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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Five Excellent Books that Can Help you Get Students Excited about Science.

Holm, Jennifer L. (2014) The Fourteenth Goldfish  New York:  Yearling.

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Opening Lines:  “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.  She wore rainbow tie-died dresses and was always bringing in cookies that were made with granola and flax and had no taste.”

Okay, so the story is maybe a bit far-fetched.  Ellie is a sixth-grader who gets a call to pick up her grandfather from the police.  She knows her grandfather is a scientist/genetic inventor who experiments with jellyfish.  She eventually finds out that he has invented a genetic formula that has regressed his body to that of a sixth grader.  He has retained his crankiness, old man fashion sense, and passion for science.  At first Ellie finds him annoying and embarrassing, but eventually he ignites an interest in science in her, which eventually grows to a passion, and she helps him to consider some of the ethical implications of his research.  Throw in a boy classmate who joins them, mostly to spend time with Ellie, which leads to a budding first romance and you have got a story that will grab middle grade students and may even get them to love science (real science – which doesn’t necessarily translate to what we teach in school I am afraid.) 

Nothing objectionable here that I noticed.  Should be great for fourth through seventh grades or so.  

Heiligman, Deborah (2009) Charles and Emma:  The Darwin’s Leap of Faith. New York:  Henry Holt and Company

Opening Lines:  “In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.  He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world.  He was in his late twenties.  It was time to decide.  Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry.  On the right he wrote Not Marry.  And in the middle: This is the question.”

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            In the world we live in, Charles Darwin is the father of evolutionary theory which some people hold equal to atheism.  In the world and time that Charles Darwin lived in, however, things were not so clear cut.  Like everyone else in his time, Darwin was raised attending church and living in a society rooted in Christian ethics and understandings.  When he began to think about evolution, he questioned and doubted the Christian understanding of how the world began and how God maintains it.  However, this belief system was not easily dismissed by Darwin.  One reason he struggled with belief in God his whole life and never fully settled the question was his wife Mary. 
            Yet this is not a book with an axe to grind.  It is a carefully researched and well- written book about a remarkably strong marriage and the evolving thought of a very thoughtful couple. I did not know that Darwin studied theology at University and intended to become a country parson before his interest in science took over.   In 1836, for example, Darwin published a letter in a South African newspaper arguing for increased funding for missionaries.  Two years later he notes in his journal that while he remains a strong believer, he is beginning to question the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.  Before he married Emma, Darwin asked his father if he should discuss his doubts with his fiancé.  Darwin’s father counselled him against such an action.  Darwin talked to her about it anyway.  When Emma’ sister Fanny died, Emma became more devout.  As they grew older together, the death of several of their children and Charles’s own illness continued to drive Emma deeper into belief and caused Charles to question more deeply – but until his death, he continually was searching for ways that he could share the depth of Emma’s belief. 
            Heiligman doesn’t slouch in describing the development of Charles’s understanding of the the way the animals of the world interact and change over time.  And in the end, the book does not try to argue either side of this debate, but perhaps to argue that the debate itself is an unfair reading of what Darwin himself was thinking.  It may help students who struggle with this question themselves to understand that it is not always necessary to have a clear answer to all such mysteries.
            This book is ideal for high school students.  There is nothing objectionable here, though teachers should recognize that this is a sensitive issue for some parents.  

Koch, Falynn (2017) Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:  Hoo!/ Ugh./ I hate to admit it… but I think I’m lost.  Little brown bat.  Myotis lucifugus./ I’m glad y’all could make it out for this special nighttime hike.  The national park only does this a few times each year.

            This graphic novel is one of the latest in a series.  Some of the earlier books in the series seemed to be struggling to figure out how the graphic novel format could be effectively utilized to explain science.  With this book, the series seems to have found its fee.  There is a single narrative through-line about a little brown bat and a teenaged girl who initially is not so interested in what the ranger has to day, but when the bat gets close to the group and one of the panicked humans swats it, the girl decides to help the bat in any way she can.
But woven through the narrative is plenty of explanation and exposition about nearly every aspect of a bat’s life.  There is plenty here to interest students from third grade up.  This is an excellent book for your classroom library.  It would work as an in-class text as well, though I am not aware of any elementary curriculum that divest that deeply into the biology of a single creature.  

Loux, Matthew (2017) The Time Museum  New York: First Second.

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Opening Lines:  Image of time travelers working on building a machine outside of tier time travelling vessel/ Image of a triceratops herd stampeding.  Time traveler:  I wonder if they know somehow…/ Man in sunglasses and trenchcoat:  Unless you wish to remain and ask, I suggest you finish your work!
            Delia is a science nerd.  Her thorough report on the life cycle of the dung beetle puts her class to sleep, including the teacher.  When he best friend deserts her for a cooler friend at the beginning of the summer and she finds out she and her family are going to visit her eccentric uncle, she takes it in stride.  When it turns out that her uncle s the curator of the Earth Time Museum, that he is himself a time traveler form the future, and that he is offering her a chance to do a summer internship with the museum, she is overjoyed.  When she finds out that she will have to compete with other science students of the position, and that most of them are from the future and seem to know much more than she does, she is close to despairing.  The contests begin and she soon finds herself making decisions that may save the museum or doom it.
            This isn’t hard science and, in fact, the reader will learn little about science at all from this graphic novel, but a consistent theme throughout the book is that scientific thinking, passion for science,  and problem-solving ability is more important than memorized facts, a concept that might be very encouraging to some young science students.
            There is nothing in this graphic novel that reasonable parents would find objectionable.  It would be best for fourth grade and up. It is a lot of fun.

Benjamin, Ali (2015)  The Thing about Jellyfish:  New York:  Little Brown.

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            Opening lines: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.  It doesn’t matter what kind:  The Blood-red Atolla with its flashing siren lights, the frilly flower hat variety, or the near transparent moon jelly, Aurelia aurita.  It’s their pulse, the way they contract swiftly, then release.  Like a ghost heart—a heart you can see right through, right into some other world where everything you ever lost has gone to hide.”
            Suzy Swanson’s friend Franny Jackson drowned a few months ago.  Suzy is trying to piece her life together.  Jellyfish may hold the key she thinks.  That is really all I can tell you.  You are just going to have to read it. 
            This book is a kind of exploration of how a kid looks and the world and science.  It is also kind of a mystery story … and kind of a treatise on friendship … and kind of a moving narrative about grief. It is a nerd story in the best sense of the term.  It is about a kid who is different, persistent, and who cares about things that really matter.
This is a really good one.  You should read it.  I t is about grief and so I suppose a parent might object to it on the grounds that it is morbid – but I have not heard of any such objections.  It would be best for fifth grade and up  Check it out.