Are you looking for a middle-grade realistic fiction title that promotes STEM? The Nora Notebooks, Book 1: The Trouble with Ants by Claudia Mills and illustrated by Katie Kath is a complex, multi-layered story that encourages children – particularly girls – to take an interest in science, while at the same time helping young readers understand some of the challenges of life more deeply. It is also an excellent tool for teaching the persuasive essay.
The best books are multi-layered, with the capacity to give different messages to different readers, or even to the same reader over time when reading the book again. The Trouble with Ants is one of the those books.
Layer One: Myrmecology (The Study of Ants) and STEM
Nora, the main character, is a 10-year-old budding myrmecologist with an ant farm and a passion for studying ants. The text is sprinkled with scientific facts about ants and also reveals basics about how scientists work. For example, Nora reveals that her mother specializes in studying only Saturn’s rings, not other planets or even the planet Saturn. In another part, Nora’s dad explains to her how scientists publish their work in scientific journals, something youngsters probably have no inkling about.
Layer Two: Boys Versus Girls
In a fourth grade stereotype, boys and girls tend to keep separate from one another. In this book, the relationships are more realistic. Nora and Amy are platonic friends with Brody and Mason. Dunk is a boy who likes Emma, but shows his interest in immature ways, which leads to conflict. The insights into human behavior are likely to help some readers understand their peers better.
Layer Three: Dealing with Crushed Expectations
At one point Nora has some very high and unrealistic expectations, and without revealing details, her hopes are crushed. How she deals with this blow and some unexpected successes, show that life sometimes takes unexpected directions.
Layer Four: The Persuasive Essay and Writing in General
This book would be an excellent choice for teaching the persuasive essay. It includes full examples of persuasive essays written in the voices of different students.
The book also encourages writing practice. The main character keeps a journal where she writes down her thoughts and facts about ants. Other tips about writing are gently included, such as leading an essay with a question to spark interest.
The story carries multiple threads, such as references to taking care of different kinds of pets, popular culture in the form of cat videos, and even a gentle introduction to the topic of death.
With all that layering, however, The Trouble with Ants is still a coherent and entertaining story, complete with foreshadowing and rising conflict. Kudos to author and philosophy professor Claudia Mills for pulling off the difficult feat of creating such an intricate work!
In fact, I was so impressed with The Trouble with Ants that I nominated it for a Cybils in the Middle Grade fiction category. Hand a copy to a young reader today and see what messages they discover in it.
Be sure to visit Growing with Science Blog for ant science activities and Wild About Ants for some entertaining Kids’ Questions about Ants.
Looking for more information? Try our list of children’s books about ants at Science Books for Kids.
Age Range: 7 – 10 years
Grade Level: 2 – 5
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (September 22, 2015)
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