Posts Tagged Common Core

Cover Reveal: Everything You Need to Ace Chemistry

Swanson Cover Reveal

I’m so excited to reveal the cover for the newest entry into the Big Fat Notebook series:  EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO ACE CHEMISTRY IN ONE BIG FAT NOTEBOOK, by MUF and STEMTuesday contributor and National Science Teacher Award-winner Jen Swanson.

Got Chemistry?

Chemistry is one of the most feared subjects in high school, but fortunately, Jen has broken down this daunting subject into accessible and memorable units, from how to conduct an experiment to the Laws of Thermodynamics.

About the process of writing a book on Chemistry, Swanson told MUF,  “I love learning about how things react and why. As a kid, I went through 5 or more chemistry sets. In fact, we found a few, many years later, still stuck under my bed (good thing all of the chemicals were inert). But for me, the excitement is in the discovery of how things interact. That is also why I probably loved cooking as a kid. Chemistry and cooking are basically the same thing.”

About the Big Fat Notebook Series

CHEMISTRY is one of two new high school entries in the popular series; all five of the other entries are written for middle school readers. All books are organized by key concepts, summarized in easy-to-understand language. Important ideas are highlighted in marker colors, all definitions are explained, and illustrations help describe some of the more complicated ideas.

The books meet  Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and state history standards, and are vetted by National and State Teacher of the Year Award-winning teachers.

Writing About Chemistry

About writing this book, Swanson says, “Chemistry is a much more difficult science to learn. There are so many different concepts. The trick is to mimic the curriculum to make sure that you’ve set a good base knowledge before moving forward. For example, readers must know and understand the periodic table and the hows and whys chemicals are located there, ie.  the groups (the vertical columns) and periods (the horizontal columns) before you can really talk about how two chemicals will react with each other. While most of science works from this idea, in chemistry it is much more important. If students don’t understand the chemical make-up of an element, say Oxygen, then they can’t predict how it will interact with other elements … it was challenging to write this book. Mostly because I took chemistry over well, let’s just say a LONG time ago in college.”

((Want to read other STEM books by Jen Swanson? Check out this interview here about another one of her cover reveals.))

Cover Reveal

And at last … drum roll… we reveal the cover for EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO ACE CHEMISTRY IN ONE BIG FAT NOTEBOOK. Ta-da!

Swanson Cover Reveal

You can buy the book on Amazon or on

About Jen Swanson

Author Jen Swanson

Science ROCKS! And so, do Jennifer Swanson’s books. A self-professed science geek, Jennifer is the award-winning author of more than 40 books for children, mostly about STEM. She is also the creator and administrator of the Mixed Up Files own STEM Tuesday blog, and the creator of STEAMTeam2020. You can learn more about Jennifer at her website,

Don’t forget to check out her NEW STEM podcast starting in May 2020!


STEM TUESDAY: Zoology – Craft & Resources

Reading Like a Writer

I am a student of nonfiction. If you hope to write nonfiction well, you have to be. When studying a book, I prefer to read it three times:

That first read is for pure enjoyment: letting the writing wash right through me and learning cool facts – did you know that venom is used to control diabetes!?!

On the second read I focus on the craft and writing techniques I can learn from.

By the third read I’m looking for specific examples of a technique that caught my eye on the second read, like how the author used sidebars to include material that is supportive but not critical to the main text.

This approach is not much different from my scientific approach to observation. When I recently came across two beetles wrestling, I first watched from above, impressed by their phenomenal horns and robotic legs; then I knelt to get a closer view and wondered why the smaller one was winning; finally, I held each one in my hand to use a magnifier. When I felt the little one’s extra spiky legs grip my finger, my questions were answered.

Want to read like a writer?

Focus on one element at a time. Reading the STEM books the first time, I noticed that many included dialog.

I wondered: Why does an author use dialog in a nonfiction book?

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To get a closer view, I focused in on Sy Montgomery’s Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.


  • Chapter 4, page 21, starts with a direct quote, “Codfish Base from Lisa’s nest.”

