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Science-Themed Novels

by Kay Weisman

Elementary school through middle school

At first, novels and science books might seem to have little in common. After all, novels are meant to entertain, while science books emphasize facts. However, there are a fair number of excellent science-themed novels that can provide a good bridge between these two genres.

Listed below are some recent novels that highlight various aspects of science. Although a few titles contain elements of fantasy, the actual science presented is at least as important as the magical components. (Science-fiction books have not been included here; for a recent list, see “Science Fiction in Science Class—Is There a Place for It?” in the November 2003 issue of Book Links.)

Titles in this bibliography are listed by broad themes and should prove useful for classes looking to bring a new dimension to science units, or for hardcore science buffs facing a fiction reading assignment.

Animals and Plants

Auch, Mary Jane. I Was a Third Grade Science Project. Illus. by Herm Auch. 1998. 80p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1357-8); Yearling, paper, $5.50 (0-440-41606-X).
Gr. 2–4. Josh, Brian, and Dougie team up for the science fair and try to hypnotize Brian’s dog, Arful, into thinking he is a cat, but it is Josh who succumbs to the suggestion, with hysterical results. Black-and-white cartoon illustrations accompany the text.

Auch, Mary Jane. Wing Nut. 2005. 240p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-7531-3).
Gr. 4–7. When 12-year-old Grady and his mom relocate to Charlie Fernwald’s Pennsylvania farm, the boy learns about maintaining a purple martin colony, auto mechanics, and trust.

Avi. The Good Dog. 2001. 256p. Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson, $16 (0-689-83824-7); Aladdin, paper, $5.99 (0-689-83825-5).
Gr. 4–6. McKinley, a malamute and leader of the dogs in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, questions his loyalty to his human family after a stray wolf tries to convince some of the dogs to join a struggling wolf pack. Avi offers much detail about wolf and canine behaviors and about the relationship between these two groups.

Banks, Kate. Dillon Dillon. 2002. 160p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $16 (0-374-31786-0); Sunburst, paper, $5.95 (0-374-41715-6).
Gr. 4–6. The summer that 10-year-old Dillon learns he is adopted, he becomes fascinated by a pair of loons that nests in one of his ­sneakers. When the birds are killed, he fears for the safety of their orphaned chick until another loon begins to raise the chick as its own.

Bauer, Marion Dane. Runt: A Novel. 2002. 144p. Clarion, $14 (0-618-21261-2); Yearling, paper, $5.50 (0-440-41978-6).
Gr. 4–6. Runt, the smallest of his wolf litter, tries desperately to keep up with his siblings and prove himself to his father. This beautifully written book explains much about pack interactions in the wild.

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Chicken Boy. 2005. 208p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $15.95 (0-689-85816-7); Aladdin, paper, $5.99 (1-4169-3482-0).
Gr. 5–8. When 12-year-old Tobin raises chickens for extra credit in science class, he finds the discipline needed to complete the project and gains insights that help him deal with the problems in his life.

George, Jean Craighead. Charlie’s Raven. 2004. 144p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-47219-3); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-240547-7).
Gr. 4–7. Thirteen-year-old Charlie learns much from Blue Sky, a baby raven who imprints on the boy and serves as a source of interest and amazement to Charlie’s entire family. George, a noted naturalist in her own right, has written many books highlighting animal behavior, among them Frightful’s Mountain (Dutton, 1999), about a peregrine falcon, and There’s an Owl in the Shower (HarperCollins, 1995), about spotted owls.

George, Twig C. A Dolphin Named Bob. Illus. by Christine Herman Merrill. 1996. 80p. HarperTrophy, paper, $4.25 (0-06-442079-5).
Gr. 2–5. Bob, an Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, overcomes many obstacles as he grows up at the Maryland State Aquarium. George intersperses information about dolphin behavior and about raising and training dolphins in captivity with Bob’s appealing antics, brought to life in Merrill’s black-and-white illustrations.

Gilson, Jamie. Gotcha! Illus. by Amy Wummer. 2006. 80p. Clarion, $15 (0-618-54356-2).
Gr. 1–4. Humorous black-and-white illustrations break up the text in this story about a class field trip to observe spiders that partners Richard with bully Patrick the Pest. Gilson weaves interesting facts about spiders into this fourth book featuring Mrs. Zookey’s second-grade class. Other books in this series include Itchy Richard (Clarion, 1991), about lice, and It Goes Eeeeeeeeeeeee! (Clarion, 2001), about bats.

