BookTalk: Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries

By Sharon Kane

casebook-of-mathematical-mysteriesSome of your students might like reading mysteries. Some might like literary allusions and parodies. Others might be fans of Sherlock Holmes, delighting in the original stories and/or recent adaptations in print and film. A wonderful addition to your classroom library—of interest to all these students—would be Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries (2014, Basic Books), by mathematician Ian Stewart. Readers are introduced to Soames and Dr. Watsup, who live in Victorian England, across the street from a famous detective pair, and take on cases that require mathematical solutions. The book contains enough puzzles to carry a teacher through an entire school year. Students will race to enter the classroom to see the title of their next case. Will it be “The Riddle of the Golden Rhombus”? “The Puzzle of the Purloined Papers”? “Jigsaw Paradox”? “The Soup Plate Trick”? If they have ever wondered about the shape of an orange peel or the history of Sudoku, how to measure the height of a tree, why birthdays are good for you, or how to win the lottery, they should join Soames and Dr. Watsup as they share data, conjectures, figures, formulas, hypotheses, evidence, and epiphanies. There will be laughter, along with some groans, along the way. In the spirit of this book, students can create their own problems and scenarios for classmates and teachers to solve.

Now for our problem: Where should this book be most appropriately housed? In the English classroom? Math classroom? Somewhere else? Collaborate with your colleagues to come up with a solution based on mathematical input and principles. Maybe division will be required. Students could encounter “Fermat’s Last Limerick” and “Mathematical Haiku” in English/language arts; “How to Stop Unwanted Echoes” in physics; “Bargain with the Devil” in philosophy; “The Adventure of the Rowing Men” and “The Hound of the Basketballs” in physical education; “Square Leftovers” in Home and Careers; “Polygons Forever” in math; “Mussel Power” in biology; “Random Harmonic Series” in music; “Why Do My Friends Have More Friends than I Do?” and “Narcissistic Numbers” in psychology; “Proof that the World Is Round” in history; “The Affair of the Above-Average Driver” in driver education, and so on. This book contains mysteries for every discipline.

Appropriate for high school

math, ELA



BookTalk: Historical Heartthrobs

by Sharon Kane
historical-heartthrobsHave you ever thought about the romantic interests of John Wilkes Booth? Or the marriage of Harriet Beecher Stowe? How about the family life of Roberto Clemente? Or the relationship between Harry Houdini and his magician’s assistant? The theme of love brings together 50 people, famous in a variety of fields, in Kelly Murphy’s Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus (with contributor Hallie Fryd; 2014, Zest Books). Each short chapter contains subheadings regarding the subject’s life story, sex life, best feature, and “Heat Factor.” Chapters then end with quotes from or about the subject. A lot of information is packed into this unique reference book.

Whether they read straight through or browse randomly chosen chapters, readers will appreciate the humor as well as gain knowledge about the historical heartthrobs being introduced. They may remember quirky tidbits like Salvador Dali’s moustache; the low “Heat Factor” the authors give to John Wilkes Booth: “Colder than an assassin’s blade” (p. 51); or the high scores awarded to Bessy Coleman: “She believed she could fly! And then she touched the sky!” (p. 115) and W.E.B. Du Bois: “Positively burning (with the desire for change)” (p. 71).

Readers may be spurred to learn more about the figures they have been introduced to and inspired by. Later, they can bring a bit of knowledge about the people they’ve met on these pages to their content area classes. They, and their students, may meet again with Ada Lovelace in computer class, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo in art class, Nikola Tesla and Jane Goodall in science, Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath in English, Fidel Castro and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in global studies. They will have gained many acquaintances, as well as a bit of gossip to liven up their lessons.

This book shows that fun and learning can go together, as can love and fame.

Appropriate for high school

art, history, science, social studies, ELA, math


BookTalk: Secret Coders

by Sharon Kane

secret-codersI picked up Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes (2015, First Second), for two reasons. First, I recognized the first author as the creator of a number of award-winning graphic novels (a book talk for one of his graphic novels was posted on this site earlier this summer and can be seen here: and as the 2015–2016 National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Also, for a while I have been feeling the need, as the instructions on the bottom of the front cover say, to “Get with the PROGRAM.” I’ve been reading about the value of coding for students and the recommendations for promoting (or even requiring) coding courses in schools. I figured I should learn a bit about it, and what better way to learn how to program computers than through a story told using a graphic-novel format?

