Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Video Game Weekly: Terraria

This week, I planned to review Super Mario Maker for the Wii U (which I am extremely excited about), but my copy has yet to arrive in my mailbox! So, I am reviewing an older game that I have played for over 100 hours (believe it or not, this is pretty normal for hardcore gamers). It is like Minecraft’s distant cousin.


Platform: This game is available on many platforms, including some of the older game consoles, and it’s pretty cheap (pricing and pruchasing info at the end of this post)!

Rated: T for Teen. There is mild blood, and the game has cartoon violence. For example, when your character dies, your character does kind of explode into body parts. Also, there are some “adult” references that may or may not go over teens’ heads. For example, you can craft ale that will give you character boosts, and there are jokes about licking mushrooms for stamina.

I should also mention the world has a “Hell” area, which is accessed by digging as far down as possible. You can fight demons in Hell, mine “hellstone”, etc.

Single or Multiplayer: Both! The game is way more fun when playing with friends.

Quick Synopsis: Terraria came out for the PC in 2011 when I was in undergrad, and I spent many weekends playing it with friends instead of doing my homework. After its initial release in 2011, Terraria became so popular that it was revamped for other platforms.

Terraria is a survival side-scrolling game with a sandbox feel (if this sounds like gibberish, you can view my definitions post from last week. You begin Terraria by creating a 16-bit character (male or female), and you can personalize everything from their hair to skin color. Each color is selected on a rainbow spectrum, so theoretically, you can have a female character with red hair and purple skin.

After you are done creating a character, you can choose the size of the world you want to explore as well as your difficulty. “Softcore” mode means when your character dies, you only lose half of the money in your inventory, do not lose any of your items, and you will respawn at your home base. “Mediumcore” mode means your character will lose all of the money and items in your inventory, but you will respawn at your home base. “Hardcore” mode is the most difficult mode, because when your character dies, you cannot respawn. Your character becomes a ghost, and will be deleted when you exit the game. I am a wimp and only play on “Softcore” mode, because I like NOT losing everything in a cave.

You can also select the size of the world, and what biomes you want. There are many different biomes and layers to the world, which means there are different enemies, resources, and bonus items.

After you are done selecting a world and difficulty, you are dropped into a forest biome with only a copper pickaxe, copper axe, and copper shortsword. You also have a computer character known as an NPC, who helps you figure out the controls and crafting items.

There isn’t a goal in the game per se, other than survive and kill boss enemies. Players begin with these three tools as a way to start collecting resources from the world. As you collect resources, players can create items ranging from bricks, furniture, swords, shields, armor, potions, etc. The idea is the more resources you gather, the easier it is to make better stuff.

Controls: Terraria is a 2D side scrolling game. This means that your character can only run left, right, jump up, or dig down. The controls vary because it depends on what platform you are using. I play Terraria on my computer, which means I use my keyboard to move my character and activate items in my inventory while I use my mouse to click on objects.

When I say “activate” my items, what I mean is you can only “hold” one object at a time, like a sword or a potion, but you can have “activated” items that affect your character’s health and strength. Take a look at this picture below:

This is a sceenshot of a player’s “inventory”. The top row functions like a shortcut. For example, if I want to hold that awesome pink sword in the top left hand corner, I only have to hit “1” on my keyboard. This is useful for when you are fighting enemies like giant floating eyeballs, and you have to quickly change from holding a sword to holding a health potion.

STEM Appeal: This game is very similar to Minecraft where there is some STEM appeal, but it not as obvious as Minecraft. For one thing, Minecraft lets you download modifications (also called “mods”), which means you have a lot more flexibility to create a STEM focused world for teens to play in (or download it from MinecraftEdu link: http://minecraftedu.com/) . You can download mods for Terraria on the PC, but I personally have not done this. You cannot download mods on other platforms.

Like Minecraft, teens can learn a variety of STEM skills like geometry, circuits, engineering, strategy, teamwork, communication, and physics. While there is no “goal” in Terraria, players often build elaborate home bases both for fun and to protect themselves from enemies. Take a look at this giant castle that I found on Google.

In order to build something this elaborate, players have to collect resources from their world in order to craft “better” objects. So, this castle probably took forever to build because the players had to gather the appropriate resources to create bricks, walls, doors, furniture, etc. Or, they used cheats, but let’s pretend they didn’t.

