Posts Tagged librarians

STEM Tuesday– Material Science– Writing Tips and Resources

Materials Science is a new category for me. My research turned up intriguing connections with arts activities because much of it is about discoveries. So, this blog post is about some Very New research on materials and a Very Old technique for science exploration that is wonderfully flexible, easy and inexpensive, and makes use of recycled and sustainable materials.Neri Oxman photo

I was particularly pleased to find the Very New in the work of Neri Oxman. She blurs the line between science and design. Wikipedia describes her work as “embodying environmental design and digital morphogenesis*, with shapes and properties that are determined by their context.” Yes*, I had to look it up too. It means, according to Merriam-Webster – a branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants. There have been a number of good books on Materials Science in the previous May STEM Tuesday blogs. Ms. Oxman’s writings and articles are in anthologies and scholarly journals, so instead I have included a link to her documentary “Nature x Humanity,” with the hope that you will find her take on Materials Science to be worth following in the future.

She says that 2020 is the year in which the anthropomass (manufactured materials) will exceed the biomass on our planet. Current building practices are the main culprits. She offers alternate building materials and structures that will break down. For instance, one building material she helped to develop can be disposed of by dropping it into the sea. It will dissolve and provide nutrients for fish.

I emailed her and in her kind response, she sent a link to the documentary about sustainable architecture and protecting the earth’s resources (see below). It’s for adults and older students and very thought provoking. Imagine structures built from apple peels and shrimp shells (what do you suppose Legal Seafoods thought when she asked for all their discarded shrimp shells?). Or imagine a glass structure that can heat your home without conventional fuel, constructed on a 3D printer.

Here is the link to “Nature x Humanity.” The description says, “We are pleased to present our documentary entitled Nature x Humanity. The documentary debuts at a critical juncture when the anthropomass—the mass produced by humans—has exceeded that of the living biomass on our planet. Through the lens of five projects and their related material systems, we propose five tenets for a new Material Ecology: glass, polymers, fibers, pigments, and cellular solids. Motivated to unite the grown and the made, we demonstrate how each material system and the technology invented to shape it embodies and advances Nature’s way while continuing to promote human progress.”

I see such an imaginative approach to science as an argument in favor of including arts with the science curriculum. The processes for creativity and scientific inquiry are very similar – except creativity is much more flexible in verification. When curiosity and ideas reign without stress over outcome, the mind is freer to wander and invent. The kind of creativity that envisions new uses for alternate materials is developed though practice, making connections, and often, no stress over the outcome.

Real invention comes from dreaming and imagining.

Papier Mache Style book coverWhich brings me to the Very Old technique for science activities – papier-mâché. You might think, oh please, we did that in kindergarten. However, the technique deserves a second look in this current world where sustainability and recycling are essential. It’s inexpensive to do. It makes use of throw-away materials – newspaper (if you can find any), brown paper bags, junk mail, plastic bottles, even cloth scraps and shred.

Papier-mâché first appeared in China c. second century AD, where it was used for warrior helmets and pots. It spread along trade routes to the middle east and Europe. Lacquering and papier mâché became a popular and highly-prized art form.

Today it can be used as a great craft technique to design and create scientific models for a better classroom experience. The possibilities are endless – 3D botanical illustrations, bones, insects, display boxes, buildings. Here are some photos of one of my previous classes where we studied historic castles and made models. The students also wrote an accompanying history of their chosen castle. And you can see the imaginative recycling that engaged the students.papier mache clock

There are many recipes for mâché. My all-purpose fallback is cheap white school glue mixed 3 parts glue, 1 part water. That recipe makes a structure that is rigid. If you want flexibility (such as a book cover or mask) use Sobo Glue. I have seen others use glue made with flour, joint compound, and other materials. You can purchase ready-made “paper clay,” which is a delight to work with – and expensive. The paper clay is good for small pieces.

My standby book has been Papier Mâché Style by Alex MacCormack. (Krause Publications, 1994). There are many books available as well as websites and videos. It’s a real smorgasbord of great ideas. You really need no art experience to use papier-mâché, but need to be willing to be adventurous and persistent. And yes, it is messy and needs time to dry. But the results are well worth it.

Student papier mache castle in process. Art and design are essential for communicating science. The best content in the world is useless if nobody reads or looks at it. That means it has to be visually enticing. It also generally invites students to participate in their own learning in a more active way.


Margo Lemieux is professor emerita at Lasell University, Newton, MA. She recently helped organize an exhibit and donation of fine art prints at the DaNang Museum of Fine Arts in Vietnam.

Author Matt McMann Gets Monsterious!

I was so excited when Escape From Grimstone Manor, book one in Matt’s new series Monsterious, showed up at my house. While book mail is always a thrill, this spooky read was high on my list. And of course, Matt did not disappoint. I read it in one sitting!