That quote caught my eye and had me asking questions: What is “Codfish Base?” Who who is Lisa? Why does she have a nest? It’s a fantastic hook and has me diving into the chapter.

  • Chapter 5 includes dialog at the beginning as well, from page 29:

    “There’s a penguin in the freezer,” she announces.”

    “Really?” asks a volunteer. “What kind?”

I wondered: Who says that? Where is it “normal” to have a penguin in the fridge? If that doesn’t have you wanting to get to know these characters, I don’t know what will!

  • The dialog on pages 44-45 is entirely different. It is a tragic scene – the death of a kakapo chick.

I wondered: Why did the author choose to use dialog to show this particular scene? For me, the words of the characters played out the scene so well that I was reacting emotionally right along with the characters.

Compare how other authors use dialog. Just like with the beetles, my next step was to put texts from two different authors under my magnifying glass.

I asked myself: What are the most effective ways to use and frame quotes?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFirst I read the “Wild Rhinos” section on page 8 of Emi and the Rhino Scientist which uses snippets of quotations embedded within a paragraph:

How do you describe a rhino?

You’d probably start with size. “Rhinos are really big animals,” says Terri. Only elephants are bigger land animals. Their wide bodies are propped up on short, thick legs that end in three-toed hooves. Rhinos have thick necks with giant heads and one or two horns. A rhinon may look like a slow-moving tank as it lunmbers around, but don’t be fooled. “Rhinos can move quickly,” says Terri. They can whip around in an instant and run as fast as deer. Rhinos share speed with their close relative the horse.

I noticed how Mary Kay Carson has used dialog but the paragraph is also chock full of other information. What impact do the quotes impart? Why did Carson use quotes here instead of pure expository?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI compared Carson’s technique to other texts which make use of quotes in a similar manner. An example is the passage about bearded lizard venom on page 92 of Caitlin O’Connell’s Bridge to the Wild.

I listed ways in which O’Connell’s and Carson’s use of quotes were similar.

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI contrasted those texts with a different framing, a full scene played out using primarily dialog. An example can be found on page 55 of Pamela Turner’s Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes.

I asked myself: How did the framing of the dialog change the impact? In what ways were the techniques similar? Different?

What did I learn? When an author uses direct quotes from an expert, the quote often provides information and lends authority to the text, but quotes can also work to generate curiosity, create rounded characters, add humor, etc. and, how an author frames those quotes can dramatically change their impact.

Try it Yourself!

After reading and analyzing other writers’ use of dialog, try it yourself.

  1. Audio record a conversation.
  2. Write a text using quotes from that conversation.
  3. Write a different text using the quotes in a different manner.
  4. Compare the impact of the two texts. Compare to a friend’s draft.

Many people don’t think about the craft of nonfiction, but I learn heaps when I study works of gifted writers who carefully craft their text. Happy reading! Happy Writing!

What other STEM texts have great examples of dialog techniques? Share in the comments below!

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. Visit her at:



The O.O.L.F. Files

One way to really understand STEM is to illustrate the subject of interest. Our Out of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) STEM Tuesday topic this month is science illustration. Visual science allows accurate interpretation of an object by combining knowledge of the subject, visual and tactile study of the subject, and artistic skill. Learn more about science illustration and careers, see some cool examples, and even explore a free online course at the links below.




Cuckoo for Canary in the Coal Mine!


Canary in the Coal Mine is Madelyn Rosenberg’s debut middle-grade novel, joining two picture books released in the fall of 2012. Bitty is a coal mine canary in Depression-era West Virginia, who becomes determined to forge a better life for himself and those around him. Fans of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web will love this fully-imagined and adventuresome world, complete with a multi-lingual mouse and a fearsome hawk named Cipher. Madelyn was kind enough to join us on the Files; read on to find out how to win a copy of the book Kirkus called “charming and inventive.” (Note: This post first appeared on April 4th; due to website issues, we are re-posting and extending the contest to April 25th.)

This book was your first full manuscript. What idea inspired you to create this story?

