• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

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    Clarence Day

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    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

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    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

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    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Announcing the Cybils shortlist for Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction

The official announcement has been made over here, at the Cybils blog. You can find the remaining short lists up today, too, including Nonfiction Picture Books, one of our family’s favorite categories.

In alphabetical order:

Marie Curie (volume 4 in the Giants of Science series) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Boris Kulikov; Krull’s Isaac Newton made it to last year’s short list
Viking Juvenile

The Periodic Table: Elements With Style! created (and illustrated) by (Simon) Basher, written by Adrian Dingle
Kingfisher

Smart-Opedia: The Amazing Book About Everything, translated by Eve Drobot
Maple Tree Press

Tasting the Sky: a Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (from the Scientists in the Field series) by Loree Griffin Burns
Houghton Mifflin

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas by Russell Freedman (whose Freedom Walkers won this category last year)
Clarion

Getting down to brass tacks now is the Judging Panel, comprised of

Tracy Chrenka at Talking in the Library
Emily Mitchell at Emily Reads
Camille Powell at Book Moot
Alice Herold at Big A little a
Jennie Rothschild at Biblio File

* * *

It was a wild ride. Five panelists, one newborn baby, a couple of holidays over several months, and 45 nominated children’s nonfiction books published in 2007 — on the subjects of history, science, mathematics, reference, biography, memoirs, humor, how to, essays, popular culture, music, and more. Much more.

What an absolute delight to work on the MG/YA nonfiction nominating panel alongside Susan at Chicken Spaghetti, Vivian at HipWriterMama, Mindy at Proper Noun Dot Net, and KT at Worth the Trip, all under the leadership of master wrangler and organizer Jen Robinson. The other panelists made the job of distilling the 45 nominated titles down to seven as easy as possible under the circumstances, and I continue to be amazed at how smoothly our negotiations and jockeyings went. Thank you each, thank you all for several marvelous months.

While we had a fraction of the books some of the other panels had to read (though more than I had to deal with last year on the poetry panel), our hunting and gathering skills were put to work tracking down titles for which review copies weren’t furnished. So I’d also like to thank the patient and quick-working libraries in our system that sped books to me, often shortly after processing. And lastly, a big thanks to my kids, who put up with a good deal of questioning, poking, and prodding about what they liked and didn’t about the the books they read, with and without me.

And special thanks, again, to Anne Boles Levy and Kelly Herold for coming up with the idea of the Cybils and organizing everything.

One of the reasons I wanted to serve on this particular panel is that for our family, and so many other home school families we know, high quality nonfiction titles are the backbone of our curricula, as well as our some of our children’s favorite free-time reading. I wanted, through the Cybils, to be able to publicize some of the best of the bunch, so you and your kids can include these new gems on your “to read” lists.

The other reason is that I realize, sadly, that for many non-home schooling families, nonfiction children’s titles are considered the second rate, second tier, B List, utility grade, inferior choice when it comes to children’s books, and I wanted to be able to use an opportunity like the Cybils, with such a terrific short list of books of marvelous depth and range, to show that children’s nonfiction is not only chock full of superior choices, but every inch the equal of fiction.

I’d like to encourage other readers and fans of children’s nonfiction, especially those who are concerned about what children’s nonfiction author Marc Aronson calls “nonfiction resistance”, to keep up with the subject on Marc’s blog, Nonfiction Matters.

And one final note — a raft of terrific children’s 2007 nonfiction titles didn’t make it to the list of nominees to be considered for the above short list. If your favorite wasn’t nominated, it’s because you didn’t speak up for it. Don’t let that happen next year.

Cybils Review: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!
created (and illustrated) by (Simon) Basher, written by Adrian Dingle
128 pages; for ages 10 and up
Kingfisher Publications (Houghton Mifflin Co.)
Library copy

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I saw it mentioned on Carol‘s and Rebecca‘s blogs.

Artist Simon Basher and chemistry teacher Adrian Dingle have created a vivid rogues’ gallery of elements guaranteed to bring the periodic table to life and appeal to kids of all ages. I’ll be the first to admit I’m the originally fuddy-duddy, but there’s something about this anime-style, Facebook approach to the periodic table that’s remarkably engaging. Not to mention a sensible approach to making the subject — indeed, the individual elements — memorable for everyone from fourth or fifth graders to college seniors (not to mention home educating parents who majored in, say, history).

And memorable is what you want when it comes to learning about the periodic table. Basher, who came up with the idea for the book, has said, “It’s really been designed to engage you on a gentle level and also to act as a memory trigger. There really is no reason to think of science as boring, as I’ve discovered, and I hope readers will see the fun side of it.” Echoed by Mr. Dingle, who writes, “This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer a window or gateway to getting interested in the elements. I see it as a very accessible opportunity to learn a little about some chemistry.” In fact, The Periodic Table takes the “memory trigger” several giant steps further than does another nonfiction book familiar to home schoolers — Yo, Millard Fillmore — because the illustrations and text are all about the elements.

The small book — seven inches square, and 128 pages — opens with an introduction explaining just what an element is and how (and why) the periodic table is arranged. Then nearly every element gets its own double-page spread, with an illustration and first-person narrative, accompanied by symbol, atomic number and weight, color, standard state, classification, etc. Here’s the write-up for Bad Boy lead, depicted as a Roman gladiator:

Don’t let my heavyweight status fool you — at heart I’m a completely malleable softy. I am so easy to work with that the ancient Romans used me for their water pipes. My chemical symbol (and the word “plumbing”) comes from by Latin name, plumbum.Over the years, I’ve gained a bad rep. People say that I build up in bones as a slow poison and that I have damaged childrens’ [sic] development. It’s true that I have an unfortunate ability to slip easily into the food chain — from pipes and cookware, leaded gasoline, and paints to fisherman’s weights. I have also been blamed for ending the ancient Roman civilization. Not fair! These days, I am closely regulated. But I am still used as a shield against x-rays, for roofing, and in stained glass.

