STEM Tuesday Spin Off: The Science of Social Studies

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Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin-Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. As you will recall, members of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors will share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post that ties middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We’ll look at the things in life we often take for granted. We’ll peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing will be the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” will be the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.

The STEM Tuesday team has brought you lunchroom science and recess science, so continuing in our schoolyard science theme, I present–The science of Social Studies!


That’s right, we often talk about integrating science and math or science and technology. But there’s a lot of science in social studies. Let’s take a tour of some fun ways to look at STEM–social studies connections.

Maps and Map-making

Map-making is a STEM bonanza. Latitude and Longitude? Pure geometry. Mountains and Oceans and deserts? Geology. And making the maps themselves? Technology and engineering.

Check out National Geographic Education’s fun simulation of mapping Mars.

Read Soundings: The remarkable woman who mapped the ocean floor by Hali Felt  (Henry Holt, 2012).

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OR Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor 
by Robert Burleigh and Illustrated by Raúl Colón (Paula Wiseman Books)

Watch The Science of Everything Podcast to see how map projections alter our understanding of the world.




Scientific discoveries have impacted the trajectory of historical events, and historical realities affect how and when science is done. Several STEM Tuesday reading lists have looked at the history of science and technology.

Try the Women in Science History List or this botany list on #STEMTuesday  (you may be surprised how interwoven botany and world exploration are).

Want to learn about the importance of seeds and plants and how that relates to feeding the world’s population? Check out The Story of Seeds by Nancy Castaldo (HMH BFYR) Or take a look at The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR)

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In  Castaldo’s book, learn how something as small as a seed can have a worldwide impact. Did you know there are top-secret seed vaults hidden throughout the world? And once a seed disappears, that’s it—it’s gone forever? This important book sheds a light on the impact one seed can have on the world.

Silvey’s book takes us on a great adventure as early plant hunters traveled around the world, facing challenges at every turn: tropical illnesses, extreme terrain, and dangerous animals to find and collect new and unusual specimens, no matter what the cost.


Geography is essentially geology with people on top. For a technology twist, try this National Geographic lesson on the geography of a pencil.


Check out Geology Lab for Kids by Garrett Romaine (Quarry Books)  for fun hands-on activities. Or The Rock and Gem Book: And Other Treasures of the Natural World by the Smithsonian.

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See how people’s water use can lead to sinkholes and check out satellite imagery of Florida on Google Maps–all of those circular lakes are old sinkholes!




Of course, conservation is deeply tied to government and laws. This STEM Tuesday list will give students a whole host of ideas for conservation, and what better way to engage them in the political process than with cool science?

Try Jennifer Swanson’s Geoengineering Earth’s Climate (21st Century Books) or Whale Quest: Working Together to Save Endangered Species by Karen Romano Young to see how decisions we make in our world affect the species that live within it.

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Finally, with the out sized role of the electoral college in the last few elections and the age of gerrymandering, apportionment has been a big civics issue. I have long been fascinated by the mathematics that shows that it is mathematically impossible to perfectly apportion representation. This activity illustrates why (it’s for a high school math or higher, but still, this topic is so cool!).

So check out these resources and go wild with the science of social studies!



download  Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a STEM Tuesday blogger, science author, and educator with 10+ books for children and teachers from National Geographic Kids, Capstone, and NSTA Press. Recent children’s books include Dog Science Unleashed: fun activities to do with your canine companion (a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize), Edible Science: Experiments you Can Eat (a Junior Library Guild Selection) and, as a co-author, Recycled Science (a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize).…

MG at Heart Book Club’s Writer’s Toolbox: What the First Chapters of The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora Have in Common

This month, the Middle Grade at Heart team is trying something new: our first ever book club double-feature, spotlighting The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden and Everlasting Nora by Marie Miranda Cruz!

We love how both of these authors explore the theme of poverty in such an authentic, unflinching way. We also love how they have both crafted brave, resilient main characters, and how their books depict difficult situations while offering lots of hope and empowerment for young readers.

These are the best kinds of window and mirror books. For readers who have never dealt with poverty, The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora will help them develop compassion and understanding. And those who have lived in poverty will feel seen and validated.

Both books have terrific first chapters that introduce readers to these two strong, memorable main charactersZoey and Nora. And an interesting parallel is that both first chapters reveal the characters’ relationships to school. Let’s take a closer look at how both books touch on the characters’ experiences with something very relatable: their education.

