Tag Archives: science

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


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


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


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


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.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met Rishi… he already knew they were being set up by their parents, but she didn’t. So when he led with “Hello, future wife,” she understandably freaks out, throws her iced coffee on him, and runs away. Unfortunately, they’ve both signed up for the same 6-week pre-college app coding program, so getting away from him for good turns out to be futile, as is resisting his charms. Somehow, he’s the total package: nerdy, cute, funny, sensitive, suave (well except for the future wife part). Dimple, however, is not interested. She isn’t even sure she wants to get married, ever, since it would (she thinks) detract from her life goals of coding apps and programs to help change people’s lives.

After an alarmingly short time, Rishi has won Dimple over, so clearly that’s not the real conflict of the story. The real conflict is in two parts: one in which Dimple helps Rishi discover his real career ambitions, and one in which Rishi helps Dimple realize she can be in a relationship and be a career woman. There’s also a couple of side plots involving Dimple’s roommate at the summer program, a girl named Celia whose new friends turn out to be jerks. Celia and Rishi’s brother, Ashish, have a past that comes back up, and also Celia has to figure out how to dump her new friends – and come around to the understanding that she needs to lose them.

I guess I was expecting that the main story would be Rishi winning Dimple over, but in the end I’m glad that’s not what it was. I’m glad that Dimple was a little bit more complex than that, and really grappled with commitment to a relationship AND to her career ambitions, and all at the low low age of 18. Rishi is so level-headed that he stops them from having sex on not one but two different occasions so that they can really sort through how they feel about it (it’s the first time for both of them). I was a little disappointed that neither of them walked us through their thought process at all, or seemed to give it any thought other than when actively making out and heading down that road. And it didn’t seem to have any great effect on either of them, not even, most surprisingly, for Rishi the romantic. Both of their relationships with their parents (and, for Rishi, his brother) had plenty of nuance, which I loved, and things came together neatly and satisfyingly.

Geek love like: Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love

Generic love like: Anna and the French Kiss


Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives by Gene Barretta


by Gene Barretta
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This nonfiction book explores several of Edison’s more well-known inventions and how they were precursors to today’s modern life. The large, color cartoon illustrations are appealing and feature diverse children. I really liked that each page spread started with something in the present day on the left, and then explored which of Edison’s inventions it came from on the right. There is also a timeline, a little information about many of the scientists Edison employed, and Thomas Trivia. My favorite fact is that, while Edison championed the use of “hello” for answering the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to answer the phone by saying “ahoy hoy.” Try it – it’s fun!

Primal Teen


Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
A couple of months ago, I went to a day-long conference for teen librarians. One of the presenters talked about teens and the changes their brains are going through, some of which I already knew and some of which was revolutionary for me. The presenter mentioned this book as a good source for more information, so of course I immediately logged into my library app on my smartphone (don’t you just love technology?!) and requested it, and have been slogging through it ever since.
Honestly, the only deductions are because this book is now 13 years old, so who knows how the science has advanced in the intervening time, and because I’m out of practice with reading nonfiction, especially science-based nonfiction. I was mostly able to follow the sciency bits, but got bogged down sometimes. Strauch includes lots of narrative about individual teens which is well done and helps break up the technical stuff while also illustrating it. She covers a lot of different areas where we might see changes in teens’ brains manifesting as particular behaviors. As a librarian who works with children and teens, I would have appreciated a little of “and then here’s how to deal with it,” though this was not at all what Strauch claimed to accomplish; rather, she aimed merely to present the facts and best theories (as they were in 2003). I was surprised at how much of this supposedly still-developing behavior is still present in many adults I know, but that’s maybe a topic for another book! (However, Strauch passed away last year, so sadly we will not see an updated version of this book. She did publish a 2010 book about adult brains, if you’re so inclined.)
The most interesting chapters to me were on just how much the teen brain develops during adolescence, including an explanation of the myelination process that helps them learn to make good decisions and not react from the gut and also learn to read social cues and emotions and not take everything personally. She also discusses sleep cycles (with a good healthy discussion on why schools should start later, a particular pet issue of mine) and the effects of nicotine and alcohol on teen brains (basically, people are likely to get much more addicted to nicotine if they start smoking as a teen than as an adult, because of teen brain development; alcohol is similarly worse). Teens’ brains are taking all the possible things they could need to learn to do in their environment and, by doing them over and over and strengthening those synapses, they are fine-tuning their brains and basically making them less plastic and adaptable and therefore capable of being responsible adults in whatever type of society it turns out they’ve ended up in, which is never a given at birth and which has also changed over time since caveman times and needs.



by Svetlana Chmakova
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

On Peppi’s (full name Penelope Torres) first day at a new school, she trips and falls, scattering her books and papers. When Jaime helps her, the bullies call her “nerder’s girlfriend” and she literally pushes him away from her. She is wracked with guilt until she finally gets up the nerve to apologize and the two become friends. But more trouble is in store, because Jaime is in Science Club and Peppi joins Art Club, who are each vying for a table at the Club Fair and for funding. The rival clubs get into a feud that it turns out only Peppi and Jaime can stop.

One thing I often have trouble with in graphic novels is action scenes being hard to follow, but these ones were clearly explained (and fairly simple and infrequent). The characters were diverse and three-dimensional: Peppi is presumably a person of color. Jaime’s mom is in a wheelchair, with no commentary, which felt refreshing. The science teacher, Miss Tobins, appears to be a woman of color, and the newspaper’s “staff reporter” is Akilah, who wears a head scarf. The Art Club’s leader, Maribella, is also an interesting character as her father is very demanding and she just wants his approval, so failure to her is devastating. (For any Gilmore Girls fans out there, Peppi and Maribella reminded me a lot of Rory and Paris.) I also liked that there was a section at the end about how the book came together, for kids interested in the making of graphic novels.