March Book Madness: Books Between, Episode 17

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Episode Transcript:

It is almost that magical time of year when a little March basketball mayhem can be harnessed into a fun competition that celebrates children’s literature. Of all the book related activities that I tried with my students last year, participating in March Book Madness was by far the most engaging thing we did. My 5th graders loved it, the students across the hall were talking about it, the teachers walking by our class were making predictions – it was fantastic! It got kids reading and promoting books to each other. And mostly – it was just fun!

So today, I’ll discuss three things:

  • What is it?
  • How can I participate?
  • Where can I get resources and more info?

A quick heads up before I begin – as always, I have your back and every resource and website I mention will be linked in the show notes and on

What is March Book Madness?

March Book Madness is a bracket-type tournament modeled after the NCAA tournament where you have books going head-to-head to see which one will advance to the next round. Typically, you start with 16 books and then week by week narrow them down to the final match-up. Usually the brackets are created with a big display in a classroom, hallway, or library. I think a public place is best so you really create that community buzz about the books.

For each round, you have students vote on each match up to determine which book makes it to the next round. Last year, I had a meeting with my class to determine which books to start with. They each had their reading journals in their lap and we hashed out the top 16 books that most of the class had read. Our picks last year were: The One and Only Ivan, The Honest Truth, I Funny, Big Nate, Hatchet, Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, Home of the Brave, Auggie & Me, The Crossover, The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Smile, Flying Solo, El Deafo, Wonder, and Sunny Side Up. Generally if a lot of books in a series were recommended, we just put in the first book to represent all of them.

Before we got going, I had every student fill out a bracket to predict who would win and the kid with the most points for each round would get a free book from our next Scholastic order. Once we got going, we voted via a Google form, and my rules were that in order to vote on a match-up, you had to have read BOTH books. So – that really got students reading books that they might not have picked up themselves so they could participate and vote for their favorites, too.  But – you can handle that however you think is best. Last year in our class, The Crossover narrowly beat out The Honest Truth. And I can’t wait to see what they pick this year!

How Can I Participate?

It’s easy, hardly any supplies are necessary so it’s an activity with lots of bang for your buck. So – option 1 – poll your class and decide on your 16 starting books that way. Or, option 2 – participate in the 2017 March Book Madness already set up online by the amazing Tony Keefer and Scott Jones. If you head over to these two 5th grade teachers from Central Ohio have set up this awesome website with three different tournaments you can join – Picture Book, Middle Grade Novel, or YA. I think my class will be doing their Picture Book tournament this year as well doing our own middle grade one.

They conduct voting through Google forms also and you can have students vote individually or submit your choices as a class. There’s really no wrong way to do it, as long as you and your kids are having fun and talking up books! Also on their site, they have printable forms for each bracket showing the covers of the books AND for the Middle Grade books – there are book trailers for each one. That’s a great resource any time of year! If you decide to join in with them, the voting there starts on March 1st, 2017.

So if you are interested, head over to that site and check it out. Their sweet sixteen books this year are: Roller Girl vs. Counting by 7s, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library vs. Sisters, Brown Girl Dreaming vs. The Honest Truth, Echo vs. A Night Divided, The War That Saved My Life vs. Booked, Fish in a Tree vs. Pax, The Fourteenth Goldfish vs. El Deafo, and Absolutely Almost vs. Crenshaw. Whoa – some tough match-ups this year.


Okay – once you decide which books you are starting with, the next step is to gather a few resources and make a display. I’m going to offer you some advice – keep it simple and use the free resources already out there to save yourself some time. Last year I found a free download from Catherine Reed of The Brown Bag Teacher that looked great. (I’ll link to that resource in the shownotes.) And then I made some quick orange paper basketballs with white letters on them saying Tournament of Books and printed off the covers of our 16 starting titles. So then I was ready to set up our brackets in the hallway. I ended up using black electrical tape for the lines connecting our brackets and that worked out great.

I really do recommend you put your bracket in a public spot and not just in your classroom. I promise you – kids, teachers, parents – everyone will be talking about it! And if you are active on Twitter, join in by taking photos of your brackets and tweeting using the hashtag #2017MBM.

Fabulous Science Books

It’s time for our book talk segment! In this section of the show, I share with you several books centered on a theme. This week, I am recording on Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, celebrated across the world as Darwin Day. It is a day to to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin. So today I am sharing with you 12 science themed books.

