January 2, 2021

It's Mayan! Make Marshmallow Constellations & Enjoy an Ancient Mayan Treat

This month, Hands-on-Books features Sherry Ellis, who not only writes for kids, but is a gifted violinist. Welcome back!

 I’m happy to announce the release of my newest book, Bubba and Squirt’s Mayan Adventure. It’s the second in my Bubba and Squirt series and it’s fiction based on my research about Mayan history and culture.

When Bubba and Squirt travel through the magic portal, they find themselves at Altun Ha, an ancient Mayan civilization in Belize. Today, Altun Ha is an active archaeological site. Over three hundred jade objects have been found there, including an ornately carved head of the Mayan sun go, Kinich Ahua. The head weighs about ten pounds and is believed to be the largest Mayan jade carving in existence.

In addition to their impressive carvings and architecture, the Mayans were famous for their Mayan Calendar which was based on the movement of the starts, moon, and sun.

You may have heard of constellations—groups of stars that form recognizable patterns in the night sky. When the ancient Mayans studied the stars, they saw the same patterns that you and I see today. You can try making these patterns using mini marshmallows and toothpicks. Here’s how:


· Bag of mini marshmallows
· Toothpicks
· Diagrams of your favorite constellations
· Paper and pencils 

What to do:

1.      Draw the constellation you will create. Use a constellation diagram as a guide. (Black construction paper and white pencils look nice if you have them.)

2.      Use dots for the stars and lines to form the constellation’s shape.

3.      Construct the constellation using marshmallows for the stars and toothpicks for the lines. You may need to break some of the toothpicks to make them shorter.

When you’re done, put your marshmallows in a cup of hot cocoa. Archeologists have found evidence that wealthy Mayans enjoyed this drink more than 2000 years ago! You can pretend you’re an ancient Mayan when you sip this tasty treat!

For more fun activities, go here.

Sherry Ellis is an award-winning author and professional musician who plays and teaches the violin, viola, and piano. Ellis has previously published Bubba and Squirt’s Big Dig to China; Don’t Feed the Elephant; Ten Zany Birds; That Mama is a Grouch; and That Baby Woke Me Up, AGAIN. When she is not writing or engaged in musical activities, she can be found doing household chores, hiking, or exploring the world. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


December 1, 2020

Make Some Paper!

by Brandon Marie Miller 

Cave walls. Clay tablets. Stone. Bone. Papyrus. Vellum (animal skin). For thousands of years people etched drawings and painted writings onto these materials. Then, about 2,000 years ago, a Chinese court official named Ts'ai made the first paper. The process mashed tree bark, hemp, shredded rags, and water into a pulp. The liquid was pressed out, and what was left behind dried into a thick, strong, rich paper that stood up to ink and paint! 

Over the centuries, paper allowed the spread of information and art around the globe. Paper-making mills and printing presses churned out books, newspapers, and advertisement broadsides (posters). Official documents, recorded on paper and housed in archives, allow us to study the past. Paper made it possible to print thousands of copies of novels, plays, and poetry that anyone could read. People penned letters, journals, and diaries offering us a glimpse into lives and thoughts from centuries ago. Scientists scribbled down notes and proposed theories, sharing their new knowledge through published books and pamphlets. 

When I wrote my book Benjamin Franklin, American Genius, I noted Franklin's lifelong use of the power of the printed word. As a young apprentice he learned the trade of printing newspapers and secretly started writing his own articles under a pen name, Silence Dogood. He'd go on to make his fortune printing his own newspaper and almanac. In the 1700s paper was mostly made out of recycled cotton and linen rags and clothes. Always on the lookout for a good business enterprise, Franklin opened a stationary shop alongside his printing business and collected rags for making paper-- eventually he owned many paper mills. 
Franklin pushes a wheelbarrow full of paper through Philadelphia streets. 

Today, paper mills use less expensive wood fiber mixed with recycled paper instead of cloth fibers to make paper pulp. Recycling has always been part of paper making and you can do your part to keep that going by recycling paper at home and at school. Whenever you use a paper bag, cardboard box, notebook paper, envelope, or read a book or magazine-- you are part of the ancient story of paper! Try your hand at making your own paper art!

November 1, 2020

Get Outside and Get Inventing!

by guest-blogger Jennifer Swanson

Want to find some amazing ways to use your imagination and explore things right from your window or in your own backyard?  Awesome. Then this project is for you.

