STEM Tuesday Spin Off: Oh, Those Summer Nights Edition

StemLogo-SpinOff (1)

Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. It’s time once again for a member of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors to share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post tying middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We look at the things in life we often take for granted. We 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 is the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” are the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.

This image is a graphic representation of the content of the STEM Tuesday Spinoff for Summer Nights. A wheel-like form is shown. At the hub is the label, Summer nights. Six spokes radiate to the rim of the wheel, each ending at one or more pictures representing each topical "spoke", or theme in the text:. Separated by 30 degrees, and beginning from top, or 12:00 positino, they are: (1) owl and bat representing creatures of the night; photo of a starry night sky  with the Milky Way, representing looking up with wonder; a sea turtle on the beach at dusk and an illuminated light bulb against a black background represent not so dark nights; a non-detailed world map represents summer and the world at large; a young girl being splashed in the face by water, arms up, eyes closed, and a tight-lipped smile represents classic summer games; and a bowl of sauerkraut, the top of an ice cream cone with ice cream in it, and a toasted marshmallow represent summer cookout.

In this month of August, STEM author and educational consultant Carolyn DeCristofano brings us the “Oh, Those Summer Nights” edition of the STEM Tuesday Spin Off. She takes us from a summer evening to books highlighting several themes: creatures of the night; looking up with wonder; not so dark nights; summer and the world at large; classic summer games; and summer cookouts.

When I was a child, nothing seemed to thrum with magic more than a summer evening. While I’m sure most nights probably were simple, ordinary events of which I took no special note, those that stick in my memory were sublime. These are the ones that define my image of a summer night. If we are lucky, a summer evening might grace us with subtle sensory detail, a connection to nature, and a link to the human community around us and the ones that precede us. And so much of this relates to the stuff of STEM!

Creatures of the Night

Cover of Mark Wilson's book, OWLING, linked to the book's p[age on the publisher's web site, https://www.storey.com/books/owling/

Mark Wilson’s Owling : Enter the World of the Mysterious Birds of the Night takes us on a journey to get to know owls, offering detailed facts about these beloved birds and explaining the parts of their anatomy and physiology that make them so successful. Did you know that owls’ ears are positioned asymmetrically, and that this gives them a unique ability to hone in on their prey? This also helps explain the head-turning habit of these birds of prey. (See Page 15.) A series of two-page spreads continue to examine the features of the owl that contribute to its owliness, and its ability to hunt so well. Other sections address owl lifestyles (not all are nocturnal), various species (!), and, most connected to our outdoor experience, ways of spotting evidence of owls nearby. A favorite section of mine is the set of tips—and rules of owl etiquette—for responsibly carrying on a conversation with your owl neighbors. And in case the reader is inspired to dive more deeply into exploring these amazing creatures, Wilson includes a section that highlights specific individuals and their owl-oriented careers. Helpful diagrams and stunning photos round out the adventure.

Of course, with the weather warm a lot of us head outdoors, some of us trekking away from the city; some others just stepping outside into our own backyards. And being outside in the evening gives us an opportunity to tune in to creatures of the night—the nocturnal beasts that hunt, hide, sing, and soar all around us, whether we notice or not. Look up at dusk and you may see swooping bats. Listen carefully and you might hear owls hooting.

Cover of THE BAT SCIENTISTS, with link to book page on publisher's site: https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/The-Bat-Scientists/9780544104938

Tom Uhlman’s photographs serve up a visual treat in Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists, featuring these nocturnal mammals and those who study them. For example, Page 42 features a close-up photo of a hibernating tri-colored, iridescent, tiny droplets of water coating its fur. The text and pictures give the reader a sense of tramping through caves to investigate these creatures alongside the scientists whose work is to know these animals up close and personal. Much more than a naturalist travelogue, this book digs into the serious science of bats. For example, she explores the “great white plague”, or white-nose syndrome, which threatens the survival of bat populations. It would be fun to read Owling and The Bat Scientists together, comparing and contrasting these nocturnal flyers through the scientific lens.

Cover of MOSQUITO BITE with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, you might not want to get up close and personal with all of the critters hanging around on a summer night. Mosquitoes, for example, are best studied from afar. Unless you happen to be zooming in on them in Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel’s Mosquito Bite. Featuring Kunkel’s stunning (and now classic) scanning electron microscopy, the book provides a great example of how technology can extend our ability to study the world around us.

