I didn’t catch this virus

51ugifn7pglVirals, by Kathy Reich (2010)

Opening line: “A gunshot is the loudest sound in the universe.”

As is frequently the case, this is not a book I would have picked up to read, but the audiobook gods provided it. so voila. We have it in my library, so I figured, why not? And since then, I’ve been successful at giving it to several happy readers.

It’s an easy sell. You can tell from the first line that this sucker is packed with action. There’s a generation-old murder mystery and a science experiment gone wrong and a team of creepy dudes following and shooting at our main characters,  AND an adorable puppy. Plus, it’s a spin-off of the author’s adult Temperance Brennan series (the inspiration to FOX’s Bones). Sure hit!

It’s got a similar feel to Maximum Ride, with shortish, sometimes choppy sentences and chapters, and main character Tory reminds me of Max (independent, rough around the edges, part of a science experiment). Unfortunately, I didn’t really like Maximum Ride that much. While it was an entertaining mystery, with some endearing elements, I just didn’t find I cared very much. I’m glad I read it, because it’ll help me with my job, but I don’t feel the need to read the next ones.

1.5 stars


On the heartbeat of middle schoolers

Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015)

Opening Line: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.”

Suzy is starting 7th grade and everything is different from last year. When she began middle school, she had the best best friend, Franny, and together, they were content to be nothing like the popular girls. But now Franny is dead. And Suzy hasn’t spoken aloud in weeks.

Suzy’s mother told her that Franny drowned at the beach. But Suzy knows that Franny is a wonderful swimmer, and there must be another explanation. After a lonely class trip to the aquarium where Suzy visits the jellyfish exhibit, she has a new hypothesis: Franny was stung by a Irukandjii, a miniature jelly that causes its victims excruciating pain and a distinct feeling of impending doom. And now she just has to prove it.

Structured like a science lab report (background, procedure, results, conclusions, etc.), Suzy tries to keep her life in order, but this heart-breaker of a tale goes way beyond the scientific method. Flashing back and forth between her 6th grade year and current time, we get the story of Suzy and Franny’s dissolving friendship as the girls enter middle school. As a librarian in a middle school, and a former middle school student myself, I could see the honesty and truth represented here. Friendships definitely change in middle school. Figuring out what to do after the death of a friendship can be every bit as difficult as the death of a friend. This is was Ali Benjamin gets so right.

Touching for all of us who have been through this, and cathartic for those who are going through it right now. What a beautiful debut. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

2.5 stars

Because why not an angsty, teenage grandpa?

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm (2014)

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

That same teacher who brought in the gross cookies also sent each of the kids home with a goldfish, with the expectation that it would be a great lesson in the cycle of life. But for Ellie, Goldie the Goldfish didn’t teach her a thing about death, because she lasted for 7 years. Or so Ellie’s mom made her believe. Turns out the fish that died when Ellie was in 5th grade was in fact the thirteenth goldfish swimming around in Goldie’s bowl.

So Ellie may have already been delayed at understanding the life cycle. Things don’t improve when a strange boy shows up one evening. A boy with long hair, a zitty face, and a bossy attitude. A boy who looks strangely like her Grandpa Melvin, a scientist who was always obsessed with finding immortality. Could he have finally done it?

After Grandpa Melvin, the teenager, moves in with Ellie and her mom, Ellie starts to see the world in a whole new way. Ellie, whose parents are deeply entrenched in the theater arts, has struggled to find her passion in life. But teenage Grandpa Melvin shows her that science can be fun, science can be exciting, and science is everywhere.

This short read took me less than a day to listen to as I was painting the bathroom. It’s quirky, often hilarious, and another plug for science for today’s middle-graders.

1.5 stars

I Lava This One!

Eruption! Volcanoes and the Science of Saving People, by Elizabeth Rusch; photographs by Tom Uhlman (2013)

Opening line: “On the northern tip of the Andes Mountains in Colombia, the majestic Nevado del Ruis rises 17,680 feet (5,389 meters) into the sky, its summit draped year-round with snow and ice.”

In this first line we get to meet one of our major characters of Eruption!: a terrifying volcano. There are several more profiled in this volume of the Scientists in the Field series (my favorite science non-fiction series for middle schoolers), each of them more terrible than the last. When this particular giant erupted in 1985, it ended up killing 23,000 people before all was said and done, destroying multiple villages in its path. Today, scientists around the globe are working to prevent such atrocities by developing ways to help predict such explosions, helping to get people out of the way of the ash, molten rock, and mudslides in time, but with more than 1 billion people living in these danger zones, this is quite a task.

I can’t ever say enough about this series of books. I love each and every one of them I read. They engage me with ideas (animals, catastrophes, world problems) I know little about and bring them to life with such drama, incredible photographs, and real human stories. They show that the term “scientist” is incredibly varied and there are all sorts of jobs students could grow up to have, including ones that haven’t been dreamed up yet. It also helps that these books are always under 100 pages, making them approachable, despite being CHOCK full of new information. Gosh I love them. If I see the “Scientists in the Field” label on the edge of the spine, I’m probably going to buy it for my library, and I’m probably not going to regret it.

2.5 stars

Middle Grade Fiction…telling me about another disease I really don’t want to get

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, by Deborah Hopkinson (2013)

Opening line: “What we now call the Great Trouble began one thick, hot, foul-smelling morning in August.”