The one huge difference between Terraria and Minecraft is the inherent reliability on teamwork in order to progress in the game. If you are playing with other people in Terraria, you absolutely have to work together in order to survive fighting enemies and collect resources. Although you don’t have to work side by side in the game world, you naturally communicate your goals, actions, and findings to your teammates. This is what makes Terraria fun to play with friends!

Verdict: I highly recommend purchasing this game for Teen Game Night programs if your teens are tired of Minecraft. Teens will still learn STEM skills like they do in Minecraft, but it has a different world environment that is fun to explore with friends. I also recommend this as a core purchase for video game collections.

by Alanna Graves

Pricing and Purchasing Options:

Available on PlayStation 3 (digital code only) $19.99 on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Terraria-PlayStation-digital-game-download-card/dp/B00L2FGTA2/ref=sr_1_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1442671282&sr=1-1&keywords=terraria+playstation+3

PlayStation 4 $19.99 on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Terraria-PlayStation-4/dp/B00MEXP5BK/ref=sr_1_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1442671328&sr=1-1&keywords=terraria+playstation+4

PS Vita $19.99 on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Terraria-PlayStation-Vita/dp/B00XR3Z7W8/ref=sr_1_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1442671454&sr=1-1&keywords=terraria+ps+vita)

Xbox 360 $19.54 on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Terraria-Xbox-360/dp/B00IXMF5CU/ref=sr_1_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1442671561&sr=1-1&keywords=terraria+xbox+360

Xbox One $19.88 on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Terraria-Xbox-One/dp/B00MEXP5KG/ref=sr_1_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1442672010&sr=1-1&keywords=terraria+xbox+one

Apple Store $4.99 https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/terraria/id640364616?mt=8

Google Play Store $4.99 https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.and.games505.Terraria&hl=en

PC Download on Steam $9.99 http://store.steampowered.com/app/105600/

Sunday Reflections: What’s a Powder Puff?

Like most of us, I wear a few different hats. In addition to being a teen services librarian, I’m also a Daisy Girl Scout leader, and I love it. I love the enthusiasm of first graders, their pure hearts and bright eyes. I love getting to be the one to introduce them to service projects and nature hikes, to seeing new friendships blossom and old friendships deepen. As a Girl Scout alumni, and a third generation leader, it’s one of the more fulfilling roles I’ve ever held.  As with my librarianship, I am passionate about my opportunity as a leader to advocate for the girls in my troop, and hopefully by extension, for all girls. Unfortunately, I’m struggling with how to advocate for them right now in the face of some institutionalized sexism that’s coming from an unexpected and troubling place.

I heard about the event before I saw the flyer, and I knew immediately that “my girls” – the eight first graders in the Daisy troop I lead – would be all about it. For the first time ever, our local Girl Scout council is hosting a pinewood car race. These girls have been cooped up in the park district rec room all winter and have been itching for a chance to do something. Something cool. Something active. Something that real Girl Scouts do: have an adventure.

For five dollars, you buy a car kit, which consists of a block of wood, two axles, four wheels, and a good luck wish, which you use to craft the fastest little car you can. What’s not to love?! It’s creative, it’s active, it’s hands-on, it hits a bunch of STEAM marks, and at the end there’s a race with winners and there are even those ever-important patches to sew on the back of the girls’ vests. So cool. We can’t … oh wait.


Seriously. What in the name of Shirley Muldowney is THAT?

Yes, folks. The good old Girls Scouts of the USA is sponsoring a Powder Puff Derby. I can’t tell you how my heart sank to read that. I was floored. I guess I’ve been living in a little bubble because I figured that we were essentially beyond this kind of sexist naming tradition in the women run, girl powered, STEM focused world of Girl Scouting in 2015. The Pinewood Derby is a registered trademark of the Boy Scouts of America, so I understand that the Girl Scouts wouldn’t call their race the same thing – but of all of the phrases to use, why, oh why, is powder puff the one they chose? Since we’re not racing cosmetic products, it’s clearly because this is an activity that the boys usually do, but now the girls can give it a try too. But this secondary naming does nothing to assure girls that they have a place in the race. Powder Puff events were those where it was cute and fun for the girls to swap roles with the boys: the cheerleaders played football, the women raced their planes across the country, and now, the girls build, bling, and race their own wooden cars too.

As I held up the flyer and talked up this event – which I’m really excited about – and my scouts eyes’ opened wide with enthusiasm, one girl raised her hand. “But what’s a powder puff?”