Looking Up with Wonder

Cover of DOT TO DOT IN THE SKY, with link to book's page on the publisher's website.

Of course, on a summer evening, the world around us includes the night sky. If you are lucky enough to be in a dark-sky area on a clear night, you can’t help but look up and revel in the night lights. Stars take center stage and, if you are like many people contemplating the night sky, you will start to try to pick out the patterns of stars that have been recognized and named for millennia. Dot to Dot in the Sky: Stories in the Star (Joan Marie Galat) provides a primer to the (mostly Western culture) northern star patterns and their lore.

Cover of ULTIMATE SPACE ATLAS, with link to book's page on author's web site.

If you find yourself wanting to know more about what you see in the night sky, you might want to check out my own National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas, which features facts and figures on what you might spy in the sky—stars and constellations, the Milky Way’s glow, some planets, comets, meteors, and satellites, a galaxy or two–as well as features we cannot observe, even with a backyard telescope, such as the Oort Cloud, most dwarf planets, exoplanets, and countless distant galaxies. This book gives some attention as well to the mathematics of the scale of the universe as well as the technologies that help us explore it.

If sky gazing puts you in the mood to contemplate our universe’s beginnings, you might enjoy Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular, which combines Michael Carroll’s fabulous illustrations with (my) verse and prose to introduce readers to the Big Bang.

Not So Dark Nights

Cover of DARK MATTERS, with link to book's page on publisher's web site.

Of course, the ability to revel in cosmic beauty or enjoy nocturnal creatures depends on the night being dark. And dark nights are, alas, falling prey to bright lights that we humans use to illuminate parking lots, buildings, streets, back yards, and more. Night pollution has become a problem in many communities, albeit one that many fail to notice. That’s why Joan Marie Galat’s Dark Matters: Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution is such an interesting read. Parts are like a memoir of Galat’s relationship to the night sky and her journey from a child playing in the dark to a graduate with an ecology degree, making it easy for the reader to relate to the core topic of the book. Galat shares with us the biological and physical ramifications of having so much human-created light infiltrating the night. She shares how sea turtles, fireflies, bats, frogs, birds, and humans struggle with the effects of artificial lighting, and explores how some of this may be addressed. It’s a unique take on experiencing a summer (or winter) night.

Cover of THOMAS EDISON FOR KIDS, with link to indiebound purchasing site.

Of course, we wouldn’t have light pollution without artificial lighting, which brings a lot of convenience and good to people, despite its negative impacts. Why not explore one of the key players in the technological revolution of lighting and electricity? Thomas Edison for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Laurie Carlson, provides a substantial historical and experiential exploration of the inventor’s life and the technologies he developed.

Summer and the World at Large

Cover of MAPPING AND NAVIGATION with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, as we sit outside on a summer evening, losing ourselves in our own world and the cosmos beyond, somewhere else it’s wintertime. Lest we stay lost in that personal bubble, it’s time to stretch out and think abut the world at large. Cynthia Light Brown and Patrick M. McGinty’s Mapping and Navigation: Explore the History and Science of Finding Your Way can help us open our eyes to the world around us, recalling how big it is—and also providing another example of how deeply technology has changed human experience and the world at large. Chapter 7, “Space: Navigating the Final Frontier,” makes a perfect bridge from summer stargazing to navigation and map making, and Chapter 4, “Mapping and Satellites: GPS and Landsat,” reminds us that the little blips of light that slowly slip across the night sky are up there doing something—sometimes helping us map the world on which we stand.

Classic Summer Games

Cover of WHOOSH! with link to book's page on publisher's website.

And in the summer, the world on which we stand is sometimes hot. Very, very hot. It’s nice to cool off with a sweet treat—ice cream, anyone?—or maybe a frolic with water. Super-Soakers are always great fun. So is the story of the man behind their invention, as told in Chris Barton’s  Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. The super-soaker is a summery example of the lighter side of technology, but Lonnie’s tale reveals some serious thinking and hard work. The child who created his own rockets became the teen who constructed his own sound systems for summer parties and the engineer who figured out how to keep a steady power supply going on the Galileo space mission. In his quest for a better air conditioner, he came across another cool idea—a super-soaker water gun. Now in the heat of summer, we can stop and thank Lonnie for the entertainment and the relief from the heat.

