Again, it seems like with Matisse’s art, you wouldn’t need much else to make a book pop.  But the way Matisse’s color and imagination exploded is so wonderfully displayed here!   I love the idea of Matisse in a wheelchair flying along, scissors reaching to the sky.  Ha!

Ada Lovelace:  Poet of Science by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland.  You had me at hello with that title, people.  Poetry and science AND math together!  Whew!  There’s so much good information in this book, too.  It deals with the reality of Ada Lovelace’s daily life at a time when women were kept out of scientific inquiries, but it also somehow expresses the sheer joy she found in learning new things and figuring stuff out.

So these are on my stack.  Find your own.  Learn a little.  Look a little.  Capture your quiet spot.  Make a pile.  And read, my friends.  Just read.

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A little history, a little physics

Well, friends, summer’s at full blast, and with the garden jungle calling and some mountain hikes and road trips, I haven’t been reading as much.  My first day back at the library, though, I found these three in my stack.  What fun!

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas presents the amazing life of Vivien Thomas, an African-American growing up in the segregated South who found work with a White researcher (despite negative attitudes about his potential), developed experimental medical procedures, and later taught student doctors.  His attention to detail and tiny stitches created techniques which saved thousands, and yet he received relatively little recognition until late in his life.  This one’s especially great for biography projects which touch on how we all have the power to change the world.

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, where have you been all my life?  Not only do you have an awesome title, but your illustrations are absolutely fun, wacky and cheerful.  You explain the scientific method, mass, density, gravity…and so much more.  Along the way, Professor Astro Cat flies a balloon, explains the nature of the universe via flowers and the Fibonacci series, and sits on Isaac Newton’s head.  Whoa!  Now I must find more of these!

Clara: The Mostly True Story of the Rhinoceros Who Dazzled Kings, Inspired Artists, and Won the Hearts of Everyone…While She Ate Her Way Up and Down a Continent!  Emily Arnold McCully has done some wonderful illustrations to tell Clara’s story, and it’s fun to see what an alien creature she must have been to Europeans in the eighteenth century.  It’s also an interesting way to begin talking to kids about how our treatment of animals has changed over the years.

They’re very different books, but wonderful in their own ways.  Pick one up!

 Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure by Dr. Dominic Wallman and Ben Newman

Clara: The Mostly True Story of the Rhinoceros Who Dazzled Kings, Inspired Artists, and Won the Hearts of Everyone…While She Ate Her Way Up and Down a Continent! by Emily Arnold McCully

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