On December 13 2015 I published my first book review on this blog. It was a review of Dr. Pendred Noyce’s fascinating book for high-school and college students, Remarkable Minds: 17 more pioneering women in science and medicine. This lovely book is the second of two volumes of a history of women accomplished in areas of expertise where they are, even now, just being recognized. The direct link to that review is at “Remarkable Women”. A copy of the first volume, Magnificent Minds, sits on a table in my living room, sent to me as a gift by its author. It never stays there for very long, because most of my friends have asked to borrow it on the spot.
Penny and I have become friends, one of these odd relationships that starts in an unlikely place like Facebook and spills over into daily life.
I have discovered in the months since that review that Penny has another identity. She is co-founder, with two other scientists, of the small publishing company they call Tumblehome Learning.
Scrolling through a few of my Bookmarked items one day with an eye to a bit of tidying up, I saw the logo, and the sketch, for Tumblehome Learning. I did a double-take at the sketch, decided it couldn’t be Penny–a trifle silly for someone with her credentials–but then saw the name and really couldn’t believe there was more than one “Pendred Noyce” in the book field. I mean, Pendred?
Tumblehome is publishing books for middle schoolers designed to introduce science embedded in well-crafted short novels of mystery and intrigue, and they have produced a remarkable number of these clever books, some written or co-authored by Penny, some–more and more often–by other authors. There are three distinct series and, when I expressed an interest in reading a couple of books and writing about the company, she asked me to choose from among them. I said, “Surprise me!”
The result has been a delightful reading experience.
The Walking Fish begins, appropriately, with a ‘hook’:
“When you get right down to it, I only discovered the Walking Fish because Grandpa got sloppy with a chainsaw.
Had he been more careful cutting down the maple tree, he would not have lost most of the fingers of his right hand. ‘Four of my favorite fingers,’ he said. Without them, fishing was a bit of a struggle.”
And the short opening section that follows sets an idyllic scene between an obviously bright young girl and her “punning” grandfather.”
They are in “his little fishing boat,” floating desultorily on a lake on a “sunny fall day,” and discussing in a comfortable familiar way whether our narrator will be willing to serve as hook-baiter for her grandfather whose hook-baiting hand can no longer handle the wiggling worms.
This is a book suited for children. The introductory scene-setting happens in fewer than two pages, and in that short space, those eight-year-olds are already invested in characters, scene, and story.
The truth is that this seventy-year-old reviewer was reading with more than a little curiosity by this point. I like this sharp, nearly-adolescent girl, trading puns with her endearing grandparent; I like her quite a lot.
By the end of Chapter Two, she has been assured by her father, a high school science teacher, backed up by an environmental scientist and a neighbor at Glacial Lake, where they spend their summers, that although the Fish and Wildlife people have attempted to stock the lake, fish just don’t seem to survive,”something about the minerals in the water.” The absence of fish, of course, means that the grandfather we met a few pages back isn’t much interested in joining the family for the summer.
The chapter’s last scene finds our intrepid explorer flat on her belly beside the lake, having abandoned for the moment her search for frogs, gazing into the settling water at
“a creature like nothing I had ever seen. A fish! And it appeared to be standing on little legs and waving up at me.”
And there we have it: an appealing and believable young girl, her parents, a lake house, a grandfather who fishes, a father who teaches science, a “lake neighbor” who is an environmental scientist at a local college, a lake where the fish are dying, and a mystery.
Authors Rachelle Burk & Kopek Burk, MD, have created an irresistible, tightly crafted book that fulfills every purpose for which Tumblehome Learning exists–and they have done it by the bottom of page 8!
Tumblehome’s website sets out that purpose clearly:
“Tumblehome Learning helps kids imagine themselves as young scientists or engineers and encourages them to experience science through adventure and discovery. We do this with exciting mystery and adventure tales as well as fun experiments carefully designed to engage students from ages 8 and up. Each book we publish comes with a set of physical and ultimately online activities that allow readers to reproduce and extend the science they read about.”