Adding to the delight is a removable periodic table poster — definitely stylish, more cool than geeky — accompanying the book. Just the right thing for your young scientist to hang over the desk (or bed, depending on how much he or she really likes this stuff); though I realize, aside from the home educating crowd, who’ll be tempted to post it in the kitchen, most families will be content to borrow the book from the local or school library. Besides the poster, the book also includes an index and a glossary.

For more on the writer and illustrator, see interviews with each at Houghton Mifflin’s website. Asked, “Were you good at chemistry as a student? Would a book like this have helped you?” and “Did you have any inspirational teachers who got you excited about science or art?”, Basher replies,

I liked the idea of chemistry but found the textbook really unstimulating. I always had more of an interest in art and music.I was lucky enough to have a great high school art teacher who really encouraged me to look at new art and also introduced me to a lot of great music. My passion for science and math came much later in life. While working on the book I did meet a materials scientist from MIT who really gave me some fantastic ideas and tips for the book. He had a real passion for art as well and he loved the idea.

And my favorite bit, from Mr. Dingle the chemistry teacher,

Science is a serious business, and I think the way to get people engaged is to make it accessible while still presenting hard facts and knowledge. Also, I don’t believe that science is “for all.” Some people will have an academic bent for it, others will not — that’s fine, but the answer is not to dumb down science so that everyone can “get it.”

Now there’s something everyone can get.

* * *

More Periodic Table Fun

Further reading, for the younger set:

The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin D. Wiker, with charming illustrations by Jeanne Bendick; a delightful living book, published in 2003 by Bethlehem Books as part of their “Living History Library”.

Dawn‘s favorite chemistry book, It’s Elementary: Put the Crackle in Chemistry (look inside the book here)

Further reading, for older children and adults:

Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley (and if you liked that, just for fun don’t miss his entertaining — and “sordid” — history of phosphorus)

A Guide to the Elements by Albert Stwertka (Oxford University Press)

Mastering the Periodic Table: 50 Activities on the Elements by Linda Trombley and Faye Williams

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into The Land Of The Chemical Elements (Science Masters Series) by P. W. Atkins

NEW The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray (see below)

More periodic tables:

The animated version of Tom Lehrer’s ditty on The Elements (don’t forget to turn your sound up); many thanks to the generous and creative Mike Stanfill

The Periodic Table of Videos, from the University of Nottingham; more videos featuring the University’s Prof. Poliakoff are over at Test Tube.

Theodore Gray’s Wooden Periodic Table Table (no, that second “Table” isn’t a typo), and his very stylish periodic table posters. And don’t miss his fun columns at Popular Science. And new from Theodore Gray, as of October 2009, is his book The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Visual Elements Periodic Table, available in Flash or HTML versions, and which you can buy as a wall chart or CD-ROM

The Los Alamos National Laboratory Periodic Table

The Comic Book Periodic Table of the Elements

Rader’s Chem4Kids Periodic Table and clickable Element List

Prof. Mokeur’s interactive and printable periodic tables, and his game of Elementary Hangman

An interactive periodic table. And another one.

Chemicool’s periodic table

John Pratt’s Periodic Table Memory Pages

A handmade crocheted periodic table, made by a 15-year-old for a school project

UPDATED to add: From the comments below, Crissy at Soliloquy‘s favorite periodic table is here. (If you have trouble with that link for some reason, try this one.) She downloaded the PDF and printed a 20″ x 30″ poster for each of her sons. Many thanks for sharing that one, Crissy!

UPDATED further to include The Periodic Table of Periodic Tables!

From Adrian Dingle:

His website, especially handy for AP chem students; don’t miss the links page, which includes some other Periodic Tables
His blog, Chemistry Pages

Learning more about the Periodic Table of Elements:

The Resource Room

Mrs. Gibson’s Periodic Table Adventure website, with information on the history of the periodic table and how to read a periodic table

We haven’t used Ellen McHenry’s chemistry curriculum for grades 4-8, The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe (also available from the McHenry website), but I’ve heard very good things about it. Also from the website, you can download a free periodic table game, the Quick Six card game about elements, organic molecules card game, and pattern for your own periodic table pillowcase,

Dawn gave me the idea about using Lego in connection with learning about elements and the periodic table. Here is her post with the photo of her son building elements; he’s taking a Lego chemistry class for middle schoolers at MIT, where the curriculum includes using Lego bricks to model the elements. And then I found this this Lego periodic table, as well as this Lego advertisement featuring another Lego periodic table.

“It’s Elemental”, science education resources from Jefferson Lab, including math, bingo, word search, flash cards, word scramble, and crossword puzzle.

The five-disc “Periodic Table for Students” DVD series from Schlessinger.

Articles on the Periodic Table:

It’s Elemental, “Chemical & Engineering News celebrates the Periodic Table of the Elements on the magazine’s 80th anniversary” in 2003

Periodic Table stocking stuffers, or, you’ll never believe what home schoolers will buy:

Periodic Table of Fruits and Nuts, and of Vegetables, and of Desserts

Periodic Table place mats

Periodic Table coffee mugs, to go on the place mats

And Period Table playing cards

ElementO, the board game, for ages 10 and up; also available at Carolina Biological Supply

How about a Periodic Table fridge magnet, where each element is a separate magnet?