Just to be perfectly clear, my problem is not with the event. It’s not with encouraging girls in this pursuit. It’s not in borrowing from the Boy Scouts wildly popular event. It’s in the name. A name that, as far as I can tell, was coined in this context by humorist Will Rogers as a nickname for the first Women’s National Air Derby.

And as many accounts attest, despite the name, Will Rogers was a great supporter of women in this pursuit, just as the Girl Scouts are today. But still, the name.

Before I could go on about car designs or scheduling or working days, I had to first explain to my girls what a powder puff actually is. These girls are too young for makeup, and as far as they know, a car race is a car race. Girl Scouts have always told them they could do and be anything at all. So I started by telling about the makeup applicator, and then went on to explain the tradition of calling activities that girls do sometimes but boys do all the time… a powder puff activity. And frankly, I didn’t have it in me to go into the part that bothers me the most, that our beloved Girl Scouts think that this is ok.

Powder Puff football is still played on some campuses, and many fondly remember the fun and athleticism of the event. And that high level of competition – whether it’s by the girls in the senior class, or trailblazing aviators, or eight year olds with a block of wood and some sandpaper – is exactly why the name is outdated, diminishing, and just plain wrong. The girls and women involved in these events take it just as seriously as anyone. The aviators competed on a level parallel to the men. The seniors play so ferociously that injuries are sadly not at all uncommon. And if you could have seen the spark in the room at that Daisy Scout meeting, you’d be dead sure that these first graders are in it to win it.

I’ve voiced my concerns directly to my local Scout council, and understand that they’re thinking about changing the name for next year. But that doesn’t seem like enough anymore. The time has come. The name has to change. It took my Daisies about forty seconds to come up with at least ten new possibilities. Words matter. Names matter. Our girls are proud to call themselves Daisies, Girl Scouts, brave, creative, strong, smart, caring, dedicated, and fast. Girl Scouts is the last organization that should be planting the seeds of self doubt that come along with sexist naming traditions.

TPiB: Brushbots

I have been having remarkable luck playing with technology at my library. I was a little apprehensive at first, just because of our location and the kids- would they get off the computers to actually learn about Raspberry Pis? Would they think these were as cool as I did? Would they be willing to take a breathe and actually follow directions above and beyond the sticker crafts that we hold on Saturdays, take the steps, and work to put something together? And how am I going to put all of this together when I’m either IN the library floor proper, or across the hall in a meeting room that no one knows is a library program?

So far, however, the answer has been playing with them in front of the tweens and teens. It may seem simple, and at points it gets hard to explain to administration, but it’s one of those interaction development components that tweens and teens need- someone to pay attention to them, and to interact with them without feeling that the adult is being “put upon” or “suffering” their presence. I did this when we got the Raspberry Pis, and my classes have been full and we have wait lists. And I did this with the Brushbots.

Brushbots are simple little robots made from a toothbrush head, a motor, a small battery, and a piece of adhesive. You can buy these parts separately; however, since my library system decided to do this program (with variations) across all three locations we got ours from Make, which is an awesome site for program ideas and supplies. As well, they give learning outcomes to prove up the program to administrators aside from “It’s flipping cool and I want to build robots with these guys.”

The wait for the library an hour before we open

The kits came with enough supplies for 24 robots: motors (the round yellow things), the batteries (the small round things), assorted colors of toothbrushes, double sided adhesive, and a variety of stickers to decorate, along with a card with instructions and ideas for racing and basic modifications. 

Kit with the toothbrush body removed

 They recommend that you provide scissors (to cut the stickers), wire strippers (to take the casings off the wires), and some type of pliers/cutters to cut the body of the toothbrush from the head. I used the base of the wire cutters that were bought for our system, sorted the kits into their parts like this:

and then bagged them into individual robot sets. If you have a smaller group, or an older group, definitely let cut the adhesive tape and let them break up the toothbrush- it takes some hand strength but they’ll get a kick out of it. Since I had at least 20 from ages 10 and up, and showing a movie with robots and Legos, I went ahead and decided to break everything into individual kits. I also ran off copies of the instructions and suggestions for racing and modification so each participant had their own.

I brought out my Lego Makerspace, and they went to town creating mazes and racecourses for their bots. Some went in circles, some sideways, and some backwards…  

Everyone had fun, and they’re asking me when the next robot program is, so a definite success! 