Monsterious is pitch-perfect middle grade, ideal for both reluctant and avid readers, and fans of Goosebumps and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Each book comes in at fewer than 200 pages, and every chapter ends with a chilling cliffhanger that will keep kids turning the pages. With the first two books publishing simultaneously, each book in the series completely stands alone, with a different setting and main characters—and different monsters—in each installment, and can be read in any order. I see these books as a great addition to summer reading lists.

And fortunately for us, Matt was up for chatting about Monsterious and how it came to be.


Welcome, Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us over here at Mixed Up Files! Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired the Monsterious series? Can you remember the spark?

My wife, author Lisa McMann, was reading an article aloud and mispronounced the word “mysterious” saying “monsterious” instead. I said, “That would be a great middle grade book title,” and she replied, “No, it’s a whole series, and you should write it.” So I did! I loved the idea of crafting a series of spooky middle grade monster mysteries.



In Escape from Grimstone Manor (series book #1) is there one character you identify with the most?

Escape from Grimstone Manor features three best friends who are trapped overnight in a haunted house amusement park ride and discover the monsters are real. Taylor is outgoing, brave, and spontaneous to a fault. Zari is cool, level-headed, and intellectual. Mateo is timid, cautious, and artistic. While there’s a bit of me in all of them, I definitely relate the most to Mateo. I was a scared, artistic kid like he is!




The books in the Monsterious series can also stand alone. What made you decide on this approach? What are the challenges of starting over with a whole new cast of characters each time? 

Since the idea for Monsterious came as a series concept vs. an individual book concept, I took the opportunity to choose the type of monster mystery series I wanted to write before thinking of the stories themselves. A dynamic series features the same characters in a multi-book story arc (ex: Lord of the Rings). A static series features the same characters in episodic adventures (ex: Nancy Drew). In an anthology style series, the books are tied together by a place or an idea or a theme, but each entry is a standalone story with a unique cast of characters (ex: Goosebumps).

I chose an anthology style series because I liked the freedom it gave me to write about any monster, anywhere, with anyone. Since it’s a less common format, I thought it might help me stand out to editors in a crowded marketplace. Not being constrained by a single meta story arc was also appealing—I knew if I could sell Monsterious to a publisher and find an audience, then I could write in this series for a long time, which I would love.

The challenge with this type of series is needing to write new characters for each installment who are both interesting and well-rounded. There’s also a lot of names to come up with! It definitely takes additional work and imagination, but it’s totally worth it.

What do you hope young readers will take away from your books?

I was a scared kid. I grew up being afraid of almost everything—the dark, bullies, the woods, our basement. But I loved spooky stories. Seeing the characters in those books face their fears gave me the courage to face my own. And they were just so cool! I hope readers will find the same courage and fun in Monsterious books that I found when I was that age.

What was your favorite book as a kid? Did you like scary stories?

I had so many! I read a lot of adventure and sci-fi books when I was quite young, then got hooked on fantasy with the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was a game changer for me. I was captivated. That led me to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and then I checked out every book in the library on Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, vampires, you name it!

What do you mostly read now?

I’m reading a lot of great middle grade to steep myself in the voice and emotions of that age group. Lindsay Currie writes incredible spooky middle grade, and Starfish by Lisa Fipps was fantastic. I’m reading a lot of standout realistic contemporary work from my 2023 debut middle grade author group, including Good Different by Meg Eden Kuyatt, It Happened on Saturday by Sydney Dunlap, and Miracle by Karen Chow.

Talk to me about your path to publication. Did you encounter surprises or unexpected twists in the road?

I wanted to be author since I was a kid, but studied music in college and was a professional musician for twenty-six years. When I burned out on music about five years ago, Lisa suggested I go after my dream of writing books. We went to a hotel for a weekend getaway, and she said we couldn’t leave until I wrote my first chapter!

I had a chance to pitch that first book to an agent over dinner and he requested the manuscript. After reading it, he said it had potential but needed a lot of work, and if I was willing to make significant edits, he’d read it again. I did everything he suggested, and after that second reading, he signed me!

We went on an exclusive submission to an editor at a Big Five publisher, and she said the same thing—it had potential but needed a lot of work, and if I’d do some edits, she’d read it again. I made her changes, she liked it, and said she was taking it to her team. I was floored. What I thought was going to be a throw-away practice novel not only got me an agent, it was going to get me a book deal on my first submission! And then it didn’t. The team wasn’t excited, and she passed. The manuscript went out on multiple waves of submissions for over a year and never sold.

During that time, I wrote a second book. That went out and got rejected by everyone. I wrote a third book that never even went out on sub. Then I came up with the idea for Monsterious, and my agent loved it. He took it on an exclusive submission to Penguin Random House, and it sold immediately in a four book deal. My childhood dream has come true!

You have the good fortune to be married to New York Times bestselling author Lisa McMann. What did you learn from watching her journey that helped with your own?

I was the luckiest aspiring author in the world to have Lisa as my mentor and writing coach. I’ve learned too many lessons from her to count, but one of the biggest was that being an author is business. If you want a long-term career, you need to know as much about marketing and admin as you do about writing. I think that’s where a lot of really talented writers struggle—to think and operate like a small business. Lisa is the most creative person I know, but she also has a great business sense, so I’m trying to emulate that in my own career.

What advice would you offer to aspiring authors of all ages?

  1. Read great authors
  2. Write what you love
  3. Find a supportive writing community
  4. Share your work with writers you trust and believe their critiques
  5. Listen to good writers talk about writing (podcasts, videos, webinars, books, live events, etc.). I highly recommend the Writers With Wrinkles podcast for craft, inspiration, and entertainment value!
  6. Write! Practice, practice, practice, and don’t give up

Do you have any writing rituals you swear by?

When drafting, I write at least 1000 word a day. Having that as a minimum gives me a clear sense of accomplishment and, when I know my target book length, allows me to map out how long it will take me to complete a first draft. I also start each drafting session by editing what I wrote the previous day. It gets me back in the flow of the story and when the draft is completed, I’ve already finished one round of edits.

Where can readers best find you if they want to reach out?

I really pumped about my newly revamped website (thank you Deena at!). Readers can contact me there and get my free spooky short story for signing up for my newsletter. I’m also @matt_mcmann on Instagram and Twitter.

Thank you, Matt!

Middle Grade Writing Opportunities for the End of School

Merry and marvelous, the month of May! Congratulations to teachers, librarians, and parents of middle graders on the completion of another year of school. To everyone involved with education, amid the final projects, end-of-year grading, and graduation to whatever is next, the end of school brings a chance to reflect and draw conclusions about the year’s accomplishments. For middle graders, May might bring the end of a year spent with a beloved teacher or the end of their stint in a particular school building. These kinds of upcoming endings can prime students emotionally for reflection, journaling, and other writing activities in the classroom as the days wind down toward summer. Consider celebrating the end of the school year with some MG writing activities geared toward endings.

The End of the Story

Plenty of creative writing assignments allow students to work up a great first line…but since it’s the end of the year, challenge your MG writers to compose nothing but the last line of a piece of original fiction. They might start by filling in a simple activity sheet that lays out the story’s premise (genre, setting, protagonist, conflict, point of view, major themes, atmosphere). Notes in the form of brief phrases or bullet points might help them to fully envision this story they haven’t actually written. Students then compose the last line(s) in a way that both demonstrates the thematic undertones of the tale and brings a sense of closure.

You might encourage your middle graders by reviewing the great books you’ve covered over the year – read the last line aloud, take guesses the title, and have small groups recall the components of the book’s premise so that they are more confident in creating their own. (What a great opportunity to review the works your class has read and run through associated literary devices they will need the next year!) Once they recall the premise, point out that last lines often encapsulate characterization, theme, tone, and genre elements. Some good examples:

  • I’m Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shining love. I’m Lanesha. I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl.    (Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes)
  • That’s what a real Florida boy would do. (Hoot, Carl Hiaasen)
  • …but always,/to know that/the world is not/meant to be feared,/and that water,/beautiful water,/will always mean/play.  (Odder, Katherine Applegate)
  • “Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”  (Number the Stars, Lois Lowry)


Great Endings of Long Ago

For the creative nonfiction writers in your group, a short writing project that explores significant historical endings might be of interest. Consider establishing research and investigation time into these and other history topics, then set writers to the task of composing brief paragraphs that sum up individual events leading to the end. Each student might contribute 1 or more paragraphs, each on a separate 5×8 index card; then students can work together to order and display their events timeline-style. Paragraphs could take on the style of a journalistic headliner or a fiction back cover blurb for practice in modeling specific writing approaches.

Some possibilities:

  • The end of the prehistoric period
  • The “Fall” of the Roman Empire
  • The end of the Revolutionary War
  • The surrender of Lee at Appomattox
  • The eradication of smallpox


Endings Mean New Beginnings

With sensitivity in mind for individual circumstances, consider allowing middle grade writers to brainstorm and journal about a local organization, business, or event that met its end in their lifetimes—for example, a favorite town diner that might have closed, or the dissolution of a town gathering during the pandemic—and accompanying fresh starts, such as a new popular restaurant or a reboot of a local festival. Writers also might brainstorm school groups or activities that shifted or changed over the course of their time in the building.

In another interesting angle, students write about the end of particular technologies that have grown obsolete just in their lifetimes and the resulting new tech. Expand this topic to a prediction exercise in which the MG imagination can speculate on current advances that may end within 1-3 years and the consequential new inventions that will take the place of the old.

Some ideas for technologies whose popularity and widespread use came to an end in the last ten years:

  • AOL Instant Messenger
  • Plasma TVs
  • Microsoft Kinect
  • Google Plus
  • Windows phone

No matter how you choose to reflect upon and celebrate the school year’s end, I hope your MG students find fun and fulfillment in their last writing projects, and I hope everyone’s summer is soon off to a safe, happy start!