Tag Archives: speaking out

STEM Tuesday: Science in Fiction Books – Author Interview with Mary Knight and Giveaway

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math! 

Your host this week is Dr. Amber J. Keyser, evolutionary biologist and author of many books for young readers. Today, she’s interviewing Mary Knight, the author of Saving Wonder.

About the book: Having lost most of his family to coal mining accidents as a little boy, Curley Hines lives with his grandfather in the Appalachian Mountains of Wonder Gap, Kentucky. Ever since Curley can remember, Papaw has been giving him a word each week to learn and live. Papaw says words are Curley’s way out of the holler, even though Curley has no intention of ever leaving.

When a new coal boss takes over the local mining company, life as Curley knows it is turned upside down. Suddenly, his best friend, Jules, has a crush on the coal boss’s son, and worse, the mining company threatens to destroy Curley and Papaw’s mountain. Now Curley faces a difficult choice. Does he use his words to speak out against Big Coal and save his mountain, or does he remain silent and save his way of life? With everything changing, Curley doesn’t even know if there will be anything left to save.

About the author: Mary’s debut novel, SAVING WONDER (Scholastic), won the 2017 Green Earth Book Award, a Parents’ Choice award, a Sigurd Olsen honorable mention for nature writing from Northland University, and was named a Notable Book for Social Studies by the Children’s Book Council. In addition to author visits and working on her next novel, Mary is a mentor for the Carnegie Center’s Author Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. She is also co-authoring a professional development book for teachers called CoreEmpathy: Transforming the Literacy Classroom. More about Mary and her work at www.maryknightbooks.com

Praise for SAVING WONDER from School Library Journal: Descriptions of the setting’s fragile beauty are so subtly interwoven with dialogue and action, they’re not only powerful visual images but ever-present reminders of what’s at stake in Curley’s fight…Characters are fully developed and endearing, their dialogue direct and sincere…Curley and Pawpaw’s word-a-week ritual crystallizes their relationship for the readers and gives Curley the confidence to take on an adversary that seems more powerful than he is. VERDICT A remarkable debut novel from an author to watch.

Also check out great reviews from Bookpage and Publisher’s Weekly.

Mary’s ideas for how to use SAVING WONDER to introduce STEM topics in the classroom: Generally, teachers who want to use the story of Saving Wonder as a “jumping off point” for further exploration of STEM topics have found it to be very versatile. Fiction has a unique function in engaging student interest in STEM topics by showing how an individual life is being personally affected by that topic or issue.

For instance, my novel offers a very personal, heartfelt betrayal of how one family (and community) is affected by a coal company’s decision to mine a mountain. A fictional story can show readers WHY we study and explore these topics, WHY they matter to people in their everyday lives. The story inspires interest and then, the student has their own personal stake in what they are researching and exploring…because they’ve “walked in a character’s shoes” and seen that topic from that character’s point of view. In short, a story can inspire them to care…and that caring makes all the difference in their learning.

Math topics:

First paragraph of the book, Curley says that learning a word a week from his grandfather and going through the alphabet twice a year is “a perfect system.” I love asking readers “why” this is. What’s the math? A teacher could ask: What are some examples of perfect systems? “Is an equation a ‘perfect system.’ What makes a system “perfect?’

Researching statistics / surveys on the effects of mountaintop removal on the Appalachian region. Exploring the economics involved in the issue, i.e. jobs versus effects on environment and public health.

Science topics:

Extinct species in the Appalachian Mountains: What made the Appalachians a perfect habitat for animals during the ice age? What made species go extinct? The considerations / consequences of introducing a new species into a region. (The introduction of western elk into the Appalachian region is explored in the novel.)

The long-term effects of extractive mining processes, specifically mountaintop removal mining, on environment and health. 

(Science and engineering) Designing experiments on run-off and water quality on nearby streams. One fifth-grade teacher in South Charleston, West Virginia created a classroom experiment showing how toxic minerals leech into the soil and then, streams and rivers. Contact Knight through her website for a copy of this lesson. 

How mountains are formed. If the Appalachians are among the oldest mountains in the world, why are they so short? 

How coal and other energy materials are formed. How and why they burn (chemistry).

Sustainable vs non-sustainable energy systems. (Cost analysis / diagrams could also be a math topic.)

One of Curley’s words is “tipping point.” What does “tipping point” mean in science? What are some examples of a tipping point? Scientific demonstrations of “tipping point,” say when water becomes a solid and/or a gas. Relating the scientific to social or cultural tipping points may enhance understanding of both.

Curley and his friends use the power of technology to spread the news about the mining threat to their mountain and to inspire other people to care through the power of their words. Where are all the places where technology comes into play in the novel–for good or ill? How does their use of technology have to do with “tipping point?” What is the definition of “going viral” these days and how may it differ from the past?

How might you use technology to spread the word regarding something you care about? Projects could revolve around this. One middle school teacher, after reading Saving Wonder with her class, invited her students to answer the question: “What makes something worth fighting for?” And then they created projects in which they took action to make a difference in their community. This same invitation could be made, inviting students to incorporate technology in their design / response.