I wrote my first draft more than a decade ago after a concert in Charleston, W.Va. The lobby of the cultural center had a miner’s canary cage on display. It was much smaller than I had imagined, and the characters and the plot flashed before my eyes, the only time that’s ever happened to me. It took forever to get it right, though.

Your book is full of rigorous details concerning West Virginia in the early 20th century. Can you talk a little bit about your research process? What are the details that you are most proud of uncovering?

Ugh. I think I did both too much and too little research for this book. I started by interviewing miners and mining professors — a man at Virginia Tech who’d worked with canaries in the UK was a huge help. Then, years later when the story became viable, I had to redo a lot of my research. I read oral histories about mining and the depression and spent some time in the patent office, looking at the different incarnations of gas detection devices. I listened to music, read old newspapers and took field trips to West Virginia (if you’re ever in Scarbro, visit the Whipple Company Store). My favorite piece of research material was probably a scientific paper that I got through a librarian for the Department of Labor. It was dated 1930 and entitled: The Response of Japanese Waltzing Mice and Canaries to Carbon Monoxide and to Atmospheres Deficient in Oxygen. The librarian also sent me mining accident reports. I researched bridges, fires and the flight patterns of certain birds. And then, you know, I made a bunch of stuff up.

Have you ever gone into an actual mine?

I haven’t been in a working coal mine, though I’ve stood outside of them. I went to the exhibition coal mine in Beckley, W.Va. a few times. My stepdad’s grandfather owned a mine not far from where I grew up, in Blacksburg, Va. I had my stepdad take me to where the mine used to be, but there’s nothing left except stories.

Canary in the Coal Mine has that very controversial children’s book character – the talking animal. Did you know about this when you first started writing the book? Do you think talking animals are making a comeback in middle-grade, a la Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web?

When I started writing this manuscript lo these many years ago, I didn’t know that talking animals were taboo. Even if I had known, though, I would have written this story. I grew up with talking animal books – favorites include the books you mentioned, plus Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Cricket in Times Square and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I LOVED those books. I still do. You can point to strong talking animal books that come out every year – W.H. Beck’s Malcolm at Midnight, for instance, or Elise Broach’s Masterpiece (though that was actually a beetle). They’ll probably always be a hard sell, but The One and Only Ivan’s recent Newbery win goes a long way toward vindicating them. If any book can lead a comeback charge, it’s that one.

One thing I love about Canary in the Coal Mine is that you wrote a childhood rhyme, which creates a rich background for the canaries and also tells a little about their life. Can you talk a little about that inspiration?

Ring-Around-the-Rosie has fascinated me ever since I learned in school that it was often connected to The Plague. I wanted to come up with a rhyme like that – something that was fun to say, but also haunting and rooted in fear.

In addition to being a children’s book author, you are a journalist. What journalism skills have helped you the most as an author?

I think I’ve developed a pretty good ear for listening to how people talk. I’m also fast, at least with the first draft, and I’m good with deadlines (and can’t write without them). Journalism has also taught me to pick and choose details, and it’s made me favor first-hand sources. Newspapers themselves are my go-to source for historical research. They have ads, prices, news, photos and flavor and they serve as a community time capsule.

Do you believe in rules for writing? What is your favorite rule to follow (or break)? What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’m sure I believe in some rules, but my favorite is probably: rules are made to be broken. My favorite piece of writing advice came from you: it doesn’t have to be probable; it just has to be possible.

What are your earliest memories of reading MG? What kind of reader were you?

I was an under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight reader. Sometimes I read in the dark; with the hall light on, I could just make out the words. I would read my books over and over. Even today, I can be perfectly happy pulling a favorite book off the shelf and starting in the middle.

What does MG mean to you?

In real life, when you’re in those middle grades, I feel like you’re in the middle of everything: feelings, growing, school, family, the city, the woods. In books, I feel like you’re in the middle of a new world – or perhaps an old one – that an author built just for you.

Thanks, Madelyn! Comment below with your favorite type of bird for a chance to win a copy of The Canary in the Coal Mine. There’s also a wonderful activity guide with links to the Common Core Standards.