Tag Archives: science

“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses

by Beth Anderson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars 

Illustrations by Jenn Harney really make this book, especially providing clarity in a couple of spots where the text is a bit confusing. They evoke the 1930’s and 1940’s, when James “Smelly” Kelly was at his prime in working for the New York City subway system, walking miles of track and fixing leaks (an average of 8 a day!). He used his super sense of smell to do the job, but also learned that listening well and using inventions he made were also crucial. Another winning picture book biography in a banner year!

Illustrations like: Day-Glo Brothers

The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer

by Eliot Schrefer
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I loooooooved Mr. Popper’s Penguins as a kid. I believe it even fueled me and my sister pretending our stuffed penguin was alive, putting it in a box and “feeding” it torn up construction paper, on an Antarctic twist on proving responsibility to our parents to get a real pet. I haven’t re-read the book as an adult, mostly out of fear that it won’t have aged well.

The Popper Penguin Rescue features descendants of both Mr. Popper and his penguins. His distant relations, Nina and Joel and their mom, move back to town and into one of the old Popper penguin attractions and promptly find two mysterious eggs, about to hatch. They eventually decide to reunite the two chicks with the other Popper penguins, who had been rehomed on an arctic island. With the unquestioning help of an Inuit sailor, they take off from school to make the trip.

While on the island, they realize that the penguins don’t belong there, and are in fact having a devastating effect on the native puffins, who no longer have enough fish to eat. So they get Yuka, their Inuit guide, to take them and all the penguins to Antarctica. Once they get there they realize that the two chicks are a totally different species and should be somewhere else. In fact, because they have imprinted on Joel and Nina, they won’t survive in the wild at all, so the family decides to keep them in the end and use them to tour and educate people on penguins and climate issues.

This story is a lovely adventure for young children but requires a lottttt of suspension of disbelief that older readers might find frustrating. In particular, the family’s reliance on others – in particular a Native person for his labor and time, but also the Popper Foundation for funding – not to mention just dropping everything and going off on an adventure. But probably similar things happened in the original book and I was probably just fine with it, which makes me wonder if it holds up, both culturally and in my estimation as an adult.

Jada Jones, Rock Star by Kelly Starling Lyons

by Kelly Starling Lyons
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Jada Jones is a 4th grader whose best friend has just moved away. Now she’s faced with sizing up the rest of her classmates for potential substitute friends. I won’t give away what happens, but I loved her process. This seems like a solid early chapter book series, especially for those readers with a love for science. Jada – and her jokes and love of rocks – are utterly loveable. Lyons nails the complicated lives of elementary students and their interpersonal relations.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

by Zanib Mian
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Omar is an elementary schooler of indeterminate age (though his siblings are 3 and 13 so I am guessing he’s 8-ish). His family is Muslim and lives in London, though they move at the beginning and he has to change schools. He quickly makes a new friend and a new enemy, but by the end of the book, the enemy has been won over with just a little compassion and understanding (turns out his little sister is very ill and gets all the attention). Omar’s new next-door neighbor is anti-Muslim when they first move in, but their efforts to be friendly finally win her over, too. All’s well that ends well!

This book has lots of illustrations and different text, in a Geronimo Stilton type way, but fewer different fonts and no colors, so it gave me less of a headache to read and might be a good stepping stone book between Geronimo Stilton and more traditional chapter books. This book also seems to be more of a window for others into Pakistani Muslim culture and less of a mirror for Muslims themselves as almost all of the terms are explained or at least given some context. I’m not sure I’ve seen any books like that for this age level but I’ll keep looking because mirrors are so important. I really enjoyed this one, but docked it a star because the title seemed to suggest more cohesion around the fact that Omar is an accidental trouble magnet, but the story seemed to meander a bit more than that (or be straight-out more about the bully storyline).

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

9780141312422by Jean Craighead George
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

A good lean-in read right now for those in survivalist mode. My partner and I read this aloud to each other. He had read it so many times as a kid that he could often tell me what was about to happen next or even quote me the line verbatim! I also read it as a kid but didn’t remember it well at all.

