BookTalk: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

By Sharon Kane

lovelace-and-babbageI have previously written two posts about Ada Lovelace (on May 19, 2016, I wrote about Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine as well as Ada’s Algorithm; I also discussed her as part of Historical Heartthrobs on September 14).   After I read these various biographies and explored websites related to her, and after I learned about planned activities to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 11, I wanted more. Evidently, so did Sydney Padua, who did something about it. She wrote and illustrated The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (2015, Pantheon Books). Told in graphic-novel form, the captions and pictures are full of information about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, their work, families, contemporaries, and Victorian society; adding to the work are copious footnotes, annotations, and end notes. On page 19, readers see a drawing representing one of Babbage’s famous parties, including guests Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the mathematician Mary Somerville; the Duke of Wellington; Caroline and John Herschel; Michael Faraday; Charles Darwin; Charles Dickens; Florence Nightingale, and more. We can assume the conversations were lively indeed. The first chapter ends on page 29 with the reporting of Ada’s death at age 36 and Charles’s death at age 79, and the reminder that the first computers were not built until the 1940s. What’s left to be told in the next several hundred pages of this book?

I only had to turn the page to find out: “But wait! That ending to the story of Lovelace and Babbage is only ONE of the infinite array of possible outcomes, occurring on the more boring worlds that are part of THE MULTIVERSE!” The author then takes us along on awesome adventures, complete with explanations of some of the math, science, and history being alluded to. I especially enjoyed the segment of Ada in an Alice-in-Wonderland-type situation.

I cannot adequately convey the facial expressions, the cleverness, the sheer fun of this book. I’ll tell you that I learned from the book jacket that Sydney Padua is “an animator and visual effects artist, usually employed in making giant monsters appear to be attacking people for the movies.” That explains a lot. I love this unique book, and I believe Ada and Charles would approve of how they are portrayed throughout.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! I hope you’ll join others around the world every second Tuesday in October to celebrate women in the STEM fields and encourage young women to explore rewarding career options relating to math and science.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

math, science, computer programming, ELA, history, art

BookTalk: Books About Fibonacci and His Numbers

By Sharon Kane

fibonacciNumbers fascinated Italian mathematician Fibonacci. He probably would have liked 2010; that year saw the publication of three intriguing picture books featuring the number sequence named for him (in 2016, the books are worth revisiting). I think I would first share with students Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, by Sarah C. Campbell (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press). The short, simple text on each page instructs readers to count the petals on various flowers. (Photographs are by the author and Richard P. Campbell.) The pattern is noted, as is the rule “in order to get the next number, you add the two numbers before it” (p. 13). Later pages contain a bit more text, explaining how the principle applies to spirals in nature. Pine cones, sunflowers, pineapples, and snails are pictured in vivid color.

After students have had time to appreciate the mathematical and visual beauty they encounter in nature, I’d offer them Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnese (New York: Henry Holt and Company. Illustrated by John O’Brien). The author fictionalizes some details of Fibonacci’s youth and his relationships with family and friends, since little is known about the mathematician. Readers become involved in the solution to a riddle about rabbit reproduction and discover, along with Fibonacci, that “These are the numbers Mother Nature uses to order the universe” (p. 36). On the last page the author invites readers to go beyond the pages of the book, offering clues as to where to look for more Fibonacci number patterns in nature.

rabbit-problemBoth books speak of a mathematical rabbit problem Fibonacci posed more than 800 years ago. So, head next to Emily Gravett’s picture book/calendar The Rabbit Problem (Simon & Schuster). You’ll see what happens when two rabbits fall in love in Fibonacci’s Field and must stay there for a year with their growing family. A delightful surprise occurs in December, when they are allowed out and the population of the field changes from 144 pairs to 0.

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

math, ELA, art, science

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


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: 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

BookTalk: The Nest

by Sharon Kane

nestA label on a book classifying it in the horror genre attracts some readers and deters others. I am in the latter group. If I see the phrase “psychological thriller” on a book cover, I quickly walk away. On the binding of my public library’s copy of Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (2015, Simon & Schuster) there is a symbol consisting of two red eyes and the word “SCARY” right below the juvenile section indicator. However, when my graduate students told me that I had to read it, I felt pressured to at least try it. I found Jon Klassen’s illustrations appropriately creepy but quite intriguing, and the first few sentences were aesthetically pleasing:

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them? Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me. They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born. (p. 1)

I found I could not abandon narrator Steve as he told the story of his baby brother, born with congenital defects that made his future uncertain. The infant already had multiple health problems resulting in numerous rushed trips to the hospital. The prognosis was poor in terms of his level of mental functioning. Steve was old enough to surmise from hushed conversations that the baby might not survive. But oh, how the family loved that baby, Theo.

Steve discovers that the creatures in his dreams are not angels, but wasps. He communicates with the queen, who assures him they have come to help. She tells him that because Baby Theo is damaged they are working on a replacement baby. Everyone knows that a perfect child is so much better than a damaged child. All will be well.

