STEM Tuesday –Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More! — In the Classroom


This month’s theme looks at transportation–something students might think as ordinary. But as the books we’re highlighting show, plaines, trains, and automobiles have rich histories and lots of science going on.  They’re perfect starting points for different science activities and discussions in the classroom. Here are a few to try.


Save the Crash-test Dummies by Jen Swanson, illustrated by Tamika Grooms
Explore how autos are made even safer by using crash-test dummies for design. An entertaining look at the history of car production, as well as the science and engineering behind these machines we can’t seem to live without.

  •  Make a timeline of the evolution of the car bumper.
  • Research the science behind how car bumpers absorb energy from a crash. Have students design the ultimate car bumper, listing what it can do during a crash and labeling its parts on a drawing.
  • Have students imagine a crash-test dummy’s perspective of being tested in a car crash. They can make a comic or write a story about the dummy’s experience.
  • Watch “The Physics of Seat Belts” video from the Smithsonian Channel and ask students to list three reasons why seat belts are important. Have them make a public safety poster about why it is important to always wearing a seat belt when riding in a car. They should include their reasons on the poster.



Milestones of Flight: From Hot Air Balloons to Space Ship One by Tim Grove

Grove gives readers a look into transportation history and science in this book. Illustrated with photographs, documents, and diagrams from the Smithsonian’s collection.

  • Did one inventor make flight possible? No, like many inventions, the ideas developed from one inventor to another. Ask students to pair up and discuss how two different inventors added to the history of flight.
  • Who was Charles Lindbergh? What did Robert Goddard do?  This book is filled with interesting people vital to the development of flight. Students can pick one and research that person. Then have them act as their character, wearing a costume if they’d like, and tell the class who they are and what they did related to the history of flight.



Green Transport: Exploring Eco-Friendly Travel for a Better Tomorrow by Rani Iyer  

More on eco-friendly alternatives as transportation industries strive to create green options. This comprehensive title explores traditional energy sources and their impacts, alternative fuels, and mass transit issues as cities move toward more sustainable solutions.

  • Vehicles contribute to climate change, but what else affects the climate. Let students explore the causes of global warming on this site:
  • Have students create a train development timeline, listing the fuels used by different trains throughout history and how they affect the environment.
  • Ask students to imagine transportation of the future and have them design a plane, train, ship, or car that runs on clean fuel that does not harm the environment. Have them describe what this fuel is and how it makes their futuristic vehicle run.



Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. Her award-winning and star-reviewed books have been named a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, a 2015 Book of Note from the TriState Review Committee, a 2011 Editor’s Choice for School Library Connection, and Junior Library Guild selections. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son, and bikes, hikes, and gazes at the night sky in northern Minnesota any moment she can.

Interview with Kirk Scroggs, Author of The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

We are in for a treat today! I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was for this interview. As some of you know, I’m a huge comic fan, and Swamp-Thing, in particular, has always been among my favorites. So, when I found out that I was going to get to interview Kirk Scroggs, author of a new adaptation of Swamp Thing geared toward Middle Grade readers, I was absolutely thrilled.


JR: Hi, Kirk and thanks for joining us today.


JR: Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about the DC’s middle grade books and The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid?

KS: DC’s middle grade graphic novels are meant to introduce kids to graphic novels and their iconic characters. I have to give them credit for approaching writers from all genres and age groups and encouraging them to think outside the box right off the bat. With The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid, I pushed it a little further and said “What if I did a graphic novel that’s also diary fiction with a hefty dose of chapter books thrown in?” It’s designed to look like a real kid’s spiral who’s been spilling his guts onto the page and doodling a lot of monsters when he should be paying attention in class. In the process of reading his thoughts and doodles, we learn a lot about an outcast kid just trying to make through middle school while realizing his own budding superpowers and saving his school from dark forces at the same time.

JR: I love the idea of these iconic superheroes as kids. With yours, after I finally managed to wrest it away from my kids, I devoured it. I’m a huuuuuge Swamp Thing fan and loved what you did with the story. So, it seems like DC gave you the freedom to explore any story you wanted?

KS: I am so thrilled you liked it! It sure was fun to play around in DC’s sandbox of great characters. They presented the opportunity as a list of heroes/villains they were interested in developing with no limits on what we could do with them, as long as it was for young readers. There were maybe fifteen characters on that list and, honestly, once I saw Swamp Thing on there, all I could see was green. I whipped up a fake cover and the first four pages, complete with a spiral notebook background I had scanned. My first stab at it was called Swamp Teen. They loved it but quickly reminded me of the age group. So, Swamp Kid was born!