Summer Cookouts

Cover of EDIBLE SCIENCE: EXPERIMENTS YOU CAN EAT with link to book page on author's web site.
Cover of 30-MINUTE EDIBLE SCIENCE PROJECTS, with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Summer games and star gazing are part of summer fun, yet many a summer evening wouldn’t be complete without a cookout. Enter Jodi Wheeler-Toppen and Carol Tennant’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat and Anna Leigh’s 30-Minute Edible Science Projects. You won’t just be whipping up Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s Orange Mayonnaise recipe for a unique twist on a coleslaw; you’ll be emulsifying liquids (as well as finding out what that means, and how it works). You can tap into osmosis to create a perfect fruit syrup to serve over homemade ice cream–with recipes, projects, and explanations of what’s going on when you make that cream chill out, courtesy of both books. Leigh also offers recipes for homemade marshmallows to compare from a materials science perspective. If you have extras, you might want to use them in Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s “Inflatable Marshmallow” activity. Wash it all down with one of the beverages from Leigh’s “Make Your Own Soda” project.

If it rains on the big night of the cookout? Cook in. Both books provide plenty of food and food for STEM thought to while away a summer evening. Then curl up or get active with any of the great books featured in this installment of STEM Tuesday Spinoffs. No matter where you are, no matter what books you read, no matter where your own thoughts take you, see if you and your inner child can awaken to the magic of a summer evening.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is the author of nationally acclaimed STEM-themed books for kids from 3 to 13 and up. In addition to National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas and Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular (mentioned above), her middle grade book A Black Hole is NOT a Hole is a popular favorite. Her books for younger kids include Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children. Carolyn is also a STEM education consultant whose work has contributed to several National Science Foundation – funded curriculum and exhibit projects. She is a warmly received, accessible professional development provider (has bags, will travel), and recently co-launched a new educational research company, STEM Education Insights. She has been a blogger for STEM Tuesday since its inception. When she’s not immersed in thinking about STEM, she might be found trying her best to keep up at an Old Time jam session, running her own edible (not necessarily science) experiments in the kitchen, or, if the season is right, enjoying the magic of a summer evening.

Image of girl being splashed by water in Spin Off wheel diagram is “Sploosh!” by Monkey Mash Button and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped). All other images in the Spin Off wheel diagram are courtesy of Pixabay.

Guarding the Gleam Jars in Readers’ Hearts

“Nitty…took out her Gleam Jar and held it up to the dim light slanting through the barn’s siding. She did this every day with the jar, taking stock of its contents and comfort in its presence. The light bounced off the objects in the jar, sending flecks of blue, yellow, and red spinning about the room. Blue, yellow, red; ribbon, button, marble. These three objects—so small—to a stranger might’ve seemed unremarkable. To Nitty they were her only link to family, and a world brimming with color that she’d never seen.”—from A Tale Magnolious

Before I began writing A Tale Magnolious, I was feeling glum about the state of our world.  As my main character Nitty Luce would say, I feared that our world had become lovelorn. This may have been why I wrote about the lovelorn town of Fortune’s Bluff, the setting for Nitty’s story. But I could not write about a lovelorn town without also writing about an orphan and elephant who rescue the town from its dire predicament. I could not write about the world without, also, writing about hope.

Hope is what orphan Nitty Luce carries with her in her Gleam Jar—a humble mason jar filled with her most precious (and only) belongings. The jar holds three items: a blue ribbon, a yellow button, and a red marble. To Nitty, these objects embody her wish for a family—her wish to be loved and to find a home. Nitty never gives up on this wish. Her hope keeps the wish alive. The wish, however, changes as Nitty changes. Nitty grows to love Magnolious, the elephant she rescues from death. She grows to trust the curmudgeonly Windle Homes, the farmer who offers her and Magnolious refuge. With time, Nitty discovers that she doesn’t need to cling so tightly to her Gleam Jar anymore. She can entrust her Gleam Jar, her heart, and her wishes to her newfound family and friends in Fortune’s Bluff. More importantly, she can share her hope, which she’s clung so tightly to, with others, spreading it to Magnolious, Windle, and the entire town of Fortune’s Bluff.

