Tuesday, October 28, 2014

10 geek-approved Series Books for Kids

I have spent ages researching good, interesting, funny and geeky books for children. But with 45 min reading time on the school bus every day, and another 30 if recess is rained out, I can hardly keep up with keeping enough reading material for the boys at hand. I treasure the extra-ordinary books that make the "Must Read" lists for children. But I also need series books where I can pre-order 5-8 at once at the library without having to review and think. Here the ones that got the thumbs up from the boys and/or me, roughly sorted by reading ability and age.
(The best series is listed last, so if you are not interested in books for smaller kids, at least scroll down and read #10!)

1) "Henry and Mudge" / "Annie and Snowball" by Cynthia Rylant
28 / 12 books
A series for beginning readers with heart-warming stories describing the joys of being alive and having a best friend, who happens to be a dog. Problems are solved in a logical manner, like finding a perfect pet for Annie (not too wet, not too big ... "Henry and Mudge and Annie's Perfect Pet") or figuring out how to attract hummingbirds ("Annie and Snowball and the Pink Surprise"). Some stories are clearly geeky, like making a pineapple couch or a sweet potato shoe for Mother's Day ("Henry and Mudge and the Funny Lunch"). A prequel series "Puppy Mudge" is written for entry-level readers.

Top row from left: "Henry and Mudge", the first "Calendar Mysteries" book; bottom row: "Choose your own adventure books with outline of possible story paths on the back

2) " Mr. Putter and Tabby" by Cynthia Rylant
21 books
I know, another series by Cynthia Rylant, but read them and you will understand why. This one is about the world seen through the eyes of a senior and his cat. As an adult, he goes on different adventures than children typically do in those type of books, and his age-related challenges are also not the usual fare. Especially when he employs MacGyver-style problem solving skills, like making a slingshot out of spare underwear ("Mr. Putter and Tabby pick the Pears"). A great series to increase awareness that some people have different needs or desires than a typical child, and that you are never too old to try something new.

3) "The Magic Treehouse" by Mary Pope Osborne
49 books
The two protagonists in this series travel across history in the Magic Treehouse, using the books they bring along and some quick wit to solve mysteries. I would recommend to read the books in order, since every 4 of them form a set in which a larger mystery is solved. Also, reading level and complexity increases book by book, and there is a small storyline overarching an even larger part of the series. At magictreehouse.com children can decorate their own tree house and earn passport stamps by answering reading comprehension questions for each book. Several books also come with a fact tracker companion book with more detail on the historic period.

4) A-Z Mysteries / The Calendar Mysteries / The Capital Mysteries by Ron Roy
26 / 10 (3 more releasing in fall 2014) / 14 books
Child detectives are solving cases by hypothesizing together and verifying through collecting clues. My son was elated every time he was able to guess who the criminal was before it was revealed in the book.

5) "Captain Underpants" / " Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot" by Dav Pilkey
10 (2 more planned) / 11 books
Comics, action, potty humor, hypnotized principal as superhero in underpants ... if these books don't get your children to read or laugh, then they must be Vulcan. Read here for more.

6) "My Weird School" by Dan Gutman
53 books
Situated at Ella Mentry School, these laugh out loud stories (unpractical when you snuck up your book to your room to read waaaay past bedtime, right Evel?), are told by a second grader. Apparently the only sane people in the school are the children, and together with his friends A.J. must devise plans to keep the teachers from going completely over the edge of reasons, or sometimes the roof of the school building. Each book is a rescue mission for a different teacher.

7) "Choose your own adventure" books, several authors
over 200 books
These books, situated in locations like the Himalayan for a Yeti search or in the Deep Sea, have multiple possible story lines and endings. Every few pages when a decision has to be made, the reader can choose how the story should continue. Routed to different pages based on the path that was chosen, you might find the Yeti, go home unsuccessful, or freeze to death on the mountain. There are several sub-series for different age groups.

8) "Nathan Abercrombie, accidental Zombie" by David Lubar
5 books
A 5th grader turns Zombie, which isn't as exhilarating as one might think. For one there are lots of gross bodily changes when one is sort of dead. But of course there are also advantages like not needing sleep or being stronger than before. Only 5 books, but they are longer and more complex, so hopefully they last longer for reading, too.

9) The 39 Clues, several authors
21 books, more releasing fall 2014
Indiana Jones turns 21st century for fast paced action, requiring deep knowledge of history and state of the art cryptology skills to follow the clues to an ancient family riddle - read here for more.