Steve inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the queen’s tactics by the time he figures out what evil is being planned. Horror mounts. You will have to read the details for yourself; I cannot bear to tell you.

The Nest is a good book for introducing the topic of archetypes. Steve is on a hero’s journey. He goes reluctantly; he does not feel brave; he does not have the capacity to overcome the obstacles he encounters. There are mentors as well as trials. There is a goal worth pursuing. Steve will do what it takes to protect the baby, even if that means descending to an underworld, or—despite his allergy—fighting his way through hordes of wasps.

I was afraid to read this book , but Steve had to face much bigger fears than I. I’m glad that I “met” him, which would not have happened had I let fear keep me from this valuable, inspirational story. Steve became a mentor on my reading journey.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

ELA, science, psychology, ethics

BookTalk: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

by Sharon Kane

primatesIn my literature classes, I often devote a week to the theme of “Our Closest Relatives: The Big Apes.” There are always some puzzled, perhaps suspicious, faces. Many readers don’t naturally gravitate toward books about chimpanzees, bonobos, or orangutans, much less one narrated by a gorilla, such as Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. But taking a journey with the teen characters in Eliot Schrefer’s National Book Award finalists Endangered or Threatened, or listening to the human “sibling” of a chimpanzee in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, can help them gain a new appreciation for these intriguing animals.

I am happy to have discovered a triple biography to add to the class choices this semester. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks (2013, First Second), uses a graphic novel format to bring readers into the title scientists’ worlds. We get to be with Jane as she sees a chimp use a tool to extract termites from mounds in the earth. We see the growing relationship between Dian and the gorilla she names Peanuts, and we applaud her efforts to eliminate poaching and promote conservation. Numerous panels show Biruté walking trails, sleeping, and writing, all showing a rescued baby orangutan clinging to her. Other scenes depict the three women together at conferences, demonstrating the social and collaborative aspects of science as well as shared passion.

I read this book in one sitting, and came away with a wealth of knowledge and a desire to read autobiographical pieces, interviews, commentaries, and other texts that will teach me more about the important work done by Jane, Dian, and Biruté. I want to join their club. I know there is such a club, because I have discovered the book The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall, edited by Dale Peterson (2015, Trinity University Press), containing over 100 pieces written by people who have been affected by Jane’s work. I’m heading there now…


Appropriate for middle and high school

science, history, geography, ELA, ethics

BookTalk: Walk on Earth a Stranger

by Sharon Kane

walkonearthastrangerWith a story that takes place in 1849, it is no surprise to see 15-year-old Leah Westfall heading to California to seek gold. But the trip recounted in Walk on Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson (2015, Greenwillow Books) turns out to be full of surprises and discoveries. Readers learn early on that some people are willing to murder family members in cold blood for gold. Uncle Hiram disposes of both Leah’s parents and then inherits their possessions, and he considers Leah one of those possessions—a uniquely valuable one, since he knows of her ability to sense the presence of gold.

Leah, who narrates the book, runs away and joins others who are going west. She eventually meets up with her best friend Jefferson, who had asked her earlier to head out with him (and sort of proposed to her, though not in the most flattering way). Each obstacle she encounters and overcomes helps readers better understand the perils of the journey and the courage and tenacity of the individuals and families working their way across the vast territory. The weather is unforgiving; provisions are scarce; fear among the travelers could be just as dangerous as wilderness challenges. A particularly troubling fact is that some of her fellow travelers do not trust any Indians they encounter and thus treat them all as enemies. Jefferson’s mother was an Indian so this distrust saddens and angers him.

Leah, still reeling from the loss of her parents, loses several new friends to death along the trail. She also experiences amazing acts of kindness, and gives of herself in ways that help her mature and grow. Readers watch her become a respected leader, one who could make a decision that would save the lives of those in her company. When she finally gets to California, Uncle Hiram appears again, but Leah is no longer afraid. He explains to the group that she is a runaway. “‘That’s my girl you’ve got there, and I’ve come a long way to fetch her, so I’ll be taking her back now'” (p. 429). Her friends counter by loading their guns and advising Hiram, “‘It would be a strategic error … You see, Mr. Westfall, sir…Leah is ours now…. She’s with her family now'” (p. 430). I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction, knowing that Leah is no longer walking on Earth a stranger.

The book includes a map showing Leah’s overland journey from Georgia to California, as well as an Author’s Note explaining parts of the writing journey Rae Carson embarked on in order to produce this inspiring story.