In our trying times, hope is important to impart to young readers, and also important to protect and preserve. More than ever, we have a responsibility as educators, writers, and artists, to guard the hopes of children, to protect the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. How can we do this? We can teach young readers empathy by sharing with them a wide variety of stories with diverse casts of characters. We can encourage them to search for pieces of themselves in each and every story. We can discuss the challenges facing our world, but also strive to instill in them a hope for the future. And we can keep a watchful eye out for the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. What are the treasures they keep close to their hearts? When they entrust us with their wishes and dreams, let us place a book in their hands that speaks to and nurtures those dreams. Let us assure these children that, though wishes may grow and change as we do, though the oftentimes lovelorn world may not always be gentle with our Gleam Jars, there are safe places, people, and books to turn to for hope and refuge.

“Make Your Own Gleam Jar” activity for classrooms

At the beginning of the school year, ask each student to bring in:

  • A small or medium sized mason or jelly jar.
  • 3 small items or mementos that have deep meaning to them. These can be items that hold fun or special memories, or items that represent three wishes students have for the upcoming year.

Have the students write a short description of each item and why it is important to them. If the items represent wishes, have the students describe each wish. Students might be placed in pairs or small groups to discuss the items and their meanings. Find a cozy spot in the classroom to keep the Gleam Jars for the year. At the end of the school year, ask students to revisit their Gleam Jar wishes or memories. Have them reread what they wrote about their Gleam Jars at the beginning of the year. Consider asking them some of these questions, or using these questions as writing prompts:

  • Are the objects in your Gleam Jar still as meaningful to you now as they were at the beginning of the school year? Why or why not?
  • Did any of your wishes for this year come true?
  • If you had to make a Gleam Jar right now, would you fill it with the same objects you did before, or with different ones? Why?
  • Did any of your wishes change over the course of the year? If your wishes changed, do you think it was because you changed over the course of this year, too? Why or why not?

Suzanne Nelson is the author of numerous young adult and middle grade novels, including A Tale Magnolious, and Serendipity’s Footsteps, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teen Readers and a 2016 CCBC Choice for Young Adult Fiction. Her other books include Cake Pop Crush, Macarons at Midnight, Hot Cocoa Hearts, and over a dozen more. You can find her online at www.suzannenelson.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

National Sister’s Day: Celebrate the Holiday with Sisters/Co-Authors Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski

HEIDI: Happy National Sisters Day! In honor of this made-up but still absolutely valid holiday, Kati and I thought we’d chat a little about what it’s like to write with your sister. And if you stick around, we’ll be giving away a few books at the end. 😉

KATI: Most people are surprised when I tell them I cowrite with my sister. Usually they want to know how that works, and how we don’t kill each other by the end of the book.

HEIDI: I can’t say we never have any heated . . . um, discussions.

KATI: That’s one of our writing rules. They’re never fights, they’re always “discussions.”

HEIDI: Exactly. 😉 And since we both liked most of the same books and shows growing up, and are interested in a lot of the same themes, writing together has worked out really well. Our brains overlap quite a bit.

KATI: That is a terrifying image.

HEIDI: A little bit! As kids, Kati and I used to play pretend together all the time, so writing a story together felt almost like that. It was really fun. And then somewhere along the way, we realized that we actually thought our story had the potential to make it. So once we finished our first extremely rough draft, we decided to take it more seriously.

KATI: And we’ve been serious ever since!

HEIDI: So serious. ;D

KATI: Our third and final book in the Mystic Cooking Chronicles, A Pinch of Phoenix, just came out last month, but we’re already working on a new series together. This one will have aliens and ghosts and other supernatural creepiness. So it’s very fun to write.

HEIDI: Speaking of fun, here’s a fun fact in honor of National Sister’s Day: one of the villains in our Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy is loosely inspired by our older sister.

KATI: We love you, Rosi! But maybe you should have been nicer to us when we were little. ;D

HEIDI: We haven’t actually written any sisters books . . . yet. But we both love stories where those relationships are portrayed. One of my recent middle grade favorites is Prisoners of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren. Valor purposely gets herself sent to an impossible-to-escape prison in order to try to break her sister Sasha out. It’s a wonderful fantasy adventure, very action-packed, and I loved the relationship between sisters Valor and Sasha. I tore through this book in a day.