JR: You’re also involved with another huge cultural franchise, The Muppets. How has that experience been, and seriously, what’s Kermit like behind the scenes? I mean, nobody is THAT nice.


KS: That whole experience seemed like a dream. My biggest influence might well have been Jim Henson so getting the opportunity to write some bad puns and silly gags for those characters was like winning the lottery. And Kermit— what is it with me and Swamp Creatures? I’m still waiting to catch the real Kermit in the act. He seems so perfect. There’s gotta be a little diva under that felt facade, but I never saw it.


 JR: I read that you love monsters. We’re kindred spirits that way. What was the first one you remember loving and also which are some of your favorites?

KS: As a kid, I loved anything monsters. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Monster Squad. Every day was Halloween in my brain. I vividly remember seeing King Kong in the theater at far too young of an age, and during the scene where the giant snake attacks Kong on Skull Island the bulb in the projector went out so we could just hear the battle happening. I remember being outraged, and terrified. King Kong and Swamp Thing, and certainly Frankenstein, have that tragic quality to them. They are sympathetic and misunderstood under all the fur and moss and nuts and bolts.

JR: You named a lot of my favorites! Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point? 

KS: I got lucky with getting an agent a while back. I had written a little tale called Dracula Vs. Grampa which became the first entry in Wiley and Grampa’s Creature Features. It was a long road to getting the first one published, but I’ve been very fortunate to always get to do my own illustrations. I’ve been building up quite a catalog of monsters and madness ever since. Little Brown Books really believed in me and now DC.


 JR: That’s fantastic! Can you also tell us a little bit about what your writing process is like?

KS: It really is like Swamp Kid’s journals. I sit down, sometimes on the floor with a spiral or just some blank white paper and start doodling. Sometimes I even cut and paste with actual scissors and scotch tape. Once I’ve got a good game plan I move to the digital world and whip up a rough draft that I send to my amazing editor, who then mercilessly slashes it to ribbons!


JR: What was your favorite childhood book?

KS: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends is still unbeatable in my book. Those scrappy little drawings he did for it and the level of humor at work.

JR: What’s your favorite movie?

KS: Jaws is my favorite movie and that’s the complete opposite of a sympathetic monster!


JR: That’s required once-a-year viewing in my house. Something people would be surprised to learn about you?

KS: I was a classically trained tenor in Milan where I played the role of Othello. Just kidding! That’s a tough one. I actually didn’t read a lot of superhero comics as a kid except for Swamp Thing. Mad Magazine was my thing and I loved spooky comics. Tales from the Crypt, Weird War Tales, Creepshow.


JR: Also a fun movie! What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any you can give to writers looking to break in?

KS: I can’t remember who said it, but it was don’t write for kids, write as a kid. It works out for me because I have the brain of an eighth-grader! As for breaking in, my advice is to be yourself and show us something new. Even if you’re doing a spin on a classic character, maybe one with a lot of moss hanging from him, do something fresh and original. Give us a couple of scenes that pull the rug out from under us or leave us thinking.


JR: That’s great advice! What are you working on next?

KS: I’m currently in the early stages of another DC project! I’m hoping to use a similar format and I’m guaranteeing multiple monsters.


JR: Multiple monsters works for me! How can people follow you on social media?

Check out I’m on something called Instagram and Twitter too. And the face book of course.


JR: I’d like to thank you once again for joining us today!

KS: Thank you, Jonathan! It was a treat!


Well, that’s it for now. So, until next time, thanks for reading!


Interview and giveaway with Jamie Sumner, author of Roll with It

This week, author Jamie Sumner stopped by MUF to talk about her brand-new middle-grade title from Simon & Schuster, ROLL WITH IT (giveaway below!).  Here’s what Jamie had to say about writing for middle-grade readers, why stories about being the new kid are so appealing, and what’s on her TBR (to be read) list.

Roll with It by Jamie Sumner

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little bit about ROLL WITH IT (& CONGRATS!!!), as well as your background as a writer.

