Monthly Archives: January 2012

Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead — Making Nonfiction Fun!

I have a confession.  I am a science geek. As a kid, instead of playing tag or football, I  was in my garage with the members of my science club. My friends and I spent our days identifying plant species, collecting rocks, and even looking for microscopic animals in drops of river water. While that may not sound strange, the following probably does:  the most prized possession of our club was the skull of a dead cow. It sat in a special box on top of the milk crate containing our rocks. It was awesome! Unfortunately, when we moved, my mom wouldn’t let me keep it. (Can’t imagine why…)

So what’s the point of telling you this? For us, science was something to be explored, to learn about, and most importantly a way to have FUN!


Unfortunately, many of us see science as dull and boring, something that you read from an out-dated text book.  Come on, how many of you didn’t like science in school? Raise your hand.

Did a lot of hands go up?  That’s too bad, because science ROCKS!  (No pun intended)

As a middle-school science teacher, I try to impress on my students that science is all around us., we just need to be aware of it. Consider this: When you go for a walk at night, why are there frogs all over the sidewalk? Or why you can see planets among the stars during certain times of the year?  Why do dogs bark? How do magnets stick together?

Answers to these questions and many more can be found in a nonfiction book. Gone are the days of boring texts that contain page after page of ho-hum concepts. Today’s nonfiction is full of information that is presented with unique ideas in a fascinating and electrifying way.



But where do you find these books? Go to your local library. Pull a book off the nonfiction shelf and open it up. It’s probably filled with pictures and exciting words that jump off the page. The goal is to make science come alive for the readers – of any age.

Here are a few more examples:




These books are gaining such popularity, that they’ve been given their own catchy term. They are called STEM books (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  The term STEM has been used not only to describe books, but STEM programs that also teach kids about these topics in a fun way. These uniquely interactive programs have sprung up all over the country.

STEM programs aren’t the only way to get your kids involved, however, a lot of STEM books have a “hands on” section with suggestions to try or even mini-experiments they can do. Maybe you want to build a bridge and see how stable it is. Or perhaps you wish to freeze water in a cup and learn how ice, unlike most solids, is actually less dense when it’s frozen. Kids love interacting with STEM topics. Some student even learn better when they can see what’s going on, instead of just reading about it. It allows them to get into the middle of science and figure it out. Science is not a spectator sport!!

For other ways to find some great nonfiction books, check out some of these fantastic blogs:


INK- Interesting NonFiction for Kids

STEM Friday Blog  or      Nonfiction Monday    both created  by Author Anastasia Suen


The excitement surrounding this topic continues to grow. Recently educators have been lobbying to change STEM to STEAM. STEAM encompasses regular STEM topics but also adds Art and Design books to the acronym. Advocates of this change insist that Art and Design concepts are critical to making STEM topics fun and interesting.

Check out these links to see the S.T.E.A.M. discussion unfold:




Regardless of whether you support STEM or STEAM, we can all agree that these books are much needed in the classroom and beyond. After all, they provide a way to inspire kids to expand their horizons and notice the world around them.

And just a small hint for aspiring authors out there, STEM and STEAM books are in great demand by teachers and librarians. If you love these topics and feel you can present them in a unique way, you might want to consider writing nonfiction. It’s fun!

Finally, thanks for letting me share my science “geek-ness” with you.  I hope it will encourage all you readers out there to pick up a STEM/STEAM book soon. Who knows, maybe one day, you might find yourself hosting your own science club in your garage. (Although maybe you want to skip the cow skull…)




Jennifer Swanson is the author of seven STEM books and a self-professed science geek. When not writing or hanging out with her family, you will find her at the beach collecting shells.  (And yes, she keeps them in her garage.) You can learn more about Jennifer at


Indie Spotlight: The Bookbug in Kalamazoo

We of the Mixed-Up Files believe that a visit to an independent children’s bookstore can’tWelcome! be matched online or even in the best chain store’s children’s department.  What you get online is the lowest price, but what you get in an independent bookstore is priceless.

I’m talking today with Joanna Parzakonis, one of the parent founders of Bookbug bookstore in Kalamazoo, Michigan ( who describes the place as “four walls, dozens of shelves, thousands of books, one quirky playhouse, and several spots to read, talk, play, and discover great reads.”  Bookbug opened in 2008 with support from a community of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and kids, and it has recently expanded to become a full-service independent bookstore.

Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: Joanna, you and your partners at Bookbug have gone into the book business fairly recently, at a time when many old favorite children’s bookstores across the country have been closing their doors.  That takes determination, and you certainly can’t be afraid of giants!  You must do this because you believe it’s important, and that it’s serious fun, right?
Joanna for Bookbug:  I actually believe that the opening of our store well into the “Amazon/BigBox book selling age” gave us an advantage that other pre-existing independent bookstores didn’t necessarily have: an assumption that our business would be primarily about creating a cultural hub for our community and not about “selling books” alone.  We have always been committed to hosting a wide variety of book and arts-related events, seeking community partnerships, and having a continuous and meaningful conversation (in both broad and direct ways) with our customers. Of course this business was built out of our love of books, but also from our love of and belief in the spirit of community.  “Fun”?  Yep, it’s our business to make it–and have it.