Appropriate for middle and high school

(history, geography, science, ELA)

BookTalk: Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France

by Sharon Kane

benfranklinI have been following Ben Franklin for decades. I am amazed each time I hear of a new biography or historical novel with Ben in a starring role. Why so many? Why the continuing popularity? He even landed a chapter in Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timely Crushes from Cleopatra to Camus, by Kelly Murphy and Hallie Fryd. In a VOYA Magazine review of that book, teen reviewer Twila Sweeney wondered (rhetorically, I believe) who would ever think about Ben Franklin in terms of dating. Her observations prompted me to write the article “Dating Ben Franklin: Investigating the Early Years of Historical Figures and Classic Authors” (published in the January 2015 issue of English Journal).

Given my fascination with Ben, I was delighted to discover Mara Rockliff’s Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (2015, Candlewick Press). Don’t be deceived by the book’s compact 45-page length or the fact that it’s a picture book. It is filled with historical and scientific information that will appeal to older readers while still being accessible to young readers. Set in 1776 Paris, the story tells of Ben Franklin’s popularity during his visit abroad to request France’s help with the American Revolution. King Louis XVI asked Ben, whose scientific discoveries were well known, to help with a conflict between French doctors and a visitor from Germany. This Dr. Mesmer was curing patients in a quite nontraditional way, one that involved staring into his patients’ eyes and waving an iron wand that purportedly carried an invisible force that had streamed from the stars.

As we follow Ben, we see the scientific method in action. Ben observed, hypothesized, tested, and got results that led to a conclusion. Readers may also learn new vocabulary, such as mesmerize and placebo, as well as some handy French phrases.

After the main story ends, an additional section expands on Mesmer’s claims and procedures. A detail I found fascinating is that as Mesmer treated patients in a fancy hotel, he created a mysterious atmosphere with haunting music from a glass instrument called an armonica. The inventor of that instrument? You guessed it—Ben Franklin.

I was impressed with the illustrations, starting with the end papers. After reading on the back jacket flap that Iacopo Bruno’s work appears on over 300 book covers, I had a great time exploring his art. No wonder Bruno was chosen as the illustrator of this book—his pictures are absolutely mesmerizing!


Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

(science, history, French, art, ELA)

BookTalk: Bone Gap

by Sharon Kane

bonegapThis post may wander into some unusual territory, since Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby (2015, Balzer + Bray) is an unusual story. It mostly seemed like realistic fiction to me. Finn is suffering because he witnessed Roza’s abduction and was unable to stop it or to adequately describe the kidnapper. His brother Sean is in love with Roza, and Finn senses Sean’s anger and grief. That’s realistic. But all is not normal in this town. We get early references to the corn talking, as if it has consciousness and agency. Then a horse mysteriously appears in Finn’s barn, and Finn is able to ride it nightly to places where the usual laws of nature—regarding time, space, gravity– do not apply. The horse also takes him to Petey, a young beekeeper whom other townspeople perceive as ugly, but whom Finn finds fascinating, healing, and lovely.

Some chapters take us to where Roza is imprisoned. Again, much seems realistic, if awful. We find out about the professor who stalks her, then gives her everything he hopes will eventually make her love him—everything except her freedom. We see her refusing his advances, attempting escape, and even trying to kill him. But again, there are hints of alternate realities. This evil man can produce a castle, lambs, flowers from her native Poland, and an Eden-like field filled with colors; he seems immortal, more mythical than human. What is going on?

Whatever is going on involves the concept of gaps—several types and levels of gaps, actually. A reader could suspend her disbelief and read the strange happenings as part of the world the author constructed in this semi-fantasy, but I think someone with scientific knowledge of particle physics, parallel universes, or time–space continuums could understand the gaps in a way I (whose knowledge in this area is pretty much limited to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time) do not.

I also thought about the ways different readers would fill in gaps in the text to construct unique “poems” (to use the term Louise Rosenblatt gives us in her many writings on reader response theory). For example, there came a point when I had to deal with the corn in the fields becoming almost one of the characters. “But the corn whispered, here, here, here, so [Finn] kept running, crashing through the plants, … trusting—not himself, but the plants that had always sung to him, the plants that had always made him feel safe” (pp. 289–290). I made sense of this by recalling a biography I read years ago—Evelyn Fox Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock—about a scientist who intimately related to and loved the corn she studied.

I loved the connection in the novel to the much loved and respected writer, the late Oliver Sacks, and his thought-provoking story, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Petey solves a mystery within the larger mystery because she’s read Sacks. I can’t tell you more; it’s a discovery best made along with her.

One final example. There came a point when Finn seemed to slip through a gap that allowed him to leave the page and enter my life. He was involved in an accident involving a horse, and the text reads, “He showered the best he could with one leg sticking out of the bathtub…” (p. 243). I am presently recovering from a serious dog bite, and could identify with this completely! Who thought I would find a resident of Bone Gap to commiserate with? The coincidental timing struck me, and made me feel that all things in this world, including readers’ lives and fictional realms, are connected and interactive.

In short, Bone Gap is magical realism. And Bone Gap is magic.
Appropriate for high school

(ELA, psychology, science)