First, answer this question. What do you get when you combine animals and engineering? Biomimicry, of course. Biomimicry is engineering inspired by nature. Engineers who work with biomimicry study how animals and nature work and then mimic it or take inspiration to solve human problems. That is the topic of my new book, BEASTLY BIONICS: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature. (NGKids Book, 2020) 

Bionics-inspired engineering means watching how a bird flies help you figure out how to build an airplane, or maybe how to quiet a loud fan in your house. Sound intriguing? I think so!

This gecko ... 

 (Image from Beastly Bionics, 2020, NGKids Books) 

... could inspire an engineer to make a robot like this:

(Image from Beastly Bionics, 2020, NGKids Books)

Why a robot gecko? Well, geckos have sticky feet that can climb anything. If a human could have that ability, they might be able to climb walls, windows to clean them, or even the side of a cliff. 

When you’re designing a biomimetic robot, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What characteristics does the animal have that are useful?
  • How can these characteristics help humans?
  • Can the characteristics be imitated?

Let’s see how it works. Watching an elephant might inspire this: 

A robotic arm that allows people to reach for things more easily off a high shelf. Get it? The elephant uses its trunk to do that, so a robotic arm that looks and acts like the elephant’s trunk would do the same. That is biomimicry. 

Now it’s YOUR turn to design something: 

----------------- Get Outside and Get Inventing! -----------------

Materials needed: • journal or notebook • pencil • patience and imagination

Follow these directions:

Observe It!  

Ask yourself: 

  • What is the coolest thing this animal does? 
  • How can that be used to create something that will help humans?

Answer these questions in your journal.

Draw it!

Draw a picture of the animal in your journal.

Draw a picture of the helpful attribute that the animal has and how it can be turned into something that can help a human, a robot arm, an easy gripper, or even a special design. 

Design it!

Gather materials and see if you can make a model of your idea. It can be out of building blocks, paper, cardboard, or whatever supplies you have. If you have access to robotics materials, and can code something, that works, too. 

Test it out!  

See if it works. Then  present your idea to the class or to your parents. Ask them if they understand how it’s useful to the world and if they’d use it? 

Take feedback and then make adjustments (just like an engineer would).

HAVE FUN with this! And if your parent’s allow, tag me on Twitter or Instagram (@JenSwanBooks) with a picture of your design. I’d love to see your creativity. GO STEM!



Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of more than 40+ nonfiction books for children, mostly about science and technology. Jennifer’s love of STEM began when she started a science club in her garage at age 7. 

   Her books have received many accolades including starred reviews, Booklist Best Tech books list, Green Earth Book Honor Award, a Florida Book Award, and multiple California Reading Association awards, and National Science Teaching BEST STEM awards. Her Brain Games book was #13 on The Planets.org 50 Best Science books Ever Written and her Save the Crash-test Dummies book is on the AAAS-Subaru Longlist for MG STEM books. 

   She is also the creator of the STEM Tuesday blog, STEAMTeamBooks promotion group and creator and cohost of Solve It! for Kids, a STEM podcast for kids and families where Jennifer encourages kids (of all ages) to engage their curiosity and DISCOVER the science all around them! Visit her website, www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com, find her on Facebook, or on Twitter, or Instagram @JenSwanBooks.

October 5, 2020

The Essential Art of Asking Questions!

As those who know me know, I like to randomly “chat people up.”  In fact, doing so is a proven technique of journalists who often like to get interviews going by asking easy questions before they move onto serious ones. Which what I did when I talked my family, friends, and others doing research for my new book Unveiled!  

For my ghostly research,, I acted like an historian. I went to historical societies and online sites for academic research. For others I relied on my wonderful Cincinnati Public Library for old books, newspapers, and magazine articles. Blog posts are also an ok start, though I pay careful  attention because often they make errors of fact.

What I tell kids is this:

               You can think of an historian as a detective doing an investigation. He or she asks a ton of questions:






And then later on … how?

And even later…. what if?

So, how does a writer of history go about investigating?  That answer would be:

               Research!  In the course of writing this book, I did a boatload of exploring.