KATI: One of my recent favorites is actually young adult . . . Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. In it, sisters Scarlett and Tella would do anything to help each other, which is the driving force behind the whole story. At the same time, their relationship is a little complicated, just like most sisters. Plus there’s the fantastic world building, romance, and excitement.

HEIDI: So today, Kati and I want to give away a “sisters bundle” of a signed copy of our complete Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy, plus a hardcover copy of Ruth Lauren’s Prisoner of Ice and Snow, and a signed hardcover copy of Caraval.

KATI: And since we’re always looking for more good sister stories, please comment and tell us any you’d recommend so we can check them out!

. . .

To enter the giveaway, head over to the MG Book Village Twitter account!

Princesses, Pink, and Physics – Breaking the Mold of the “Typical” STEM Character

When I began writing the first book in the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS series, including a science element came organically. After all, my main character is a princess whose entire family has magical weather powers. You can’t have weather without science! As the book started coming together, I realized I had been given a fantastic opportunity to counter stereotypes about girls and STEM.

As an engineer and a longtime science-lover, I remember having a hard time reconciling the many facets of my identity as I was growing up. Society and mass media often sends girls messages that STEM is only open to people who look a certain way, dress a certain way, and enjoy “typical” STEM stuff. I remember suppressing my femininity when I was younger because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or “too girly” to excel in the STEM activities I enjoyed. The reality is that STEM is for everyone – including children who love dress-up and tea parties.

We know that girls begin dropping out of the STEM pipeline around middle school. It’s not because they aren’t good at it. If girls believe that pursuing STEM conflicts with their identity and vision of their future selves, they are more likely to leave STEM behind.

With DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS, I wanted to write characters who are unabashedly awesome at STEM and also enjoy all the trappings of “traditionally feminine” pursuits. The characters came naturally because they are modeled off many girls I know in real life (including my own daughters!). These girls enjoy and excel at so many different things – including STEM.

Lina and her best friend love dancing, sleepovers, and science.

Happily, more books for young readers are now being published that celebrate STEM heroines who are multi-faceted and complex – just like the actual girls who will read them. Here are some of my favorite chapter books and middle grade novels that feature STEM-loving girl characters:

Little Robot by Ben Hatke – This graphic novel is nearly wordless, but tells a full and stirring story of friendship and perseverance. A little girl who seems very much on-her-own stumbles upon an adorable robot whom she must protect from other sinister robots. Even though the girl is quite small, she is also resourceful and knows her way around a wrench set. To save her new friend, the heroine employs all the ingenuity and problem-solving of a top-notch engineer.

Jada Jones, Rockstar by Kelly Starling Lyons– This is the first book in a wonderful series about a fourth-grade girl navigating relatable challenges with friends, school, and family. Jada loves rocks – but she loves her best friend even more. When the book starts out, Jada’s BFF has moved away and she has to find a whole new group. Jada’s interest in STEM feels reflective of real kids I know. Yes, she loves geology, but that’s just one facet of her total personality. By the end of the book, she finds a creative way to include everyone in the class in her rock appreciation.

Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray by Jess Keating – Nikki Tesla is a genius. I love that this is stated matter-of-factly and unapologetically right off the bat! But even though Nikki never downplays her supreme smarts, she has a hilarious self-deprecating sense of humor about all the conundrums she gets into. Author Jess Keating has an infectious love of science and curiosity about the world, which shines through in her videos and web resources for kids. It’s great to see another series from her that’s sure to inspire more girls to follow in her STEM footsteps.

Lights, Music, Code! by Jo Whittemore – This third book in the Girls Who Code series reminds me of the Babysitters Club with a STEM twist. The main characters are friends who are working together to code the music and lights for their school’s winter dance. I love that the book shows both the challenges and triumphs of a group of girls working together on a project. Many stereotypes of people who work in STEM is that they’re loners, toiling away in a lab. In reality, one of STEM’s greatest perks is getting to collaborate with awesome people!

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi – This middle grade novel counters the stereotype that people who love STEM are purely analytical. Ebony has an imagination so vivid that the lines often blur between reality and her make-believe worlds (as someone who spent most of third grade imagining she had been kidnapped to an alternate dimension, I can relate). Ebony loves science fiction, a passion shared by her grandfather, who was one of NASA’s first Black engineers. When Ebony moves to Harlem for the summer, others try to push her to fit in this or that box, but she stays true to her unique and awesome self.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.