Program Breakdown
  • Prep Time: 1 hours for separating the kits into individual bags and braking toothbrushes plus time for ordering the kits
  • Supply Cost: $19.99 plus shipping per 24 Brushbots;
  • Additional Supplies: Lego makerspace (on hand), baggies for individual kits (on hand), copier paper for instructions (on hand), kid scissors (on hand), glue dots for two issues with adhesive (on hand), DVD (on hand)
  • Program Time: 2 hours as I showed a movie with it while we experimented; without the movie the program could easily go just an hour

What awesome things are you doing this summer? Share in the comments!

TPiB: Squishy Circuits

“I’m going to show you two things you can’t do – these things are dangerous and can destroy the materials, which means no more fun. Then you guys can do whatever you want with this stuff.”

“Anything we want? Like, there’s no instructions?”
“Well, I have some instructions if you want them. They’re over on the counter. But it’s up to you.”

“Woah. Cool.”

Giving teens the freedom to explore and watching them all take their own path in a scientific investigation was the best part of this program. The low cost, innovative approach, and flexibility were pretty great too.

Meet Squishy Circuits. Here’s how it works.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M3Dow20KlM]
Squishy Circuits is a way of safely and easily playing with and learning about electricity by using homemade play dough. The dough is simple to make and costs pennies. The other components can be bought on the cheap at a hardware store or Radio Shack, or purchased together for $25 in a reusable kit.

I ran this program with my illustrious Coding Club, who usually just work on computers. They loved having a hands-on project, and were flat out thrilled to be given free reign.

The basics are simple. In addition to two types of homemade dough, you need a power source, some wires, and something to show that the electricity is flowing – an LED, a motor, or a buzzer. The two types of dough figure into the project not just for building structures or shapes. One is conductive, and one in insulating. This allows you to build series and parallel circuits, create short circuits, and even make batteries. All of the recipes and details are on the University of St. Thomas site, available as easily printable PDFs so you can have them on hand for kids to explore on their own.
The best part of this for me was seeing the three teens each take on a different project and work independently — and then help each other solve the problems they had encountered by using the knowledge they gained in their own explorations! 
I come to this with very little technology background and no prior experience working with circuits and it went very smoothly. Even if STEM programs are intimidating to you, this is definitely one you can handle. Give it a shot, and check out the Robot Test Kitchen as we add more reviews of electronics and robotics projects for youth and teen librarians.

Top 5 Take-aways from ILEAD-USA

This year I’m jumping out of my comfort zone of YA fiction and crafty programs and have joined a team that was accepted to the ILEAD USA program in Illinois.  Over the course of the year, our team will design and implement a program using technology to improve service to our patrons and more deeply connect with our communities.  My team, the Techno-Whats, will be exploring simple robotics for children and teens, and structuring staff training so that more people in service to kids and teens will feel comfortable and supported in trying these new STEM programs.

Find out More about ILead

But what I learned at our first in person session is that ILEAD is so much more than technology! Here are my top 5 take-aways from what several have aptly termed “library sleepaway camp” that I think everyone can benefit from.

1. The process is more important than the product.

We were reminded repeatedly that trying is more important than not trying, and the final product will not be as useful or meaningful to the library world in general as going through the process of learning something new. Robotics is something I have so little knowledge of, I was reassured that becoming an expert will not make this a success, but learning something new and working with a team will.  The phrase used frequently throughout the week was Fail Forward. When you learn something new, even if you learn what to never do again, your perceived failure is not really a failure.

2. Where imaginations play, learning happens.

Don’t you love this? This quote from Michael Steven’s presentation gets to the heart of both libraries, and our project. Creating a space within our walls and programs where teens can be imaginative and explore without undue restrictions — where they can play — they have the distinct opportunity to learn something new. They might learn about robotics, or poetry, or how to be a better friend, and they might just learn about themselves.  Where imaginations play, learning happens.

3. Accessible design helps everyone.

Sina Bahram used a familiar example from everyday life to explain how everyone benefits when our programs and services are designed in a way to be accessible to people with diverse needs. Curb cuts, those sloping bits of sidewalk leading toward crosswalks, may have been implemented to help those in wheelchairs, but it’s folks pushing strollers or pulling rolling luggage that use them the most. We all benefit when opportunities and information are offered in as accessible a way as possible. How can we bring accessibility into our web and library design, beyond what our institutions are required to do?