Having almost romped my way through The Walking Fish, I was eager to tackle the second book Penny sent, The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine, part of a series Tumblehome calls the Galactic Academy of Science (GAS). Here is how they describe the series:
“Each book of the series follows a model, with different subject matter and storylines, and some different characters along the way. All GAS books feature a group of middle school children (usually a boy & girl pair) from diverse backgrounds, facing an impending science fair project or other school or personal challenge. Suddenly, the kids are faced with a perfidious present-day crime that needs historical knowledge of science or engineering to solve it.
Under the guidance of a Dude or Dudette (‼️) from the Future, the kids use a special device to travel through time and visit pivotal scientists of the past, gain key knowledge, solve the crime, ace the science/engineering/math competition, and become inducted into the GALACTIC ACADEMY OF SCIENCE, or GAS.”
And so we have The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine, and let me say at the outset that my one real complaint about Tumblehome’s books is that I don’t have the leisure to sit down and read, self-indulgently, through all three series, possibly stopping at lunchtime for a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup.
Viral Vaccine is co-authored by Pendred Noyce and Roberta Baxter, and Dr. Noyce has written “Discussion Questions” and “Suggested Activities” for the book. These are standard fare for books in the GAS series, and include questions that both check the reader’s comprehension of basic details and challenge her to consider how the book might apply to her own life.
For this book, Dr. Noyce first asks, “What are Clinton and Mae arguing about in the beginning of the book? How do they use evidence in making their arguments?”
And, a bit later on, “What immunization shots have you had in your life? Discuss the infections these shots were meant to prevent.”
It is important to note that most of these books, from the foundational GAS series to Remarkable Minds have received multiple awards from school systems and science and educational organizations, and Dr. Noyce, before founding Tumblehome, was renowned throughout her home state for leading the drive to improve science and math education. As head of the Noyce Foundation, named for her father, Dr. Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit and founder of Intel, she was in the forefront of a decade-long campaign whose outcome was that Massachusetts became the top-scoring state in the US.
As with the two books I’ve read, and those I have only read about, The Case of the Vicious Viral Vaccine starts with a bang, dropping those seventh and eighth graders into a spell they won’t easily escape–the lure of science and mystery, with two children as the heroes. In the case of this particular volume, add a currently controversial subject–vaccines:
“‘That vaccine could make people, really sick,’ Clinton burst out.
Mae clutched her current events report and looked out at the class, ‘It won’t. My mother worked on this vaccine, and it’s safe. Only crazy people think it isn’t.’
‘Now, everyone settle down,’ Ms. Timilty, the long-term substitute teacher, said as she tapped on the desk. ‘Let Mae finish her report.’
Clinton Chang leaned back with his arms crossed behind his head and glared at Mae. She continued her report.”
One thing Mae and Clinton learn quickly is that, no matter their differences on the subject of vaccines, they can pull together to defeat the threat of greedy and misinformed scientists. Once they’ve determined they have a common cause, they hang out together regularly, plotting their strategy.
In addition to the separate questions and activities for this book, there are images and information embedded in the text. I found a terrific drawing of a virus attacking a cell and, along with a sketch, a biography of Dr. Jonas Salk.
My enthusiasm for Dr. Noyce and for what she and her colleagues are accomplishing at Tumblehome Learning should be evident at this point. The books are wonderful, but Penny Noyce doesn’t stop there. Not only does she conduct workshops for teachers and other professionals, she walks into those classrooms herself. She is Tumblehome Learning in the schools.
You can connect with Dr. Noyce on her website or on Tumblehome Learning’s Facebook page.
Tumblehome Learning’s Galactic Academy of Science Series
When I asked Penny about the name of the company, this was her response:
“First and most important: Tumblehome was the name of my mother’s boat. The tumblehome is the part of a boat’s hull that slopes upward and inward. Coming upward in cross-section from the keel (looking from the bow or stern), a boat slopes out, and then back inward toward the deck. that inward slope is the tumblehome.”
And she continued in what seems to me the final, amazing word on this venture in publishing for learning:
“In the spirit of Robert Noyce, the inventor of the integrated circuit, original founder of Intel and one of the fathers of Silicon Valley, we want every child to know that they too can change the world through their exploration of science. They too can ‘go off and do something wonderful.’”