The protagonist of Secret Coders, Hopper, has just started at a new school with many creepy characteristics, including a scary janitor, birds that transmit messages through opening and closing their eyes, and binary numbers posted around the campus. Hopper and her new friend Eni figure out the combination to unlock the janitor’s shed; there they find a robot and the program that directs it to complete tasks. Readers are periodically invited to solve logic problems and actively code while following the mystery that is unfolding at the school.

The story stops abruptly, just as three middle school students are given a challenge by the janitor. “Here is another Path Portal, more complex than the one in the courtyard. Succeed in opening it and I will reveal to you the secret of Stately Academy. Fail and you are never to set foot on campus again” (p. 88). Readers are told that the story continues in Secret Coders: Paths & Portals (just released on August 30) and are instructed to visit if they are ready to start coding. Students who visit the site will find downloadable activities, coding lessons, videos, an art gallery, and an invitation to subscribe to Yang’s email list and receive a free comic describing his start in comics.

Secret Coders, with its companion website, offers an interdisciplinary, interactive reading experience. Here’s to the power of binary numbers!

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades

Math, technology, ELA


Book Talk: Tru and Nelle

by Sharon Kane
tru and nelleMany readers who love To Kill a Mockingbird go on to read one or more of the many biographies of Harper Lee. They discover that her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, provided many experiences that Nelle (as she was known) later wove into her classic novel set in the fictional Maycomb. Readers also learn of her friendship with little Truman (Streckfus Persons, later Capote), who also grew up in Monroeville. The children inspired each other and eventually influenced each other’s adult writing. Versions of Nelle appear in Capote’s work, and vice versa.

G. Neri, in Tru and Nelle (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), tells a fictionalized version of the friendship of these two young misfits. He explains that his story is based on real events, “but I’ve rearranged them into a single story and added more than a few fibs for spice, hopefully making for a flavorful bowl of southern homestyle yarns” (p. 318). The children, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories they have read, play detective games and eventually become embroiled in a mystery that involves an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. They write stories on a typewriter given to them by Nelle’s father; when Tru moves to New York, they promise to keep writing, and to go somewhere together when they grow up.

Teachers could offer this book as for additional reading while students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird; students will delight in finding episodes that are similar to the ones in the classic. They may also be inspired to write creatively about the childhood of one of their own favorite authors, conducting research and pondering the influences that led to the works they admire.

I’d pair this book with I am Am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields (reissued in 2015 by Square Fish Books).  A book talk about that biography was posted on this site in January 2014 and can be found here:

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

ELA, history



Book Talk: Tender

by Sharon Kane

tenderWho is manipulating whom? This is the question I kept asking myself as I read Tender, by Belinda McKeon (2016, Little, Brown and Company). In 1990s Ireland, first-year college student Catherine meets James, who has returned after a year in Germany serving as an assistant to a famous photographer. As their close friendship develops, he confides to her that he is gay, something that much of their society has not yet accepted. Catherine offers James encouragement when he decides to come out to his mother, who does not take the news well. (He wouldn’t even consider telling his father.) But something about their relationship began to worry me when I got to a part where James insists that Catherine come home with him for a weekend and then mocks, chides, and pressures her when she says No. She decides to go home with him.

Catherine continues to support James through letters after he goes away again. Again, I was bothered. James is intense, to the point where I found him controlling. Catherine’s parents tell her he is trouble; I felt that, too, though not for the same reason they rejected him. When James returns, he is constantly around. Catherine tries to protect him, tries to listen and understand when he complains about how hard life is for him as a gay man, tries to improve herself whenever he criticizes her. Both Catherine and I were feeling smothered.

But then James finds friends; James finds ways to fit in; James begins to have some success with meeting men. And Catherine? Catherine finds that she is jealous, possessive, and obsessively in love.

