When I was a wee lad (5’ 11”, 210 lb.), back in my junior year of high school, we took one of those classic tests designed to magically deduce one’s most likely path to career and life success. My 55-year-old self can’t recall a single question from the test now. In fact, most of the memory from this event consists of filling in the ovals (completely) on the answer sheet (in #2 pencil) and the resultant career of choice subsequently handed down by the gods of career aptitude.
First, I do recall that, as a kid who liked to draw, I took great pride in filling out my answer sheet ovals. They were always impeccable, even if the answers were dead wrong. Second, in the haze of time passed, I recall meeting with my guidance counselor to go over my now clarified path to a well-lived life. The result?
Yes, that is what the computer algorithm decided my career should be. A quick check of the dictionary told me I should be a maker of maps. The gods of career aptitude must have a sense of humor, right?
When I broke the cartographer news to the family at the dinner table that night, my brothers and sister rolled to the kitchen floor in uncontrollable laughter. My ever-supportive mother gave an enthusiastic “How nice.”, while my civil engineer dad responded, “A mapmaker? Hmmm…that’s different. So how are you going to make a living then?”
Even though I love maps, I did not become a cartographer. My collection of National Geographic maps handed down from my dad is one of my favorite treasures. Books with maps, both fiction, and nonfiction, line my bookshelves. Eventually, I became a molecular microbiologist, a writer, and a sports coach, not a cartographer. For years, I’ve always wondered about that career aptitude test and how it could have been so wrong.
A few years ago, though, I realized the computer wasn’t wrong at all. The testing algorithm rocked it. Maps are an integral part of everything I am and do. From mapping molecular processes in infectious diseases to mapping stories and illustrations to mapping out sports practices and gameplans. Turns out, I’m a cartographer through and through.
Maps, at their very core function, are tools to give us direction. A map can be a tool to help a hiker get from the parking lot to the mountain vista and safely back to the parking lot. Maps can help a writer build the foundation of the story they want to tell. They can also be tools to help worldbuilding (think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth) or be used as a plot device (think HP’s Marauder’s Map).
In short, don’t short the value of maps in any aspect of your life. They are especially valuable tools to have in your writing toolbox to help turn those story ideas wandering aimlessly in the desert into an actual fully-fleshed oasis of stories.
Below are some of my favorite maps I use in my life as a scientist, a writer, and a coach.
- The Human Genome Project
- The NF-kB Pathway
- Mapping COVID-19 @ The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
- Story Mapping post by Gabriela Pereira at dyiMFA
- Heather Montgomery’s excellent STEM Tuesday post on Sound Maps.
- Writing Radar by Jack Gantos has great examples of how to use a map (his neighborhood and house growing up) to generate stories.
Sports Coaching Maps
- Football scouting and game planning – A coach scouts the opponent by mapping out what the opponent has done previously. It takes a lot of work and most colleges and professional organizations dedicate many manhours toward this endeavor.
- Baseball spray chart maps – I love to keep baseball hitter spray charts. First, like scoring a game, it keeps one mentally sharp during the course of a baseball game. Second, it allows a coach the data to better position his defenders in the field.
Your MUF July 2020 Aptitude Test questions are below. Please use a #2 pencil and fill out any oval shapes or other doodles completely. The gods of middle grade thank you.
- What are your favorite middle grade books which contain maps?
- What are some middle grade books you wish would have had maps?
- How do you use maps as tools in your own life?
- How do you use maps as a writer or a reader?
Have a great summer! No matter how crazy 2020 is going for you, here’s hoping you have a reliable map to help navigate your way to the other side.
Stay safe. Be kind. Make good things.
Many kids in this age group can rattle off more dinosaur names and the details about more species than most other twelve people put together. And they have learned much of this on their own, through eager reading! What could be more exciting during this pandemic, when schools are closed and normal summer activities are limited, than for young readers to find books that hold their avid interest for hours and days?
More books on the ever-hot topic of dinosaurs come out every year. I’ve been writing a book about extinct American animals and have been looking at just about everything available for middle-grade readers on the subject. I recommend the following page-turners:
Stephen Brusatte is a leading young paleontologist, but also an engaging author of books for children and adults. In his Day of the Dinosaurs: Step Into a Spectacular Prehistoric World (Wide-Eyed Editions, 2016), readers witness over 100 prehistoric creatures of the land, sea and air through 2nd-person narrative. Older middle graders might also enjoy his best-selling adult book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (William Morrow, 2019)
Kelroy Pim and Jack Horner both fell in love with dinosaurs as kids and now have become leading scientists in the field. In their book, Dinosaurs—The Grand Tour: Everything Worth Knowing About Dinosaurs from Aardonyx to Zuniceratops (The Experiment, 2nd Ed., 2019), readers will find many of the mind-changing latest discoveries. The book also includes Jack Horner’s working field notes and suggestions for how and where readers might go to make their own prehistoric finds.
Extraordinary animals lived and went extinct millions of years before and after those great dinosaur beasts. This may be a whole new area for dino-fans to explore. Fortunately there are a number of wonderful books to help them get a sense of our vast natural history. One is Matt Sewall’s Forgotten Beasts: Amazing Creatures That Once Roamed the Earth ( Pavilion Children’s , 2019). The well-known and little-known creatures featured in this stunningly illustrated book span half a billion years, ending with the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger in the 1930s.
In their well-researched, humorous, and visually compelling book, Prehistoric Ancestors of Modern Animals: If Extinct Beasts Came to Life, (Hungry Tomato, 2017), Mathew Rake and Simon Mendez use digital photography to show what modern animals might be like if they still had the attributes of their prehistoric ancestors. See also their Prehistoric Giants, Prehistoric Sea Beasts, and Prehistoric Predators, all published in 2017.
For comprehensive, visually appealing reference books for this age group, you can’t miss with anything published by the Smithsonian or by DK Eyewitness books. Some examples: William Lindsay, Prehistoric Life: Discover the Origins of Life on Earth from the First Bacteria to the Coming of Humans (DK Eyewitness Books, Reprint ed., 2012). Or Paul Taylor, A History of Life in 100 Fossils (Smithsonian Books, 2014).
Would readers like to dig up some fossils of their own? Thousands of prehistoric animal and plant remains lie underfoot waiting to be found all over this country (except maybe in Rhode Island where, because of glaciation, fossil hunters may only come up with a trilobite or two and some Carboniferous cockroaches). Amateur fossil hunters, (including children!), have made many scientifically important finds
Mathew Rake and Dan R. Lynch’s Fossils for Kids: Finding, Identifying and Collecting (Adventure Publications, 2020) covers all those topics, but also explains how to collect responsibly so that you preserve the scientific record. Albert Dickas‘s 101 American Fossil Sites You’ve Gotta See (Mountain Press Publishing, 2018) shows state-by-state where to see prehistoric animals on display, or observe expert digs in progress, or dig on your own.
Would they like to read fiction about fossils? Try Monica
Kulling’s Mary Anning’s Curiosity (Groundwood Books, 2017), a fictionalized account of the childhood of the 19th century shell-collector who revolutionized paleontology
with her discoveries. Or read Roger Reid’s Time: A Jason Caldwell Mystery (NewSouth Books, 2011) set in a world-famous Paleozoic Footprint site in northern Alabama.
At a moment when there is much uncertainty in the present and about the future, it may be refreshing for readers to focus on the long time of Earth’s natural past. At the very least, they can have fun reading about some fascinating ages and creatures. Please pass this list of books along to any middle-graders you know. There are many more titles that I could have included, but they will find them. I wish there were a reading equivalent of “Bon appétit!”