On a more social note . . . 

In Saving Wonder, my protagonist Curley Hines has a conversation with the new coal boss, Mr. Tiverton, concerning the mountaintop removal mining planned for Curley’s mountain. Both characters have their say, offering what the mountain and the proposed mining means to them. I think this scene offers a great example of how to have a civil conversation where both parties are able to speak and be heard–something I believe we need more of in today’s divisive culture. I created the following lesson based on this scene to help students create and practice civil conversation. This is not STEM oriented, specifically, but anyone in a STEM field will one day need this skill! This was a guest blog for Jacqueline Jules’ blog, “Pencil Tips Writing Workshop.”

These are just a few ideas for integrating the “A” of language arts into “S-T-E-M” to increase the vibrancy of learning! 

A Q & A with Amber J. Keyser and Mary Knight:

When you began to work on Saving Wonder, which came first, the environmental issues or the characters?  

Chronologically speaking, my experience and impassioned response to the environmental destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining came first, but it wasn’t until I was “introduced” to my main character, Curley Hines, that the story began to unfold.

When my husband and I moved to Kentucky from the Pacific Northwest eight years ago, we were missing our mountains, so when we heard that a state park was offering elk tours in eastern Kentucky, we jumped at the chance to explore our new landscape. Little did we know that that tour would land us on an active mountaintop removal (MTR) site. We were absolutely flabbergasted at the sight of so much devastation—hundreds of acres absolutely stripped of all life. The experience led me to conduct research on the mining practice for the next two years, while also participating in some environmental activism.

Two years after that initial experience, I was researching the setting of another novel I was writing when I came upon a historic gazebo in a public park in Cincinnati. People through the decades had carved their initials on its stone wall. As I was running my hands over the engravings, I came upon one that read: “I love Curley Hines” and in that moment, I knew that boy. I tell my readers that “he came to me whole.” I knew that he was tall and thin with curly hair, of course, that he was really smart and lived in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky with his grandfather. And I began hearing his voice. He wanted to tell me his story! It was then that I knew MTR would provide the central conflict. I had finally found a story big enough to explore the topic.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this book?

As part of my research, my assistant interviewed a contact she had in the mining permit field to answer my story-specific questions. When he was asked, “What stops mountaintop removal?” he answered, “Very little.”

Although I knew how challenged environmentalists are regarding MTR in Kentucky where many say, “Coal is King,” this answer was still very sobering. We followed up later by asking, “We’re not looking for what is probable, but rather, what might be possible to stop MTR.” He said, “Well, I suppose if an ancient Native American burial site were found, maybe some petroglyphs…” and then he said, “But none of that would matter UNLESS (caps, mine) there was also a large public outcry.” This was when I understood the power of numbers in getting what you want…or stopping what you don’t want. These answers figured prominently in the choices I made with my plot. Specifically, this was when the Native American element entered my story—an element I love. As I talked with Cherokee elders now living in the commonwealth, I discovered that the state government doesn’t even recognize that they exist nor that they ever lived here. Historians claim Native Americans were just passing through!

Can you tell us a fascinating research tidbit that you weren’t able to work into the book?

There is a very important tree that is a central element to the story—a tree that my young characters call “Ol’ Charley.” It was initially a Native American marker tree, a tree that some theorize was bent as a sapling to indicate the direction of trails or to sacred sites. An anthropologist who was a member of the Cherokee tribe and who vetted the Native American elements in the book strongly disagreed with this theory, however. To include his name in the credits, we decided to change the tree to a sycamore. The sycamore plays an important role in the Cherokee creation story and sometimes Native Americans hid in its hollowed trunks to escape “removal,” otherwise known as The Trail of Tears. I felt good about making Ol’ Charley a sycamore…but I still miss the marker tree!

Why are STEM topics important to you? 

Honestly, the most important mission I have as a fiction writer is to engage my readers in a really good story. STEM topics offer great material that can capture a reader’s attention and inspire their curiosity—which in turn keeps them turning those pages! But I have a confession to make—I didn’t really set out to introduce STEM topics in my novel. That just happened. Now, however, I’m the one who’s hooked! My next novel intentionally explores issues around endangered species and global warming on the beautiful of island of Hawaii…and yes, I had to go there to conduct my research!

I hope all you STEM folks check out SAVING WONDER and find lots of ways to use it in your classrooms! As you do, I hope you will also send me your lesson ideas. I love sharing these with other teachers. Feel free to contact me at maryknight314 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Happy STE(A)Ming! Don’t forget the wonder of ‘A’!

Buy a copy of SAVING WONDER! 

Win a copy of Saving Wonder! 

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

About Amber J. Keyser: Evolutionary biologist Amber J. Keyser has an MS in zoology and a PhD in genetics. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for tweens and teens. More information at www.amberjkeyser.com.