Nonfiction Titles

STEM Tuesday — Pair Up! Comparing Nonfiction Titles — Interview with Author Kay Frydenborg

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Kay Frydenborg, author of CHOCOLATE: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat, a title in this month’s featured book pairs. School Library Journal gave it a starred review, saying, “This fascinating book presents a deep, multifaceted glimpse at a delectable dessert: chocolate. Engaging—even witty in places—and enlightening.”

Mary Kay Carson: How did Chocolate come about?

Kay Frydenborg: Chocolate was my second book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), following Wild Horse Scientists—a project that I’d loved researching and writing both for the subject matter (a long-time interest of mine that I’d tried to write about in different ways for years), and for the opportunity to join the ranks of Scientists in the Field (SITF) books, authors, and editors I so admired. When I started thinking about my next book, I was drawn to other subjects that might lend themselves to the series. So when I came across an article in the New York Times about scientists searching in the jungles of Peru for ancient cacao trees previously thought to have been extinct, I felt that little zing of recognition. I immediately pictured the scientists hiking along a tangled jungle path, and imagined the oppressive heat and the buzzing insects, the sweat and physical exertion along with the anticipation and sense of discovery that must have propelled them.

I learned that one of the principal researchers introduced in that NYT article was a USDA plant scientist headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland, within an easy drive of my home. I found his phone number and made sure he was actually there and would be willing to talk with me about his work, and I began to see a new SITF book take shape in my mind’s eye. But when I pitched the idea to my editor at HMH, I got a response I wasn’t expecting: she and her managing editor didn’t want the SITF book about chocolate scientists, but they did want a “big” stand-alone book about chocolate, for a slightly older (YA) audience. It would be longer, more complex, and broader in scope than what I’d originally proposed. Unlike wild horses, chocolate was a subject I knew little about except that I liked to eat it, so it would require a lot of research. I barely knew what a cacao tree looked like, or where it grew, or whether it was large or small. I thought about it for a bit, and then took a deep breath and accepted the challenge. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and luckily, I do love research.

MKC: Care to share a fun research moment or two?

Kay: The first was when I met and interviewed Lyndel Meinhardt, the United States Department of Agriculture plant scientist with the unusual name. He was so knowledgeable and generous in sharing his knowledge of all things cacao, and he introduced me to my first in-person cacao tree, which was actually living in a big pot on the floor of his office. Photos almost don’t do justice to this tree and its fruit, which seems about as different from chocolate as a spare tire is from a rubber tree. After introducing me to “his” cacao tree and showing me slides and maps from a couple of chocolate expeditions to the Amazon jungle, Lyndel led me to a climate-controlled greenhouse on the sprawling USDA campus, where rows of carefully-tended young trees of varying heights were thriving more than 3,000 miles from their natural habitat near the equator. Lyndel told me about the many diseases to which cacao trees in the wild are susecptible, about the closely guarded storage vaults where precious plants are stored in a few places in the world, and about how advances in genomic testing have opened a whole new world of chocolate science.

Another favorite moment? The day I received a surprise package in the mail from Dan Pearson, a California-based chocolate entrepreneur who was a major character in the book. He’d sent me a stash of his own fine Peruvian dark chocolate, in several forms, and even included some raw cacao beans. I didn’t eat the beans (although Dan told me you can), but I sure did enjoy the chocolate bars and nibs! A little went a long way, so they lasted forever, and knowing about where they came from and how they were created made them even more delicious. I could almost close my eyes and see that little tree in a steamy Amazon forest when I tasted that amazing chocolate.

MKC: What approach did you take for Chocolate and why did you choose it?

Kay: I wanted to approach this very big subject from the dual perspective of history and science—the approach I’ve followed for all of my nonfiction books. I’m equally fascinated by both ways of looking at just about everything, and find that starting by tracing the history of a given thing or event naturally leads into exploring the science around it. In the case of chocolate, the history is ancient and complex, and I was soon enthralled by stories of the ancient Mesoamerican peoples who first figured out how to transform cacao pods into chocolate, and then about the dramatic impact that European conquerers had on those ancient, rich civilizations.

Following the trail of chocolate opened a whole, fascinating world to me. This is why I love writing narrative nonfiction! I guess I write for myself, first—to satisfy my own curiosity, and I hope others—both young people and not-so-young readers—will be just as curious as I am. I read many books and articles over the course of my research, but fairly early on I also identified and began interviewing original sources, like Lyndel Meinhardt and Dan Pearson, as well as many others. Personal interviews make the story come alive for me.

Kay Frydenborg is the author of several books, including They Dreamed of Horses, Animal Therapist, Wild Horse Scientists, Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat, and A Dog in the Cave. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs, who are always hungry but are definitely not allowed to eat chocolate. When not writing, she enjoys spending time with them and riding her horse as often as she can. Learn more about her and her books at

MKC: How is your book different from other books about chocolate for older kids?