Greene, Stephanie. Owen Foote, Mighty Scientist. Illus. by Catharine Bowman Smith. 2004. 96p. Clarion, $15 (0-618-43016-4).
Gr. 2–4. Owen and his friend Joseph pair up for the third-grade science fair and attempt a project with Owen’s pet lizard that leads to disastrous results. Although humor rules the day in this Owen Foote series title, comments about the scientific method and the ethics of animal experimentation will prompt discussions.

Hobbs, Will. Jackie’s Wild Seattle. 2003. 208p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-688-17474-4); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-380-73311-0).
Gr. 5–8. Fourteen-year-old Shannon and her younger brother, Cody, spend the summer with their uncle Neal, an ambulance driver for a wildlife rescue center near Seattle. A subplot involving Neal’s struggle with lymphoma is well handled.

Oppel, Kenneth. Silverwing. 1997. 224p. Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, paper, $5.99 (0-689-82558-7).
Gr. 4–6. Shade, the runt of his Silverwing bat colony, becomes separated from the group during their annual winter migration, and, with the help of an exiled Brightwing bat, must find his colony and save them from a group of cannibal bats. Full of adventure, natural history, and bat lore, this book is followed by Sunwing (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and Fire­wing (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Park, Linda Sue. Project Mulberry. 2005. 240p. Clarion, $16 (0-618-47786-1); Yearling, paper, $6.50 (0-440-42163-2). Paperback edition available March 2007.
Gr. 4–6. Seventh-grader Julia Song isn’t interested in raising silkworms for her state fair project because she feels it is too Korean. However, the process of caring for the eggs, caterpillars, and moths; sewing the silk thread; and getting to know the neighbor who supplies the mulberry leaves that make her project possible changes her mind.

Smith, Greg Leitich. Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo. 2003. 192p. Little, Brown, $15.95 (0-316-77854-0); paper, $6.99 (0-316-01181-9).
Gr. 5–8. In this hilarious story, three best friends from a Chicago magnet school enter the science fair. One student tries to teach piranhas to prefer bananas, while the other two copy an experiment in which plants grow better when exposed to baroque music­—only to discover that the original results are wrong. The companion volume, Tofu and T. Rex (Little, Brown, 2005), features two cousins—one a militant vegan and the other a budding paleontologist—whose grandfather owns a butcher shop.

Mind and Medicine

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Fever 1793. 2000. 256p. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (0-689-83858-1); Aladdin, paper, $5.99 (0-689-84891-9).
Gr. 6–10. As the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic rages all around 16-year-old Mattie Cook, she comes into contact with many of the sick as well as Dr. Benjamin Rush and the physicians at the Free African Society. An appendix clarifies fact and fiction about this epidemic.

Cushman, Karen. Matilda Bone . 2000. 176p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-88156-0); Yearling, paper, $5.99 (0-440-41822-4).
Gr. 4–8. An orphaned girl is apprenticed to Peg the Bonesetter and gets an up-close view of medieval English medicine. See also the author’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion, 1995), a novel that discusses obstetrics as practiced during the Middle Ages.

DeFelice, Cynthia. The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker. 1996. 160p. Farrar/Sunburst, paper, $6.95 (0-374-40014-8).
Gr. 5–8. While working with the kindly Dr. Beecher, 12-year-old Lucas learns much about the practice of medicine circa 1849, including some macabre and superstitious practices thought to cure tuberculosis.

Grunwell, Jeanne Marie. Mind Games. 2003. 144p. Houghton, $15 (0-618-17672-1); paper, $5.95 (0-618-68947-8).
Gr. 5–8. Six middle-school science club members design and carry out an experiment to prove whether or not ESP exists. Told in alternating chapters by each of the six students, this story entertains and informs.

Landforms and the Environment

Crocker, Carter. The Tale of the Swamp Rat . 2003. 176p. Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-14-240314-8).
Gr. 4–8. In this realistic fantasy set in the Florida swamplands, an orphaned rat named Ossie is taken in by an alligator, Uncle Will. As the seasons change, a drought sets in and Ossie must lead his friends to life-­giving water.

Gauthier, Gail. Saving the Planet and Stuff: A Novel. 2003. 240p. Putnam, $17.99 (0-399-23761-5).
Gr. 8–10. Sixteen-year-old ­Michael agrees to intern for an environmental magazine, The Earth’s Wife, and finds himself in over his head in politics—of both the environmental and the office kind. This eco-comedy contrasts the radical idealism of the 1960s with twenty-first-century “me-ism.”