Or would you believe a Periodic Table shower curtain? Which I suppose you can swap around with your Metamorphosis shower curtain

And for those who appreciate the mysteries of science, Dr. Camille Minichino, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Fordham University, is the author of the eight volumes in the Periodic Table Mysteries: hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boric acid, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are all accounted for so far.

And don’t forget the gumdrops and marshmallows

(Let me know if I’ve goofed up any of the links. I’m just about cross-eyed now.)

Science books and Cybils nominations

Nominations for the Cybils close tonight at midnight.

If you’re stuck for some science books in the nonfiction category, Susan at Chicken Spaghetti has a nifty post with the science book prize shortlist for the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science Subaru Science Books and Films Online Prizes. I know the Gregor Mendel picture book by Cheryl Bardoe was published in 2006, but most of the rest seem to be from this year’s crop.

Thanks, Susan.

CYBILS: Five days left…

…to nominate your favorite Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction book published in 2007. I know some of you are busy polishing the silverware and preparing the nut cups for Thanksgiving next week, but please consider taking a break to give the nod to your favorite book.

Some titles still awaiting nomination:

The Voyage of the Beetle: A Journey around the World with Charles Darwin and the Search for the Solution to the Mystery of Mysteries, as Narrated by Rosie, an Articulate Beetle by Anne H. Weaver

Einstein Adds a New Dimension
(from The Story of Science series) by Joy Hakim;
Psst, Rebecca! The geeky physics post can wait. Your nomination can’t (unless of course there’s another title you’d prefer to nominate). Carol, did you get it yet and read it?

The Many Rides of Paul Revere
by James Cross Giblin

The Trailblazing Life of Daniel Boone and How Early Americans Took to the Road by Cheryl Harness

The Remarkable Rough-Riding Life of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Empire America by Cheryl Harness

Who’s Saying What in Jamestown, Thomas Savage? by Jean Fritz

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner

The Dangerous Book for Boys
(US edition) by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

Daring Book for Girls
by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

The Art Book for Children/Book Two, compiled by Amanda Renshaw and the editors of Phaidon Press

Amazing Ben Franklin Inventions You Can Build Yourself
(from the Build It Yourself series) by Carmella Van Vleet

Great Pioneer Projects You Can Build Yourself (from the Build It Yourself series) by Rachel Dickinson

Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself (from the Build It Yourself series) by Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt

Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer by Deborah Kogan Ray

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy, Crusader: A Twentieth-Century Life by Marc Aronson

One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II by Lita Judge;
I know Chris Barton at Bartography thought highly of this one. And Karen, who knows a thing or two about good World War II books for children, calls it “fascinating”. Of course, Mary at Our Domestic Church could nominate it too. Yoohoo….

River Roads West: America’s First Highways by Peter and Connie Roop

Tales of Famous Americans by Connie and Peter Roop

Stories of the Zodiac (from the Dot to Dot in the Sky series) by Joan Marie Galat

600 Black Spots: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages by David A. Carter (I’m not 100 percent sure about the category for this one, but it’s definitely fun for all ages)

Cybils middle grade/young adult nonfiction nominations to date

The list of Cybils nominees so far for this year’s best middle grade/young adult nonfiction books (all titles pending copyright date verification). Nominations close Wednesday, November 21.

**Most of the links below each book are for Cybils affiliated programs (note that BookSense works only for the US, not Canada); many thanks for supporting the Cybils.

1607: A New Look at Jamestown by Karen Lange

Across the Wide Ocean by Karen Romano Young
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the 60s by Laban Carrick Hill

Another Book About Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make It Bad by Mark Gonyea
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art, compiled by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Black and White Airmen: Their True History by John Fleischman
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Dinosaur Eggs Discovered!: Unscrambling the Clues by Lowell Dingus, Rodolfo A. Coria, and Luis M. Chiappe
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Disguised: A Wartime Memoir by Rita De Clercq Zubli
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

From Slave to Superstar of the Wild West: The Awesome Story of Jim Beckwourth by Tom DeMund
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Good, The Bad, The Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes by Sara Latta

Grief Girl by Erin Vincent
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Halloween Book of Facts and Fun by Wendie Old and Paige Billin-Frye
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer by Gretchen Woelfle
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Let’s Clear the Air: 10 Reasons Not to Start Smoking by Deanna Staffo
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Marie Curie (from the Giants of Science series) by Kathleen Krull

Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail by Danica McKellar

Morris and Buddy: The Story of the First Seeing Eye Dog by Becky Hall
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism by Ann Bausum
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

My Feet Aren’t Ugly by Debra Beck
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Ox, House, Stick: The Story of Our Alphabet by Don Robb
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Periodic Table: Elements With Style! by Adrian Dingle
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Real Benedict Arnold by Jim Murphy
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Smart-Opedia: The Amazing Book About Everything by Eve Drobot
Available from
Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood of Robert E. Peary’s Daring Daughter by Katherine Kirkpatrick

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (from the Scientists in the Field series) by Loree Griffin Burns
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World by Elaine Jackson et al.
Available from your local bookstore (BookSense)

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry Dane Brimner
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

What’s Eating You?: Parasites — The Inside Story by Nicola Davies
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and How It Changed the World by Marc Aronson and John W. Glenn
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles, Beatlemania, and the Music that Changed the World by Bob Spitz
Available from Amazon.com or your local bookstore (BookSense)

You Can Write a Story! by Lisa Bullard

Our panel’s fearless leader, Jen Robinson, also has a post of nominated titles, and it was Jen who organized all the links and code. Thanks for all the extra compiling, Jen.