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In The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Zoey has a very rare, very short-lived moment of quiet in her mom’s boyfriend’s trailer, where she lives with her mom and younger siblings. She thinks she might have a chance to work on her debate packet and explains why that would be unusual:

I’m not a kid who does homework. And I definitely don’t do big projects, which usually require glitter and markers and poster board and all sorts of things. None of which I have. Plus, last year in sixth grade, when I actually turned in a poster project, Kaylee Vine announced to the whole class, “Everyone! Alert the authorities! Zoey Albro turned in a project. The world must be ending.” Then she made that ahgn ahgn ahgn sound like a fire drill, and did it every time she passed me in the hall for the whole next week.

But this project doesn’t need any glitter. And everyone else won’t have fancy poster boards with foam letters that make my flimsy piece of newsprint that the teacher gave me look like gray toilet paper. All I need is to know something—and I do.

And maybe, just maybe, if I do this—and if I can rock it—all the other kids will have their minds blown, and it’ll be completely satisfying to watch. “Who would have guessed,” they’ll say, “that Zoey knew so much cool stuff? I had no idea! I thought I knew who she was, but clearly I didn’t at all.” Maybe Kaylee Vine would even stop holding her nose and switching seats on the bus to get away from me.

This passage is powerful for a few reasons. First, it’s a bit surprising. From the first page, Zoey comes across as extremely smart, capable, and responsible. So that sentence, “I’m not a kid who does homework” will catch some readers off-guard. It might make readers pause and ask, “Wait a minute. Why not?” And then, immediately, Zoey’s narration reveals that there are often financial barriers to completing projectsbarriers some kids will recognize and other kids (and adults) might have to stop to consider for the first time.

The passage also establishes Zoey as a character we can’t help but root for. Zoey reveals some upsetting thingsKaylee Vine’s cruelty and the fact that other kids underestimate herbut she doesn’t pity herself. She has a fire inside her and remains determined and hopeful that she can make things better. That makes her very easy to love and cheer on.

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Now let’s turn to Everlasting Nora. On the first pages of the book, Nora reveals that she does not have a traditional home—instead, she and her mom, along with several other people, live in their families’ grave houses in a cemetery in the Philippines. The first paragraphs of the book are quite poignant, revealing Nora’s nostalgia for the kind of home she used to have. But despite Nora’s sorrows, she’s also very joyful. Her capacity for joy comes across when she spots a teacher who sometimes comes to the cemetery:

Up ahead, I saw Efren Pena and his pushcart classroom on the corner. He waved a book in the air when he saw me. A wide smile dimpled his cheek. He called out, “Nora, join us! We’re doing math today.”

I waved back a him. A surge of excitement filled me. […] Working on math would be fun. Papa had always said I was good with numbers.”

Like Zoey, Nora is not defeated; she has a great deal of passion and truly wants to learn. But also like Zoey, Nora has many responsibilities and worries that get in the way of her schooling. In fact, she isn’t able to go to school at all. After Nora sees Efren Pena, she decides she can join the math lesson for a bit. She thinks to herself, “Yes, it would be nice to sit a while and pretend I was back in school.” This is such a powerful line. Nora matter-of-factly shares that school work is a relaxing break from the type of work she usually has to do. Readers who manage challenging circumstances at home will likely relate to this sentiment. Meanwhile, others who haven’t felt this way will understand a lot about Nora’s life from the fact that she considers schoolwork a break. Readers also get to see how determined Nora is when she reflects on her desire to be back in school:

I missed going to a real school. I missed the smell of chalk. Most of all, I missed my best friend. If I saved enough money I could buy a couple of secondhand uniforms, some notebooks, and pencils. I would go back to school next year. I’d have to repeat sixth grade, but that was okay.

For some readers, school might be something they take for granted or even dislike, but school is something Nora longs for. Readers who think of school as an obligation will be very moved by Nora’s desire to have the opportunity to go back. And we see here in this passage that, like Zoey, Nora is resilient and full of hope that she can make things bettertraits that make her an endearing and admirable character.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that both books address the protagonists’ complicated relationships with education in the first chapter. But even if it is, we can learn a lot from the way Ann Braden and Marie Miranda Cruz do this. They both use something that almost all readers have experience with as a touchstone to reveal a lot about where their characters are coming from. This choice helps some readers quickly identify with Zoey and Nora, and it helps others to understand and feel compassion for them.

What other parallels can you spot between these two books? We hope you’ll join us this month to read The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora…or to read one of them, if you’ve already read the other. Our newsletter will go out on Monday, April 22nd, and our #mgbookclub Twitter chat will be at 8pm EST on Tuesday, April 30th. We hope you can discuss these books and their similarities and differences with us then!