As a recent transplant to a new state, I’ve got a new list of reader’s choice award nominees to read. I’d already read about 4 of them, but have a whole slew of others to get through as quickly as possible so that I can start promoting them to students! The Great Trouble was one of the ones available for immediate check out at the public library as soon as I heard I was being considered for a new middle school job, so it was up first!

Orphan Eel is doing his best to take care of himself and his little brother Henry, by doing just about any job he can get, including running errands for the local tailor. But when the tailor gets suddenly and incredibly sick one day, dying the next, Eel senses that finding his next paycheck is the least of his troubles. Soon the entire neighborhood appears to be just pulsing with the illness known to everyone as “The Blue Death”, but known to us today as cholera. In Eel’s desperation, he goes to another one of his employers, Dr. John Snow, to ask for help. Dr. Snow is instantly anxious to help, but not in the way Eel imagines. Instead of providing Eel’s friends with any kind of comfort or medicine, Dr. Snow immediately takes samples from the community well, in his opinion the culprit of the epidemic. Dr. Snow’s opinion is not a popular one — the well has the cleanest and best tasting water in the area, and everyone knows cholera is spread through the air! If Dr. Snow is going to prove otherwise, he’s going to have to act fast, and he’s going to need Eel’s help.

This book is going to be a big hit with kids who like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 (which was a big seller in my school in Illinois…we’ll see if that holds any weight in my new school). Like Anderson does in Fever, Hopkinson expertly blends real historical drama and characters with her created story, making it hard to tell where fiction and fact meet. (I was super impressed by Anderson’s ability to do this, if you remember.) This book also does a great job of exploring the scientific process (answering the “5 W’s” described by Dr. Snow) in a fictional context, reminiscent of Calpurnia Tate. It’s not going to win the South Carolina Junior Book Award, I’m pretty confident, but a good addition to the shelves.

1.5 stars

Losing Nemo

World Without Fish, by Mark Kurlansky (2011)

Opening line: “Most stories about the destruction of the planet involve a villain with an evil plot. But this is the story of how the earth could be destroyed by well-meaning people who fail to solve a problem simply because their calculations are wrong.”

I happened upon this book when I was looking for materials for one of my teachers, and its title was too startling to walk away without picking it up. Bestselling author of Cod and former commercial fisherman, Mark Kurlansky, seems to be desperate. He has seen into the future, and the picture he sees is a bleak one. According to Kurlansky, if our [fishing, polluting, eating] habits don’t change quickly, the most commonly eaten fish in our world could be extinct in the next 50 years, which would completely alter the life of our planet.

And how do we solve this problem? Kurlansky’s answer: appeal to the youth, the ones that may actually be able to do something about it. I admire his approach — conversational tone, troubling anecdotal evidence, engaging fonts and structure, a related comic between each chapter, and concrete ideas for working for change. He covers the topic from all angles, and although his opinion is never unclear, he objectively portrays the problem at hand. It’s the kind of informational text I’d love to give to science teachers to bolster their curriculum.

HOWEVER. Kurlansky fails on one major front that, as a research teacher and information specialist, I’m having a hard time over-looking. He does not cite a single source, offer a resource list or bibliography, and often uses phrases such as, “Scientists think that…” I’m sorry, Mr. Kurlansky, what scientists? All scientists? Let’s be a little more specific, shall we? How can I hand this book to students as an informational text when it fails to show them an example of what we want them to do in their writing? I don’t need footnotes or even full in-text citations, but I would like to see him giving a little credit to his sources. I found myself questioning his somewhat wild claims (however true they might be) simply because I have no idea where he got his information. And this doesn’t help his cause at all.

I am still really tempted to buy a copy for my collection though.

Engaging, interesting, thought-provoking, but no gosh darn sources. 1.5 stars

A New Nation

Nation, by Terry Pratchett (2008)

This semester I am taking a young adult literature class, which means my shelves are currently filled with YA books. Nation was the first book on the reading list. So read it, I did!

We meet Mau, who is setting off from Boy’s Island in the canoe he recently made. He is on his way home where everyone in the Nation will be there to greet him and celebrate his transition into Manhood. But on his journey, he is swept into the largest wave he’s ever seen and is thrown off course. When he finally arrives to his island home, all he is greeted by are smashed huts and lifeless bodies. His entire Nation has been destroyed by the giant wave.

After he tends to all the dead villagers in a comatose haze, by taking them out to sea where their spirits will turn into dolphins until they are called back to human form, he explores the rest of his Nation to find a huge ship, much bigger than any canoe he’s ever seen.

On the ship is Ermintrude, daughter to a prominent man who was made governor of colony halfway around the world. On her way out to meet her father, Ermintrude’s ship is caught by the wave and thrown onto the Nation. All of the crew perished, but Ermintrude, hiding in her cabin, survived the crash.

And here on the Nation, Ermintrude and Mau find each other. Through pantomime and drawing the sand, they learn to communicate. Soon, others from neighboring islands show up, hoping that the Nation fared better than their own, only to find a “ghost girl” and a boy/man as the chief.  But together, Mau, Daphne (Ermintrude’s new name for herself), and the others rebuild the Nation.

A combination of humorous interaction, spiritual reflection, and deep shared sadness, Nation is one of my new favorite books. A good start to the semester, I’d say.

Three stars.