You know, science sometimes has this bad reputation somehow of being cold and distant and just about hard facts. But to me, science has always been a story. It’s personal and ever so important.

Science is about changing your ideas in the face of facts. It’s my grandmother helping my 16 year old self admit that, yeah… it wasn’t actually a raven I saw in our backyard and just a big crow.

Science is exploring and observing every bit of the world around us. It’s my grandfather taking my 7 year-old self on a nature walk and showing me four decades worth of wildflowers he’d picked and tucked between the pages of his Peterson field guide.

Science is tackling the most challenging problems our society faces. It’s my Uncle Tim, taking my 12 year-old self on a tour of of his lab at the Harvard Brain Bank, gently placing a brain in my hands, and explaining how his team is trying to understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Science is about instilling awe and wonder and always encouraging that “Why?” question. It’s my mom driving my 9 year-old self out to some cold, dark field to see Haley’s comet or dragging my cranky 13 year-old self out to Howe Caverns and Niagara Falls to see for my own eyes what the power of time and erosion could do.

And yeah – I didn’t appreciate all that nearly enough at the time, but… like that slow drip that eventually ends up as a stalagmite, all those experiences add up to a life filled with wonder and questioning and then seeking out books that would feed that curiosity.

So, science is deeply, deeply important to me. And every year, I’m disappointed in myself that I don’t spend as much time as I really want in our class studying and doing science. Those of you that teach all subjects in an elementary class like I do, can maybe understand how that sometimes frantic focus on Reading, and Writing, and Math can often edge out science and social studies, even why you try to blend them together. So, if there is ever a way we can bring more science into our classrooms, our libraries, our homes, let’s do it. Because our kids, our society, need those stories right now.

Okay – I’m getting too emotional! On to the books! This week I was helped by our incredible Twitter community who weighed in on my request for favorite science books. We got a lot of great suggestions today so I am featuring 12 terrific books with a science theme. So, let’s start with some fiction, and I’ll save the nonfiction until the end.

Space Case
by Stuart Gibbs
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

This is a murder mystery that takes place on the moon. It’s funny and fresh and a clever speculation about the future of NASA and life in space. If you know a kid who loves astronauts and maybe loved the movie The Martian, this would be a great book for them. And the second one in the series, Spaced Out, was just released last year.

by Carl Hiaasen
Yearling Books

I’ve always felt that between about 9 and 12 is when kids start to get more socially conscious. I remember for me that’s when I started harassing my parents about recycling although my dad would tell you that I still left every single light in the house on. And Carl Hiasson’s books are the perfect kindling for that fire. If you know a child who is into environmental science and climate change and standing up to the forces trying to put money ahead of our future, then Hoot is the perfect book. And then they can check out Hiasson’s other eco-thrillers Chomp and Flush and Scat.

The Friendship Experiment
by Erin Teagan
Houghton Mifflin

The girl in this story, Madeline, is one of those kids that you can just see winning a Nobel and being the next Marie Curie. She is immersed in science, from her parents, her beloved grandfather who recently passed away, and even is the subject of her own self-study of a rare genetic disease that she and her sister are both grappling with. But, this is a middle school story so friendships are a focus. And when Madeline takes that analytical mindset and starts writing down her observations and developing Standard Operating Procedures for her life and friends, you can only imagine where things start to go. It’s a great read!

The Thing About Jellyfish
by Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

When I put out a call for favorite science themed books, dozens of people recommended The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. This is a first person story told by Suzy – a girl whose world is shaken by the drowning of her friend. And the idea that “sometimes things just happen” is simply not acceptable to her so she sets off to attempt to figure out what really happened. She has this theory that her friend was stung by a rare jellyfish and so interwoven through the story are these fascinating facts about the ocean and jellyfish. Fabulous, fabulous book.

The Fourteenth Goldfish
by Jennifer Holm
Yearling Books

Keeping with our aquatic theme, another favorite science themed novel is The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm. This book is full of wit and wonder and a celebration of science. It’s about Ellie and her young grandfather, Melvin, who draws her into his research. Inspired, she and the reader learn about Oppenheimer, Curie, Salk, Galileo, Newton, Pasteur and how science is like a love story involving people and possibility.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly
Square Fish

Oh how I loved this book! It’s set in rural Texas in 1899 and is the story of an 11 year old girl growing up in a well-to-do family with six brothers. As the only girl, she has a lot of expectations set on her by her mother. And her time and even her body are beginning to be constrained by things like corsets, and cooking, and needlepoint. But Calpurnia is drawn to scientific expeditions with her cranky grandfather who secretly slips her a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. A friend of mine who helps coordinate our local Darwin Day events listened to the audio of this book with her two sons and they absolutely loved it and the sequel. Plus – if you have younger kids, Jacqueline Kelly now has the Calpurnia Tate Girl Vet series which are illustrated chapter books. So there’s lots to love here.
Okay – on to our six science themed nonfiction titles!

Science Comics Series
First Second

I have fallen head over heels for this series. There’s one on volcanoes, bats, dinosaurs, coral reefs, plague – awesome stuff! Each volume is 128 pages chock full of science, fabulous illustrations, and an exciting adventure story to keep your kids turning those pages.

Pink is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals
by Jess Keating
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

This book was probably mentioned the most by folks on Twitter. It is playful and gross and is one of those books that appeals to kids from kindergarten to middle school. It reminds me a tad of the book When Lunch Fights Back – with how it really pulls kids into the science with that “eww” factor. Look for Jess Keating’s new book, Shark Lady, when that comes out this June 2017. Also – if you haven’t done it yet – check out her Animals Are Awesome videos on YouTube. They’re two minute snippets of science. They are perfect to binge watch with your kids or get your students excited about some cool animals. My favorite is the Sparkly Bat Poop episode.

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan & Mystery of the Cosmos
by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Roaring Brook Press

A picture book called Star Stuff: Carl Sagan & Mystery of the Cosmos . Oh do I have a soft spot for all things Carl Sagan and Cosmos! This is a sweet and inspiring narrative biography formatted a bit like a graphic novel with panels and thought bubbles. It’s a great science book to kindle the spark of curiosity in your child and introduce them to an amazing scientist.

Elements and Molecules 
by Theodore Gray
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

A pair of books by Theodore Gray called Elements and Molecules. I love these books because kids get out of them whatever they’re ready for. At first, maybe it’s just the pictures. Then they start to read the descriptions and then notice the molecule diagrams on a reread. Plus – they are simply gorgeous to look at! Every page has this velvety black background with bright pictures of the elements and molecules. In the blurb on the back, Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters says that you feel like you’re holding a jewelry catalog. A great science book for a coffee table or tucked in the back seat of your car.

What is Evolution?
by Louise Spilsbury (Author), Mike Gordon (Illustrator)

I first bumped into this book at our Scholastic Book fair last spring and immediately had to snag it for my students. Having a basic understanding of the concepts of evolution is so crucial to even start to understand the world around us. A book like this – presenting evolution in a fun, colorful, and quick way at 64 pages is a must for every classroom and library. This book is full of details about Darwin, and natural selection, and genetic mutations, but it’s also got funny pictures and lots of text features that keep it readable.

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky
Ten Speed Press

I have been hearing everyone rave about this book, but I didn’t appreciate its scope and beauty until my sister-in-law, Jackie, brought it to our family book club and I actually held it in my hands. The design and layout are outstanding. And I know I’m not going to do it justice, but I just want to describe it a little bit for you. So each of the 50 women are featured on a two page spread. Throughout the book, the background is consistently a deep coal color with a different featured color for each scientist – yellows and teals and oranges and pinks – it’s stunning. On the left is a large gorgeous drawing of each person at work with the various tools of their profession and one of her memorable quotes written across the bottom. On the right side is a one page description of her life and accomplishments with smaller sketches in the margins illustrating those moments. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is and not just the sketches but the stories of those groundbreaking women who fought against those forces trying to hold them back and nevertheless persisted. Absolutely pick it up!

Thank You

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they’ll love or an idea about a topic we should cover, I really would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for taking the time to join me this week. You can get find a transcript of this show and all of our previous episodes at And while you are there, check out Matthew’s interview with Raina Telgemeier – it’s one you won’t want to miss.
Thanks again and see you in two weeks!  Bye!

About the Author

Corrina Allen

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Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. She hosts Books Between, a bi-weekly podcast to help teachers, librarians, and parents connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can connect with Corrina on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

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