Kay: There actually aren’t a lot of other nonfiction books about chocolate for young adult readers (although H.P. Newquist’s is a good one), while there are quite a few books on the topic for younger kids and for adults. I think one thing that sets my book apart is its narrative approach. Once I started writing, the cacao tree itself assumed a prominent place in the narrative. It became a “character” in my mind—the central character in the long story of chocolate. It provided a specific image and focus that I thought made a vast, multifaceted subject more accessible—at least, it did for me! So I started by picturing one individual tree growing in a particular place, just as one might choose one particular person to be the central character of a novel. I spent a lot of time visualizing that tree and its surroundings and then describing the particulars of its fascinating features, and I often came back to that original image as I wrote. I imagined the forest animals breaking open and feasting on the cacao pods, and then the first humans to discover the tree and its remarkable fruit. Later in the book, when I introduced a larger cast of human characters past and present, I tried to ensure that the connection to that wonderful, fragile cacao tree was a consistent thread to pull the reader through the layers of history and intricacies of the science, the technology, and the business of chocolate. The little tree that opened the narrative reappeared in the form of the cacao tree in a remote Peruvian canyon that began a kind of odyssey for one of my central human characters, Dan Pearson, as well as Lyndel Meinhardt, the USDA scientist. I enjoyed tracing all of these connections through time and place.

MKC: Do you have a favorite chocolate treat?

Kay: I guess I most love a really dark fudgy treat like, um, fudge! The old-fashioned kind that is hard to find and tricky to make. Or a good, fudgy brownie or my grandmother’s recipe for fudge pie (which appears in my book!)


Win a FREE copy of CHOCOLATE: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, unapologetic chocoholic and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson


STEM Tuesday — Pair Up! Comparing Nonfiction Titles — Writing Craft and Resources

Going Deep

Today we are diving deep into two books that intrigue me. Books about a horrific medical epidemic. Books that both use narrative and expository plus characters to carry readers through the story. Books that plunge into history and science plus ethical and moral questions.

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, by Gail Jarrow

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

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Here’s a quick recap. In the early 1900s Mary Mallon carried typhoid but didn’t display any of the symptoms. She worked as a cook, was definitively linked to the infections of 49 people plus three deaths, was quarantined for decades, and became the brunt of a tabloid scandal. Both books look at the entangled story of her life, medical professionals who tracked her down, legal charges against her, and implications for constitutional rights.


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In two books on the same topic, published in the same year, written with similar audiences in mind, there is much to compare and contrast. What I find most intriguing is that both bring the science and history to light while posing enduring questions.

Dive In

Let’s look at how these books each handle one of those enduring questions. Get ready for some close reading!

After years of quarantine, Mary was finally released on parole. The terms of her release specified that she take precautions to not infect others, not work as a cook, and report regularly to the health department. But Mary broke those terms, resulting in another major outbreak and her own exile until death. The question these authors chase: Why did she risk it?

Turn to pages 133-135 of Terrible Typhoid Mary and Page 118-120 of Fatal Fever to read the texts. Here are some things to look for. I’ve included a few things I noticed and am eager to hear what you discover.

Whose story is told first?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “Mary had no lawyer to help her.”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Mary never said why she broke the conditions . . .”

What words are chosen to set the tone?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “A Witch!”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “. . . she struggled . . .”

In what way are other characters’ reactions used? Do those reactions support or denigrate Mary’s choice?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “The sympathy that people once felt toward Mallon evaporated.”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Her temerity galled Soper.”

What words or phrases convey doubt or leave interpretation open?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “Maybe she didn’t see the harm in it, . . .”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Is it possible that Mary simply didn’t understand . . .”

Are you caught up in this conundrum? Of how Mary, who had been presented as a person who stepped in to care for children when needed, could do such a thing? I am.

Where do these passages leave you emotionally? Did the balance between narrative and expository impact your reaction? Does either passage affect you more? Why?

On Your Own

Now, pursue a similar close reading on your own. There are plenty of other parallel topics in these books. Try the discussion of gall bladder removal: Fatal Fever (page 93) and Terrible Typhoid Mary (pages 136-137).

How do these authors use sequencing, language, and other characters? How do their skillful use of nonfiction devices impact you as a reader?


By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. Her latest book, Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids, is a perfect picturebook for a close read.

The O.O.L.F. Files

Resources for Writers

This site might have been designed with rhyming in mind but it has many other uses. Need a thesaurus? Angling for alliterative words? Looking for lyrics? Rhymezone’s got you covered.

Needing to go deep on a topic? Set up a Google alert on your topic. Day after day it will deliver the freshest posts straight to your inbox.