               I made a virtual dig into the graves of all the people you will read about, and I ended up learning new things about old stuff I’d studied in school

But the best fun was asking people around me: “Do you believe in ghosts?” In the  introduction, I wrote about the Q&A I had with two sixth grade girls. Their answers spanned the realm of possibilities: “No,” “Maybe,” and “We know someone who…..” The same with my former neighbor—and what a surprise she gave me!*

            *For that, you will have to read the Afterword in the book…..:)

The point is: Encourage kids to act like reporters and ASK QUESTIONS of the folks around them! If they don’t –or if you don’t–you will never hear the answers. Think what you might be missing.

To get kids started in the art of the interview, supply a pen or pencil and a steno notebook. Have them round up a few facts about their topic and then to rough out some questions that rise from those facts. They’ll be on their way quickly.

 Follett School Solutions, distributors of books to schools and libraries, chose GHOSTS UNVEILED! for Follett’s “First Chapter Fridays” videos. Join me here.

             A heads up: it’s 12 minutes long.

            I told you I like talking to people! 


August 31, 2020

Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

Welcome to Julie Rubini, whose dedication to children's literacy is well recognized across Ohio! Julie's new book is all about the teenage brain.....

My latest book, Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing explores the WHY behind behavior and choices, written for teens. How cool is that?

I wish I had a book like this when I was a teenager. It would have helped me understand all the different factors involved in choices, including my home environment, genetic history, friends, peer pressure, and, the area I found most fascinating, the teenage brain.

Scientists are doing some amazing work in studying the teenage brain, including the exciting functional MRI testing. The test involves recording what happens, or doesn’t happen in a teenager’s brain, based on various stimuli. For example, while a subject’s brain is being studied using functional MRI testing, scientists may show the subject scary photographs, to see how the amygdala, the part of the brain that perceives and regulates fear, responds. Or, scientists will record how teens’ prefrontal cortexes respond to simulated situations when the teenage subjects believe they are being watched. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that involves reasoning and making judgments and decisions.

These studies help us understand the role the development of the brain has in teen behavior. But that is only one part of the equation.

Why does one teen, perhaps feeling anxious about a test, stay up all night and study, while another stays up all night playing video games? Why does one teen stand up to a bully picking on a friend, while another walks away? Why has one teen explored new talents during Covid-19 shelter at home restrictions, while another rages at the inability to do anything?

Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing explores the topic of psychology for teens, and reviews all of the various elements involved in reactions, behavior, and choices to help them understand why they do the things they do.


As peer pressure is significant in the lives of teens, the following experiment studies conformity, the influence of groups. The Asch Conformity Tests proved that, on average, a third of a group would answer a question incorrectly, based on the influence of others, even when they knew otherwise.

Try this test to see if results compare with the Asch Conformity Tests.

Recruit a few friends to stand in a shopping mall. They should just stand and look at the ceiling.

Make a simple grid in a notebook and record how many people stop and stare with the group within 15 minutes. How many pass by without participating in the behavior? Record these results and compare your study to the Asch Conformity Tests. Did a third of the people walking past in the mall look up to the ceiling as well?

Julie K. Rubini loves to writing stories about incredible women and intriguing subjects for young readers. Julie’s newest work is Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing, helping teenagers understand the science behind their behavior. Julie’s other works include, Eye to Eye: Sports Journalist Christine Brennan, Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist, and Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller, which received a Kirkus starred review and listed on Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books, outstanding merit.

Julie and her husband Brad established Claire’s Day, a children’s book festival in honor of their daughter. A highlight of the festival is the C.A.R.E. Awards, given to children selected as the most improved readers in their schools.

Visit www.julierubini.com or www.clairesday.org to learn more!

August 5, 2020

Revisiting Racism in Women's Suffrage. Plus: Pandemic projects


In recent months, historians and the media have focused on racism in the women’s suffrage movement. I wrote a book for young readers about suffrage back in 2012: Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote. I asked myself, “Did I give due diligence in writing about Black women who were suffragists?”

            When authors write books one after the other, we lose track of older projects as newer ones crowd our brains. I truly needed to look back at Rightfully Ours and see exactly what I’d written about racism and Black women’s participation in the suffrage movement. I missed a few of them, namely Hallie Quinn Brown and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

             I wrote about Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, as well as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  I had researched the National Association of Colored Women, the NACW, which drew from Black women’s local church groups and clubs—the very same as middle class white women did after the Civil War. Black women and white women mostly did not join hands in working for the vote, but their efforts certainly paralleled each other.

              There is a strange irony in the racism that tainted the push for women’s suffrage in America. American women first found their public voices in church as abolitionists. There were Lucy Stone, and sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Lucretia Mott – all had verbal and sometimes physical abuse heaped on them as they spoke out against slavery in public meetings.

            The rest is history.

            On August 26 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 

            In other words, it’s been one century since American women WON the vote.


I’m sharing two kid-friendly activities I wrote for Rightfully OursOne keeps Harriet Tubman’s bravery in mind as takes you outside at night. The other draws on a so-called “women’s activity”—baking.  

Both are perfect for these pandemic days of stay-at-home togetherness!



July 1, 2020

Mission to Pluto Update and Paper Spacecraft Model

 Mission to Pluto

Get your mission update! My book, MISSION TO PLUTO: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt is now out in paperback! The reprint includes an update on the mission's perfectly fabulous first-ever flyby of a Kuiper belt object (KBO).

Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth.
The plucky piano-size spacecraft made history again in January of 2019 when it navigated a photo-snapping flyby of the KBO Arrokoth more than 4 billion miles from the Sun. The name means "sky" in the Native American Powhatan-Algonguian language. It's amazing to fathom, considering that when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015, Arrokoth hadn't been discovered yet! When images of Arrokoth reached Earth, scientists were stunned to learn that it wasn't a single object, but a two joined rounded lobes. It looks a bit like rust-colored snowman! Nothing like it has ever been seen anywhere in the solar system. The theory is that Arrokoth's two ball-shaped bits once orbited each other as binary worlds, not unlike Pluto and Charon do today. Something happened long ago that caused them to merge and stick together. Billions of years ago when the solar system was forming, lots of bis and pieces crashed and clumped together. It's how the planets were made. Arrokoth is like a snapshot of that process frozen in time. 

Unbelievably, there's still more to come! New Horizons is currently a healthy spacecraft and is furthering its journey into the Kuiper Belt. Want to learn more? 
  • Get caught up on the story so far, by reading my book Mission to Pluto. There's a great free downloadable educator's guide for the book, too.
  • There are tons of great resources for educators on the New Horizons website, including activities for K-12.
  • Check New Horizons' official website for further updates from the outer solar system.  pluto.jhuapl.edu
Go New Horizons, go!

To celebrate, print out and assemble this fun NASA paper model of the New Horizons spacecraft. Enjoy!

June 1, 2020

Solace in Nature

by Brandon Marie Miller

My usual blog posts discuss American history. Today, I feel more than ever the ache that we desperately need to learn our history, confront it, and do better. We face hard times. We are in the midst of a Pandemic. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. We are also in a fight for justice and equality in our streets that has been going on for centuries. Why can't we listen? This has happened over and over again in our history. People are hurting.

This month I'm going to write about the tiniest thing we can do to find a moment of clarity. Get out in nature. That's all. Feel the sun, smell the rain. Engage all your senses. I know I'm lucky. I have a front porch, flower beds, herbs and vegetables I grow. I watch rabbits, squirrels, birds, lizards, and chipmunks in my yard. Sometimes a deer strolls through, or a raccoon, or opossum. A few minutes outdoors works wonders for our brains and bodies. It's how we humans are wired. This is important for all of us, but especially for children.

I'm sharing an activity from the book WILDLIFE RANGER, a colorful and fun outdoor guide for kids. Mary Kay Carson wrote the book and her husband Tom Uhlman took the photos. The book is a wonderful escape into nature with activities to help protect the wildlife in a child's own backyard, their own block, or the park they visit.

Enjoy and stay safe.

May 5, 2020

Parents & Kids: For the Record...Track Your Quarantine

My note to parents during these strange days of Covid19.

Ask your kids to track their days living under quarantine. Why? 

The future.

(I know: working from home and teaching your kids is asking a lot.)

Ask your children–of all ages including teens and college kids, to make a record of these days. There are lots of ways to get it done:

o   Old-fashioned journaling.
o   Write letters to oneself to be opened in 25 years.
o   Make a podcast diary or a video diary…even younger kids can do this with some help.
o   Make a time capsule in a shoebox. Add small trinkets, tagged with their meaning. Or take pictures and either print them out or have them made at the drug store. Tag them with a caption. Or add the family’s favorite quarantine recipe.
o   (For that matter, make a quarantine cookbook!)
o   Write random thoughts on sticky notes or notecards and put them in an album or a shoe box. Be sure to put the date on each.

Whatever works for your child is best. Years from now, when young people ask your grown-up kid how it felt to be alive during the Great Quarantine of 2020, there will be that notebook, or time capsule or album or thumb drive.  All will be fine examples of

Primary sources

Primary sources, what nonfiction writers like me count on to add spark and color to our work, can be more than words. They can be things. My fav is the notepad my grandpa used in when he was a young World War I soldier. Another is wartime sheet music that’s 100 years old. And, of course, Grandpa, aka bugler Frederick Urban Logan, striking a pose with his friend Oscar Longhar.


April 6, 2020

Upcycle a Coffee Tub to a Nest Box for National Wildlife Week

by Mary Kay Carson

Happy National Wildlife Week 2020, America! April 6-10 is this year's week for appreciating what's wild around you. As the National Wildlife Federation says: Embrace the wild life!

Spring is the perfect time to take notice of wildlife. Every day brings a new songbird returning from southern climes or a creature awakening from winter's long sleep. My new book for young people invites kids and families to help local wild animals by improving habitat right in our own backyards. Wildlife Ranger Action Guide has bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and invertebrate identification pages as well as fun projects for creating wildlife habitat near you. You can be a hero for wildlife! 

Here's a fun project from the book that's easy and simple to make with materials out of the recycling bin.  Enjoy, be well, and celebrate wildlife no matter where you are.

March 14, 2020

Isaac Newton's Take on Social Distancing & Making a Plague Mask

Coronavirus. In this week of people socially distancing themselves by working from home, the Washington Post ran a story about Isaac Newton and what happened when he left his studies at Cambridge as the Plague swept across England beginning in 1664. Here’s the link: https://buff.ly/39JEcl2/

 Newton used his time in isolation at home in “Woolsthorpe” to put all his university learning to work.  As I wrote in Isaac Newton & Physics for Kids, His Life & Ideas with 21 Activities.

            Newton used his two years at home to let everything bubble up inside his head.  All he had learned at Cambridge about natural philosophy and mathematics now fermented like yeast in the bread and beer he had for breakfast. During the day, he could look into the garden and watch apple trees blossom into fruit that ripened and fell to the ground. When it rained, he could wonder why rainbows appear. At night, he still watched the heavens for stars and planets, just as he had when he was a boy.

(For more about the Plague in Newton's times, click here.)

Newton escaped the plague at Woolsthorpe, but in other towns and cities, doctors wore plague masks to escape the Black Death that plagued their patients. Here’s how to make one:

February 3, 2020

Who Made George Washington's Breakfast?

by Brandon Marie Miller
(Activity: Make Hoe Cakes)

1799, Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington

Enslaved cooks Lucy and Nathan rise well before dawn to begin meal preparations-- coaxing embers into flame, lugging buckets and heating water. Nathan replaced the Washington's former male cook, Hercules, who ran away to freedom in 1797. Butler Frank Lee, also enslaved, sets the table in the family dining room which is painted a deep bright green, the former president's favorite color.

The kitchen at George Washington's Mount Vernon

George Washington prefers a simple breakfast-- hoe cakes, a corn meal pancake, with a cup of tea. Lucy has prepared the hoe cake batter the night before. Her mother, Doll, had also been a cook at Mount Vernon for many years. Doll was one of the enslaved people the widow Martha Custis brought with her to Mount Vernon when she married George Washington. Lucy's daughter Patty may be one of the assistants, learning kitchen skills at her mother's side.

Mrs.Washington arrives in the kitchen to check preparations and at seven o'clock the Washington family sits down to eat. Food is carried from the kitchen, a separate building, to the main house.Washington likes his hoe cakes dripping with butter and honey. It is a soft breakfast for a man who has painful issues with his false teeth.

The dining room at George Washington's Mount Vernon
After breakfast the table is cleared, pots and pans cleaned. Mrs. Washington discusses dinner plans with Lucy and Nathan. Enslaved gardener, George, brings in fruits and vegetables grown in Mount Vernon's gardens. Lucy, Nathan, and their assistants face a long day ahead, chopping, cooking, roasting, baking bread and cleaning up. The Washingtons nearly always have guests and family to entertain. Lucy and Nathan often prepare large quantities of food.

George and Martha Washington benefitted every day from the care, comfort, and labor of enslaved people they owned like Lucy, Nathan, Frank Lee, Patty and gardener George. And though George Washington freed the slaves he owned when he died in December 1799, the Custis slaves Martha brought to the marriage were not freed.