MG at Heart Book Club’s April Picks: Marie Miranda Cruz’s EVERLASTING NORA and Ann Braden’s THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS

This month, we’re trying something brand-new at Middle Grade @ Heart: a double feature! We’ll be spotlighting BOTH Marie Miranda Cruz’s EVERLASTING NORA and Ann Braden’s THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS. Each one focuses on different experiences of poverty—one in the United States, one in the Philippines—and we think they will make for an interesting comparison and contrast!

We will have a variety of content about both books, and we hope that if you’ve already read one, this will give you a chance to track down the other and focus on that.

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Information on EVERLASTING NORA:

An uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds, Marie Miranda Cruz’s debut Everlasting Nora follows the story of a young girl living in the real-life shantytown inside the Philippines’ Manila North Cemetery.

After a family tragedy results in the loss of both father and home, 12-year-old Nora lives with her mother in Manila’s North Cemetery, which is the largest shantytown of its kind in the Philippines today.

When her mother disappears mysteriously one day, Nora is left alone.

With help from her best friend Jojo and the support of his kindhearted grandmother, Nora embarks on a journey riddled with danger in order to find her mom. Along the way she also rediscovers the compassion of the human spirit, the resilience of her community, and everlasting hope in the most unexpected places.

“Heartwarming!”―#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Melissa de la Cruz

“A story of friendship and unrelenting hope.”―Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly



An NPR Best Book of 2018!

Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.

Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.

Our newsletter will go out on April 22nd, and our Twitter chat will be April 30th!

Interview: Jo Knowles

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Hello, Jo! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate the release of Where the Heart Is and to chat about the book. You write both Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. How early on in your process do you know which category a story idea will fit into? Do you think about it at all before or while writing? 

Thanks for having me! I do think about how old my character is when I first start writing, mainly because age is often how I introduce my characters. But… I admit that often after I’ve written several chapters I realize the voice sounds either too young or too old for the original age I thought they were. At that point, I need to decide which is stronger: the voice, or the need to have my character be a certain age to tell a particular story. But I don’t think in terms of, “My next book needs to be middle grade.” It’s the story idea that comes first. Then, I starting writing and let the story tell me what the book will be. 

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

I love writing about 12-13 year olds because it’s fun to straddle childhood and adolescence. I realize I may be the only one who feels this way! But I think it’s such an emotional and exciting time of life to write about. Kids are on the cusp of gaining independence and developing their own identities, and I love going through that growing-up experience with them. It can be both hysterical and heartbreaking. 

Okay, let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us a little bit about Where the Heart Is?

It’s about a girl named Rachel who just turned 13 and is looking forward to a fun summer with her best friend, Micah. But her parents are going through a financial crisis, and it’s causing lots of stress at home. In addition, she’s questioning her sexual identity and it’s causing a rift between her and Micah, who has had a crush on her since they were little. 

One thing I especially love and admire about your writing is your use of humor – in this latest book and your previous ones. You tackle some seriously heavy, tough topics, yet still manage to infuse humor into your stories. Does this come naturally? Is it something you are conscious about including?

Thank you! I try really hard to keep my stories “real” in that they reflect every day stuff as well as the bigger, looming issues in their lives. I don’t think about it in the sense of, say, “OK, you just wrote a sad scene now you need to balance it with something funny.” I guess I think of it more in terms of a necessary part of character and world building. When I walk my characters through their worlds, there’s just naturally some funny stuff that plays out. And maybe as a writer, I need comic relief just as much as my readers. 

I know there are both large and small elements of Where the Heart Is that were inspired by your own life experiences. Did you set out to write about these? Can you talk about what it’s like to transform such “facts” into fiction?

The book emerged from a writing prompt a friend of mine gave at a pop-up lecture. He said to think of an object that held a strong memory, and I thought of a sweater of my dad’s that I used to wear. As soon as I started writing, the memory of losing our home came to me very clearly and powerfully. I shared what I wrote with my friend, and he encouraged me to keep going. The problem was, I didn’t want to write a memoir. I decided to select some of the most important things that happened to me during that time, and try to weave them into a story that would work as a middle grade novel. Turning “facts” into fiction is a challenge for sure, because it’s hard to let go of what really happened. But once you do let go, you can see that by allowing yourself to create the emotion of what happened rather than the thing itself, you’re still essentially telling the same story, just in a way that’s hopefully more accessible to more people. 

Before they even pick up Where the Heart Is, readers will notice that the word home has been “taken away” from the title. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that word. Home. What does it mean to you? How do you define it? Has your understanding of it changed over time?