Wading Into Twitterverse

Out of Place Cover.jpg

As a debut author, I have been encouraged to engage on Twitter. And so I’ve tried. Or rather, I’ve thought a great deal about trying.

An example: I recently learned that two advanced reader copies of my debut novel OUT OF PLACE had not reached their intended destinations. This represented almost one quarter of my personal supply of ARCs, books so precious to me that I cried when I first held them. The despair I felt when I imagined those books in a dumpster at some remote UPS facility brought to mind the time I lost months of frozen breast milk due to a freezer that died in the middle of the night. Ha! I thought. That’s rather witty. An appropriate comparison between the angst of a debut author and the angst of a new mother. I could tweet that.

But should I? Who wants to envision months of spoiled breast milk? And isn’t the comparison between birthing a book and birthing a baby rather tired? Then again, why shouldn’t mothers talk about breast milk and how hard we work to produce it? Staying quiet about these struggles just perpetuates a cycle that needs to be broken, right?

At the end of this mental torture, I did not do two things: I did not write the tweet and I did not write a word of my work-in-progress. Zero likes and zero new sentences.

I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that other authors do not share my posting anxiety. I envy their number of followers and the opportunities for engagement that those numbers bring. I will never be one of those people. And here’s why I hope it’s okay: because my particular form of angst makes me a strong middle grade novelist. I am an almost forty-year old woman with three daughters who are the ages of most of my characters, and yet I am also the eleven-year old girl who was barked at in the hallways of a new school because the popular girls thought I looked like a dog. I look in the mirror and critique my reflection. I write a Tweet and I worry that it will be misinterpreted.

The main character in OUT OF PLACE, a twelve-year old girl named Cove, shares my bullying experience and my self-consciousness, but a lot of my characters do not. Many of them are spicier and braver than I could ever be. But they are all written by a woman who obsesses over every sentence she writes. And my characters, and the readers they are meant to reach, are better off because of that.

Bad reviews will come my way. Some of them will likely be Tweeted right at me, probably in the snarky tones of the mean girls that I love to write. My hope is that I’ll lick my wounds and keep on writing. For years, the bullying I endured detracted from my experiences. I never joined a school sports team. I rarely spoke up in class.

Now? Now I see it as a gift. I get to write about it. Just not on Twitter.

Jennifer Blecher Author Photo - Credit Nina Subin.jpg
Photo by Nina Subin.

Jennifer Ende Blecher is the author of OUT OF PLACE, a middle grade novel to be published by Greenwillow/Harper Collins in 2019. She lives outside of Boston and on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, three daughters, and a dog named Winnie.   You can find her online at jenniferblecher.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

 

 

Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher

Jennifer Blecher’s debut novel is a voice-driven story about bullying, friendship, and self-reliance that hits the sweet spot for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Erin Entrada Kelly’s You Go First.

Twelve-year-old Cove Bernstein’s year has gone from bad to worse. First, her best friend, Nina, moved from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Then, without Nina around, Cove became the target of a bullying campaign at school. Escape seems impossible.

But opportunities can appear when you least expect them. Cove’s visit to a secondhand clothing store leads her to a surprising chance to visit Nina, but only if she can win a coveted place in a kids-only design competition. Cove doesn’t know how to sew, but her friend at the retirement home, Anna, has promised to teach her. And things start really looking up when a new kid at school, Jack, begins appearing everywhere Cove goes.

Then Cove makes a big mistake. One that could ruin every good thing that has happened to her this year. One that she doesn’t know how to undo.

Jennifer Blecher’s accessible and beautifully written debut novel explores actions and consequences, loneliness, bullying, and finding your voice. This voice-driven friendship story is for fans of Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger and Jodi Kendall’s The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City.