I will stop talking plot here. I think this could be an important story for teens to read; although not at all didactic, it could serve as a cautionary tale. Signs throughout point to an unhealthy relationship–signs that were ignored. As the situation escalated, the relationship turned destructive. This book is for mature readers and belongs in the category of New Adult (for an audience from approximately age 17 to 25). It’s thought provoking, that’s for sure.

psychology; ELA; social studies

appropriate for upper high school grades and beyond


Book Talk: The Handy Chemistry Answer Book


By Sharon Kane

chemistry answer bookI knew I was going to like Justin P. Lomont and Ian C. Stewart’s teaching style when I read the following in the Introduction to The Handy Chemistry Answer Book (2013: Visible Ink Press): “We think that you’ve probably wondered … what sodium laureth sulfate is doing in your shampoo, but maybe never had the chance to ask. We are interested in explaining these things in plain language, and we’ve kept a conversational tone throughout the book” (p. xi). I confirmed that their teaching philosophy is consistent with mine when, after saying they’ve used a simplified drawing system to show chemical structures, they advise, “Take what you can from these abstract drawings, but don’t dwell on them. Focus on the stories we’re trying to tell” (p. xi).

Students were responsible for many of the queries in the book, so your own students might also be curious as to the answers to authentic questions as varied as: “What makes metals feel colder than air to the touch?” (p. 37); “Why can some batteries be recharged and others cannot?” (p. 107); “How is the presence of illegal narcotics detected?” (p. 109); “What is my credit card made of?” (p. 171); “When I get an MRI, what is the machine actually measuring?” (p. 196); “How do painkillers know what part of the body to target?” (p. 204); “Why does asparagus make pee smell weird?” (p. 211); and “How do ants know how to organize their colonies so efficiently?” (p. 215).

For answers to these questions and more, check out the book. You’ll also find whole chapters on sustainable “green” chemistry, kitchen chemistry, and experiments that can be done at home.

I loved reading this book. My favorite new knowledge is: “There are six types of quarks, which are referred to as different ‘flavors.’ These are named up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange” (p. 153). Who knew?

Appropriate for middle and high school

Science, ELA

BookTalk: The Garden of Monsieur Monet

by Sharon Kane

garden of monetI recently visited one of the most famous gardens in the world: a garden in northern France, in the village of Giverny. My guides were Giancarlo Ascari and Pia Valentinis, author and illustrator of The Garden of Monsieur Monet (2015, Royal Academy of Arts). The first pages of this graphic novel show Claude Monet and his family arriving at their new home, but what I encountered upon opening the book gave me the context for the story that was to follow. Titled “The Belle Epoque,” an introduction describes the period at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, when arts and sciences were flourishing across Europe. Illustrations and captions give information about the cinema, motor cars, railway lines, electric lights, radio transmissions, the discovery of vaccines, aircraft, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and art and fashion from the newly explored Japan. Everything sounds positive until one sees the words in the bottom right-hand corner: “In 1914 the belle epoque came to a tragic end with the beginning of the First World War.”

For many pages, we don’t have to think about war. We can join Monet as he decorates his home with Japanese art throughout; as he heads to the fields to paint in the open air; as he brings in guests to enjoy the flowering gardens. But war intrudes, and we see the gardeners leaving to fight. We learn that a depressed Monet, hearing the sound of the artillery in the distance, goes inside his home to re-create his water garden on huge canvases, even as his eyesight fails.

The closing pages are a delight, displaying an illustrated catalog of some of the flowers found in Monet’s garden: Japanese cherry, foxtail lily, snowdrop, white foxglove, flowering quince, gladiolus, and many more.

On one double-page spread we see eleven versions of Monet’s haystack paintings. “Monsieur Monet is so fascinated by the variations of light and color that he paints the same subject over and over again at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year” (unpaged). Students can follow the master’s example as they notice, and capture in some medium, the objects and scenes from their everyday lives. They can also apply the principle of perspective to Monet himself, by exploring other biographies of the artist to see what is emphasized and compare them to this biography.

Art, history, ELA

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades, and high school

BookTalk: Children’s Book of Philosophy

By Sharon Kane

children's book of philosophyDon’t be fooled by the word Children’s” in the title of DK’s Children’s Book of Philosophy: An Introduction to the World’s Great Thinkers and Their Big Ideas (2015). Based on what I learned as I read the book, I can assure you it is not just for children. It’s filled with thought-provoking questions such as “Is there life after death?” (p. 62), “How do I know if I am real?” (p. 38), “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (p. 14), “What is happiness?” (p. 70), “Can we think without language?” (p. 66), “Are people naturally good or bad?” (p. 118), and “Isn’t philosophy a little weird?” (p. 9).