* * *

You still have more than two weeks, until November 21st, to nominate your favorite titles. Some nonfiction books, in random order as I’ve remembered them and as the kids have reminded me, that I’ve noticed have not yet been nominated, in part because a number have been published only in the past few months:

The Voyage of the Beetle: A Journey around the World with Charles Darwin and the Search for the Solution to the Mystery of Mysteries, as Narrated by Rosie, an Articulate Beetle by Anne H. Weaver

Einstein Adds a New Dimension
(from The Story of Science series) by Joy Hakim

One Well: The Story of Water on Earth by Rochelle Strauss

The Many Rides of Paul Revere
by James Cross Giblin

The Trailblazing Life of Daniel Boone and How Early Americans Took to the Road by Cheryl Harness

The Remarkable Rough-Riding Life of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Empire America by Cheryl Harness

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas
by Russell Freedman

Who’s Saying What in Jamestown, Thomas Savage? by Jean Fritz

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner

The Dangerous Book for Boys
(US edition) by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

Daring Book for Girls
Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

The Art Book for Children/Book Two, compiled by Amanda Renshaw and the editors of Phaidon Press

Amazing Ben Franklin Inventions You Can Build Yourself
(from the Build It Yourself series) by Carmella Van Vleet

Great Pioneer Projects You Can Build Yourself (from the Build It Yourself series) by Rachel Dickinson

Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself (from the Build It Yourself series) by Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt

Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer by Deborah Kogan Ray

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy, Crusader: A Twentieth-Century Life by Marc Aronson

One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II by Lita Judge

River Roads West: America’s First Highways by Peter and Connie Roop

Tales of Famous Americans by Connie and Peter Roop

Stories of the Zodiac (from the Dot to Dot in the Sky series) by Joan Marie Galat

600 Black Spots: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages by David A. Carter (I’m not 100 percent sure about the category for this one, but it’s definitely fun for all ages)

* * *

and, not yet published but possibilities for those who receive advance copies:

The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America by Albert Marrin

Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson

Race: A History Beyond Black and White by Marc Aronson

For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest, Best Book Ever! by Marc Aronson and HP Newquist

The Brothers’ War: Civil War Voices in Verse by J. Patrick Lewis; original poetry (this one might get moved over to the poetry section but if you’ve had a chance to see an advance copy and find it worthwhile, please consider nominating it in either nonfiction or poetry)

A new dimension to science studies

Rebecca at Ipsa Dixit reports that her family has the brand-spanking new title, Einstein Adds a New Dimension (Smithsonian Books, 480 pages), the third volume in Joy Hakim‘s wonderful Story of Science series.

From a recent Edutopia article (Edutopia’s “Daring Dozen” profile of Ms. Hakim last year is here):

Journalist and textbook author Joy Hakim is still writing, adding to her textbook catalog with continued brilliance. Her latest opus is a contemporary science book for secondary school students called Einstein Adds a New Dimension, due in print this September. It’s the third in a series she has written that approaches science through its history and stories, rather than focusing exclusively on its theorems and formulas.

“This is the greatest scientific era ever,” she says, “and yet we don’t teach kids much about it. No wonder school science often seems irrelevant.” Though Hakim admits this is the toughest book she has ever written, it’s also the most exciting. Thanks to help from Edwin F. Taylor, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she’s keeping things on target when it comes to quantum theory, relativity, cosmology, and many other realms of cutting-edge science. Most of all, though, she’s achieving her real purpose: “To get readers to grapple with ideas, do critical thinking, and get an intellectual life.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine noted that Ms. Hakim “has been called the J.K. Rowling of textbooks.”

The book is jointly published by Smithsonian Books and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Thanks to NSTA, you can download and read a sample chapter from the book, A Boy with Something on His Mind.

Science with Tom Edison

John Holt, on helping a very young boy learn the names of different words, from How Children Learn:

I was careful, when I told him the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson, something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child does not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.

* * * *

A bit of a confession here from the would-be well-trained Farm School.

Literature-based studies work very well for us, especially for English (what newfangled types call “language arts”), and history. But literature-based science studies have been a bust. First, following The Well-Trained Mind‘s suggestions, with one discipline a year, life science or earth science/astronomy or chemistry or physics, and heavy on the narrating (with written “Narration Pages”) and notebooking (with written “Experiment Pages”). Then, in an effort to make things easier for myself, with more formal programs (Great Science Adventures, Living Learning Books), with fiddly little make-your-own booklets and worksheets. After a while, it occurred to me that while teaching science was more pleasurable for me this way, it wasn’t an interesting or effective way for my kids to learn. In fact, this rather bloodless approach was sucking the fun and fascination out of what would otherwise be very fun and fascinating subjects and ideas. They’re good books and curriculum, just not right for my kids, right now.

After a year or so of mulling the subject, a year in which we unschooled science and the kids learned a good deal (not to difficult to do in the country on the farm when dinnertime conversation tends to revolve around plant and animal genetics anyway) and in which I carefully studied Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook and read all sorts of things, including Natalie Angier’s new The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I realized that young Tom Edison didn’t have programs, curriculum, or lesson plans. No sirree. He just burned down barns and boxcars with his experiments and exasperated his teacher before being sent home to his mother for his education.