When you need a measurement comparison, The Measure of Things is your best friend! How large is 110 cubic inches?

  • 9/10th the size of a human stomach
  • 1/3rd the size of a bowling ball
  • 1 1/10th the size of an ostrich egg!

STEM Tuesday — Pair Up! Comparing Nonfiction Titles — In the Classroom

STEM TUESDAY from the mixed up files

Today is the 11th–a 1-1 pair-up. It’s an especially apt day for continuing with our Nonfiction Pair-up theme. One thing seems sure: You’ll double your impact if you pair nonfiction reading and writing with STEM lessons!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIdeas Worth Spreading

Fatal Fever and Terrible Typhoid Mary highlight the social, personal, and epidemiological stories around Mary Mallon, AKA Typhoid Mary. Exemplifying how science and society intersect and examining the difficulties of clashing social and individual interests, this pair offers high drama and nearly endless entry points for curriculum learning.

  • Does the government have the right to imprison someone to keep that person from infecting others?
  • Do students think Mary was “terrible?
    • Students can develop charts with reasons for answering yes and no–then take a stand with mock op-ed pieces.
    • Form student committees to answer “What to do about Mary?” Make sure they consider how any decisions impact Mary and the community.
    • Expand into current day concerns: “What to do when one of us gets sick?” Students might research the school’s policy regarding teachers and students with the flu or other infectious diseases. What options are available to keep everyone safe and able to work and learn?

Looking for infectious enthusiasm? Try these science learning ideas.

  • DragonFly TV’s five-minute GloGerm video offers information, an experiment, and visuals including a powder that glows under UV light and spreads throughout a kids’ bowling party.
    • Show the video to accompany their reading.
    • As an alternative, if you have the resources to purchase GloGerm and a UV light, use the video as an inspiration for a lesson plan. Demonstrate the spread of disease. Then challenge students to design their own experiments.
  • In this lesson using water, baking soda and a simple acid/base indicator, one student unwittingly becomes the source of an “infectious disease”, which then spreads to classmates.  The indicator ultimately reveals “infected” students. As an extension, track down the source student–your classroom’s counterpart to Mary Mallon in 1906, someone who unknowingly spreads disease.
    • What does the student feel like?
    • How would the class feel if all of the infected students now had to stay quarantined despite feeling well, or could no longer do whatever job they would like?
  • Students become disease detectives with an engaging interactive from PBS’s NOVA resource, which allows them to “interview” subjects, collect and review data, and explore possible sources of the new Dizzy Disease. Students might also compare and contrast their methods to those used by the typhoid tracker who found Mary Mallon, George Soper.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgAnd Now, Some Rotten Ideas

Students can become decomposers as they break down Rotten and Death Eaters, into their essential content and structure. For example, Elementary Nest’s lesson provides suggestions on conducting a compare/contrast of the facts in paired nonfiction titles.


Of course, this topic screams for a scavenger hunt! Send students searching for nonfiction text features. Check out these scavenger hunts  and, presto! You’ll gather your own list of features in no time. Follow up with a look at how these features help or detract from the reading experience.

  • How do various features help engage and explain information to readers?
  • Are there places in either book where the reader’s experience would have been enhanced by the addition or omission of a given feature?

After students digest the books in these lessons, they can recycle the morsels of information and insight into new, lively texts, composing short pieces based on the facts that they collected and incorporating the nonfiction text features to help readers engage with or grasp content.

Hands-on science experiences can add to the detail of student writing.  Start with this worm bin building activity and related resources from National Agriculture in the Classroom.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThis Trash Talk’s OK

Heighten student awareness of different styles and purposes of informational text with this trio. This Book Stinks is full of small bits of text and splashy graphics. Contrast it with Tracking Trash and Plastic Ahoy!, which combine storytelling, exposition, and characters into a cohesive whole. Challenge students to take passages from each book and turn them into the style and format of the other.

For science experiences, tie these books in with the decomposition books above (pair the pairs!). Or:


There’s so much you could do with this month’s theme, maybe you, too, should pair up; find a teaching partner to develop some of these ideas into great experiences for your students, or create your own.

  • What other book pairings can you suggest?
  • Which activities work for you?

Drop a comment to let us know!


****** BREAKING NEWS!!****

STEM TUESDAY from the mixed up filesSTEM Tuesday is now a monthly PODCAST! Tune into Jed Dougherty’s Reading With Your Kids Podcast on iTunes to listen to your favorite STEM Tuesday posts! The first airing is right here:  STEM Tuesday Podcast #1 

Be sure to join us the second Tuesday of every month for a podcast update!


Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano pairs writing nonfiction STEM books for kids with STEM educational consulting work.  Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? celebrates the innovative spirit and challenges behind engineering solar technologies, and received a starred review from Kirkus.