I’m glad you noticed! The process of writing this story, and further back, losing my own home, led me to rethink about how I define home. So often when we meet people they ask, “Where do you call home?” What if we changed it to “Who do you call home?” The lesson for me, in all of this, is that it’s the people in your life that give you a sense of belonging. Home is something deep inside us. It’s more than walls, it’s the invisible structure of love we create through the people we care about, and who care about us.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add Where the Heart Is to their classrooms and libraries?

Some teachers who have read advanced copies have said they are excited to use the book to open up discussions about poverty and identity with their students, which I love. I also have a discussion guide available on my Web site:

Where can readers find more information about you and your work? lists all of my books and information about school and library visits. Thank you!

Jo-Heart.jpgJo Knowles is the author of several young adult and middle grade books including See You At Harry’s, Still a Work In Progress, and Read Between The Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, has been called “an immensely appealing, hard-to-put-down story about friendship and love, heartache and bravery” by Newbery Award-winner, Rebecca Stead. Jo’s awards include a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable, the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award, an ALA Notable, Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children, YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and two SCBWI Crystal Kites. Jo’s books have also appeared on numerous state award lists. She teaches writing at the Mountainview MFA program through Southern New Hampshire University.

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Tomorrow, April 2nd, is also the publication day of the paperback edition of Jo’s Still A Work In Progress, the cover of which is above!

A Conversation with Alyson Gerber: Books Between, Episode 71

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – an elementary school teacher in Central New York and mom of two daughters – a 9 year old and a just turned 12 year old. Yesteday we celebrated her birthday with the most amazing cake – white with whipped cream frosting and layers of cannoli filling and raspberry filling inside. And just in case you are wondering – no, I did not make it.  But if you live near a Wegmans, you can order one!

This is episode #71 and today and I’m sharing with you a conversation with Alyson A1MEhcDj3NLGerber – author of Braced and the recently released Focused. Her latest novel is about a gutsy, chess-loving, 7th grader named Clea who is learning to cope with her ADHD.

So….do you know that slightly disorienting feeling you have when you are looking out a window & suddenly the lights shifts, your perspective shifts, and you realize you are seeing your OWN reflection? That is the experience I had when reading Focused.  Like so many other people, Dr. Rudine Bishop’s analogy of books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors has always resonated with me.  And I picked up Focused anticipating that I would get a window into the experiences of a young girl with ADHD – that it would help me become a better, more empathetic teacher. And while Focused absolutely did that – it also helped dispel a lot of the misconceptions I had about ADHD, particularly how it tends to manifest in girls and women.  And launched me on a path to discovering that I have ADHD. I opened Focused thinking I was reading a window book – and it turned into a mirror book for me.

I know that books can change minds and can change lives. But rarely has a novel changed my life for the better so completely and so soon. And by extension – the lives of my family and students. And when that happens – you just have to let the author know! And so, I emailed Alyson and thanked her and asked her to come on the show to talk about Focused, chess, her experiences with ADHD, her writing process, and so so much more.

Take a listen.

Interview Outline – Alyson Gerber


For our listeners who have not yet read the Focused, can you tell us a bit about it?

In what ways is Clea’s situation and experiences similar to your own and in what ways did you angle her story so that it was different from your own?

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 11.39.05 PMAnother thing that I think you do masterfully in Focused is how you show Clea’s relationship with her therapist evolving over time from her denial and distrust to an eventual positive relationship. I think so many kids can benefit from that peek inside a therapist’s office…

Is the testing you describe Clea doing things you’ve experienced or did you do some research to get those aspects of the story right?

One of the other parts of the story that really rang true were the conversations around medication…

One of the things that made me fall so hard for this book was the CHESS! My husband and daughters are all big chess players though not competitively.  Do you play?

So…. there is some romance in this story!!

Your Writing Life

What are you working on now?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked along the way that has helped your writing?

Is there a piece of feedback that you got that changed Focused?

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Your Reading Life

One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special person who helped launch your reading life as a child? And if so, what did they do that made such a difference?

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked? What do you hope that readers take away from reading Focused?

Thank You!


Alyson’s website –

Alyson on Twitter – @AlysonGerber

Alyson on Instagram – @alysongerber

Alyson on Facebook –

Resources about ADHD:

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The Science of Breakable of Things (Tae Keller)

Barbara Cooney

Merci Suarez Changes Gears (Meg Medina)

New Kid (Jerry Craft)

The Serpent’s Secret (Sayantani DasGupta)

Eventown (Corey Ann Haydu)


Thank you so much for joining me this week.  You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at   And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.

Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Talk with you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.