Intermediate STEM

Hand the following entertaining and informative STEM-focused nonfiction titles to science-minded middle graders.

Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math
by Jeannine Atkins
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    320 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-5344-6068-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6070-6    $10.99

Atkins’s (Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, rev. 7/16) latest collective biography in verse spotlights seven “women who used math to frame and solve problems, fix things, or understand the size of the universe.” Tracing her subjects’ lives from childhood to adulthood, Atkins stitches together intimate slice-of-life moments and impressive professional accomplishments, taking poetic license with “dialogue and sensory detail.” First up is astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), who “writes a note to Dr. Maskelyne / at the Royal Observatory, announcing her second comet. / Then she measures sugar to make gooseberry jam.” By pairing comet-discovering with jam-making, and subversively categorizing both as women’s work, Atkins underscores what would have been an outrageous notion in late-eighteenth-century England. Similarly multilayered and thoughtful are Atkins’s portraits of nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale; inventor and electrical engineer Hertha Marks Ayrton; geologist and oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp; NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson; Census Bureau statistician Edna Lee Paisano; and astronomer Vera Rubin. Astute and richly detailed, Atkins’s free-verse biographies address head-on the challenges — both shared (sexism) and distinct (financial hardship, racism, work-family balance, illness) — that these passionate and determined trailblazers overcame. And it’s entirely fitting that Atkins’s lyrical tributes are keenly evocative when referencing math: “Subtraction is soothing, though she dislikes / landing on zero. Something is missing. She wants more.” An author’s note, brief biographical profiles, and a selected bibliography are appended. TANYA D. AUGER

Mammoth Science: The Big Ideas That Explain Our World
by David Macaulay; illus. by the author
Intermediate    DK    160 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-4654-9146-6    $19.99

A unique and amusing encyclopedia of general scientific topics from master draftsman Macaulay, geared to a slightly younger audience than the author’s The Way Things Work books. Divided into five sections, the book explores topics that fall under the headings of matter, life, energy, forces, and Earth and space, all with detailed illustrations and diagrams — and all of which include woolly mammoths (and the occasional elephant shrew). As in the previous books, Macaulay uses tongue-in-cheek humor to model everything from the states of matter, to types of cells, to the properties of color and radiation. In one illustration, a number of mammoths work assembly-line-type machines representing the different functions and parts of the human digestive system. The variety of ways mammoths are employed throughout is highly entertaining and effectively lightens topics that might otherwise feel dry. A detailed index will allow young readers to jump to subjects of interest, making this a worthwhile (if quirky) addition to any reference collection. ERIC CARPENTER

Plasticus Maritimus: An Invasive Species
by Ana Pêgo and Isabel Minhós Martins; illus. by Bernardo P. Carvalho; trans. from Portuguese by Jane Springer
Intermediate, Middle School    Greystone Kids    176 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-77164-643-7    $19.95
e-book ed.  978-1-77164-644-4    $9.99

Pêgo, a marine biologist, warns of the impact of “invasive” plastics on the ocean environment. The toys, fishing lines, and medical equipment that wash up on the beaches she frequents are the tip of the iceberg, representing just a small fraction of the volumes of plastics in the oceans and the serious harm they do to plant and animal life. The narrative, filled with lists, timelines, and asides, ambles across scientific, environmental, and personal topics, from brief explanations of concepts such as tides and the chemistry of plastic production to musings on human connections with the sea. Although each topic is discussed only briefly, the concepts accumulate as readers work through the book, presenting a solid introduction to the science and a clear call to action. Crayon illustrations of coasts and seas evoke the movements of the ocean, and photos of some of the oddities found on the beach are both fun to try to identify and disturbing when revealed, showing the amazing scope of plastic waste generated by human activities. Wonderfully direct sections transform the overused “reduce-reuse-recycle” mantra into a more effective seven-step action plan, inviting readers to call out those “pretending the problem doesn’t exist” and to contribute to long-lasting solutions. Back matter includes websites, sources, “Do You Want to Know More About Plastic,” “What We Can Do,” author bios, and information about the nonprofit David Suzuki Institute. DANIELLE J. FORD

The Big One: The Cascadia Earthquakes and the Science of Saving Lives [Scientists in the Field]
by Elizabeth Rusch
Intermediate, Middle School    Houghton    80 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-544-88904-0    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-33579-5    $9.99

Off the Pacific Northwest coast, running about six hundred miles from British Columbia to Northern California, lies the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where “a heavier plate pushes under a lighter one.” Such a situation signals the frequent occurrence of earthquakes, but, in a scientific mystery not unlocked until the waning years of the twentieth century, this area had no record of earthquakes. Then a group of scientific Sherlocks begin looking into the anomaly as they tried to reconcile the historical record with what plate tectonic hypotheses suggested. Rusch links the findings from many disparate disciplines — geology, oceanography, paleoseismology, folkloristics — individuals studied in order to determine if there were any records of ancient enormous quakes. By combining their research, scientists uncovered evidence of quakes in much earlier times, allowing them to predict that a devastating megaquake — one lasting for minutes rather than seconds and recording a magnitude of over 8.0 — would occur, perhaps in the next fifty years. The final step Rusch outlines is preparedness: what populations living in the area should do in case of a Cascadia earthquake. Here she focuses on individual and community measures, again showing the power of combining more than one approach to study a problem. Appended with a bibliography, suggestions for further reading and research, a glossary, and an index. BETTY CARTER

From the January 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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