4. It’s not about technology, it’s about people.

This might seem an argument against expanding tech offerings and programs in libraries, but in reality it’s the opposite. We’re not in the book business or the tech business, we’re in the people and community business, and we have such great opportunities to connect with and serve our people and our communities through technology. As we consider trying or disregarding new tech, we need to ask ourselves — are we doing this to serve then tech, or the people? As a sidenote, this lesson was further reinforced to me, and dovetails nicely with point three above, in this Ted Talk about bionics. The speaker, who sports two bionic legs and was part of the team that designed a leg for a dancer who was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, said something beautiful. After suffering a double amputation after a climbing accident, he reasoned that “a human being can never be broken. Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate.” When we use technology to serve people, we are using it right.

5. We may be in sharky water, but we are the sharks.

I’m pretty sure Beck Tench’s talk changed my life. What a great birthday present that was. In it, as she walked us through her suggestions for being an agent of change in your organization. (The formula is small change x time = big change.) The first deeply resonant moment in her talk for me was pointing out that trying new and different things seems scary and hard because of all of the “sharks in the water”… but that those sharks are quite often our own fears and insecurities.  It’s a wonderfully gentle and and brave and affirming talk – I encourage everyone to watch it.
I’m planning to keep all five of these life lessons in my back pocket for a long time. Hopefully they’re useful to others as well!

TPiB: Jump in head first and start a coding club


Sometimes we talk about things we didn’t learn in library school.  The point of that occasional series is to illustrate that a lot of our librarian skills are learned on the job, and to acknowledge that the scope of what we do is wide and ever-changing.  Before I get going on how I jumped in head first and started a coding club at my library here’s a list of stuff I never learned in library school:

  • the word “makerspace”
  • anything about computer games
  • Javascript
  • what an IDE is
But here’s what I knew:

So I jumped in, and I think you can too.

With a little guidance in the Codecademy forums, I set up an every other week schedule and hoped that kids would come.  I started out our first session by explaining that I wasn’t an expert; I’d be learning along with them, and that I fully expected that some of them would learn faster than me and be ready to help their peers by the end of the year.  They seemed excited about it, and so we dove in together.

Each session, I started out by introducing something small: a video of people talking about how they got into code, or a site that showed how CSS worked, or a cool application for Javascript.  Then we would work on the Codecademy tutorials at our own pace.  Very quickly I learned that they weren’t really interested in HTML or CSS, rather they wanted to focus on Javascript so that they could write code that people could interact with.  So I listened to them and we skipped ahead to Javascript.  As long as I worked a few modules ahead of them, I could do a decent job of answering their questions.  Another tip: if you have a friend, colleague, or family member who will be at a computer during your coding club times, they may be able to field questions via gchat.

A few months in, I could tell that the work at your own pace technique was great for some things.  New members to the club could jump right in at their own level and could join at any time.  But it wasn’t so great for other things.  The biggest problem was that just learning code wasn’t enough to make the kids feel united together as a club.  So we shifted gears again.

From the Guardian Article below on the Coding Tumblr
Guardian Article: There is a fun Tumblr that looks at the coding in tv and movies and determines if it is real code or gobbleygook.  Image from the Guardian article.

Now, we’re working together to build an interactive, choose your own adventure style game, using Cloud9 IDE as a platform for working together and sharing our code.  This shift brought a whole new set of elements into our club meetings.  We talked about plot and strategy, and suddenly rather than just wondering how to fix the code that they were working through, they were wondering if they could learn to code entirely new types of things, how video works, and whether they could use their artistic skills to design images for the game.

My goal for them was to have a basic game up and running by Teen Tech Week so that we could put it up on the library’s website and encourage people to play it and give feedback.  It may or may not get there in time, but even if it does, that won’t be the marker of a successful club.  Here’s how I know it already is successful:

  • I have repeat attendees
  • They are bringing their friends
  • They CALL ME when they aren’t going to make it
  • They have a great time when they’re here
  • They want to learn more and do more
  • I do too
Coding Tools:

Code Academy

Article at Librarified
Lego: We Do ($200.00) – YouTube
Beyond Legos: Coding for Kids
7 Apps for Teaching Coding Skills
Teaching Teens about Digital Literacy Through Coding
Camp for Code: Library program teaches teens basics of programming, robotics
Lifehacker: Learn to Code, the full beginners guide
EdSurge: Teaching Kids to Code
Coding Books on Amazon

TPiB: STEM Projects with Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab

Just as I was thinking to myself, “self, you need more sciency things in your programming”, Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by “Science Bob” Plugfelder and Steve Hockensmith showed up on my doorstep.  It was like a gift from the STEM fairies.  And the Tween spawn of me saw it and immediately grabbed it to read (she is the original book thief I tell you).  She really enjoyed reading this.  I asked her and this is what she said: “It was a lot of fun.  I liked it.  I especially liked . . .” Well, I can’t tell you that part because SPOILERS.  Let me just say, this is a great Middle Grade read that combines fantastic fun, zany inventions, and a little science to help readers add a little mystery to their day.I highly recommend it.

