The range of fields encompassed by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are the new educational Holy Grail, replacing history, social science, and the humanities. There should be room for all academic fields, but since higher education is now all about careers and potential earnings, “humanity” gets short shrift.
The STEM fields have traditionally been dominated by men—partly, no doubt, because of subtle and overt discrimination against women. But also (and we’re not supposed to say this) because males tend to be better at focused, analytical thinking. Of course there are many exceptions: my own family didn’t fit the stereotype, with a girl who taught herself calculus and a boy who balked at Algebra. So there’s nothing wrong with encouraging a girl’s natural interest in STEM subjects, so long as we don’t discourage the boys. Several new MG series attempt to do just that by making girls with a STEM bent the protagonists. None of these are outstanding literature, but they contain plenty of solid science, as well as fun (if sometimes far-fetched) storylines.
Max Einstein: the Genius Experiment by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein. Little, Brown, 2019, 334 pages
Reading level: Middle grades, ages 8-10
Max (Maxine), is a 12-year-old orphan genius who lives with other homeless New Yorkers over a stable for Central Park carriage horses. Still with me? She also attends NYU and never misses an opportunity to quote Albert Einstein, her hero, inspiration, and ghost mentor. She’s also sweet, kind, generous, unselfish—and did we mention she’s a genius?
Two entities have their eyes on her. One is the evil Dr. Zimm, leader of a think tank for the Corp (a shadowy group of multinational operators and oligarchs who more-or-less rule the world). The other is CMI, or Change Makers Institute. Guess who the good guys are? SMI secures Max before the Corp can get their hands on her, and adds her to a team of other genius kids to solve all the world’s problems. Not so outlandish, when the greatest genius of all time (A. Einstein, natch) knew that “kids had all the answers.” I don’t know if the Genius ever actually thought that, but it’s certainly flattering to kids. Maybe too flattering. Though light on personality and character development, the story incorporates lots of science facts and Einstein quotes. More than a little gimmicky, but a quick read for science fans. Vol. 2 in the series, Rebels with a Cause, will be available in September.
Overall rating: 3 (out of 5)
Ellie, Engineer by Jackson Pearce. Bloomsbury, 2018, 166 pages.
Reading Level: Chapter Book, ages 7-9
Ellie loves to invent things, and so does her best friend Kit. Kit’s birthday is coming up, and the electric French braider Ellie designed for her didn’t exactly work as expected. Time for Plan B, based on a hint that Kit is finally going to get a dog! Keeping Ellie’s project a secret turns out to be a problem, especially when the neighborhood boys who wouldn’t let Ellie play soccer with them (‘cause she’s a girl), and the fashion-designer girly-girls, both want to get involved. Keeping rival groups apart involves some prevarication and hurt feelings, but it all comes out right in the end. Though Ellie is more into tools than dolls, she also likes dresses and hairstyles. Her story is about preferences and abilities, not gender-bending for its own sake. For girls who like to build stuff, and chapter-book readers generally, it’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Ellie, Engineer: the Next Level is out now; In the Spolight is due in November.
Overall rating: 3.75
Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (Elements of Genius #1) by Jess Keating. Scholastic, 2019, 288 pages
Reading Level: Middle Grade, ages 8-10
Nikki Tesla, genius inventor, did NOT intend to destroy the world when she invented her death ray. It was just something to do. But her mother fears Nikki may be a chip off the wrong block—namely her dad, another genius inventor who destroyed himself in his lab while trying to develop weapons that just might destroy the world. Fortunately—or not—some guys in dark suits have their eye on the young progeny, and want to recruit her into a band of other young geniuses. “We’re the good guys, Nikki,” they say. Well, probably.
Nikki’s wisecracking, first-person voice speeds the story along, as the death ray is stolen and the young geniuses (Leo da Vinci, Charlie Darwin, Adam “Mo” Mozart, et al., crisscross the globe to track him down. With this team, STEM becomes STEAM—that is, the artist, the musician, and the writer add artistic genius as well as scientific. Nikki’s dad problem, sure to play out over the series, adds a touch of psychological depth (psst—I bet he’s not dead!). But it’s mostly for fun, and both girls and boys will find Nikki entertaining. Vol. 2, Nikki Tesla and the Fellowship of the Bling, will be available next February.
Language consideration: One misuse of God’s name.
Overall rating: 3.75