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In the books: NIU, DeKalb County libraries join to present sci-fi reading program for local teens

June 22, 2011

Science fiction isn’t just about Klingon love poems or alien probings; some sci-fi stories are set right here on Earth and can act as a springboard for thinking critically about science and technology in our daily lives.

STEMfest SF Teen Read logoThis summer, teens in DeKalb County can experience science fiction in a whole new way.

In June, August and October, teens are invited to read science fiction novels and then attend free group chats with NIU’s science and technology professionals who will describe the real science behind the fiction.

You don’t have be a die-hard sci-fi fan to participate. Librarians from DeKalb Public Library, Sycamore Public Library,and Cortland Community Library who specialize in young adult fiction selected books that are accessible to readers of all genres. They call the books “gateway science fiction.”

Pati Sievert, NIU STEM Outreach coordinator, is familiar with the June book selection, Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies,” from her own teenage daughter’s book shelf. “My daughter would claim to not be a science fiction fan,” says Sievert, “but she loves the whole ‘Uglies’ series.”

Young adults throughout the region are encouraged to participate in the SF Teen Read.

  • Check out the selected SF Teen Read book at your local library.
  • Like STEMfest SF Teen Read page on Facebook to connect with other teen sci-fi fans and find cool articles that relate to what you’re reading.
  • Attend the book chat at NIU, where you can ask questions and share your thoughts with NIU experts and other teens.

The first SF Teen Read event takes place from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, in NIU’s Founders Memorial Library Room 403.

Professor Sharon Smaldino, an internationally recognized expert in educational technologies, and lifelong sci-fi enthusiast from NIU’s Department of Educational Technology, Research, and Assessment, will lead teens, librarians and other experts in a discussion about science and medical ethics and draw comparisons between today’s society and the dystopian future portrayed in “Uglies.”

After the discussion, teens can see vintage sci-fi from NIU’s Rare Books & Special Collections. Snacks will be provided.

Teens are also invited to participate Tuesday, Aug. 16, in discussions on “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, when NIU psychologists and internet marketing specialists will discuss workings of the human brain and buyer profiling;  and “Orbiter” by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran on Tuesday, Oct. 18, when experts will discuss space travel and the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life.

To make The SF Teen Read possible, NIU STEM Outreach collaborated with partners from Founders Memorial Library, DeKalb Public Library, Sycamore Public Library and Cortland Community Library. While the librarians were eager to work together and excited about the scope of the project, they were most interested in the new opportunities they could provide to local teens.

“We’re not just connecting with other libraries,” says Evelyn Lorence, young adult librarian for Sycamore Public Library, “we’re bringing together area youth who share similar interests.”  Lorence says that the SF Teen Read also is a great way to get teens interested in science and other subjects that they might find unapproachable in school.

“In these books, the science is hidden behind interesting stories and strong characters that teens can relate to,” adds Laura Mesjak from Cortland Community Library.  “It’s like when you hide zucchini in muffins to get people to eat veggies.”

Steven Torres-Roman, who heads DeKalb Public Library’s teen programs as well as an adult science fiction reading group, is excited to see teens interacting with the books in the SF Teen Read. “Adults tend to get picky about the science in their fiction.  They say, ‘Oh, that could never happen.’ At this age, teens aren’t so cynical.  They can still look at something with awe and a gee-whiz sense of wonder and just enjoy the possibilities that a good story has to offer.”

STEMfest offers opportunities for hands-on learning.

STEMfest offers opportunities for hands-on learning.

The SF Teen Read program will culminate Saturday, Oct. 22, at STEMfest — a yearly event that packs NIU’s Convocation Center with exhibits, hands-on activities, and competitions that help local and regional k-12 students and their families explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

This year’s STEMfest will also include special science fiction events, such as a book nook featuring non-fiction and fiction books on science and technology, an essay contest for high school students and a possible visit and a reading by a science fiction author.


“Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld. Read the book in June. Attend the discussion at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at NIU’s Founders Memorial Library, Room 403.

Tally Youngblood is ugly.  She’s pale and squint-eyed and has an asymmetrical face, but all that will change on her birthday.  In Tally’s society, war, poverty, anger, and jealousy have been eradicated because people are remade to be beautiful through government-mandated surgery when they turn sixteen.  When authorities learn that Tally’s best friend has escaped to a secret camp to avoid surgery, Tally must choose between betraying her friend and staying ugly forever. This book raises challenging questions about identity, equality and science ethics. The jaw-dropping ending will leave you running to the library to grab the sequel! “Once I started this series, I couldn’t stop,” Lorence says. “I spent a week straight reading the trilogy and dreaming of hover-boarding!”

“Feed” by M.T. Anderson. Read the book in August. Attend the discussion Tuesday, Aug. 16.

In a world where the internet feeds directly and endlessly into peoples’ minds, where everyone is literally hardwired to shop and even peoples’ dreams are commercials for the next big thing, two teenagers have to decide what’s really important to them after a terrorist hacks their brains. This book tackles issues of identity and social status in a culture ruled by technology and consumerism. “‘Feed’ kind of wakes you up,” Mesjak says. “I didn’t know I was a science fiction fan until I read this book!”

“Orbiter” by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran. Read the graphic novel in October. Attend the discussion Tuesday, Oct. 18.

Ten years after the demise of America’s space program, a lost shuttle crash-lands at the Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle is covered in a protective living shell, and the catatonic astronaut inside hasn’t aged a day since he was presumed dead a decade ago. It’s up to a team of scientists to discover where the shuttle has been and what came back to Earth with it. This intriguing and hopeful graphic novel argues the absolute necessity of continuing America’s manned missions to space. “This is such a great story and a great mystery,” Torres-Roman says, “because instead of solving problems with their fists, the characters are actually using science and using their minds.”

To learn more about the STEMfest SF Teen Read and other free STEM programs, visit the NIU STEM Outreach page or contact Gillian King-Cargile at [email protected] or (815) 753-6784.

You can also find free bookmarks with SF Teen Reading lists and event schedules at public libraries in DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland, Malta, Genoa and Waterman, as well as at the Kishwaukee Family YMCA, DeKalb County Community Foundation, Graham Crackers Comics, New Game in Town and Barnes & Noble.

by Gillian King-Cargile