Ibbotson, Eva. Journey to the River Sea. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. 2002. 336p. Dutton, $17.99 (0-525-46739-4); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-250184-0).
Gr. 5–8. In 1910, English orphan Maia moves to Brazil to live with distant cousins and finds herself disgusted by her relatives’ lack of appreciation for their surroundings. This leads her to escape and have her own Amazon River adventure. An earlier title by this author, Island of the Aunts (Dutton, 2000), is a fantasy with a distinct environmental message. Hawkes’ illustrations appear throughout both stories.

McDonald, Megan. Judy Moody Saves the World! Illus. by Peter H. Reynolds. 2002. 160p. Candlewick, $15.99 (0-7636-1446-7); paper, $5.99 (0-7636-2087-4).
Gr. 2–4. Inspired by her third grade’s study of the environment, Judy vows to reform her family’s recycling habits and comes up with an award-winning project for her class, in this popular series title complete with Reynolds’ expressive and witty black-and-white illustrations. See also the author’s Judy Moody, M.D. (Candlewick, 2004).

Skurzynski, Gloria, and Alane Ferguson. Out of the Deep. 2002. 160p. National Geographic, $15.95 (0-7922-8230-2); paper, $5.95 (0-7922-8231-0).
Gr. 4–7. Jack, Ashley, and their foster sister, Bindy, set out to discover who or what is responsible for the deaths of some baby whales along the coast of Maine’s Acadia National Park. Other titles in the Mysteries in Our National Parks series deal with environmental issues, including Deadly Waters (National Geographic, 1999), set in the Florida Everglades.

Water and the Water Cycle

Hiaasen, Carl. Flush. 2005. 272p. Knopf, $16.95 (0-375-82182-1).
Gr. 5–8. Noah and his sister, Abbey, investigate a floating casino whose owners they suspect of dumping raw sewage into the protected waters around their Florida Keys home. Hiaasen’s novel Hoot (Knopf, 2002) also involves kids uncovering wrongdoing in Florida: in this case, a land developer whose project will destroy the home of some burrowing owls.

Klise, Kate. Regarding the Sink: Where, Oh Where, Did the Waters Go? Illus. by M. Sarah Klise. 2004. 144p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $15 (0-15-205019-1); paper, $5.95 (0-15-205544-4).
Gr. 4–6. In this sequel to Regarding the Fountain (HarperCollins, 1998), Geyser Creek Middle School needs a new sink (the old one is stopped up with beans), and the kids once again seek the expertise of designer Florence Waters. Mystery, bad puns, a unique writing style (a series of letters, memos, and articles), and a fair amount of science add up to a very pleasant read.

Mikaelsen, Ben. Stranded. 1995. 256p. Hyperion, $15.99 (0-7868-0072-0); paper, $4.95 (0-7868-1109-9).
 Gr. 5–8. Twelve-year-old Koby, who lost a foot in an accident, finds a new sense of self-worth when she rescues and cares for two beached pilot whales near her Florida Keys home. When an approaching hurricane threatens the whales’ lives and her father’s business, Koby and her parents must confront not only the storm but also the emotional barriers in the family.

Chemistry and Physics

Clements, Andrew. Jake Drake, Know-It-All. Illus. by Dolores Avendaño. 2001. 96p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-83918-9); Aladdin, paper, $3.99 (0-689-83881-6).
Gr. 2–4. Third-grader Jake and his friend Willie conduct a science fair project using electromagnets. Clements, a former teacher, includes examples of how to formulate a hypothesis and use the scientific method. Full-page black-and-white illustrations open each chapter.

Holman, Sheri. Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars. 2002. 192p. Scholastic, $10.95 (0-439-16586-5).
Gr. 4–6. This offering from the Royal Diaries series introduces a sixth-century princess who becomes a ruler of the Korean kingdom of Silla, during an era of political and religious intrigue. Her lifelong interest in astronomy leads her to build the oldest standing astronomical observatory in Asia.

Isdell, Wendy. A Gebra Named Al . 1993. 128p. Free Spirit, paper, $5.95 (0-915793-58-X).
Gr. 5–8. Julie hates algebra until she journeys to the fantastical Land of Mathematics, where she encounters a zebralike imaginary number named Al and several horselike creatures representing the elements of the periodic table.