12-year-old Sam Gribley is tired of life in his cramped New York apartment with 7 siblings. Like many kids, he dreams of running away and roughing it on his own. Unlike most kids, though, he makes it past the afternoon – and in fact stays out in the Catskills for over a year. He strikes out for Delhi, New York, and the old Gribley farmstead, so he has some claim to the land, though he also lives in fear of being discovered and sent back to the city. He has learned a lot about living off the land from his father and grandfather and has a relatively easy time of it. The one thing that helps a lot is that he is able to capture and train a baby falcon, whom he names Frightful and who ends up being his closest companion and fellow provider as she hunts food for them both. Sam describes making his home in a hollowed out tree, learning to make campfires, befriending his local animal neighbors, and hunting and gathering.

At times Sam’s descriptions sound more didactic and adult, and that is likely George’s own experience showing through, as well as the aesthetics of children’s literature in 1959, when the book was written. Sam share his thoughts through both narration and in readings from his diary entries, which were written on tree bark (though not sure what writing implement he used). I enjoyed learning vicariously through Sam about how to live off the land and I especially appreciated George’s introduction where she spoke of the inspiration for the story (her own failed attempt at running away) as well as where her own expertise came from. I also liked Sam’s visitors, the librarian in town, his description of how busy and not at all boring winter is, and how he came around to returning to the city. My partner and I discussed our own theories of social and political events that would have shaped George’s world, such as McCarthyism and the Cold War, and made an escape from humanity desirable. Sam also gets into trouble for domesticating an endangered species (and therefore removing her from the breeding pool), in addition to being hounded by people and reporters chasing rumors of the “wild boy.”

Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

9780525646570

by Nicole Panteleakos
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Nova is missing her sister, who promised to return before the space shuttle Challenger launches with Christa McAuliffe aboard. As Nova and her newest foster family count down the days until the launch, she writes her sister letters, telling her all about her new family, her new school, and how much she’s looking forward to seeing her sister again. The letters are never mailed, and even if they were, they’re illegible – Nova is autistic and nonverbal (though she can talk a little and make herself understood at times) and her writing “looks like chicken scratches.”

Nova’s foster parents are the only ones outside of her sister who ever knew how smart she was, how she can read and has a rich inner life. She’s obsessed with astronomy and could have answered questions from her special astronomy elective teacher if she’d had a way to communicate. One of her special ed classmates speaks sign language, and I found myself wondering why Nova didn’t. But it’s 1986 and it’s enough of a challenge to get the school to realize she can read.

Nova and her sister had previously lived in many different foster homes since being taken away from their mentally ill mother (possibly schizophrenia is hinted at) when Nova was 5. Their grand plan was to run away once Bridget turned 18 and could take care of them. But now Bridget is gone and Nova doesn’t know where. When the launch comes and goes (with disastrous results), Nova finally comes to terms with the truth about where her sister has gone and what it means for her.

Panteleakos has worked in special education with experience in the foster care world, and has Aspberger’s herself (see comments below). She has a list of credentials as long as my arm and also did a ton of research with other experts.

The one caveat for me was that I would have liked the full lyrics to David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” which she quotes throughout the story (sometimes creating significant parts of the plot), which I only sort of know, and which was running around in pieces in my head the whole time.

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Cam’s dad needs a birthday present for his son that doesn’t cost anything. A mysterious man gives him some cardboard and challenges him to use his imagination. The cardboard comes with specific, if odd, instructions: to return every scrap they don’t use, and they cannot ask for more. Cam’s dad lugs it home feeling despondent, but Cam is surprisingly game to try it and they make a man who then comes to life. Things quickly spiral out of control when the evil kid next door, Marcus, gets hold of the cardboard replicator they’ve also built (out of the magic cardboard) and starts building his own army of cardboard people. They build a whole world and then turn on the humans and it gets very dark, very fast. Marcus and Cam also have a moment of connection at one point, and Cam’s dad comes around and opens up to the woman next door who has expressed her interest in him, but he has previously been too absorbed in grieving his late wife. All in all, a surprisingly deep story full of adventure and suspense!

Out of Left Field by Ellen Klages

9780425288597

by Ellen Klages
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Ten-year-old Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in the neighborhood. Even a Little League scout thinks so – until he learns she’s a girl, and then it’s game over. With two tomboy sisters and a self-made woman for a single mom, it’s no surprise that Katy dreams big. But for 1957, she’s stuck in her gender role, until she learns about all the other women who have played professionally for the past 60 years. Katy’s best friend, Jules, isn’t quite as much of a tomboy as she is, but it’s easy to see why the two are friends, even through the awkward reunion scene when Jules gets back from camp. Katy’s story is set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the civil rights movement, the space race, and the end of San Francisco’s minor league era with the arrival of major league Giants.

