December 2, 2021


by Brandon Marie Miller

Dear Blog Peeps,

Well, it's time. I can't believe our very first post was over ten years ago! And now, after nearly 100 blogs, we are saying goodbye to new material on Hands-On-Books. Thank you to everyone who has read, commented, and shared our blog! 

Happily, ten years of goodness remains for kids and adults, teachers, librarians, and parents to find-- great articles about history, STEAM, and a wide-range of activities to meet any interest. We would especially like to thank our guest bloggers over the years who have shared their passions, expertise, and books. Please continue to browse our archives and see what you discover.

I want to thank Mary Kay Carson and Kerrie Hollihan for joining me on this journey and for their friendship and support over the years. We have loved being part of Hands-On-Books! 

For my last activity, I'm leaving you my favorite holiday recipe. It's my Aunt Marty's cheeseball, a recipe from the 1950s, and has some original ways of giving measurements. It's part of my earliest Christmas memories, going to my aunt's home on Christmas Eve, seeing all the cousins, everyone dressed up, exchanging gifts, and laughing at the family "talent" shows.

My family still looks forward to this cheeseball every year, and between my house and my sister's house, we devour several. We sometimes wonder why we don't make it other times of the year. But it is so much a part of our family's Christmas celebrations, that it would just seem weird making one outside the month of December!  

What holiday favorite recipes does your family look forward to each year?


The recipe Marty typed up for me.
2 large packages of cream cheese

1 jar Kraft Old English spread

Blue cheese (size of a golf ball)

Grated onion (size of a ping pong ball)

Chopped fresh parsley

Chopped pecans

Mix cheeses, onion, and some parsley (a mixer makes this easy.) Roll the cheese mixture in chopped parsley and pecans (you can spoon the pecans and parsley around and over the cheese to get started) then shape into a ball. This is messy, but worth it!

Cover with foil and refrigerate to set up. Serve with assorted crackers. ENJOY!

October 31, 2021

Quick Collections!

 Welcome this month's guest blogger, Heather L. Montgomery*!

Round rocks, red leaves, rhinoceros beetles—we all know that kid who would cram them in a pocket then clutter up the closet. . . That kid might be a scientist. George Washington Carver, Jane Goodall, Charles Darwin—all were incessant collectors as kids! 

My recent picture book, What’s In Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures, features nine historic and modern scientists who grew their skills by packing their pockets, then sifting and sorting through nature stuff. Collecting artifacts develops skills—observation, description, sorting, evaluation—with broad application. 

Kids can build permanent collections, seeking out just the right thing to fit a category and taking care to find the perfect specimen, but there’s lots of fun to be had in quick collections, too.  On your next outing, why not put your pocket-packing skills to the test? 

Alphabet Mess: Quickly collect 30 or more random items into a pile. Then turn the mess into a tidy alphabetical line. Can you make a complete alphabet?

Categories: Call out a category (nut, something orange, something ancient, once living thing, something fuzzy, something smelly, etc.) and see what everyone finds. Bring the artifacts together to compare/contrast. For easy display of small items, use a white ice cube tray. In addition to the stated category, what else do those items have in common?

Picture Perfect: Develop a list of sensitive items (butterfly, bird, living flower, moss on a rock) and collect pictures instead of samples. Not enough cameras? Work in pairs. One person (the photographer) must line up the blindfolded person (the camera) so that when the camera flips open the shutter (blindfold) the item is directly in view.

Collection Connections (left): Make a grid on a piece of paper (adjust size according to your needs). Place one artifact in the center square. Any collected item can be added to an adjacent square if you can name one way in which the items connect. For example, they could both be animal parts, one (a plant) could use another (soil), they could both provide shelter, they could be the same color, texture, shape,… For an extra challenge, add an item and let others guess the connection.

*Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are wild about animals. An award-winning author and educator, Heather uses yuck appeal to engage young minds. Her books include: Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill, Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-legged Parents and Their Kids, and What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures. Learn more at

October 3, 2021

   My new book BONES UNEARTHED! will publish on November 23.  In those wacky times of broken supply chains, the pub date was delayed from September, the perfect date to launch a book from my middle grade Creepy & True series. Now the book will drop just before Thanksgiving (and is available for preorder in case you are doing early holiday shopping.  ) *

   This is my final post for Hands On Books. Brandon, Marry Kay and I are closing up shop for this blog at year’s end.

    I cruised through my offerings since 2013, when we opened shop to generate interest in our books and what we have written. Book author guru Jane Friedman advised us to make our blog “useful,” and by offering kid-centered activities, I think we’ve accomplished that!  Jane’s primo blog, “Electric Speed,” is at


 I’m regenerating one of my favorite posts in honor of the month of October—how to carve a turnip! Celtic people in the British Isles carved these root vegetables in the fall festival of Samhain (SOW ren), the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. (That post is here: )

*Authors aren't supposed to say  "Buy my book," but that's a story for another day...

From  Elizabeth I, the People’s Queen: "It’s Halloween…Time to Carve Your Turnips!"

August 31, 2021

Get to Know Night Animals

 Welcome this month's guest blogger, Rebecca Hirsch*!

Fall is coming. Maybe you’ve noticed it too—a chill in the air, leaves starting to turn, darkness arriving earlier in the evening. It's perfect time of year for an outdoor exploration of the dark and its animals with my new picture book, Night Creatures: Animals That Swoop, Crawl, and Creep while You Sleep.

The book follows a mother and child as they enjoy a night outdoors in their backyard. They catch fireflies, roast marshmallows, gaze up at the stars, and camp out in a tent. But the animals that swoop, crawl and creep around them are the main focus of the story. In a glowing review, Kirkus declared the book “well executed” and said “the illustrations effectively represent the night world on the page, with shadow and muted colors that require readers to look closely and pay attention. The spare, lyrical text is rhythmic and soothing, just right for a bedtime story.”

You can stay up late one night, maybe in a park or other secluded setting, and see if you can spot animals waking up around you. These animals may be nocturnal (active only at night) or crepuscular (active only at dusk or dawn). You can learn to identify night creatures even if you can’t see them clearly.

You’ll need: ✔ flashlight  ✔ piece of red cellophane or a red sock

Cover the lit end of the flashlight with cellophane or the sock so the light comes out red in color. Red light won’t ruin your own eyes’ adjustment to the dark, and many night creatures do not see red light and so they will not be disturbed by it.

Here’s what you can look for during a night outdoors:

Want more activities for your nighttime exploration? Click to download the free pdf, Night Creatures Activity Guide🦇  🦉  🦨  
*Rebecca E. Hirsch writes lots of science and nature nonfiction: articles, picture books, and middle grade books. She used to work as a research biologist, and her writings invite kids to discover and explore the outdoors. Her latest book is Night Creatures: Animals That Swoop, Crawl, and Creep while You Sleep. Other books include Plants Can't Sit Still, When Plants Attack, and The Monarchs Are Missing. She lives with her family in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where she gardens, wrangles a small flock of chickens, and takes long walks in the woods.

August 1, 2021


Welcome this month's guest blogger, Jennifer Swanson!

How many of you are currently watching the Tokyo Olympics? Me! <waves hand wildly> 

I LOVE sports. I should. I grew up with three brothers and a father who love sports. It was natural that I would as well. After all, I spent most of my days playing baseball in the backyard with my brothers, shooting hoops in the driveway, swimming laps in the pool for swim practice, running, hiking, biking, etc. You name it, I’ve played the sport. 

But many of you also know that I LOVE science, too! (Remember, I was the one who started a science club in my garage when I was seven.) So, when an opportunity came to combine the two in a book, I literally jumped at it (after all, the long jump was once one of my events). 😊 

In my The Secret Science of Sports: The Math, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering Behind Every Grand Slam, Triple Axel, and Penalty Kick  (August 2021, Black Dog & Leventhal), my recipe for a great book is -->  STEM + Sports = GREAT FUN!

Hold on. There is one thing you should know. This book is not meant to be read sitting down. I want readers to DO the STEM with the sports. To SEE and EXPERIENCE the science, technology, engineering, and math in every sport. 

TRY OUT these three challenges from the book:

You’ll need: • soccer ball  • balloon

Did you have fun? I hope so! My goal for this book is to have it taken outside, sloshed through mud-filled soccer fields, covered in sports drinks stains from tennis and football players, and yes, even end up with rippled pages from getting wet next to a swimming pool.

It’s also a PERFECT guide to the 2021 Olympics. (Hint: this book even breaks down Simone Biles’ famous flip—it’s on page 159.) 

Have a great summer! Go STEM and SPORTS!

🏀    🏆    🎾

Science Rocks! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 45 nonfiction books for children. 

You can find Jennifer through her website   

Check out Jennifer's award-winning STEM podcast for Kids

July 1, 2021

Sometimes the Political IS Personal: Make that Memory!

 When Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination for US president in 2016, many thought that she was the first woman so honored.

Not so. Several women, Victoria Woodhull and Shirley Chisholm among them, had their names placed in nomination across the years.

The name that rings in my mind is Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator of Maine, who was nominated at the Republican Convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1964. US Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a right wing Republican, won the nomination. 

Smith is remembered for taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his crusade to ferret out Communists from the US during the 1950s:  

 I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to a political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

June 1, 2021

Investigate Flamingo Feathers

Welcome guest blogger Jenna Grodzicki! 

My newest book, Wild Style: Amazing Animal Adornments, features 11 animals that decorate themselves in order to survive. Doing the research for this book was a blast! These wacky adornments help the animals stay safe from predators, protect their bodies, show power, make it easier to find a mate, or allow them to sneak up on their meal unseen. 

One such animal is the flamingo. The flamingo spreads oil all over its feathers. This oil is produced in glands near its tail. The oil keeps the flamingo’s plumage waterproof and improves its durability. But how does this actually work? The activity I’ve provided below will show students exactly how the oil does its intended job.

Jenna Grodzicki is the author of both fiction and nonfiction picture books. Her book, I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures That Look Like Food (Millbrook Press, 2019) was the winner of the 2020 Connecticut Book Award in the Young Readers Nonfiction category. Jenna spent more than 10 years as an educator, but now she’s a full-time writer. She loves researching and writing about weird and wonderful animals. 

May 2, 2021

Build a Bathyscope

by Mary Kay Carson

Happy spring, everyone! My just-released latest book Animal Watching is the perfect companion to warmer weather. It's part of a new Outdoor School series of books that encourages kids to get outside and explore the natural world. Kirkus gave the books a starred review, saying that the book is, "[s]ure to encourage readers to go outside and get to know their animal neighbors."

Animal Watching
is a book built for the outdoors. Its water-resistant cover, sewn binding, and metal corner protectors help fulfill the book’s purpose: get kids outside to explore the natural world. Readers build their animal watching and identification skills through leveled steps, recording their observations in the book itself. Kids start simple, simply checking off observed bird behaviors or mammal signs, for example. As they gain experience and knowledge they level up to sketching, surveying habitats, and describing sounds and smells. Users train themselves to be active observers by paying attention to an animal’s shape, size, color, behavior, and location—wildlife identification's “Fantastic Five” clues. 

A little over half of Animal Watching's 450 pages are in the book's identification sections. These are field-guide-like pages that feature common birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Each animal's page includes space to record details (date, location, etc.) when sighting the animal. 

There are also a number of Next Level activities, including one that invites kids to make their own underwater viewing instrument. Below are instructions for making a simple aquascope or bathyscope. These devices create viewing window into the water, giving fish watchers a clearer look at what's swimming around down below. Enjoy!

April 1, 2021

Mammal Mania! Make A Dichotomous Key...

We welcome Lisa Amstutz, whose Mammal Mania! will be released on April 20. Happy Book Birthday!

My newest book, Mammal Mania (Chicago Review Press, 2021), explores what makes mammals unique, as well as their anatomy, behavior, and conservation needs. Like the others in the Young Naturalists series, it features three hands-on activities in each chapter. I designed these activities to introduce late-elementary and middle grade kids to the basics of zoology.

The activity I’ve shared below helps students learn how to use a dichotomous key. Scientists use keys like this to categorize and identify all sorts of things, from mammals to trees to insects. The word “dichotomous” means “cut into two parts”. Accordingly, each branch on the key gives the user two options to choose from. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, each leads down a different path. The options start off very broad and general, and get more detailed and specific as you go.

Educators can use this activity to help teach taxonomy, the science of classifying living things. As students learn the taxonomic ranks, show them how each group branches off from the next in a key. For younger students, this can be adapted as a fun sorting activity—help them think through ways to group objects based on similarities and differences. Have fun with this!


Using a Dichotomous Key

A dichotomous key is a tool that scientists use to identify living things. It works by sorting organisms into smaller and smaller groups based on things they have in common. At each step, two choices are given. The user chooses which one fits best and then follows that path. Try making your own key, then test it out on a friend.


·       Magazines with plant and animal pictures

·       Scissors

·       Paper

·       Pen

1. Cut out 20 different plant and animal pictures from your magazines.

2. Sort the pictures into groups. How are they similar or different?

3. On your piece of paper, draw a dichotomous key to fit your categories.

4. Mix up your pictures. Then see if a friend can follow your key and sort them into the same categories you chose.

Lisa Amstutz is the author of ~150 science and history books for kids. Her background includes a B.A. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Science. A former outdoor educator, Lisa specializes in topics related to science, nature, and agriculture. She lives on a small farm with her family. Visit her online at


March 1, 2021

Be an Archaeologist: Identify the Artifact!

Welcome to Sarah Albee, whose newest book digs into a favorite subject: archaeology!

Have you ever dreamed of discovering long-lost treasure? I know I have—ever since I was a kid. So I wrote a book about people who stumbled across treasure by chance. It’s called Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries.

Each chapter begins with an unexpected discovery by a “regular person” (by which I mean a non-archaeologist). These people include farmers, construction workers, cave explorers, hikers, and yes, kids, all of whom make a chance find that fundamentally changes what we thought we knew about human history. Some of these discoveries are now famous—the Rosetta stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum—and some are less well-known.

The archaeological word for something from the past made by a human is called an artifact. And while some of the accidentally-discovered artifacts I write about in my book have been actual treasure (gold, jewels, works of art), others were once just ordinary, everyday objects. Some were even found at sites that turned out to be ancient garbage dumps! But one person-from-history’s trash can be an archaeologist’s treasure.

Even experienced archaeologists can’t always identify what an artifact might have been used for by people of the past. Look around your room—can you see any item that might baffle people from the future if it were to be discovered 50 or 100 or 500 years from now?


You’ll need:

Something to write with and a notebook

 Try This:

Below are three pictures of mystery artifacts from the past. The only info you get to know is where the artifact was found.

·       Study the object.

·       Brainstorm: In your notebook, list at least three possible explanations of how you think the item might have been used by people in the past.

·       Now try showing the pictures to other people. Make a list in your notebook of some of the most creative guesses. Did anyone correctly guess all three? 

Scroll to the end to find the answers!

 Mystery Artifact #1


credit: Wellcome Collection CC-BY 

Location: England

Mystery Artifact #2

    credit: Sharon Mollerus _ FLICKR _ CC-BY

Location: Greece

Mystery Artifact #3

     credit: Courtesy of National Postal Museum, Smithsonian

Location: United States 


 Mystery Artifact #1

This object is called an ear trumpet, or ear horn, and it was created in the 19th century by a company based in London, England. Made of tin, the ear trumpet is collapsible, which made it easier to carry around. Ear trumpets were used by people who were hearing-impaired to capture and amplify sounds.

Mystery Artifact #2

This is a baby’s potty-chair dating back to ancient Athens. The child would have been lifted up and placed onto the seat with their bottom over the hole, and with their legs sticking out through the side opening. Inside the base of the seat there would likely have been a chamber pot or other container to catch the waste. The smaller hole cut out of the base (there’s another one in the back) would have been used to help lift the potty, which would have been pretty heavy to lug around.

 Mystery Artifact #3

This one has probably stumped you. It stumped me when I saw it. The object is called a perforation paddle, and this one was made in 1899 for use by the Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama. According to the National Postal Museum description, perforation paddles were used during epidemics of yellow fever to puncture letters and packages and newspapers with dozens of tiny holes. People believed that germs could hitch a ride on the mail and so, to disinfect it, they punctured the mail with holes and then fumigated the letters and packages and newspapers with nasty-smelling disinfectants like sulfur (which smells like rotten eggs). Yellow fever is actually a viral disease that is transmitted by the bite of a certain species of mosquito, so perforation paddles would not have been effective for warding off the disease.

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction books for kids. Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries is her most recent title.  Some of her other books include North America: A Foldout Graphic HistoryDog Days of History; POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous MedicinesAlexander Hamilton: A Plan for America, Why’d They Wear That? Bugged: How Insects Changed History; and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom UpShe lives in Connecticut with her family. 



January 31, 2021

Opening the Road: Plan a Trip Using the Green Book

  • It's February and Black History Month.  We welcome Keila V. Dawson, who has a brand-new book about a worthy topic. Let's hit the road.....
OPENING THE ROAD: VICTOR HUGO GREEN AND THE GREEN BOOK is the true story about the Green Book travel guides African Americans used during segregation and its creator, Victor Hugo Green.

By the 1930s, affordable cars and improved highways lured travelers to hit the open road. But those roads weren’t open to all. Black travelers had difficulty finding food, lodging, gas, and even restrooms to use.

 Green published his first guide in 1936, but it only covered Metropolitan New York. The demand for the guide grew, and two years later the Green Book became a national guide. It was updated annually, without the convenience of a computer, and when fewer than half of U.S. homes owned a telephone! With the help of his wife, Alma, a network of mail carriers, a sales staff, Black-owned businesses and Green Book travelers, the guide remained in print for almost thirty years.

 Plan a Trip Activity

 Planning a trip using the Green Book steered Black travelers to businesses that welcomed them, helped them avoid embarrassment and danger.

 Using the Green Book guides, take a trip back in time to explore different editions to learn if there were listings in your city and state.


1. Go to the New York Public Library DIGITAL COLLECTIONS of the Green Book and click on the guide cover for the 1938 edition, the first national edition.

·       Find the index.

·       Is your state in index? If so, go to the page number to find the cities listed.

·       Is your city listed?

·       If you found your city and state, what type of businesses did you find? How many?

·       What do you think the information you found or didn’t find means?

For example, if you searched for Houston, Texas in the 1938 Green Book, you’d find twenty-one states and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.). But not the state of Texas.

2. Search the 1939 edition and so on.

·       If you found your city and state, what type of businesses did you find?  How many?

·      What do you think the information you found or didn’t find means?  The 1939 edition includes Texas on page 41.

 And the following listings in the 1939 edition in Houston include:

o   four hotels

o   one restaurant

o   one tavern

o   one automotive shop

o   one beauty parlor

o   one drug store

3. Keep going!

·       In every subsequent year, did you find more states listed? More cities? More listings in the same cities found in the previous edition?

·       Compare and contrast listings and editions 5 years or more years apart.

 Eight years later, in the 1947 Green Book, Texas is on page 75.

·       What do you think the information you found or didn’t find means?


 The 1947 edition lists the following businesses in Houston:

  • o   four hotels (two new, two from 1939)
  • o   one restaurant  (a different one from 1939)
  • o   two beauty parlors (one new, one from 1939)
  • o   one barber shop (new listing)
  • o   one tavern (the same one listed in 1939)
  • o   one liquor store (new listing)
  • o   zero automotive shop (there was one listed in 1939)
  • o   two drug stores (one new, one from 1939)

This activity should spark a discussion about how Black Americans planned road trips using the Green Book and traveled during segregation. And given communication was not readily available like today, why Victor Green urged, “Carry your Green Book with you, you many need it.”

Find more activities to use with OPENING THE ROAD: VICTOR HUGO GREEN AND THE GREEN BOOK in the educator’s guide written by the author.

Keila V. Dawson is co-editor of NO VOICE TOO SMALL: FOURTEEN YOUNG AMERICANS MAKING HISTORY, along with Lindsay H. Metcalf and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 2020) and the forthcoming NO WORLD TOO BIG:YOUNG PEOPLE FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE also with Lindsay H. Metcalf and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, spring 2023). She is the author of THE KING CAKE BABY, illustrated by Vernon Smith (Pelican Publishing 2015) and OPENING THE ROAD: VICTOR HUGO GREEN AND HIS GREEN BOOK, illustrated by Alleanna Harris (Beaming Books, January 26, 2021). Dawson was born and grew up in New Orleans, has lived and worked in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Find her on Twitter, Instagram,  Pinterest, or her website.


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.