While we usually alternate read alouds for fun or literary quality with historical fiction read alouds to go along with our history studies, we’ve recently tossed a few books for science into the mix. I’m of mixed opinions about this. On the one hand, I think fiction is a great science delivery plan. Stories make information go down easy. They’re just fun. On the other hand, the literary quality of everything we’ve read so far has been lacking to say the least.
First of all, most people will know the George series by Lucy Hawking (with a little help from her famous physicist father Stephen Hawking). This series starts with George’s Secret Key to the Universe and is followed by two sequels, though we’ve only read the first two so far. The science in these books is astrophysics. The first book covers much of the basics of astronomy. The second one focuses on the search for extraterrestrial life and the science and history of space exploration. The third is about the origin of the universe. As you might imagine with an author pedigree like this one, the science component is excellent. Scientific explanations, whether in dialogue or in text asides, are engaging and not dumbed down. Occasionally things get a little hard for a kid to understand, but I think most kids can hang in there and get most of it. Color photo sections also add a nice component to the books.
The stories on the other hand… Well, they’re not terrible. George is an ordinary kid who, through a friendship with a scientist neighbor, keeps getting swept up in adventures that send him all over the universe with the help of a nearly all-powerful supercomputer. The character development is uneven. The plot twists range from predictable to absurd. The villain and his evil schemes are downright silly, but not in a good way. And if you’re the sort of person who can’t help thinking questions like, “How can they have this supercomputer and know this one piece of information and not this other basic piece?” then you’re in for it. The writing is competent, but mostly flat. On the bright side, while occasionally my kids were rolling their eyes with me (especially Mushroom, who is quite the cynic), they mostly didn’t mind the awkward plotting. And while the adults may be poorly drawn, such as George’s Luddite parents or Annie’s alternately angry and overenthusiastic father, George and his best friend Annie are decent characters with clear personalities.
Overall, I think if some science person would write a nice homeschool curriculum to go along with these, they could actually be a very compelling central text to an upper elementary or middle school astronomy curricula. Anyone?
That brings us to another book that is a part of such a fiction based science curricula: Sassafras Science from Elemental Science. The curricula has different pieces including a lab book for kids and a guide that fleshes out the book. However, I’m happy with our science plan and opted just to buy the novel as a fun supplement.
The book has many good points. The topic for this first entry is zoology and has the two main characters, twins Tracey and Blaine, ziplining across the world in search of animal facts. At each location, they get into wild adventures and face a mysterious foe with no eyebrows. The animal facts are woven into the story in different ways. Many of the ideas behind the story, like the ziplines and the smartphone apps the kids have to use to satisfy their challenges, are definitely appealing to readers and clever conceits.
Sadly, the writing is mediocre. The character development is extremely one-dimensional, even for the main characters. Perhaps most annoyingly, the number of typos in the book is very high. I’m hardly typo free in my blogging, so I hate to point the finger. However, the authors of the book really do need a lesson in plural possessives, among other things. It’s not so egregious that every reader will notice, but usually I don’t notice typos, so if you consider yourself a grammar stickler then beware. In general, I just wanted to take a red pen to the whole thing at times and suggest ways to pep up the language. The plot is, by its nature, silly and over the top, which I can accept, but the flat, awkward language was harder to stand. Overall, I’m torn about whether the amount of science in the book justifies the downsides. This is not an in depth set of information like in the George series. If anything, sometimes the animal biology took a backseat to robbers and sabotage and other side plots. It felt almost like disconnected animal trivia being mentioned in the course of the story. For something that is the basis of a curricula, I was surprised that the information ended up being so disconnected. It didn’t build to any greater point other than “science is cool,” which I couldn’t believe the otherwise intelligent Sassafras twins didn’t know already.
Basically, I recommend the novel for Sassafras Science with reservations. I think many kids will love the format and get something out of it. Mushroom and BalletBoy both thought it was a fun read. I hope Elemental Science makes more because I think the authors have the potential to get better at doing this. But if anyone knows the authors, put in a plea to have the next one professionally copy edited at the very least.