Praise for Out of Place

“A tender-hearted debut that navigates the emotional waters of wanting to stay young and grow up, all at the same time.” – Jodi Kendall, critically-acclaimed author of THE UNLIKELY STORY OF A PIG IN THE CITY and DOG DAYS IN THE CITY

“Cove may feel out of place, but she’ll quickly find her place in readers’ hearts. Her voice glows like a Menemsha sunset in Jennifer Blecher’s moving debut.”- Julie Berry, author of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

“OUT OF PLACE is sensitively observed and deeply felt, yet also light on its feet. Some of its components seem, at first, peculiarly shaped, but this I promise you: They are all part of Jennifer Blecher’s grand design. By the end, all the loose pieces come together beautifully, seamlessly, surprisingly, as if threaded with magic.”- Jack Cheng, author of the acclaimed See You in the Cosmos

“Blecher’s debut is a sensitive and compassionate tribute to every child who has ever felt like a misfit. . . .vibrant and memorable. Cove is an emotionally intelligent heroine who successfully names and processes her feelings. A beautiful story about learning to speak up and taking risks.”- School Library Journal

“[A] thought-provoking tale of childhood isolation and powerlessness experienced in a socially networked world . . . this recommended read should spark lively discussion; a good bet for an intergenerational book club. ”- Kirkus Reviews

“Blecher has created a sweet and realistically vulnerable character who longs to feel validated and respected. . . . This is a tender, uncomplicated coming-of-age story that illustrates how hard it can be to fit in at any age.”- Publishers Weekly

 

Converting a Graphic Novel into an Audio Book: Not as Easy as it Sounds

I was thrilled when I heard that Penguin Random House had decided to make an audiobook for Operation Frog Effect. But my first thought was, “What about Blake?” Blake is one of my eight main characters in the book. It’s written from eight POVs, each with his/her unique style. Blake illustrates his entries in graphic novel form. Blake’s sections have minimal words. So . . . I wasn’t sure how an audiobook would work. How could anyone “read” it?

Superheros-- Gina Perry's illustration from Operation Frog Effect.jpg
Art by Gina Perry

Luckily, the audiobook producer (the frog-errific Linda Korn) contacted me on the front end and was ready to help me brainstorm. She suggested we convert all of Blake’s sections into text that could be read out loud. I went back through my illustration notes and fluffed them out into a narrative that described what Blake drew. (To be totally honest, this draft was “meh” at best.) I am so grateful for Linda’s input. She suggested I re-write, not so much describing the illustrations, but as if I were inside Blake’s head in the moment, WHILE he was sketching. I loved this suggestion. Luckily Linda’s office was about an hour away, so we met at a mid-way point, purchased some highly sugared caffeinated beverages, and hashed much of this out together. Working as a team is my favorite. I tend to be the kind of author who gets so caught up in her story that she can’t see the forest for the trees. Having another perspective enriches my work. I’m so grateful that Linda took the time to help me coax Blake’s story from the images into full blown text.

The audiobook producer selected nine different actors to narrate this book. One actor for each character, and one actor to narrate the sections that didn’t fall solidly into a particular character’s voice (like signs, chapter headings, etc.) She selected a diverse cast of actors, which made me oh-so-happy. My characters are equally diverse, so this representation felt authentic to me.

Whistlers-- Gina Perry's Illustration from Operation Frog Effect.jpg
Art by Gina Perry

The absolute highlight of the audio book experience was being asked to record author commentary for the end of the audio book. Me being me . . .  I prepped. A ton. I brought in my crinkly notepaper, all prepared to read my commentary word for word. Again, I’m grateful for Linda’s guidance and patience. She helped me get comfortable in the recording booth and instructed me to set my papers down and just talk to her. She was aiming for a relaxed commentary that showed my personality, not something prepared ahead of time. I finally relaxed, and once I got on a roll, I almost didn’t want it to end.

Sarah and Linda at Penguin Audio Book Recording.JPG

The audio book for Operation Frog Effect releases in late February, 2019. Hope you like it!

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Sarah Scheerger is a school-based counselor in Southern California, helping students figure out who they are, and who they want to be. Her middle grade debut, Operation Frog Effect (Penguin Random House) releases in February but is available for pre-order now. Keep an eye out for her new picture book, “Mitzvah Pizza” (Kar-Ben) which launches in April. In addition to MG and PB’s, Sarah also writes YA. To learn more, visit www.sarahlynnbooks.com.

The Charm & Power of Fantasy

As a kid, I got an early start to reading. Not because I was some prodigy, I just wanted to do everything my big sister could. And anyway, I quickly discovered that I loved reading. Mom would send me to my room to clean it and find me hours later tucked in a messy corner with a book.