The book is filled with biographical and other information about philosophers, beginning with the great ancient trio of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and taking us through the centuries with guides such as Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Plenty of photographs and a multitude of anecdotes explain and discuss philosophical principles. Sidebars contain timelines, symbols, quotes, and ethical dilemmas to contemplate.

As our students read novels and analyze disciplinary texts, perhaps they can apply some of what they learn, or are exposed to, in this book. It contains few, if any, definitive answers, but it does contain examples of convictions that various leaders, activists, and thinkers have acted on. Although philosophers may disagree over ways to answer questions such as “Will there ever be world peace?” and “Is war ever right?” (p. 114), it’s comforting to know there is one principle that any number of philosophies and religions espouse: the Golden Rule.

appropriate for middle and high school

philosophy, social studies, ELA, history, art, science

Book Talk: Boxers and Saints

by Sharon Kane

boxers and saintsJoan of Arc was my way in.

I have been planning to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints (2013, First Second) for a while. The two books in this set have won major awards, and Yang is presently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But the books never seemed to make it to the top of my “To Read” pile. I’m not totally comfortable with graphic novels, nor am I comfortable with books about war—especially when the violence is depicted visually.

I admit that I struggled through Boxers. I cringed as I, along with Little Bao, watched a Christian cleric smash the village’s sacred idol, accompanied by the caption, “This is Good News of Jesus Christ!” (p. 19). Readers encounter much blood and too many deaths, and it was especially hard to read knowing that the work was well researched and based on actual events that took place during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899.

I found the beginning of Saints very sad—a young girl so rejected and abused that she chose to embrace her devil self. When she found acceptance in a Christian missionary community, I was glad for her. She had been called Girl-Four since infancy, when her grandfather refused to even give her a name. Now she was Vibiana; she had an identity and a purpose, caring for children in an orphanage. And she had a spiritual guide—Joan of Arc! Joan had had visions several centuries earlier, and now she was appearing in Vibiana’s visions.

I won’t go into how Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories intersect. Rather, I’ll reflect on the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. As soon as Joan came into the picture (literally), I was engaged in a new way and could make valuable connections. At one point Vibiana has the opportunity to save her life if she will deny her faith; there could be no better guide as she makes her decision than Joan of Arc, who was offered that same choice as she faced being burned at the stake in 1431.

I finished Saints and went back to Boxers, able to tackle it with new appreciation. I was amazed at Yang’s ability to describe the Boxer Rebellion from opposing perspectives, without ever tipping the scales in terms of which side was better or more right. Readers are the winners as they learn Chinese history through art and story.


Appropriate for high school

history, ELA, art, religion

BookTalk: Do No Harm

by Sharon Kane

donoharmWe would like to think that brain surgeons are infallible, though of course that is an unrealistic expectation, as Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) demonstrates. Marsh shares his weaknesses, misjudgments, and anxieties as a neurosurgeon along with fascinating details of adventures he’s had in the operating room. We come to admire his talents in both his medical specialty and his writing as he “attempt[s] to give an honest account of what it is like to be a neurosurgeon” (p. x).

Most of the chapter titles indicate the conditions that lead to the need for Marsh’s services. The chapters include details of particular surgeries (most of which include a lot of blood), conversations with patients pre-and-post surgery, and explanations of how Marsh makes decisions in situations that are fraught with risk. Readers can feel his remorse and anguish when patients worsen after surgery, and his exhilaration when a seemingly hopeless scenario turns around due to his skill.

In one chapter, Marsh describes himself as a patient. He explains, “Most medical students go through a brief period when they develop all manner of imaginary illnesses . . . until they learn, as a matter of self-preservation, that illnesses happen to patients, not to doctors” (p. 215). He notes that doctors often dismiss their own initial symptoms and can be slow to diagnose themselves. But he could not ignore the effects of a vitreous detachment and thus had to place himself in the hands of a retinal surgeon. Another time, he broke his leg, and after that surgery his doctor “insisted on keeping me in hospital for five days on the grounds that I was a doctor and would not listen to his medical advice that I should rest my leg. . .” (p. 228). Some of his colleagues saw him in the hospital and “looked somewhat startled to see me disguised as a patient in a dressing gown with a leg in plaster” (p. 229).

Marsh manages to turn everything into a story, which is what makes this nonfiction account of his career so fascinating. He presents ethical dilemmas and then brings us along on his rounds as he deals with them. Marsh is an expert in his field and is someone I would trust.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

biology, ethics, careers, ELA