By Cary Sneider, Portland State University
Sharing a few chapter book gems with parents and caregivers can be a brief but highly productive part of family night at a school, or open house at a library.
I still remember my first “chapter book.” It was called AWOL, and it was about a dog who ran away from an army post. I used a thin sheet of mica from my rock collection as a bookmark. As I read my way through middle school I measured my growing maturity by the number of pages in the books that I checked out of the library.
Good fiction with STEM topics can do more than provide information about the world of science and technology. They can get kids excited about the fun of science and engineering as they learn about the struggles and triumphs of fascinating characters in amazing situations. Sharing a few chapter book gems with parents and caregivers can be a brief but highly productive part of a family night at a school, or open house at a library.
AWOL has been out of print for decades, but there are even better choices now with STEM themes that are appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students. Here are a few recent titles that I’ve found to be especially interesting, mostly starring middle school students from a variety of racial, ethnic, and economically challenging backgrounds, including several with disabilities, who serve as inspiring role models. The last one on the list is my own first contribution to the world of middle school fiction—based on real experiences of people who survived San Francisco’s last big earthquake.
Bees on the Roof is a page-turner. Sam and his friends come up with a science fair project idea to discover the cause of beehive collapse disorder; but the real driving force of the project is to produce honey that will save the restaurant where Sam’s father works so he won’t have to move and leave his friends. The seventh-grade scientists have to overcome barriers every step of the way, from mites that are killing the bees, to obnoxious classmates who are trying to win the science fair by sabotaging the beekeepers. The story includes excellent descriptions of the behaviors of bees and the challenges of raising them successfully.
Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm by Michael Erb
Henry Alabaster lives with his uncle, Kelvin, who happens to be a weather detective. While investigating the murder of a banker, they enlist the help of a young artist, Rachel, whose skills and forceful personality completes the team. The protagonists use their knowledge of weather events and logical thinking skills to solve the crime by eliminating the suspects one by one.
The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
This is a science fiction story that both kids and adults will enjoy, even though it’s written about extremely brilliant 13 year-olds. Miranda Regent is chosen as one of just six kids in the world to train for a mission to Mars. She is elated until mysterious militants try to murder her and some of the other winners. The tension between Miranda and her main rival reaches a high pitch as their need to work together becomes a matter of life and death.
The Walking Fish by Rachelle Burk and Kopel Burk
Seventh grader Alexis discovers something that everyone says is “impossible,” setting off a series of scientific investigations led by a selfish professor who wants all the glory for himself. The scientific mystery is solved with a harrowing cave exploration barely survived by Alexis and her friend Darshan. The story is based on actual organisms that have evolved unusual structures that enable them to leave the water for short periods of time and move on land.
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman
Eddy is a creative middle school student with Asperger’s syndrome who is bullied unmercifully by the popular kids at school. But thanks to his problem-solving skills, he rises to the challenge and finally makes fast friends. The book offers excellent insights into the nature of this disability, the engineering design process, and the importance of friendship.
Mosquitoes Don’t Bite Me by Pendred Noyce
Nala is a brave, compassionate and spirited middle school student who has an unusual super power. Mosquitos refuse to bite her. That inherited trait is of special interest to her friend’s father, who runs a very successful pharmaceutical company. He urges her to return to Kenya, where they can find other people from her family who have the same natural mosquito repellant. All goes well until a kidnapper takes an interest in her.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Maler
William Kamkwamba’s autobiography tells how he and his family survived famine when he was growing up in Malawi. Unable to afford to go to school, William spends hours in the shack-like library, learning about science and teaching himself to become an electrical engineer. It is an inspiring story of resilience and the power of dreams in a community of deep poverty.
The Baffling Case of the Battered Brain by Pendred Noyce
When middle school student Clinton hits his head during the championship soccer game, he suspects foul play as a stranger appears to be taking money to get him benched. Determined to nail the bribe-taker, Clinton and his friend Mae take on a mission to journey across three continents and 4,000 years to consult with experts to learn about concussions and the brain. This book is one of a series in which middle school students interview the greatest scientists and engineers of all time to solve problems and defeat treacherous criminals.
Jake and the Quake by Cary Sneider
7th grader Jake’s life is tough enough, but then turns to despair when his mom tells him she plans to marry her self-centered boyfriend and move to Colorado. But when Jake and his friend Tony discover an oddly beautiful rock under the Golden Gate bridge, his life takes an entirely new direction, as the boys team up with Melody, an 8th grader with a passion for geology, to figure out what the rock is made from, and how it was created and embedded in a sandstone cliff. That’s when a major earthquake strikes and their lives literally spin out of control. The story is based on actual events during the quake that rocked San Francisco in 1989.