The best part, the book has its own science experiments built in and outlined right there in the book for you.  Who doesn’t want to learn how to build rockets and robots?!  The science projects outlined in the book include:

  • Low-Tech (Practically No-Tech) Bottle Rocket and Launcher
  • Mints-and-Soda-Fueled Robotcat Dog Distractor
  • Semi-Invisible Nighttime Van Tracker
  • Christmas-is-Over Intruder Alert System
  • Do-It-Yourself Electromagnet and Picker-Upper

I can totally see (and am in the process of actually planning) hosting a MG book discussion group of these titles and doing the activities outlined inside the book.  There is another book coming soon, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage (February 2014) and you can find more science fun at NickandTesla.com.  This series is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to read more.

Here are a few more ways you can incorporate science into your programming (or at home):

Strawberry DNA Extraction
I recently took Thing 2 (now 5) to the Dallas Arboretum and they have added an entire science garden.  I’m not going to lie, this was the best thing ever and I want to write a grant to remake the entire library into an interactive science space like this.  If you can get to the DFW area, I highly recommend that you visit.  While there, we did an experiment where we extracted Strawberry DNA and viewed it up close over an overhead projector.  You can find instructions to duplicate this experiment here.

Tech Take Apart/Robot Building Days
The simplest tech programming I have ever involved included a two-day workshop.  The first day, we took apart a bunch of donated tech we had collected (cell phones, computers, printers, etc.) to explore what they looked like inside.  One of our staff members was able to identify the various internal parts for us.  The second day, we used the components to make various “robot” creatures.  We didn’t make actual electronic robots, although with the right tools you certainly could.  But this allowed our tweens and teens to tap into their creative side while exploring tech innards.  Plus, it was a great way to get rid of all of our outdated or non functioning technology.

To give tweens and teens a simple chance to explore electronic science, you can always just purchase these basic Snapcircuits kits.  We have one at home and you can do over 300 things with it.  There are various different kits you can buy, so choose wisely.

Legos and Tech
I outline some great ways you can use Legos to help tweens and teens explore technology at this Makerspace post.

Raspberry Pi
School Library Journal recently ran an article that outlined how to get started exploring tech using Raspberry Pis, which are these small little motherboard things.  I also have one of these at my house (spurred on by the article), but we have yet to do anything with it.  The tween wants to use it to create an alarm system for her room.  I’m pretty sure her little sister is somehow involved in this desire.  Christie and I have gotten the funding to add a Raspberry Pi component to our Makerspace, which I will share with you next week.

As part of Quirk Books Week, Quirk Books has generously donated a prize package for one lucky winner that will include 2 of the above cookbooks, a copy of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, the first book of the Lovecraft Middle School series, and a copy of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. I’ve tried to give you as many ways as possible to enter so pick the one (or ones) that work best for you and do the Rafflecopter thingy below.  The giveaway closes on Saturday, December 14th and is open to U.S. Residents.  The books will be sent to you from Quirk Books and they are worth it.

Book Review: Olivia Twisted by Vivi Barnes

Just the other day I was thinking to myself, “There aren’t enough books with main characters in the foster care system.”  Self: Meet Olivia Twisted by Vivi Barnes.

Publisher Description:


He tilts my chin up so my eyes meet his, his thumb brushing lightly across my lips. I close my eyes. I know Z is trouble. I know that being with him is going to get me into trouble. I don’t care.

At least at this moment, I don’t care.

Tossed from foster home to foster home, Olivia’s seen a lot in her sixteen years. She’s hardened, sure, though mostly just wants to fly under the radar until graduation. But her natural ability with computers catches the eye of Z, a mysterious guy at her new school. Soon, Z has brought Liv into his team of hacker elite—break into a few bank accounts, and voila, he drives a motorcycle. Follow his lead, and Olivia might even be able to escape from her oppressive foster parents. As Olivia and Z grow closer, though, so does the watchful eye of Bill Sykes, Z’s boss. And he’s got bigger plans for Liv…


I can picture Liv’s face: wide-eyed, trusting. Her smooth lips that taste like strawberry Fanta.