I knew we’d have to move away from a well-laid out, book-heavy program for my own sake — ever so much easier to plan and co-ordinate — to a more hands-on method for the sake of my kids (ages 10, eight-and-a-half, and almost seven) — not quite so easy to plan and co-ordinate — to keep them excited about and interested in science, before it turns into incomprehensible drudgery. And dare I say it and sound like an unschooler, but often the kids’ best lessons, and when they learn the most, is when things aren’t Planned – And – Co-ordinated. Of course not. That would be too easy.

This coming year, after much thought and reading, we’re trying something new — heavy on the experiments and experimenting, light on lab reports, narration, and even reading, especially when it comes to biographies and “the history of science” stuff, which I adore but which the kids regard as frilly extras. I figure there’s plenty of time for that later. What there’s little time for now, though, is hooking the kids on the magic and fun of science. And instead of spending the entire year on one facet of science — chemistry or physics or biology, etc. — which the kids with their many interests lose patience with quickly, we’re going to do both chemistry and physics, with the usual natural history thrown in, too; if we were following the WTM framework, we’d be starting our second, more in-depth study of biology, which just might send everyone here around the bend. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option, though I was sorely tempted by Noeo Science for chemistry and/or physics, but in the end realized I didn’t want us to be constrained by someone else’s lesson plans, though I have found some wonderful book suggestions on Noeo’s reading list (including, from Physics I, Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass, How Do You Lift a Lion? which I mentioned the other day; Fizz, Bubble & Flash; and and from Physics II, Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why)).

So here is the non-plan for science this year:

Chemistry:
I’m going to take a page from Tom Edison and let the kids become boy and girl wizards. Messy, our-flasks-and-test-tubes-bubble-over experiments galore, no lab notes, and minimal books, mostly for experiments:

the old and dangerous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (which I wrote about here several months ago). Lynx at One-Sixteenth is using The Golden Book too, so we’ll be able to compare bangs and booms shortly.

Our old out-of-print How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen

Two older Dover books already on the shelf: Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner and Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier

Mr. Wizard’s World six-DVD set; though I think I’ll ask Tom to help the day we electrocute the hot dog.

There are so many good experiment books available, new and out-of-print, including a number by Mr. Wizard, aka Don Herbert, and even a dandy Thomas Edison one); I decided to go with what we already have on the shelf.

Physics:
I ordered the K’NEX Simple Machines Set, and I plan to keep it in the living room and let the kids loose with it, with minimal assistance and guidance from me. Mechanically-minded Daniel will have a field day,

On the bookshelf, just in case:

Physics in a Hardware Store and Physics in a Housewares Store, both by Robert Friedhoffer and both out of print but which I found easily and cheaply secondhand; recommended in Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook. I can’t think of a better way to involve Tom’s carpentry experience and the kids’ love of tools with basic physics principles. And while we’re in the kitchen with the housewares, we can make use of kitchen scientist Harold McGee’s Curious Cook website — “exploring the science of food and its transformations”.

And on the reference shelf, if the kids want more information, though I will try not to push it, because I know that while I prefer to read about science, my kids prefer to live it:

How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond

David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, and the related DVD series which I found in the library system; 26 discs, 13 minutes each.

* * *

I’ll wait to see how this year goes before planning any more science. If the approach works this year with the kids, I have my eye on a couple of books following the same approach for the high school years, Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham. I think the latter would be well paired with the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000, which looks like one of the better chemistry sets available in these toothless times.

Just a bit more from John Holt on How Children Learn:

There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do — bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string. That is, if — and it is a very big if — he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations — and many, even most real life situations are like this — w here there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of educating him.

(L at Schola has been reading John Holt too.)

* * *

Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings:

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science summer school

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science

Science summer school

Herewith some choice bits from science writer Natalie Angier’s latest title, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, in the hopes that, especially if you’re the parent of school-age children, educated at home or elsewhere, you might consider adding this to your library list or bookshelf, possibly the latter for a handy one-volume (under 300 pages) reference.

Ms. Angier’s writing style is often too breezy for me (verging on blowzy at times), but the book is a useful scientific tutorial, particularly valuable for those of us who tend to feel more comfortable in the humanities than the sciences. I especially appreciated all of the interviews and quotes from scientists in a variety of fields, all of whom come across as human and deeply interested in sharing their not particularly difficult or esoteric but fascinating passions. Unfortunately, the book has no footnotes but does have a reference section at the back, compiled by chapter, citing books as well as articles and web sites. I’ve added some other articles and book titles I’ve found, linking to the various scientists mentioned in the quotes below (the links are all mine and not Angier’s).

From Angier’s introduction, on why she wrote the book and why one should want to study science — forget about promoting “greater scientific awareness” for the abstract greater good:

There’s a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang “watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor” fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further — there’s your should.

Angier talked to Peter Galison*, a professor of the history of physics at Harvard, who

marvels cheekily at the thoroughness with which the public image of science has been drained of all joy. “We had to work really hard to accomplish this spectacular feat, because I’ve never met a little kid who didn’t think science was really fun and really interesting,” he said. “But after years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting science as a code you can’t crack, of divoring science from ordinary human processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most natural thing in the world, is alien to their existence.”

Still explaining the reasons behind the book, Angier writes,

It’s not that I wanted to take dumbing-down to new heights. In peppering sources with the most pre-basic of questions and tapping away at the Plexiglas shield of “everybody knows” until I was about as welcome as a yellow jacket at a nudist colony, I had several truly honorable aims. For one thing, I wanted to understand the material myself, in the sort of visceral way that allows one to feel comfortable explaining it to somebody else. For another, I believe that first-pass presumptions and nonexplanatory explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science. If even the Schlemiel’s Guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don’t, when you think about them, really mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text in cartoon balloon number two?Moreover, in choosing to ask many little questions about a few big items, I was adopting a philosophy that lately has won fans among science educators — that the best way to teach science to nonscientists is to go for depth over breadth.

From Angier’s first chapter, “Thinking Scientifically”**:

Even more than the testimonials to the fun of science, I heard the earnest affidavit that science is not a body of facts, it is a way of thinking. I heard these lines so often they began to take on a bodily existence of their own.”Many teachers who don’t have a deep appreciation of science present it as a set of facts,” said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech. “What’s often missing is the idea of critical thinking, how you assess which ideas are reasonable and which are not.”

What’s also missing is the fun:

“When I look back on the science I had in high school, I remember it being taught as a body of facts and laws you had to memorize,” said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. “The Krebs cycle, Linnaean classifications. Not only does this approach whip the joy of doing science right out of most people, but it gives everyone a distorted view of what science is. Science is not a rigid body of facts. It is a dynamic process of discovery. It is as alive as life itself.”” …

But when you treat it as if it’s not alive,

When science is offered as a body of facts, science becomes a glassy-eyed glossary. You skim through a textbook or an educational Web site, and words in boldface leap out at you. You’re tempted to ignore everything but the highlighted hand wavers. You think, if I learn these terms, maybe I won’t flunk chemistry. Yet if you follow such a strategy, chances are excellent that you will flunk chemistry in the ways that matter — not on the report card in the backpack, but on the ratings card in your brain.

Some ideas on why so many just aren’t comfortable with science or scientific principles any more:

A number of scientists proposed that people may have been more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of science back when they were comfortable with nuts and bolts. “It was easier to introduce students and the lay public to science when people fixed their own cars or had their hand sin machinery of various kinds,” said David Botstein of Princeton. “In the immediate period after World War II, everybody who’d been through basic training knew how a differential gear worked because they had taken one apart.”Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host [and this is much more true of present-day farmers who farm in more traditional, less conventional methods without synthetic chemicals that kill the parasite and injure the host]. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation’s Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. …

“The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago,” said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. “Through the fruits of science, ironically enough, we’ve managed to insulate people from the need to know about science and nature.”

Angier on “plain-truth poems of science”:

To say that there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty. It is easy to forget that there is an objective, concrete universe, an outerverse measured in light years, a microverse trading in angstroms, the currency of atoms; we’ve succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift, and we often haven’t a clue as to where we might find it in the sky. We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up a the family album? “Most of the times, when people walk outside at night and see the stars, it’s a big, pretty background, and it’s not quite real,” said the Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown [which link led me to this, which definitely gives me pause]. “It doesn’t occur to them that the patter they see in the sky repeats itself once a year, or to appreciate why that’s true.”

One of Angier’s best concrete tips for parents of young children, which she did mention in her CBC radio interview the other month:

Another fail-safe way to change the way you see the world is to invest in a microscope. Not one of those toy microscopes sold in most Science ‘n’ Discovery chain stores, which, as Tom Eisner, a professor of chemical ecology at Cornell, has observed, are unwrapped on Christmas morning and in the closet before Boxing Day. Not the microscopes that magnify specimens up to hundreds of times and make everything look like a satellite image of an Iowa cornfield. Rather, you should buy a dissecting microscope, also known as a stereo microscope. Admittedly, such microscopes are not cheap, running a couple of hundred dollars or so. Yet this is a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let’s push this envelope out of the box while we’re at it — personal salvation. …”Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no detracts from its beauty and grandeur, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of” — chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminishes the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. … A rose is a rose is a rose; but the examined rose is a sonnet.

I’ll leave the rest for you to discover, from the individual chapters explaining the various sciences (physics, chemistry, biology — a chapter each on molecular and evolutionary — astronomy, geology, statistics, and calibration), except for this tidbit from the chapter on physics, which caught my eye as I plan the kids’ rejiggered science program for the fall:

As the science of starter parts and forces, physics can also be defended as the ideal starter science. Yet standard American pedagogy has long ruled otherwise. In most high schools, students begin with biology in tenth grade, follow it with chemistry, and cap it off in their senior year with physics, a trajectory determined by the traditional belief that young minds must be ushered gently from the “easiest” to the “hardest” science. More recently, though, many scientists have been campaigning for a flip in the educational sequence, teaching physics first, the life sciences last. Leading the charge for change is Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois… .Lederman and others argue that physics is the foundation on which chemistry and biology are built, and that it makes no sense to start slapping the walls together and hammering on the roof before you’ve poured the concrete base. They also insist that, taught right, physics is no “harder” than any other subject worth knowing. Some schools have adopted the recommended course correction, and others are sure to follow.

Another modest price to pay for revelation is the cost of The Canon, under $25 at most booksellers in North America, so you can read the rest in the comfort of your own home. Two opposable thumbs up.

* In the linked interview, Dr. Galison recommends the following science books for children — English physicist Russell Stannard‘s “Uncle Albert” (that would be Einstein…) trilogy, The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, Black Holes and Uncle Albert, and Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest (which seem available only secondhand in the U.S. but can be bought new in Canada); and Peter Sis’s “sophisticated and beautiful [picture] books” on Galileo and Charles Darwin. He also recommends the following for nonscientists: The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979; QED by Richard Feynman; and The Elegant Universe by string theorist Brian Greene.

** Excellent for teaching kids to think scientifically is a book we discovered through the Noeo Science website, not surprisingly titled How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond (the “Mouse Cookie” lady, as one of my kids calls her).

Lastly, a summer science bonus, for those rainy days you’re not outside playing in puddles, via the Feynman website: physics coloring pages from Physics Central.

Worth reading

o Stephanie at Throwing Marshmallows has a terrific post about Feminism and Homeschooling.

o David Harsanyi of The Denver Post writes that Adults, not boys, have changed. Just a sampling:

What makes The Dangerous Book for Boys somewhat contentious, though, is its implicit assertion that boys and girls are very different. That boys and girls are interested in different things and, gulp, excel at different things as well.

And according to Jim Hamilton, a program coordinator with Colorado 4-H, it’s the adults who need help, not the boys.

Hamilton contends that in his 20 years of involvement with Colorado youth development, boys haven’t changed very much at all. What’s changed, he claims, is the reaction adults have to the activities boys tend to engage in.

“What boys do isn’t necessarily what I’d call dangerous, anyway,” explains the father of four. “But they have a need to push their own limitation. And it hurts them when we won’t allow that to happen. Sometimes it forces them to learn and deal with those limitations on a bigger stage – where it’s much more difficult. Then people overreact. Boys are often on the edge. And that’s basically what adults react to in a poor way.”

o The BBC’s correspondent in America, Justin Webb, this past Saturday, on America’s great faith divide and his visit to the creation museum:

There is nothing remotely convincing about the Creation Museum and frankly if it poses the threat to American science that some American critics claim it does, that seems to me to be as much a commentary on the failings of the scientific establishment as it is on the creationists.

There is a reason, I think, why theocracy will never fly in the United States and it has been touched on, inadvertently, by George Bush himself.

Mr Bush often makes the point that the philosophy of the Islamic radicals, full of hate and oppression, would not be attractive to people who truly had the freedom to choose.

Similarly the philosophy of the Old Testament, so much celebrated by some evangelicals here, has a limited power to enthral free people.

At the Creation Museum, goggle-eyed children watch depictions of the Great Flood in which children and their mums and dads are consumed, because God is cross.

In a nation of kindly moderate people I am not sure this is the future.

I put my faith – in America.


In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

For Daniel’s eighth birthday last month, his grandfather sent him the UK edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. The book, an oversize red-covered tome, is an appealing jumble of activities and projects (make your own battery or tree house or the greatest paper plane in the world, learn basic first aid, five knots every boy should know), as well as useful knowledge — there are chapters on grammar, some of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, Latin phrases every boy should know, and stargazing. Rather like E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your 4th Grader Should Know”, but in one volume with matches, alum, and copper batteries.

Snitching it from my son to read, at first I wished that the like chapters were lumped together, all the Famous Battles chapters and Extraordinary Stories (about extraordinary lives) together, and the various astronomy chapters (Astronomy, Charting the Universe, The Moon, The Solar System) together too, but then I realized I was looking at the book as a home educating adult woman in her forties, when what the average seven to 12 year-old boy (or girl — and anyone who lets the title of a book stop her has other problems) probably wants is the surprise of discovering what’s next. And that means chapters on codes and ciphers (including charts for Morse code and the NATO phonetic alphabet), making crystals, the story of Scott of the Antarctic, making a go-cart, and insects and spiders, side by side, by side by side. Enough to keep one happy on “Sunday afternoons and long summer days”, as noted on the book’s back cover, as well as winter days and tucked under the covers with one’s torch, er, flashlight, reading about Joe Simpson’s harrowing 1985 mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes with his friend Simon Yates.

The Dangerous Book reminds me a bit of an old but very useful doorstop I have on the shelf, the 1931 edition of The Volume Library: A Concise Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for Both Instruction and Reference, with sections on Education, Language & Grammar, Literature, History, Geography, Trade & Industry, The Atlas, Biographical Dictionary, Dictionary, Mathematics, Science, Hygiene, Government & Law, Fine Arts, and Useful Miscellany (which, like The Dangerous Book, includes Answers to Puzzling to Questions). More than half the fun lies in not knowing where a turn of the page will take you, and knowing that you are also certain to learn something new and fun. But dangerous only in the sense that a little learning, even about knot-making, is a dangerous thing.

Likewise, there’s little dangerous or even brand-spanking new in the Igguldens’ book for old-fashioned, or I suppose “retro” (sounds less conservative and more trendy, doesn’t it?), families, where childhood still includes a bicycle, a patch of green to run around in, with some Latin and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have the fortitude or constitution to let the running around be fairly unfettered (that would be those of us whose kids have all needed stitches and whose idea — the kids’, that is — of fun is leaping off stacks of big round straw bales), Dangerous is more of a remedial summer camp (and summer school) in a book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for those last children in the woods. Which is probably why the book has been so popular in the UK and now the US.

Daniel, always one of the first children in the woods, in the mud, and into his father’s tools, reports that his new book “is good and it’s fun, but it’s more of a reading book than a doing book”. His first choice for a “doing” book is still The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreword by the late Noel Perrin), which is on target with my thoughts last year.

So I was interested to learn that both Daniel and I are in complete agreement with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, who wrote last week in his post Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women): “While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn’t contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest.”

To remedy that, Mark suggests a list of his favorite “dangerous” books, including a couple by his friend (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle; also on the list is the Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, originally published by Popular Science Magazine in 1932, which I think is the volume still on my parents’ kitchen shelf; I read it often but didn’t use it much because it required so many exotic, um, ingredients. (Though Davy might find the information on how to re-ink typewriters useful.) In a similar vein is Lee’s Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, which I discovered in the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue. The 1998 facsimile edition is a handy dandy size, 4-1/2″ by 6″ (and just under an inch thick), just right for keeping in a pocket or storing in, oh, say, a tree house, and was a bargain at under $8 Canadian; not surprisingly, the new edition comes with the following warning:

This is a reprint of a book compiled in 1895. It describes what was done and what was recommended to be done in accordance with the knowledge of the day.