10) The Discworld by Terry Pratchett
40 books
While the series started out as adults books, 5 of the later entries are specifically for young adults and have received several awards (The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight). They provide a gentle introduction to move into the adult fantasy genre and the rest of the Discworld novels - a world on four elephants on the back of a turtle resembling medieval society, where string theory connects all libraries in all universes, DEATH reads books to kill the time during near-death experiences that prevent him from fulfilling his purpose, where time can be stretched and bent by time monks, and computers are run by ants ... nothing is impossible here. These books are insanely funny, and you will never again look at footnotes quite the same way. They also impart witty analogies to history, current events and trends in society, and capture the true essence of ethical problems in a few, snarky sentences. True geek form! I highly recommend to read the young adult as well as the general novels in order. Even though each book is self-sufficient, having the back stories from the previous novels and following the character development is very enjoyable.

Monday, October 20, 2014

DIY "Star Trek: Enterprise" Costume: Lt. Malcolm Reed

Suffering the injustice of having the last installment of the Star Trek franchise cut short after 4 seasons is apparently not bad enough, turns out it is also impossible to buy NX-01 costumes for children. You'd think blue jumpsuits are easy to come by!

So rather out of desperation than eager anticipation to open the super glue, we ended up making our own "Star Trek: Enterprise" Halloween costume. Mr Entropy is fascinated by Lt. Malcolm Reed, the man with the power over the Red Alert button.

This is what Google and Amazon found for us:

1) WorkWear King navy Boilersuit (Ships from the UK. How fitting, seeing that Lt. Reed is British.)
2) Plain navy baseball hat
3) Red duct tape (and a really sharp new box cutter)
4) Enterprise iron on mission patch
5) NX-01 iron on logo
6) Two pieces of cardboard (cereal box) and silver paint to make your own rank pins (we could not find anything of the right size and shape in our local craft store)
7) Super glue and plastic wrap

DIY "Star Trek: Enterprise" Costume: Lt. Malcolm Reed


A) Ironing the NX-01 logo onto the baseball hat is hard, since the baseball hat does not flatten out enough. I ended up ironing on the middle part, and super-gluing all the edges. Make sure to cover the inside of the hat with plastic wrap while applying glue, otherwise it will stick to your fingers while pressing through the hat.

B) Cut long stripes of red duct tape. Have your child wear the jumpsuit and tape the shoulder markings. Be careful to watch for symmetry.

C) Iron on the mission patch (without the child in it ... just saying, this is the US after all ...)  Like with the NX-01 logo, I only ironed until it mostly stuck on its own, then used super glue (plastic wrap inside the sleeve!) to glue all edges. The logo is rather large and stiff compared to the arm of a small child. The iron on started to peel off when my son tried on the costume before I had applied the glue.

D) Cut two rectangular pieces of cardboard from an empty cereal box or similar. Paint with silver paint (we used acrylic metallic paint). Super glue to uniform (plastic wrap on the inside!).

Simply vary the number of rank pins or color of duct tape for all the other NX-01 uniforms.

Geek Factor: 5 out of 5

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pass on the Torch - Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

When I grew up the dominant philosophy for teaching science to children was "if you can't understand the scientific explanation, then you are still too young for that topic". Explaining inheritable genetic traits or nuclear fusion to a 6-year old - crazy, right? So I thought as well, until my own 6-year old asked why his eyes don't have the same color as mine. I hate leaving questions like this with an "it's too complicated for you". And I discovered that the real challenge of passing down geekdom is not being stumped by a question I might not know the answer to (there is always Google), but how to take that answer, extract the most important mechanisms and fit them into the world of a 6-year old. I ended up waving piles of Lego instruction booklets - one for building, and a similar second one as a safety copy.

I realized that once your kids are beyond being fascinated by the fact that there are more than 4 colors, it is not that easy to come by content that explains complex scientific facts to children. There are only so many episodes of Bill Nye or the Magic School Bus, after all.

One entity that tries to fill the void is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. (Yes, THAT Alan Alda of M.A.S.H. fame!). The center's mission is a real challenge - helping scientists to communicate with the public (I was not aware we were allowed to do that ...).

As part of that mission it sets an annual "Flame Challenge", named after the first year's topic. The Flame Challenge picks a challenge question every year and asks scientist from around the world to submit written or graphic explanations that can be understood by an 11-year old. But now here is the best thing: children are involved in every part of the process. 10-12 year olds are invited to submit their own "burning questions". 5th and 6th graders from around the globe are then invited to vote on their favorite challenge question. And finally, students get to review, grade and vote on the submissions. What better way to get kids involved into science than taking their opinions seriously and letting them vote? 10 schools will even be so lucky to be picked for a world-wide video conference to discuss the entries. So email your kid's science teacher today and ask them to sign up their classroom!

And last but not least - the amazing winner of the 2012 Challenge, Ben Ames, explaining what a flame is (I dare you to resists singing along):