MUF: Please describe the kind of atmosphere you try to create at Bookbug and how you do that?  Who frequents your store?
Joanna:  I very much want every person who enters Bookbug to have a feeling akin to what they may feel while reading one of their favorite books.  We have taken great care to design our space to be playful, comfortable, and celebratory of great art and literature. Our book-shingled playhouse is a favorite among younger children, and many adults love our book-page papered walls and seating throughout.  We also have handwritten chalkboards throughout the store, not only displaying each section, but also ones that “talk” to our customers about our favorite books or ideas we want them to remember/think about.

MUF: Describe a good day at Bookbug?
Joanna: We’ve chosen an industry of not just books, but of service–and customers’ expectations and appreciation of that service vary widely.  They are not all, as may be imagined, kind and appreciative of the work we do.  A good day for me is made by one single person–young or old–offering his/her sincere gratitude for the work we do/ the book we recommended and/oor the “gift” we’ve given to our community.  I’m fortunate that this happens often, but I never, ever take it for granted.

MUF: How do you go about deciding what books to carry and feature at Bookbug? Do you follow reviews and journals?
Joanna: We do follow many reviewers and journals and each keep towering stacks of ARC’s on our nightstands.  We stock what we love and what has come highly recommended from trusted sources.  We also encourage our customers to talk to us about books and/or series that we may not carry, and we take their recommendations to do  so very seriously.

MUF:   As Middle Grade authors, we just have to ask: what is your favorite book of fiction for ages 9-12?  Of nonfiction?
Joanna: This has to come with the obligatory “it’s impossible to choose just one” qualifier, right? I will tell you the standouts of 2011 for me personally, however, were Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt for fiction and Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson for nonfiction.  (If I have it my way, each of these book covers will have shiny medals on them).

MUF:  Well, Heart and Soul now does! ( I loved Okay for Now, too).
Your monthly Teen/Tween Book Night sounds great!  How does that work?  Do you have regulars participating ?
Joanna:  We offer pizza, usually discuss one book and/or make it an “open discussion night” and let kids bring in whatever they’ve been reading and loved.  Our most well-attended and animated discussions have been for popular series, like the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson.

Author/Illustrator David Small visits Bookbug

MUF: Do you have an event or events coming up at Bookbug that you’re especially looking forward to?
Joanna: Author Beth Neff and her newly published YA book Getting Somewhere will be with us on Saturday, January 28 for a reading/signing and writing workshop.  We’ve had lots of hopeful authors sign up to get advice and tips from Beth and to hear more about where she got her inspiration for this great new book.  Denise Brennan-Nelson will also visit next month.  I’m particularly interested to hear her as well since she’s the creator of one of my all-time favorite picture book characters, “Willow.”

MUF: Since not every town has a children’s bookstore, we want to encourage families from out of town to make Bookbug in Kalamazoo a daytrip destination and return home with some wonderful book souvenirs!  Can you recommend a nearby family-friendly, local restaurant where they could get a bite if they’re hungry from book-browsing?
Joanna:  Among my favorite spots are: Food Dance (for downtown family dining at its fresh/local-inspired best) and Cosmos, a quirky, wonderful gem in the Vine neighborhood that cooks up some of the yummiest food I’ve ever had.

MUF: And if they can stay all day or even the weekend, are there other unique sights or activities in Kalamazoo that would help make this family trip and experience to remember?
Joanna:  Yes, Kalamazoo is a wonderfully culturally-rich community with plenty of great things to do with kids.  Other sights/spots:
The Kalamazoo Valley Museum (FREE)–wonderful interactive science and history exhibits here.
The Kalamazoo Institute of Art– a small but amazing art museum that brings many of the best works of art from around the globe.
The Air Zoo–a celebration of all-things-aviation for kids and grown-ups alike

MUF: Thank you so much, Joanna, for sharing your thoughts and work with us!
Now readers, if you have been to Bookbug and have good memories of it, or if reading about the place makes you think you’d like to visit, please let them know here!
And if you agree  with us that children’s bookstores are treasures to seek out and enjoy, please tell us your favorites for possible future posts.

Coming next month:  Portland, Oregon’s Green Bean Books, with its rather unusual vending machines. . .





Winner X Five

The five lucky winners of Promise the Night are:

Heidi, Jody, Stacey, Ms. Yingling and Linda!

You’ll be getting e-mails from us shortly.  Congratulations, and thank you to all who commented.