By the time I was picking my books out myself, a definite trend emerged. I loved The Book of Three. I was fascinated by A Wrinkle in Time. By the end of middle school, I’d read every single book in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. In early high school, I discovered Robin McKinley and never did fall out of love with her imagined worlds.

I think I was drawn to fantasy literature for a bunch of reasons. To escape? Sure. To have an adventure? Absolutely. Because dragons are super-cool? Yes. But also, the reality of everyday sexism hit middle-grade-me like a kick in the teeth. If you ask me, fantasy’s greatest power is its unique ability to expand our understanding of what’s possible. And I’m not just talking about portals and magicians and tesseracts.

If a writer is creative enough, those imagined worlds don’t need to share this world’s failings. Racism, sexism, homophobia—all of it can be transcended, or better yet, in the pages of a book, a reader can step into a world where they never even existed.

Or, speculative fiction can offer a razor-sharp critique of our society’s ills. The canon has a lot say about repression and bigotry, fascism and propaganda, bullies and the everyday final cover Lighthousekind of people who stand up to them. The Lighthouse between the Worlds is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story with a good dose magic. But it also looks at the terrifying consequences of forfeiting independent thought. As much as it’s about hopping a portal between worlds, it’s also about the tension between isolationism and diverse coalitions—something we’re wrestling with today on a global scale.

I wish I could say that nothing got in the way of my love affair with fantasy lit. But that’s just not true. In those later high school years, in the doldrums of reading all those “important” required texts, I got the message that the stories I loved most weren’t worthwhile. I remember vividly one time when my lit teacher let us choose our own book for a report. And what did I pick? This long, boring book for adults about Aaron Burr. I hated that book the whole way through. So why did I pick it? Because I thought my history teacher would be impressed.

Before I knew it, I’d stopped reading fantasy. It wasn’t too much later that I’d stopped reading for fun altogether. How did that happen?

More and more, I see teachers online standing up for their students’ reading preferences, validating all kinds of readers and all sorts of texts, finding really creative ways to pair books to broaden learning, to build empathy, and to celebrate reading for reading’s sake. Educators are pushing back against practices that sap the joy out of reading. And every time I see that, I’m over here, fist-pumping, celebrating that those kids have a teacher like that in their corner.

Fast forward to my first year in college. I was in the University library attempting to study for a test on parasites. Yuck. I kept reading the same paragraph in my textbook over and over again, but remembering nothing, so I thought a change of location might help. What I discovered on the next floor up was a hip-high segment of bookshelves just for Children’s Literature. I remember sort of looking around, befuddled, like, what is this doing here with all the “important” books?

And then I spotted the spine of a book I’d know anywhere. It was The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I ditched my textbooks and spent the rest of the day joyfully immersed in that familiar story.

Now, I write books for all kinds of reasons. I’m hugely passionate about my YA historicals Audacity and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. I’ve never had so much fun writing a novel as I did with last year’s middle grade contemporary, Three Pennies.

But there’s something special in it for me when I write a work of fantasy. It’s like I’m writing to that pre-teen me, right before she let herself be convinced that her favorite stories weren’t worthy. It’s like I’m reaching back through time to whisper in her ear: Look, this thing that brings you so much joy? Hold on tight. Don’t ever let it go. 

B&WMelanie Crowder is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including
AudacityThree Pennies, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Nearer Moon and Parched, as well as the new middle grade duology The Lighthouse between the Worlds.  The sequel,A Way between Worlds, releases Oct. 1 of this year.

Melanie’s books have been awarded the Jefferson Cup, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, the SCBWI Crystal Kite, and the Bulletin Blue Ribbon; they have been recognized as a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist, Walden Award finalist, Colorado Book Awards Finalist, Junior Library Guild selection, YALSA Top Ten Books For Young Adults, ILA Notable Book for a Global Society, Parents’ Choice Silver Medal, BookBrowse Editor’s Choice, BookPage Top Pick, and The Washington Post Best Children’s Books for April. Her work has been listed as Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College, Kirkus Reviews, The Amelia Bloomer List, New York Public Library, Tablet Magazine, A Mighty Girl, and The Children’s Book Review.

The author lives under the big blue Colorado sky with a wife, two kids, and one good dog. Visit her online at www.melaniecrowder.com.