It was just a kiss. That’s all. She’s just like any other girl.

Except that she’s not.

Thanks to Z, Olivia’s about to get twisted.

Olivia has been shuffled from foster home to foster home.  She has given up on trying to find love and a family, she just wants to be safe.  When we first meet her, she is being sent to a new but less than welcoming home.  And the first thing the woman wants to do is take away her computer, which is an issue because it is the one thing Olivia has that is her own – and she is an excellent hacker.

Z is a mystery.  He hacks for a man that you definitely want to keep happy.  Soon, Olivia is drawn into a strange, twisty story that involves Z, hacking, and epic car rides off of bridges into rivers.

Some things you should know . . .

Olivia Twisted is a modern day retelling of Oliver Twist.  The way it is handled is pretty ingenius and fun. It has some unique “twists”.

There is romance!  There is mystery and intrigue! There are plot twists!  It’s fun, creative, and not at all what you are expecting when you think Modern Day Oliver Twist.

I felt that Barnes delivered in the emotional complexity that Olivia experiences as a product of the foster care system.  There were some subtle but strong lines that helped convey the emotion.  For example, Olivia doesn’t like to be touched and when she first meets this new foster family she recoils at their touch and briefly states that she has been “touched enough” for this life time.  It’s not graphic but packs an emotional punch.  These themes are then more fully developed throughout the story.

I am always a fan of books that put characters in non-stereotypical roles and recognizes the under represented, so I love that Olivia was an excellent hacker.

Overall, I thought this was an interesting and strong story.  I definitely recommend it.  It makes an interesting pairing with Find Me by Romily Bernard.  It would also make a good addition to our STEM Girls book list of girls who excel in science and technology.

Release Date: November 5, 2013 by Entangled Teen, ISBN: 9781622660285

More Info:

STEM Girls: Books with girls rocking science and math

Earlier this week I reviewed 3:59 by Gretchen McNeil, a book that has a main character, a girl, that is basically a physics wiz.  A lot of times, female main characters are into fashion or music and even sometimes sports.  But a lot of times, if our main characters are into academics they are also social pariahs.  Most of the time, academics aren’t even really mentioned in YA lit.  But this too is diversity: showing that our main characters, both male and female, can be involved in a variety of interests, even academic ones.  Boys don’t just have to be jocks and girls don’t just have to be fashionistas.  So here is a list of books that have main female characters that are involved in science and math.  Why just girl characters?  Because even though girls now make up the majority of college students, they still seem to lag behind in math and science, especially in terms of recognition and leadership in the field.  So here is some inspiration for us all, books that showcase girls being interested in science, math and those other subjects that fall under the umbrella of STEM eduction. 

3:59 by Gretchen McNeil

” . . . do you have anytime what time it is?”

Since it sparked the list, it deserves a place on the list.  Two girls who are incredibly intelligent in physics use that knowledge to save 2 parallel worlds.  Lots of science talk, scary tension, and a dash of romance.

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

“People are always going to think something about you that isn’t real. It doesn’t matter what they think.” 

While on her way back from an academic competition, Reese is in an accident and wakes up in a secret government lab really quite different.  Can she find out what happened to her and what it means?  Inheritance, book 2, comes out later this year.

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris

“Excuse me if I feel skeptical,’ I said. ‘Coach’s foot fell off. How exactly do you propose to cure that? Superglue?” 

The coach is feeding the football team steroids that turn them into zombies, can Kate find an antidote before the entire high school eats itself?

Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson

” . . . and maybe I would do it better this time.” 

Straight A student Kate Malone is waiting to hear from MIT when her perfectly organized world starts to spiral out of control.  Then, something happens that truly blows it apart. 

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

“Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation.” 

Willow is a genius obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions.  When her adopted parents die suddenly in a car accident, she uses her knowledge of nature to help build the perfect garden and rejuvenate both a neighborhood and the spirits of those around her.  Truly moving and inspiring, this new release is a must read for all. One of my favorite books of 2013.  (August 29th from Dial)

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

“The day the experiment succeeds is the day the experiment ends. And I inevitably find that the sadness of ending outweighs the celebration of success.”  

Calpurnia Tate uses science to help her understand why yellow grasshoppers grow so much bigger than the green grasshoppers in her back yard.  Along the way, she bonds with her grandfather and learns just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.  Historical fiction, MG lit.