Kurzweil, Allen. Leon and the Champion Chip. Illus. by Bret Bertholf. 2005. 338p. Greenwillow, $15.99 (0-06-053933-X).
Gr. 3–6. In this sequel to Leon and the Spitting Image (Greenwillow, 2003), fifth-grade science teacher Mr. Sparks decides to teach his entire curriculum based on the potato chip. Leon and his friends employ the scientific methods taught in class to redesign a soft-sculpture action figure they hope will help them get revenge against the class bully. Bertholf’s illustrations appear throughout.

Paterson, Katherine. The Same Stuff as Stars . 2002. 256p. Clarion, $15 (0-618-24744-0); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-055712-5).
Gr. 5–8. After being abandoned by her mother to live with her great-grandmother, 11-year-old Angel takes comfort from the astronomy she learns from her uncle.

Shimony, Abner. Tibaldo and the Hole in the Calendar. Illus. by Jonathan Shimony. 1997. 184p. Springer, $21 (0-387-94935-6).
Gr. 5–8. In 1582, young Tibaldo Bondi loses his birthday in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and appeals to Pope Gregory for assistance. The author, a philosopher and physicist by training, provides readers with much background concerning the astronomy involved in making this calendar correction. Period-style sepia illustrations enliven the text.

Earth Sciences and Weather

Cox, Judy. That Crazy Eddie and the Science Project of Doom. Illus. by Blanche Sims. 2005. 96p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1931-2).
Gr. 2–4. Third-grader Matt and his best friend, Eddie, team up to build a working volcano for their school science fair and find that issues of friendship sometimes interfere with good science. Sims’ black-line, cartoon-style drawings add to the appeal and help to break up longer sections of text. See also the author’s Butterfly Buddies (Holiday, 2001), about a class that raises painted lady butterflies.

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Phineas L. MacGuire . . . Erupts! The First Experiment. Illus. by Preston McDaniels. 2006. 176p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $15.95 (1-4169-0195-7).
Gr. 3–5. In this first installment of the series From the Highly Scientific Notebooks of Phineas L. MacGuire, fourth-grade science whiz Phineas is forced to team up with an obnoxious new kid for the science fair, and the two are so different that he despairs of ever winning. Black-and-white art playfully captures the characters, and instructions for several experiments, including Mac’s exploding volcano, are appended.

Kehret, Peg. The Volcano Disaster. 1998. 144p. Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-671-00968-0).
Gr. 4–6. Twelve-year-old Warren Spaulding is working on a class project about volcanoes when he finds himself transported back in time to May 18, 1980—just as Mount St. Helens is about to erupt. Kehret has written other disaster novels as well, including Earthquake Terror (Dutton, 1996).

Moonshower, Candie. The Legend of Zoey. 2006. 224p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-73280-5).
Gr. 4–6. While on a class field trip, 13-year-old Zoey is propelled back in time to 1811, just before the New Madrid earthquakes, which destroyed a Chickasaw Indian village and changed the course of the Mississippi River. Zoey’s experiences, told in entries in her diary, are interspersed among those of her nineteenth-­century counterpart, Prudence, the daughter of white settlers.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Life as We Knew It . 2006. 352p. Harcourt, $17 (0-15-205826-5).
Gr. 7–10. After a meteor hits the moon and disrupts life across the planet, 16-year-old Miranda and her family in rural Pennsylvania struggle to survive in a world where food, warmth, and well-being have vanished.

Ruckman, Ivy. Night of the Twisters. 1986. 160p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-440176-6).
Gr. 4–6. Twelve-year-old Dan Hatch experiences firsthand the tornadoes that hit Grand Island, Nebraska, on June 4, 1980. Although Dan and his family are fictional, the howling, shrieking tornado and the damage it caused were very real.

Yep, Laurence. The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. 2006. 128p. HarperCollins, $14.99 (0-06-027524-3).
Gr. 3–5. Eight-year-old Henry and his friend nine-year-old Chin recount their experiences during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Told with alternating points of view and interspersed chapters to explain the science of the quake, this story has a you-are-there feeling. Slightly older readers will enjoy Gail Langer Karwoski’s Quake! Disaster in San Francisco, 1906 (Peachtree, 2004).

Kay Weisman is a library media specialist at Willowbrook School in Glenview, Illinois.

"Science-Themed Novels" by Kay Weisman, Book Links, November 2006