The Wikkeling, by Steven Arntson

  • July 10, 2011 5:59 am

 This engaging, slightly spooky fantasy novel can be read on a couple of levels. Upper elementary kids (the target age is 9-12 years old) will likely read it as an adventure story. Henrietta and her friends, Gary and Rose, manage to vanquish the mysterious, menacing “Wikkeling” with the help of a gender-obscure cat named Mister Lady.

Kids will also enjoy the well-developed setting. Henrietta and her friends live in a dystopia in which technology, pavement, new construction, and advertising are taking over their world. Schools are driven by computerized, standardized tests, and everyone has instant access to the latest news about each other through their cell phones and other gadgets. (Sound familiar?) Henrietta and her friends also get a glimpse into what their neighborhood looked like a few generations ago. I was immediately drawn into the characters and setting, and I think kids will be, too.

Adults and older readers might get into the allegorical aspect of the story. The Wikkeling, we learn, was created by a couple of scientists for humanitarian purposes, to “harness the power of nature toward human industry.” The Wikkeling was brought to life by one word: “grow”. Unfortunately, this growth had no limits. The Wikkeling and its power destroyed its creators, and began taking over the world.

While the story ends with a satisfying resolution, there are enough loose ends that I assume this book is the beginning of a series.

Women Scientists in Novels

  • April 29, 2011 5:15 pm

This post is a bit of a departure from the premise of my web site. The novels featured below are not published by small publishers, nor are they specifically for young people. Nevertheless, I thought they would be of interest to teachers, parents, and teens looking to read and recommend novels featuring women scientists.

The following novels are ones that I’ve enjoyed and consider to be “good literature.” The novels below are realistic works of fiction—not science fiction. The science in these books is prominent and a main part of the story.

Interestingly, most of these books feature two women scientists who are friends and/or colleagues.

If you have other books to add to this list, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier — A historical novel based on the lives of two real women fossil hunters in the early 1800s: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Anning, from a working-class family, started hunting fossils to sell as a way to increase her family’s income, and ended up finding several large skeletons of extinct marine reptiles. Philpot, a middle-class lady, hunted fossils to pass the time, and amassed a respected collection of fossil fish. The novel chronicles their friendship, as well as their efforts to be noticed and included in the male-only scientific community of the time. This book would be a good companion read with Persuasion by Jane Austen. Remarkable Creatures takes place in the English seaside town of Lyme Regis at the same time that Jane Austen lived and wrote. A portion of Persuasion also takes place in Lyme Regis.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh — A beautiful, absorbing, unusual book about an Indian-American cetologist (dolphin researcher) working in the Sunderbans, a group of tropical, tiger-infested islands off the coast of India. Piya, the cetologist, befriends an illiterate fisherman, Fokir, who has an amazing self-taught knowledge of river dolphins. Although they don’t share a language, they manage to communicate enough to collaborate on tracking the movements of these dolphins. The final storm scene is gripping and poignant.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman — Two of the main characters are women scientists: Robin, a single 38-year-old post doctoral student researching cures for cancer, and Marion, a married mother who is co-director of the lab where Robin works. The story revolves around Robin’s attempt to prove that the remarkable results produced by her former boyfriend are the result of false data. Is Robin motivated by jealousy, or by a dedication to scientific rigor? Why does Marion fail to support Robin in her quest for accuracy and truth? The characters in this novel are complex and the lab scenes are full of detail. This would be a great book to spark discussions of issues like jealousy, competition, ambition, and collaboration.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – There are two women scientists in this book: Deanna, a 47-year-old wildlife biologist who studies coyotes, and Lusa, a twenty-something entomologist interested in moths. During the summer of this story, these two women, who happen to live in an isolated Appalachian town, attempt to engage with and educate the farmers and hunters in their area about the importance of wildlife and nature. The story also deals with the fertility, mating, and reproduction that goes on among humans and animals during this one “prodigal summer.”

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett — again, two women scientists are featured in this novel. Forty-two-year-old Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher who is sent to the Amazon rainforest to track down 73-year-old Annick Swenson, an aloof researcher who has been living with an Amazon tribe for years, researching a fertility drug. Annick is a former medical school professor of Marina’s, but while Marina revered her teacher, Annick doesn’t remember her student.  While in the rainforest, Marina also wants to investigate the mysterious death of her colleague Anders Eckman. This novel has a strong plot and a fascinating setting.

Bullying and Me, by Shapiro and Vote

  • March 26, 2011 8:58 am

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The subtitle of this 30-page book is “Schoolyard Stories,” and indeed this book features the voices of kids relating stories about bullying at school. 

The kids are from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and of varying ages, from elementary school through high school. Also included are two adults who talk about the bullying they experienced when they were children. Each two-page spread includes color photos of one child or adult, along with their story of bullying.

Most of the people featured in this book were targets of bullies, but a few talk about their experiences of being mean to someone else, or not helping someone else who is being bullied. The children who were bullied relate how they overcame the problem with the help of family and teachers. The children who believed they were bullies discuss why they acted the way they did, and what they wish they had done instead.

The book also includes tips and reflections from Dr.  Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology. As Dr. Dorothy points out, “bullies often pick on kids who are different in some way.” A boy who is not good at sports but likes art or music; a boy who refuses to fight; or  a girl who does not dress in the right clothes, or who talks to the wrong people, may be targets of bullying. Kids who try to break out of gender stereotypes may face bullying as other kids try to force them to conform.

A few of the young people in this book point out that sometimes parents and teachers are not helpful. As one boy said, “Kids are sneaky about bullying.” Teachers and parents may not see it happening, and even if they do, they may not know how to stop it. Therefore, it can be effective for kids to take matters into their own hands, with adult guidance. Two of the young people featured in this book were part of a team that started an anti-bullying committee at school to educate other kids about how to stop bullying. Another boy overcame his fear to confront a bully and tell him, “Y0u’ll have more friends if you’re friendlier to people.” This worked, and the bully became a good friend.

This book can be a great discussion starter about bullying. I like the fact that this book uses kids’ own words to talk about bullying. I have included it on my boys and girls lists.

Lacey and the African Grandmothers

  • March 13, 2011 7:38 pm

Click on picture to purchase book

This is another unusual novel from the Kids’ Power Series from Second Story Press in Canada. It is based on the true story of Lisa Jo Sun Walk, who as a teenager helped raise money for African grandmothers.

Lacey, a 12-year-old Blackfoot girl living in Alberta, Canada, learns about the plight of African grandmothers raising their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Although Lacey’s life is very difficult–she is one of 8 siblings in a poor family–she is determined to participate in the Grandmothers to Grandmothers program.

With her grandmother’s help, Lacey learns to sew and decorate purses and bags. Community members donate fabric, decorations, and time, and together they make about 30 purses, which they sell to raise money for the African grandmothers.

Then, Lacey learns something amazing: two African grandmothers are touring Canada to publicize the Grandmothers to Grandmothers program, and they want to come see her and her community! The entire community works together to prepare food, gifts, and performances for Florence and Zubeda from Kenya. Lacey realizes that these African grandmothers remind her of the elders in her own community.

The book is illustrated with actual photographs of tote bags made by Lisa Jo Sun Walk and her family and friends, and photos of the African grandmothers’ visit.

Based on reading level alone, this book would be appropriate for kids 8 and up. However, because of some mature content, I would recommend it for kids 11 and up. For example, Lacey’s 17-year-old sister is in a relationship with a young man who is verbally abusive to her. Teen pregnancy is front and center, since much of the book takes place at an alternative high school for girls who have given birth.

This inspiring book is highly recommended. I have included it on my girls list.

Aruna’s Journeys: Authentic or Inaccurate?

  • March 6, 2011 12:53 pm

I was surprised to see, recently, a whole bunch of new reviews of my book Aruna’s Journeys on It appears that these reviews are from young Indian-American readers.

The reviews were mixed: one recent reviewer liked it because “in this book I felt as if India was important. Some characters in this book were supportive, and liked India.” Another reviewer said “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because they will get the wrong idea about Indians.” One reader said that the book “made me feel different. I felt that I wasn’t something good, like all Indians/Indian Americans were bad. But they did show our traditions and stories.”  Another reader assumed that I was trying to show “how all Indian Americans acted when talking about their culture.”

I found it interesting, and somewhat dismaying, that all these reviewers assumed that I was trying to say something universal about all Indian-Americans, or all Indians, or even all of India, in my little book. Why did they assume that this book, and the character of Aruna, was representative of all India or all Indian-Americans? Why did these reviewers assume that if a character in the book behaved in a negative manner, then that meant that all Indians are bad? Why did one reader feel bad about being an Indian-American after reading this book?

It was certainly not my intention to speak for all Indians or all  Indian-Americans with Aruna’s Journeys. It is a book based on my own childhood, and although it is fiction, it includes details that I picked up through many childhood trips to India, and through being part of an Indian-American community in northeastern Ohio. So I hope it seems authentic, and I hope kids of many different cultures find something to identify with.

But since India is extremely diverse, one book cannot hope to universally represent all Indians or all Indian-Americans. After thinking about this, I believe that the readers quoted above came to assume that Aruna represents all Indian-Americans because there are so very few realistic novels about Indian-American kids out there. Most of the children’s books that deal with India are folk-tales. They do not feature realistic characters who are of Indian origin and living in America.

After all, when a reader reads a book such as Ramona the Pest, they don’t complain that Ramona makes them feel bad to be a white girl! Or they don’t say that the book shows that the United States is important! They just view it as the story of one particular girl with her own unique concerns.

We need more realistic novels about Indian-American children, to show the diversity of lives of Indian-Americans. Then maybe Aruna can go back to being just one girl with her own unique concerns, instead of some sort of mascot for Indian-Americans, which she was never intended to be!

Here are a few other books about East Indian-American children for ages 8-12:

  • Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Sheth — a lovely story about an 11-year-old girl who moves from a small town in India to Iowa City. As she struggles to fit in, she also develops compassion for a poor girl she had shunned back in India.  
  • Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee — my husband read this book to our 8-year-old son, and they both loved it. Poppy is an 11-year-old Indian-American girl who wants to be a veterinarian. She gets to spend the summer with her Uncle Sanjay, a veterinarian on an island near Seattle. This book contains lots of great details about animal care.  Indian culture is not front and center in this book, but I found this realistic since none of us thinks about our culture all the time.

By the way, I would like to thank the readers who posted reviews. These reviews have given me a lot of food for thought.