Jamie Sumner: I woke up at 2:30 a.m. one late night/early morning with the idea for ROLL WITH IT rattling around in my head. My son has cerebral palsy and the notion of writing a story that he could relate to had been percolating for a while. But I knew I couldn’t tell Charlie’s story. I needed more distance from real life to let my imagination go where it would.

What woke me up at 2:30 a.m. was this vision of someone in a wheelchair trying to navigate my grandparent’s old trailer in Oklahoma. It would be impossible! It would be insane to even try! But maybe, just maybe, if you’re determined enough and young enough to brave it, it could be awesome. And so the idea of ROLL WITH IT was born.

The story follows Ellie, a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, who moves with her mom into a trailer park in Oklahoma to help take caring of her grandpa who has dementia. It’s a tight fit, but there is so much love in that small space and that small town. She finds freedom in this most unexpected place and she makes friends and pursues her dream of becoming a famous chef. She comes into herself here.

As for my background as a writer, it’s all over the place. I’ve written essays, both personal and reported, for The New York Times and The Washington Post. And I’ve also written a faith-based parenting book, Unbound, which came out last year and I have another faith-based parenting book, this time for parents of children with special needs, called Eat, Sleep, Save the World, that comes out with Lifeway March of 2020! I am also the reviews editor at Literary Mama so not only do I get to write, but I get to read great stuff as well.

MUF: You’ve written personal essays about your son, Charlie. Had you always wanted to write or was being a mom to Charlie what sparked that interest? 

JS: I still remember the first story that caused someone to call me “a writer”. It was fourth grade and the story was seven pages longer than the requirement and it followed the perilous journey of an elephant in India trying to escape from the zoo. My teacher loved it and I felt so important when the words I wrote made someone else feel things. I’ve written off  and on ever since, but began to pursue it full time after Charlie and my twins got a little older. And writing about Charlie is how I first jumped back in. There were so many things I wanted to tell other parents who might be in the same boat as me. And then later, there were so many things I wanted to share with kids who are like Charlie!

Jamie Sumner, author, Roll With It

MUF: What made you turn to fiction, and then specifically, middle grade fiction? What is it about MG readers that made you want to write for them?

JS: I love middle schoolers! I think this is the hardest age for a reason. When you’re in it, you have no idea what’s going on with yourself or anybody else. You’re confused and maybe a little scared. But all that makes you curious. And curious readers are the best kind! Kids this age are looking for answers and for stories that reflect what they are experiencing. They read with an appetite for comfort or understanding or simply distraction and when they find it they are loyal readers for life. I still remember reading Bridge to Terabithia as an 11-year-old and wondering how anyone could understand me so completely without having met me.

As for why I decided to write fiction—it was just too much fun to let the characters lead me wherever they wanted to go. I couldn’t imagine not telling Ellie’s story of friendship with Bert and Coralee and the wonderful things they get into. They are as real to me as my own family now.

MUF: I was interested in seeing that you’d made your main character, Ellie, “the new girl.” That’s a popular theme in MG — what is it about being the new kid that you think is such an appealing topic for readers? 

JS: Being the new kid is like stepping up to a precipice and peering waaaaay down and then waaaaay up and wondering where to go from here. It makes you stop and think about the kind of person you want to be. You get to reinvent yourself, or more to the point, dig deeper to find the person you know you are. The “new kid” is just a metaphor for how we all feel when we encounter something for the first time – new house, new friends, new family dynamic – it’s a chance to see yourself in a different light. If a story is about character development, what better way to do that than having them starting fresh?

MUF: What’s next for you?

JS: So many things! I’m excited to get rolling (pun intended) on school visits for ROLL WITH IT. And as I mentioned earlier, EAT, SLEEP, SAVE THE WORLD comes out in March so I’ll be traveling quite a bit and speaking about that.

But also…I have two more middle grade books coming out with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster! Next up for fall of 2020 is THE SURVIVAL PLAYLIST, the story of 12-year-old Lou Montgomery, a talented singer with a flighty, fame-hungry mother and an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly unbearable. I just saw the cover for that one and I was blown away by how wonderful it is.

MUF: Finally, what is on your bedside table/massive book pile by your bed now?

JS: Oh, this is  my favorite question. Ready?
Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry
Sweep by Jonathan Auxier
The Lost Husband by Katherine Center
Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (so excited for this one!)
After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
Akin by Emma Donoghue
The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti
The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats

Find out more about Jamie and subscribe to her newsletter here.  

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