On the medical side, some of the proposed remedies would not only be considered inadequate today, but would also be considered potentially harmful.

ON ALL MEDICAL ADVICE, CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN. DO NOT TAKE THE ADVICE GIVEN HERE.

It would also be advisable to treat all corrosive, explosive, and toxic materials with greater caution than is indicated here, particularly any materials that come in contact with the body.

Not a bad idea when some of the recipes, only a few for food (ice cream, lemonade, beer, etc.), include how to make “camphorated tincture of opium” for whatever ails you, and the book has an entire section on “Fireworks and Explosives”, with instructions on how to make dynamite. Dangerous doesn’t begin to cover it.

What caught my eye in Mark’s list of books was his mention of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, first published in 1960 by the Western Publishing Companty, in part because the kids spent the better part of the winter enjoying Golden Book’s Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by W. Ben Hunt, and in part because the book is said to have influenced the Radioactive Boy Scout. Mark writes [emphasis on the third paragraph mine],

Dangerous projects [in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments] include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.

The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive (Amazon.com has used copies for over $100). Of course, in today’s litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued. I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$100 copy. I got lucky and found a $0 copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here’s a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children’s science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids’ science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today’s children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.

Which ties in nicely with a point Natalie Angier made last week in her CBC interview about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which I forgot to mention in my post the other day, that the worrying drop in children’s scientific literacy is due in part to the idea kids have of science as dry and boring, brought home to them daily by dry and boring textbooks.

Unfortunately, BitTorrent doesn’t work for those of us with Macs. So try this free PDF file here, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments; I discovered another PDF link (since disabled) in this nifty post about retro science books, which also mentions Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis (the post also laments the absence of Mr. Wizard on DVD, though the kids and I discovered recently via Zip.ca that Mr. Wizard is indeed available on DVD). In some brief email correspondence, Mark at Boing Boing was kind enough to mention that The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments can be had in book form from Lulu for under $30 US, which does appeal to the Luddite in me, not to mention handier for handing to your child. And spark an idea for more chemistry for school next year, especially if I remember to take a look at the online catalogue of the homeschool-friendly Boreal Northwest lab supplies (which operates in the US as ScienceKit.com). Now if only I could get Tom to build us a small lab building, separate from the house, where the kids could make messes and things could go bump (and boom) in the night.

I’ll leave you with a bit of Noel Perrin‘s foreward to the 1983 centennial edition of American Boy’s Handy Book, on the book’s author, Dan Beard:

…of all the attempts to preserve wildness that he made in a long life (and he lived to be 90), the most successful was the book you are holding. It began as a series of articles for the old St. Nicholas magazine, designed to encourage city boys to recover their natural independence and self-sufficiency. It first became a book in 1882. For the next half-century it went through edition after edition, as innumerable fathers gave it to innumerable sons. Then as the new concept of boyhood gained strength, interest in the book faded, and now it has been hard to find for fifty years.

The book will be interesting to contemporary boys (and some girls, too, which would startle Mr. Beard) in two ways. First, like Huckleberry Finn — or William Dean Howells’ A Boy’s Town, or Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, or even like some TV programs on the “Little House on the Prairie” model — it gives a picture of a kind of childhood now quite rare. Being a manual or handy-book, it gives an unusually faithful picture. Beard describes nothing that American boys weren’t really doing a century ago — in fact, nothing that it didn’t seem to him almost any boy could (and would want to) do. It’s like being given a glimpse of your great-grandfather’s boyhood, only with none of the romantic haze the old man would cast around it, if he were alive and telling the story. Or it’s like a look behind the scenes in Mark Twain. So that’s how Huck and Jim cooked catfish; that’s how he and Tom Sawyer must have made fire-balloons.

But the book is even more interesting as an actual manual to use right now. It is possible — in fact, normal — to watch “Little House” in an entirely passive mode, with no thought of clicking off the set and going out to dig a well or catch prairie dogs. It is not possible to read The American Boy’s Handy Book without feeling a desire to try some of the things Beard talks about.

Parts of the book are, of course, outmoded. No one can go to the village glazier now and pick up free bits of surplus glass to use in making a home aquarium, or trot down the street to the blacksmith with directions for a couple of metal parts you want him to forge. …

But because nature itself has changed hardly at all over the past century, however much our attitude toward it has, and because jackknives, axes, and fishhooks remain readily available, a good half of the directions are as useful today as they were in 1882. And as fascinating.

Not to mention dangerous.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have to teach my six-year-old how to burn a hole in a leaf with a magnifying glass.

UPDATED to add: I forgot to mention one of our favorite out-of-print chemistry books, The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series. The books are generally paperback, large format, more than 48 pages, profusely illustrated (with maps, charts, and drawings, rather than photographs), and begin with a narrative approach followed by a question-and-answer format. The Chemistry volume covers subjects from “What Is Chemistry?” and “The Ancestors of Chemistry” to “The Language of Chemistry”, “Some Interesting Elements”, “Organic Chemistry”, and “The Branches of Chemistry”. Well worth the (Canadian) quarter I spent, considering the original price was 59 cents. We’ve got quite a few How and Why Wonder Books, and I’ve been keeping my eyes open for “The How and Why Wonder Book of Beginning Science” and “The How and Why Wonder Book of Science Experiments”, among others.