Twins Nick and Tesla launch a homemade rocket right into the heart of an unexpected mystery in book one of this fun science and engineering-themed series for middle readers. Sent to stay with an uncle for the summer, the kids quickly find their DIY spirit and engineering wits are going to be key tools in helping unravel what's going on—and keeping them safe from the jaws of some very unfriendly guard dogs!
When a book for readers in grades 4-7 starts out with a Danger! Danger! Danger! Danger! warning page, you know something is up. Four all-caps danger alerts on an all-black page can only mean that turning the page can not be a good thing, right? Of course not! For kids who pick up the first Nick and Tesla book by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith (Quirk Books), the introductory danger warning probably ups the ante tenfold in terms of anticipation of the story and projects that follow. Lucky for them, the story lives up to the ominous warnings, providing a fast-paced tale of intrigue, engineering, danger, and zany science. The plot may not be entirely believable, but the combination of exciting elements and innovative DIY projects in action yields a guaranteed pager turner.
Thumbs Up for Science and Engineering
When you meet Nick and Tesla in the opening pages of Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself (book 1 in the Nick and Tesla series), the 11-year-old twins have just landed in California and are on their way to stay with an uncle they barely know because their parents have suddenly been whisked away to work on an urgent science project (studying soybean irrigation) in Uzbekistan. Readers get their first glimpse of the twins through the eyes of a taxi driver who thinks something about the pair signals trouble. He notices that one of them is holding A Brief History of Time and one is holding Theory of Applied Robotics: Kinematics, Dynamics, and Control. He notices the black SUV that follows them from the airport to Half Moon Bay. He senses that these are no ordinary kids. Even so, he drops them off at a house where an automated lawn mower contraption is running amuck, and the first Nick and Tesla adventure begins.
These kids may have gotten ditched by their parents for the summer (the details remain mysteriously murky), but they have clearly landed in a wonderland of science and engineering, the kind of no rules, no parents, and junk food galore summer break scenario of which some kids dream—with a fully stocked science lab and workshop at their disposal. The doorbell at their Uncle's house chimes before they touch it, and although they debate about the possibility of a motion detector, they poke around and track down a pressure sensor plate. As they walk into Uncle Nick's house, they enter a world of chaos, something that sounds like an engineering junkyard, science lab, Petri dish, and compost bin combined, all guarded by a cat that has clearly licked the icing off of their "welcome" cake.
The zany scene only gets crazier when they hear someone calling for help and go to the basement lab to discover their uncle is trapped in a blob of orange goo—a spray on clothing experiment that still has a few kinks to be worked out.Christmas lights, an Easy Bake oven, Petri dishes, burners, saxophones, soldering irons, mattresses filled with compost... it's all here, as is a waif-like girl who appears to be trapped in the mansion down the street, guard dogs, burly bad guys, a town with a lackadaisical police force of one, and the kind of kids-hang-out-in-the-neighborhood vibe that feels like something from the past. The difference is that these kids may be hanging out in the neighborhood, but they are not just riding bikes and skipping rocks as they wile away their summer exile. Instead, they end up embroiled in a mystery that requires ingenuity, science acumen, and engineering to solve. Luckily, they have a bunch of ideas up their sleeve and are up to the task.
Nick and Tesla's first project in the book is the Low-tech Bottle Rocket and Launcher from PVC Pipe. This one may just be a boredom buster for the twins, but it effectively launches them right smack in the middle of intrigue. The nice thing about the projects is that these are not simply paper plate projects. These are DIY projects that have a bit of oomph to them, and while there are some ordinary materials in the mix, readers will need some specialty parts (and possibly a trip to the hardware store) to complete some of them. Even so, with a bit of adult assistance, these projects feel "doable" by kids. The projects are also nicely woven into the story. When the PVC pipe rocket flies over the fence, and their initial attempts to retrieve it are foiled by a pair of dogs, the pair whips up a RoboCat Dog Distractor, a clever adaptation (on wheels) of the classic Mentos/Coke reaction.
With the stage set, the story continues to unfold as the kids work to solve the mystery of the abandoned house, the ghostlike girl, and a lost pendant. They spout Occam's razor even as they design their Christmas-is-over Intruder Alert System for peace of mind. And in the end, when they really are stuck exactly where they should not be, with seemingly no way out, their resourcefulness again pays off as they scrounge together the parts for the Do-it-yourself Electromagnet and Picker-upper and put it to surprising but good use as part of a last-ditch escape plan.
As the book wraps up, all the kids safe and sound and plenty of food in the house, you know that summer has just started.... Stay tuned for our in-depth look at book two! If you can't wait, check out Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle, and Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove: A Mystery with a Blinking, Beeping, Voice-Recording Gadget Glove You Can Build Yourself (coming this fall).
Highlight on a Good Read
For the parent reader, the story verges into the lane of far-fetched, especially when the kids decide to trail the pseudo-construction workers' van. The gizmo they use, however, is undeniably nifty. Nick and Tesla set up a low-tech Semi-invisible Nighttime Van Tracker using a highlighter and a black light. Though you don't want to think of kids trying to follow bad guys with a contraption like this (much less on bikes and at night), the concept of the tracker is cool. This is certainly a simple and low-tech project the kids might try at home for other reasons. (You can see the project, and others from the book, in action in Bob Pflugfelder's videos on the Nick and Tesla site.)
More Summer Science Reading
- Sparking Interest in Science and Science History for the Read Aloud Crowd
- A Picture Book Look at the Engineering Spirit
- Calling Naturalists of All Ages: Citizen Science Projects for the Whole Family
- Making Room for Math
- Hooked on Manga: Comic Science
- Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers
- A "Science Mom" Thumbs-Up Science Detectives Series
- Dive Into Robotics with Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future
If you have a favorite science-themed book—for any age—let us know!
Update: See our in-depth look at book 2, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself!