Posts Tagged writing tips

STEM Tuesday– Nuclear/Atomic Science– Writing Tips & Resources


This month’s theme is nuclear/atomic energy. In searching for ways to bring the arts into STE(A)M, I found books for older readers that focus on the “politics” of energy and offer opportunities for activities. Certainly that is relevant in today’s world where what we know as good science is being questioned. It’s not new. Galileo went to prison because he said the earth rotates around the sun. Scientists make discoveries and then those discoveries go out into the world in various ways. Politics, religion, culture, and economics can influence their uses and interpretations.

Each book here focuses on past consequences of scientific discoveries. My books this month are for older readers and the STEAM activities are ones which would require the students to have research, writing, and visual communication skills.




Radium girls coverThe first is The Radium Girls: The Scary But True Story Of The Poison That Made People Glow In The Dark (Young Readers’ Edition 2020, Sourcebooks Explore) by Kate Moore. This book is not for the faint of heart, with archival photos and heart-rending accounts. It is rich with content, bibliography, and story. While the discovery of radium was useful to mankind, abuse of the substance led to tragedy.archival photos

In 1917, there was competition for the jobs at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, where the girls who worked in the watch studio made good money. They painted the numbers on watch faces with paint that glowed in the dark. Radium, discovered by Marie Curie, was a miracle of new technology. It was especially important because the watch dials could be seen by soldiers fighting in World War I.

In order to get a good point on the paint brush, so as to paint the tiny numbers, the girls used their lips to make a fine point on the brush. Some of the girls were concerned. Their clothes glowed in the dark. They got sores in their mouths and acne.

The personal stories in the book are engaging and thought provoking. Also sad and direct. Some of the photos are shocking. At over 700 pages, the book is a comprehensive collection of materials, including bibliography, archival photos, and reading group guide.




Radium Girls play cover

I first heard of the Radium Girls when I attended the play in 2018 at Lasell University. The young actors performed the sad and informative story with deep feeling. (

In order to bring the A into STEAM, writing or performing a play is a great way to create a multidisciplinary educational experience for any topic. Having to explain a concept to others always helps students to a better understanding of a topic themselves. A full length script for Radium Girls is available through Dramatic Publishing.( by D.W. Gregory

If you think of writing a play and that intimidates you (it would me!), I found a number of resources on the Teachers Pay Teachers website ( You can search for “writing a play” and you have many options. I haven’t used any of these but the materials I have ordered from them in the past have been useful in my teaching.



Fallout coverAnd looking to continue the theme of including art, it amused me to think of atomic rhyming with comic. So I selected Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Slizard, and the Policial Science of the Atomic Bomb ( Jim Ottaviani (Author), Janine Johnston (Illustrator), Steve Lieber (Illustrator), Vince Locke (Illustrator), Bernie Mireault (Illustrator), Jeff Parker (Illustrator), Jeffrey Jones (Illustrator) by GT Labs. This is for older readers and I think some previous knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb will help the reader to follow the story.

The comic platform, with its countless illustrations, brings the characters to life. We can feel the emotional conflicts of the scientists, especially facing the demands of the war interests. To me, the black and white drawings were reminiscent of film noir and helped to place the time frame pre-1960. It is especially valuable for reluctant readers who can get visual cues from the pictures.

To be clear, the book is more about political science (a branch of social science) and it does include information about the development of the bomb. It’s always good to bring in the humanity aspects of science to keep it in perspective.




There are studies about the effectiveness of comics in education. Comparing Effectiveness and Engagement of Data Comics and Infographics, downloadable from They say Our results suggest participants largely prefer data comics in terms of enjoyment, focus, and overall engagement and that comics improve understanding and recall of information in the stories. (by Zezhong Wang, Shunming Wang, Matteo Farinella, Dave Murray-Rust, Nathalie Henry Riche, Benjamin Bach).

free downloadThe Center for Cartoon Studies ( offers a free downloadable book called The World is Made of Cheese, The Applied Cartooning Manifesto, as well as other materials on comics. The materials are user friendly and you don’t have to be an “artist” to make a comic. Most published comics are collaborations anyway, so find a partner. And the goal is to create a page or book that tells a story (fiction or nonfiction) communicates ideas, and provides the satisfaction of being creative. In my experience, students enjoy making (and reading) comics and there are more choices available every day.





Kaleidoscope front cover

Margo Lemieux draws, paints, reads, and writes all the time. And, following her own advice, she is doing a cartoon assignment in the spring for her university class. She also does editing and publishing. Her most recent project is an anthology for her long-time witers’ group, The Magic Storymakers, titled Kaleidoscope.

Beyond Personification – Using (and Teaching) More Complex Literary Devices in MG Writing

I hope everyone’s year is off to good start!  Depending on your climate and interests, hopefully you are getting just the right amount of snow, rain, sun, or beach days. No matter the conditions, winter is a good time for bringing newness—new year, new plans, new lessons, new pages. I’m happily revising a MG historical right now and looking for new ways to enliven the narrative while staying true to plot and character. At the same time, I’m analyzing some new-to-me MG books for my editing job, and I thought I’d share some (hopefully) useful insights on three literary devices you might not immediately associate with MG writing.

You probably know these devices well, but since they don’t necessarily go hand in hand with middle grade curricula, you might not think of them in connection with MG. Generally, middle grades get a fair amount of similes and metaphors, imagery, personification, foreshadowing, and maybe a little situational irony; beyond those, many other literary techniques may not be covered in depth until later junior high/high school, even though examples appear in MG literature all the time.

You probably are already including the following lit devices in your MG writing because they are naturally graspable concepts for most middle grade readers—even though readers may not know the names. Recognizing these literary devices and elevating them as a strategy for revision might bring some fine, original moments to your MG writing—along with a breath of that newness we tend to crave in a project we seek to improve.


A vignette can refer to a short, standalone piece of writing; it can also mean a standalone performance, like one of a series of monologues or scenes in a nonlinear play. But vignettes appear all the time in narrative storytelling as well; look for them as brief sketches or descriptions that don’t contribute to the plot directly but work to more fully convey characterization, setting, or mood.

Vignette derives from the French word vigne (vineyard), which probably brings images of connected, trailing, spreading vines. MG vignettes, like literary sketches, are all of those: connected to the story, but leading the reader’s imagination a few steps down a path for a quick glimpse from a new perspective, like in this moment from Lisa Yee’s Maizy Chen’s Last Chance:

The Ben Franklin Five and Dime smells like apples. The handcrafted jewelry and glass jars crammed with colorful candies make me feel like I’ve walked into a treasure chest. A dig bald man in a nubby orange sweater sits at the soda fountain counter. He looks up from his banana split, but when our eyes meet, he turns away, almost shyly. (Chapter 6)

The lens on the story or character (or both) is adjusted and refocused with this descriptive little sketch, but no passage of time or plot event occurs. Think of a vignette as a time-standing-still moment in which you get to take a good look around. Sometimes the author stops time to build suspense or prolong and heighten emotion, like in this moment early in Sharon M. Draper’s Stella by Starlight:

Besides the traitorous leaves, Stella could hear a pair of bullfrogs ba-rupping to each other, but nothing, not a single human voice from across the pond. She could, however, smell the charring pine, tinged with …what? She sniffed deeper. It was acid, harsh. Kerosene. A trail of gray smoke snaked up to the sky, merging with the clouds. (Chapter 1)

In the time it takes to sniff the air, the author fills the moment with tone, sensory imagery, foreshadowing, and the hint of danger. Vignettes are powerful, swift tools in MG.


Allusions are brief references to something that exists outside the scene, typically calling to mind some recognizable name or element from mythology, history, religion, culture, or another story. They are layered with meaning and rely on the reader “getting” the content based on their general familiarity with the topic. They are a quick and punchy shot-in-the-arm of interest for the reader who recognizes them, too, making them perfect for MG—middle graders enjoy coming across an unexpected mention of some bit of knowledge they already know. And you can communicate a complex idea with just a mention of an allusion—sometimes more easily than in explanation.

Think younger with MG allusions; favorite childhood characters, fairy tales, ideas, and stories that have stood the test of time and appear across multiple works or iterations might work well. If you want to get across the idea of an overbearing, oppressive, authoritative character, don’t call them a Big Brother; maybe call them an Umbridge. Ask if your allusions represent only one time period, culture, religion, or group. Consider cultural figures whose renown has crossed cultural divides.

Of course, allusions also offer a great opportunity for an MG writer to sneak-teach readers a new bit of history or culture when the reference might be not-so-recognizable. In Jennifer L. Holm’s Full of Beans (which takes place in Key West in the 1930s), the allusion to the town’s “resident writer” offers the chance to investigate Ernest Hemingway; and in Brenda Woods’s When Winter Robeson Came (set in 1965), protagonist Eden’s piano teacher mentions Margaret Bonds and Julia Perry, Black female composers.


The tricky-sounding word belies its simplicity. Juxtaposition is simply the setting up of contrast between two elements (characters, settings, ideas, emotions, really anything) for the sake of highlighting one or both involved. Middle graders are keen on comparison (this is why we introduce and review metaphor and simile so frequently at early middle grades) and with juxtaposition, the meaningfulness is simple and elemental—thinking about what’s dissimilar between two sides speaks to just the right developmental skills of middle grade.

Many MG novels start off with a juxtaposition between the way the protagonist thinks the week (holiday, school day, morning, etc.) will go and the strange, unexpected, or shocking events that really occur. Juxtaposed characters can show a host of contrasts; opposing traits might appear in dramatic foils.

Juxtaposition of setting is key if a protagonist leaves their Ordinary World for another place. Think of how effectively Neil Gaiman sets up the difference between Coraline’s real home and the otherworldly home of her “other mother.”

In a more recent example, Brian Young uses juxtaposition to set the stage in his Healer of the Water Monster, starting with the Navajo legend revealed in the Prologue (the gentle Water Monsters who keep the waters “tranquil” and “nourishing” become violent and destructive when Coyote kidnaps one of their infants) and continuing with protagonist Nathan’s big change in summer plans from bonding time with his father on a trip to Las Vegas to—instead—a long stay with his grandmother Nali in her mobile home in the desert. Even the chapter headings show juxtaposition of language with the number first in Navajo, then in English.

If you teach middle graders, they might be ready for some brief introduction to these and other lit devices that go beyond the usual study of personification and foreshadowing. They might look for examples of allusions in their class novels, and talk about why the author chose the reference they did. A handy chart or table in their reading journal can be used to compile examples of juxtaposition. And vignettes present an excellent opportunity for creative writing in the classroom; students might try their hand at short character sketches when a “walk-on” character in a class novel inspires description.

Happy writing in this year – I wish you all the best with everything new!



STEM Tuesday– Author Interview: Gae Polisner

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 Gae Polisner, author of Consider The Octopus, proof positive that STEM related topics don’t have to be restricted to nonfiction texts. Co-written with Nora Raleigh Baskin, this engaging book employs humor and mistaken identity to explore the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on our environment as told through the eyes of two twelve-year olds.

“Superlative writing and character development uplift this timely story . . . An inspiring tale of friendship and conservation.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Christine Taylor-Butler: Before we get into the book, can you tell me a bit about yourself? For instance, many people think writers have always been writers but are surprised to learn many have professional non-writing jobs. What is yours?

Gae Polisner: I’m a lawyer by profession. I graduated from law school at the height of the 1991 depression when there weren’t a lot of job openings. My family law professor hired me. I started as a litigator but then I trained in family mediation. It uses a different side of my brain and I love it.

CTB: Law was your graduate degree. What was your undergraduate?

Gae: Marketing. Believe it or not that degree has helped me survive in publishing. It gave me the skills to put myself out there and make connections with readers and book buyers.

CTB: So how did you make the leap to writing?

Gae: I wrote all the time as a kid. When I was younger I was praised by teachers for my writing in elementary school and middle school. I got compliments in creative writing classes in college. But it was outside the scope of professional jobs. I planned to go to law school or medical school. My father was a surgeon so in my family, having a profession was a given. After graduating I practiced law and started a family. I was fulfilled in my life, but I missed being creative.

When I had my second son I started writing women’s fiction and got an agent. By the time my kids were eight and ten I was reading aloud to them every night. My agent was submitting and I was getting great feedback but lots of rejections. That’s when I decided I was going to write a book for my kids. I wanted to write the books I liked to read when I was younger. I loved Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle. I loved the Mixed Up Files.  I wrote The Pull of Gravity which was published by Frances Foster (FSG). It was two more years before I sold my next book, Summer of Letting Go (Workman/Algonquin). I’m most known for The Memory of Things which is about 9/11.

CTB: You have seven books in print now?

Gae: Yes. But that’s seven books out of twenty-two manuscripts. It’s been an interesting journey.

CTB: So let’s dig into your latest book: Consider the Octopus. This book caught me off guard. It’s not often I find such fun storytelling which is simultaneously covering a real science topic. Could you tell me how the idea came about?

Gae Polisner: I say it was a bit of synchronicity. I was headed for a swim and listening to NPR in the car when Norah called and said “Turn on NPR! They’re talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Note: Here’s the WYNC link for readers:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Worse Than You Think.”

CTB: So you were both listening to the same broadcast when she called and you both had the same idea about creating a book using that as the basis for the adventure.

Gae: Yes. Nora and I had already collaborated on several manuscripts including a novel: Seven Clues To Home. So when she called I said, “Okay, let’s write this but the only requirement is that we write a funny book.” Neither one of us wanted the book to be solely an “issue” book. We wanted something that covered environmental pollution but wasn’t “heavy.”

CTB: Even so, you wanted to make sure the science was real.

Microplastics noaaGae: The garbage patch is often described as an island so initially I thought people could stand on it. When we were thinking of ideas for the book I wanted to put a research station there. Then I did research and realized the idea of it being an island was a misnomer. In photos you often see large groups of plastic trash floating in the ocean. There is quite a lot of that floating on the surface of the water and the “islands” are formed by the currents of ocean water. But most of the patch is composed of particles of plastics called microplastics. Some are microscopic which means they’re so small that you can’t see them. But they’re still dangerous to wildlife and the environment. According to the EPA it’s now found in every ecosystem on the planet.

CTB: To bring home the importance of this problem, the story is written in the points of view of two twelve-year old kids who form an unlikely friendship: Sydney Miller, who is invited to join the research ship after being mistaken for a famous scientist of the same name, and Jeremy Barnes, who is responsible for issuing that invitation. Did you and Nora write both voices together?

Gae: Actually, Nora wrote Sydney’s voice and I wrote Jeremy’s. Sydney’s character is funny but is the more serious of the two kids. Sydney has dreams and can’t believe what we’ve done to the oceans. She’s accompanied by her goldfish Rachel Carson who she smuggles on to the trip.

CTB: You were the voice of Jeremy. One of the fun aspects of this book were the titles for the chapters. Jeremy changes his nickname and the jokes are self-effacing and yet they project what is coming next in the text. For example, Jeremy JB “Not Made of Willpower” Barnes, or “Jeremy JB “Please, No More Puking” Barnes. No wonder kids find this book funny.

Gae: His voice was one of those muse things. I thought about boys I knew. The kids who were a cut-up and so smart but take a long time to recognize they are smart. One of my neighbors was like that and he was at my house all the time.

CTB: We tell readers (and aspiring authors) to spend a lot of time observing people and their behaviors to make their book characters real.

Gae: Yes. I look at how a kid’s brain works. Sometimes they are unintentionally funny. Once I knew who Jeremy was, writing his voice came easier

CTB: The majority of the book was set on a fictional research vessel named the Oceana II. Your details were so vivid I felt as if I were onboard with the Sydney and Jeremy. Have you been on a similar vessel?

Gae: No. It’s incredibly challenging to write that setting when you haven’t been on a research ship yourself. I’d never even been on a cruise ship. But there are plenty of places to get information. For instance, everyone thinks that SEAmester was a clever setting but it’s a real program. My friend’s son was interested in Marine Biology and did the program. Then he blogged about it so I got a sense of what it was like for a young kid to be on a research vessel in the middle of the ocean.

One of the great things about the internet is that I found a virtual tour of an Australian Research Vessel “Solander”. That allowed me to “travel” down into the lower levels and explore. The 3D tour was constantly open while I wrote. I could see how the different rooms worked including the dry room, the galley, etc..

AIMS Research Vessel Solander

RV Solander

CTB: What other resources did you find that readers might enjoy exploring?

The Jenny Ocean cleanupGae: There’s a lot of initiatives working on the problem. I sent you a cool link that follows “The Jenny.” It’s an ocean vacuum system that is having some success cleaning up the patch. It collected more than 30 tons of plastic. Readers can find it here at: The Ocean Cleanup.

I also found a documentary by Jack Johnson. It’s called “Smog of the Sea.” The film allows you to see how every mile of the ocean is filled with microplastics. You’re traveling in it when you’re sailing.

CTB: That’s amazing. You slip in so much science in a seamless way. Even something as simple as the “goldfish” t-shirt is written in scientific notation: “79 AU 196.97”. Seventy-nine is the atomic number for gold on the periodic table, AU in its elemental symbol and 196.97 is its atomic mass. You don’t go out of your way to explain everything, you leave some things for the readers to discover on their own. When writing science topics it always helps to have a second pair of eyes. Once the manuscript was complete did you and Nora reach out to people to read the draft?

Gae: We did. Norah reached out to Karen Romano Young. She’s a fellow writer and scientist who has been on a research ship. She’s also contributor to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I asked a friend who is a marine biology teacher to read the book and vett the science before it was published.

CTB: One of the hardest parts about the pandemic was so many good books didn’t get the visibility they deserved. I wanted to help readers discover this particular book.  I just completed three books for the “Save The….” (Animals) series with Chelsea Clinton. One of the things that kept popping up what how many animals are endangered by the plastics in our oceans. Which, by extension, means we are also exposed as humans. We wanted, at the end of the book, to provide ways young readers can get involved and have a sense of agency. That you were able to highlight both in a book that uses humor and heart was such a bonus. Thanks for agreeing to be my guest this month.

Gae: You’re welcome!

sample from book

Win a FREE copy of  Consider The Octopus.

“A fun read… made me laugh… also has a really powerful message about how we need to save the environment.” Ronak Bhatt, Kid Reporter: TIME for Kids

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!


PolisnerGae Polisner is the author of seven books for young people. Awards and honors include Booklist and Kirkus Starred Reviews, The Wisconsin’s Children’s Choice book award, The Nerdy Book Club Award, the Pennsylvania School Library Association’s list of best fiction and others. Consider the Octopus is her first middle grade novel with a STEM focus.

To learn more about Gae and her books, please visit You can follow her on Twitter @gaepol
Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of three books in Chelsea Clinton’s Save The . . . (Animals) series and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram