Where My Ideas Come From… Marshmallow Fluff

A few days ago, while listening to NPR, I caught an interview with Mimi Graney, author of Fluff: the Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon. It turns out that this year is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Marshmallow Fluff, and she wrote the history in response. Graney is also the instigator of the What the Fluff? festival that occurs on the last Saturday of September each year in Union Sq., Somerville, MA.
I was so intrigued by her interview that I immediately Amazoned the book (apologies to Porter Sq. Books – I wanted to buy it locally, but I’ve been sick). Last night I finished it, and it exceeded my expectations.
I had no idea that the Boston area had once been the confectionary center of North America, despite years of walking past a NECCO factory every morning on my way to classes at MIT Alas, that factory has been complete gutted and retrofitted as a biochem laboratory. No more will starving students be sustained by the wafting aroma of chocolate and mint.
Graney does an amazing job of placing Fluff in historical context, from the confectionary boom of the late 19th century to the important role of candy in WWI to the emergence of radio as an advertising medium to the growing importance of women’s interests as represented by Fannie Farmer and Margaret Mills.
As such, she demonstrates the iconic value of Fluff within American culture, particularly in the Northeastern U.S. Fluff has flown on the Space Shuttle, an ideal sticky treat for astronauts, and been the center of school nutrition controversy in Massachusetts schools. Ironically, the controversy vastly boosted sales of Fluff.
My birthday happens to be at the end of September, and I’m now determined to celebrate it at the What the Fluff? festival. In the meantime, I think Rice Crispies Treats and Never Fail Fudge are in my immediate future.
And lurking in the back of my mind, a novel idea that never quite worked has collided with Marshmallow Fluff and exploded into a crazy steampunk alternate Boston story centered on the Institute of Culinary Magic in – where else? – Kendall Square. I think I’ll call it The Marshmallow War.
Which I’ll write after the three novels I’m currently working on. Sigh

Math Lab for Kids: An Excellent Gift for Your Budding Mad Scientist

mathlab-coverThere are certain advantages to being an author, such as getting review copies of books, and an amazing one landed in my mailbox this week: Math Lab for Kids by Rebecca Rapoport and J.A. Yoder. (Disclosure: the authors are friends of mine.) It’s the perfect gift for any budding mad scientist because it showcases the creative side of math.

My children are notoriously difficult to influence. Recommending a book is a great way to ensure that they will not read it. They will, however, pick up books left lying around or sneak them off my shelves. So when Math Lab for Kids arrived, I resisted the urge to say, “Look! Cool Math Stuff(TM)! Let’s do it!” Instead, I stealthily left it in plain sight in the living room. Later that afternoon, my 12-year-old spotted it. She picked it up, flipped through it, said, “This looks cool,” and then got distracted and left it on the dining room table. My 9-year-old found it there the next morning.

“Is that interesting?” I asked.

No response, but about five minutes later, she said, “Mom? Can I have some toothpicks?”

“I already gave them to you for your book report diorama.”

“Oh.” She finished her breakfast and wandered off.

These were promising results. So after dinner this evening, I broke my own rule. “Hey,” I said, trying to be cool and casual about it, “wanna do some math puzzles with me?”

img_20161217_191539589“Sure,” said my 12-year-old. “It looks like fun.” I managed not to drop my jaw on the floor.
More typically, my 9-year-old employed her favorite word, “No,” and went to her room. But five minutes later, as her sister and I were discussing the lab we’d chosen to do, she came back and joined in anyway.img_20161217_200238009

We picked out Lab 17: Creative Curves. In this lab, we draw geometric figures and then use needle and thread to sew lines across it such that they look like curves. The girls were all over this, selecting colors and patterns. I drew the patterns for them and numbered the points. My 12-year-old took to it like a fish, completing her first figure quickly, then cutting it out of the cardstock and hanging it proudly on our Christmas tree.
img_20161217_200405703My 9-year-old had a tougher time, with frequent mistakes. When bedtime rolled around, she hadn’t completed her figure. “It’s okay,” I told her. “You can finish it tomorrow.”

She looked me right in the eye. “NO.” It took me a good half-hour to finally get her to stop sewing and go to bed.

Meanwhile, my 12-year-old had chosen a far more challenging figure to try. After several false starts, we figured out how to draw it on the cardstock, mark out the points, and she got sewing. And then bedtime rolled around. “But it’s the weekend,” she insisted. “Can’t I stay up a little late? Pleeeeeease?” But we bundled her off to bed anyway.img_20161217_200448776


I can hardly wait to try another lab. The Mobius strip lab looks fantastic. I expect Koch snowflakes to join the curve stitching on our tree. And I’m really intrigued by the graph theory. This is going to be a fantastic Christmas vacation.

So if you’re looking for the perfect gift for your young mad scientist, or you just want to get a kid interested in math, I highly recommend this book. Apparently, other readers agree. It’s currently Amazon’s #1 new release in Children’s General Study Aid Books. Order fast, and you can have it under your tree, too.


Beyond Hogwarts: Part 2 – Young Readers 8-11

In my last post, I recommended books for beginning readers who are Harry Potter fans. But what about kids who are well past early readers and ready for chapter books? Glad you asked. For slightly older readers, say 8-11, there’s a wonderful selection of middle grades books that will appeal to more experienced readers who aren’t quite ready to tackle the Potter books just yet.

The Warriors, Seekers, and Survivors series by Erin Hunter. Actually, Erin Hunter is a pseudonym for a team of writers including Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Gillian Philip, Inbali Iserles, Tui T. Sutherland, and editor Victoria Holmes. These books were incredibly popular among second grade boys and girls alike, largely because the characters are all animals. The Warriors series focuses exclusively on feral cats and their societal structure and struggles to survive in nature. My daughters and their friends spent endless hours with their friends playing Warriors in the backyard. So these are both a good reading choice and a good way to get your young reader some exercise!

Speaking of Tui T. Sutherland, her Wings of Fire series has been very popular with my nine-year-old. In this series, all the characters are young dragons growing up in a war-torn society and finding their particular strengths. I love the format: each book is told from the point of view of a different dragon, so that we see dragon society and culture from different perspectives, as well as each dragon’s individual challenges and growth. One dragon is shy, another fierce, another contemplative. All are in some way misunderstood and strive to achieve respect while also working to improve their world. Strong themes of loyalty and friendship will make this familiar territory for young Potterheads.

I recommend anything by Shannon Hale, including her bestselling Princess Academy series and her Ever After High tie-in novels, which are surprisingly sophisticated and challenging. Too girly? Try her crazy steampunk fairytale Calamity Jack series.

For more intense adventure in small bite-size pieces, try Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles. Brilliantly illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi (more on him in a later post), each of the five books is a short foray into the realm of Faerie, with themes of trust, loyalty, and family throughout.

For some classic choices, consider L. Frank Baum’s nigh-endless Oz series, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Next post: Books for the advanced reader who’s stuck at Book Four.

Beyond Hogwarts: Part 1 – for beginning readers

I recently found myself having yet another conversation with parents about what their children can read beyond Harry Potter. I get asked this question or variants of it All. The. Time. There are several ways to answer this, depending on what your specific problem is. I’m going to address those problems over several blog posts, so stay tuned. For today, I’m looking at the very youngest Potter fans.

My child loves the Harry Potter movies but is too young to be reading the books. Are there books for her age range with similar appeal?

I’m going to assume that you’re looking for books that your child can read herself, not books that you read to her or read together. The following are early readers and chapter books my daughters loved when they were about 6-8 years old.

The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne was designed with early readers in mind. The protagonists, Jack and Annie, travel around the world and throughout history from a magic tree house they find in the woods near their home. The books are well researched, and Osborne often provides non-fiction companion books, such as the much-read Titanic guide my elder daughter loved. Magictreehouse.com also provides additional materials and activities for that REALLY curious kid in your life.

The Unicorn School series by Linda Chapman was my younger daughter’s favorite chapter book series when she was six. Focusing on social development and growth, the series provides engaging characters and promotes problem-solving skills.

The Rainbow Fairies series by Daisy Meadows was another favorite. The simple, formulaic plots made the stories easy and quick to read, which is good because there are DOZENS of them! My younger daughter would devour them like popcorn.

The Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson is one of my own favorites from childhood. Originally written in Finnish, the series is populated entirely by fantastic characters you won’t find in American literature: trolls, hemulins, snuffkins, snarks, and a wide variety of woodland creatures. The cozy Moomin family provides a safe, nurturing home base from which Moomintroll and his friends can go off on rollicking adventures.

Though these may be more challenging and require parental assistance, ANYTHING by Roald Dahl, but for young readers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach are good choices.

Have further suggestions? Please share them in the comments!