There are some seriously strong women in this story. Katy’s family, for starters; but also her Aunt Babs, who is as into baseball as she is and takes her and Jules to a double header for her birthday. There’s also Jules’ student teacher; the middle school gym teacher; and her classmate Chip’s aunt, who played for the Negro Leagues (based on a real woman). There’s a scene where Katy goes to Chip’s family barbecue to talk to his aunt and is the only white person there; not much is made of it, but in the year of the Little Rock integration (which they had been discussing in school), I was surprised not to get more internal reaction from Katy. I did like that she got in the newspaper in the end, and that she got to spend a day shadowing a sports reporter to cover the brand new San Francisco Giants major league team.

Nothing changes for Katy on the Little League front, and won’t until she’s too old to play, but she learns that some rewards for your work come for others down the line, and the story ends with a sweet scene between her and a younger neighbor girl who looks up to her. I loved Katy’s relationship with her mother, who has two older daughters and is very relaxed about parenting Katy, talking to her like a grownup a lot and knowing when to let her play hooky for important life experiences. My partner’s aunt grew up in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s and loves baseball; I plan to get her this book as a gift. I’ll also see how the kids in my 4th/5th grade book club like it! I also learned that Klages wrote two other books which appear to be about Katy’s older sisters, and this is not listed as being part of that series, which is curious to me.

(Update: After I finished this, I was very much in the mood to rewatch A League of Their Own, which held up exceedingly well. I had forgotten entire scenes, like when the African American woman throws a baseball back to the main characters – the briefest and subtlest of nods to the fact that there were African American female baseball players then too, and I wondered why the movie didn’t talk more about them. And then, the next day, the Jewish Women’s Archive shared an article about one of the Jewish women who played on the team, and I realized I forgot to address Katy’s Jewish heritage! Both Katy (and, to a lesser extent, Jules) are very assimilated, which is maybe not surprising for post-Holocaust Jewish Americans. There’s also an article called The Hidden Queer History Behind a League of Their Own, which was really good, and reminds me that Katy’s aunt, who loves baseball, is very briefly referred to as having a roommate, subtly informing the reader that she might be gay.)

For fans of: The Lions of Little Rock and It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (though not as funny)

Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hosler

9781482385007

by Jay Hosler
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

A graphic novel about two mites living in Charles Darwin’s eyebrow follicles who believe him to be God. Throughout their conversations with Darwin, they learn that not only is he not a god, but all about natural selection, survival of the fittest, and evolution. The lessons are both explicit and implicit, told through allegories of what is happening in the storyline on a meta level. Overall, very creatively and clearly done. And also, ridiculous – for the naturalist/atheist in your life! (There is a tiny little bit about reproduction, just fyi.)

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

9780525429999

by Victoria Jamieson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Now that Imogene is 11 years old, she is ready to leave her Renaissance Faire family behind and attend public school for the first time. For a little while, things go fine – she makes friends relatively easily and keeps her weirdo family secret, and even gets to be a (paid!) knight in the Faire instead of just helping out her mom and little brother at the store. That is, until the ringleader of the group starts being mean. Impy meets another classmate, Anita, at the Ren Faire. Impy doesn’t understand middle school social structures that dictate that they must never be seen together at school, so Anita spells it out for her and things go on. Eventually Impy’s family “secret” comes out, but even then it’s not so bad. Her lab mate is cute and seems to like her, and things are good. But then Imogene, in an attempt to win the mean girl’s approval, draws caricatures of the teachers and other kids and mean girl copies them and tapes them up all over school and it all comes crumbling down. Imogene is suspended and her parents learn that she’s failing science. And it gets worse from there. But take heart! Our fearless knight eventually figures out how to make amends to Anita and to her brother (whom she’s also hurt in the process) and everything gets better. She learns that she can’t just run away from her mistakes and go back to being homeschooled, and she even figures out a little bit of how to deal with mean girls and have friends who will help her stand up to bullies.