Find Me by Romily Bernard

“How can we all just keep swimming along when some of us are drowning?” 

Wick Tate is a superb computer hacker, skills she’ll need to use when Tessa Waye’s diary shows up at her house with a simple request: Find Me. (Coming in September from Harper Teen)

In the Shadow of the Blackbirds by Cat Winters

“…between the war and the flu, no one’s going to escape being haunted. We live in a world so horrifying, it frightens even the dead.”  

The Spanish flu is sweeping across the land.  It is 1918. Mary Shelley Black is forced to rethink everything she knows, or thinks she knows, about life and death.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzad

“The past doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have to define your future. That’s up to you.” 

When Caro’s older sister Hannah returns, she is having a hard time adjusting.  Hannah is the spiritual sister while Caro uses science to help her understand the world around her.  But secrets about Hannah’s past lead Caro to better understand the both of them.

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

“This is what we do. We make tea and read books and watch people die.”  

It starts with an itch.  Then the fever comes.  Soon after, you are dead. Kaelyn uses what she knows to try to keep herself alive when a virus sweeps over the island that she lives on.

Have some more titles that showcase intelligent girls that love science and math?  Please add them to the list in the comments.

Bring the Power of Music Into Your Library: a guest post by Guitar Notes author Mary Amato for Music in Our Schools Month (March)

Although March is many things, like National Craft Month and Women’s History Month, it is also Music in Our Schools Month.  As school budgets get cut, music and education are some of the first to go, especially with today’s emphasis on STEM education.  But there are those who advocate STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math.  By adding the arts, you increase creativity and innovation, along with innovation, problem solving and more.  Today, in support of music in our schools, Guitar Notes author Mary Amato writes a guest post about The Power of Music.  And for more information on how you can help Save the Music, stop by the VH1 website.

Listening to a song I love can turn around a bad day or make a great day even better. I love music, and about five years ago I made a promise to myself to actually learn how to play the guitar. Along the way, I kept imagining the powerful connection that two characters could make if they really started to share music together. That’s how Guitar Notes was born.

In the novel, a teen boy and girl challenge each other to write songs and start a duo called The Thrum Society. Instead of having the songwriting action happen “offstage,” I wanted to show them actually writing.  That meant I needed to write every song. I loved doing this. After I was done, I thought about how cool it would be for readers to hear the songs, not just see the lyrics, so I partnered up with a male musician friend, Bill Williams, and together we arranged and recorded the tracks. Readers can hear them on the book’s website: http://thrumsociety.com/.

Readers are sending me messages saying that, after reading the book, they are inspired to write their own songs. This is music to my ears! I wish more teachers would include songwriting as part of the English class curriculum, along with poetry. Students who struggle with writing or with literature can be turned on through songwriting. Lyrics use all the elements of writing that are taught in a great English class—metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, symbolism, personification, etc.—and it’s an expressive, relevant art form that gets kids exciting about writing. I’m trying to put lots of songwriting resources on the thrumsociety website to help—songwriting tip videos, a songwriting lesson plan for teachers and media specialists, blank guitar chord templates, and much more.

I would love it if teen media specialists would consider creating a “Songwriting Studio.” This could be simple: a carrel labeled For Songwriter’s with a copy of Guitar Notes and some blank songwriting journals (note to whoever puts this up…here’s the link for the blank songwriting journals). Or you could go crazy and devote a study room that contains: copies of novels that are about music, like Guitar Notes, books on songwriting, earphones, and a computer with garageband. 
Take 5: More Teen Titles About Music
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr (review tomorrow)
Notes from Ghost Town by Kate Elliott
If I Stay by  Gayle Forman

Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes

Somebody Everybody Listens To by Suzanne Supplee

More on Music at TLT:
The Power of Music, a guest post by Melissa Darnell
The Soundtrack of Your Books
Steph’s Take: Top 10 Titles Inspired by Music 

Does your school still have a music program? What are your favorite music themed YA titles to share with teens? And what do you think about Mary’s ideas for encouraging musical pursuits in public libraries? What ideas would you add?

Mary Amato is an award-winning children’s book author, poet, playwright, and songwriter. Her books have been translated into foreign languages, optioned for television, produced onstage, and have won the children’s choice awards in several states.  Her book, Guitar Notes, was published by Egmont USA in July of 2012. ISBN: 9781606841242.