Chapter 1 A Big Surprise
“Put away your spelling books, kids,” Ms. Ortiz said. “It’s time for science.”
“Yay!” I cheered.
My friend Ling laughed. “Okay, Val, everyone knows you love science.”
“True,” I said. “But today’s lesson is going to be extra special.”
Wallace and Abby looked over. “What do you mean, Val?” Abby asked.
“Yeah, what’s so special about ecosystem worksheets?” Wallace said with a grin.
Before I could answer, the classroom door opened. I stood and waved. “Hi, Mom!” I called.
I was proud of myself for keeping such a big secret. My mom was our guest speaker! She’s a botanist, a scientist who studies plants.
“Pay attention, class,” Ms. Ortiz said. She introduced my mom and explained that she would be teaching us about terrariums.
“That’s right,” Mom said. “And after that, you’ll get to make your own at home!”
Everyone seemed excited, even the kids who aren’t very interested in science.
Wallace raised his hand. “What’s a terrarium?”
“I’m glad you asked,” my mom said. “It’s like a miniature garden. Here’s one I made.”
She went into the hall and returned with a large glass bowl with ferns and other plants growing inside.
“Cool!” a kid said. “It looks like my fishbowl, but it’s full of plants!”
“That’s a good way to put it,” Mom said. “Fishbowls and fish tanks—-also known as aquariums—-are self--contained ecosystems. So are terrariums.”
Wallace raised his hand again. “So is the Neutrodome,” he said with a big smile. “That’s the domed city Commander Neutron built on Planet X.”
I rolled my eyes. Commander Neutron is a character on Comet Jumpers. Wallace is obsessed with that TV show. He and I even wrote a script for it and entered it in a contest.
“That’s right,” Mom said. “In a terrarium, you’re creating your own little world.”
She went on to teach us all about terrariums. The most important thing is to use plants that grow in the same type of environment. Each terrarium needs several layers. First comes a layer of pebbles for drainage. Then you add charcoal to filter the water. Next comes soil for plants to grow in. Finally you add the plants—-plus any decorations you want.
When Mom finished, Ms. Ortiz stepped forward. “I hope you were paying attention, because your project is to make a terrarium this weekend,” she said. “You can work in groups of three or four. Materials are in the supply closet, or you can get creative and use recycled materials from home.”
I was excited to get started. Mom had lots of cool plants in her greenhouse, and I had an extra--large fish tank I wasn’t using for any experiments right now.
I also knew exactly who I wanted in my group. “Let’s work together,” I told Wallace, Ling, and Abby.
We gathered at my desk. “I have a great idea!” Ling exclaimed.
“So do I,” Abby said.
“Me too,” Wallace added.
They all started talking at once. Wallace pulled out Zixtar, his homemade action figure. He wanted to turn our terrarium into a science fiction landscape. Abby wanted to create a colorful fairy garden. Ling just kept talking about a long--necked bottle she thought would be perfect to hold the terrarium.
“It’ll be a fun challenge!” she exclaimed. “We can use tongs to arrange all the stuff inside.”
“Hold on!” I shouted. “We need a plan. Let’s meet in my lab tomorrow and figure it out.”
My friends agreed. And I was sure I could convince them to agree to my other ideas, too!
Chapter 2 Plans and Problems
The next day, Daddy helped me get the big fish tank down from the shelves in the garage. “Wow, this is heavy even when it’s empty,” he said. “It’ll be even heavier once your terrarium is full of soil and plants.”
“But it’s perfect for the project I have in mind,” I told him. “My goal is to create a terrarium using only recycled materials. All the plants will be edible and also improve indoor air quality!”
Daddy carried the fish tank into the kitchen. “That sounds great, Val, but shouldn’t you ask the rest of the team for input? Remember one of my favorite sayings: Many brains working together make the best science!”
Daddy does say that a lot. He works with other supersmart scientists. He’s an astrophysicist—-a scientist who studies outer space—-just like me. That’s why my nickname is Astronaut Girl.
I thought about what Daddy said as we carried the tank into my basement lab. But before I could answer him, we heard the doorbell and hurried back upstairs. Wallace was at the door.
“Look what I brought!” Wallace said.
He was carrying a box. Inside were several Venus flytraps in pots that were usually on his bedroom windowsill. They’re carnivorous plants, which means they eat bugs. Last week, Wallace showed me how to feed them dead flies.
Zixtar was in the box, too—-along with a mini Zixtar made of clay. There was also something I didn’t recognize.
“What’s this?” I asked, picking it up.
Wallace grinned proudly. “I made it for our terrarium,” he said. “It’s a planetary rover with laser beams and a giant claw to fight off aliens.”
Daddy chuckled. “Sounds like you’re ready to create another episode of Comet Jumpers.”
“I’m always ready for that!” Wallace exclaimed. “Hey, Val, that reminds me—-we should hear back about the contest soon!”
The show wanted people to send in ideas for future episodes. But Wallace and I—-with a little help from his friend Carlos—-had written a whole script instead. I was excited about the contest, too. But right now I was more focused on our science project.
“We can’t use those,” I told Wallace. “Venus flytraps need totally different growing conditions than herbs.”
“Herbs?” Wallace said while making a face. “This is supposed to be a terrarium, not an herb garden!”
Mom came into the kitchen holding my baby brother. “Can someone watch the Baby?” she said. “He’s already spilled two watering cans, and I really want to finish planting the lettuce before it rains.”
“Sure, he can help us brainstorm our extraterrestrial terrarium,” Wallace said, taking the Baby. “He’s always ready for an outer space adventure!”
He laughed loudly. My parents gave him a funny look.
“Thanks, Wallace,” Mom said. She and Daddy hurried off.
Then Ling and Abby arrived. Ling was carrying a bluish--green glass bottle with a superlong, skinny neck. Sticking out of the bottle were a pair of superlong, skinny tongs.
Abby had a bulging cloth bag. “I brought some pretty rainbow--colored sand and other stuff we can use,” she said.
I frowned. None of this would work with my plans! I was sure my friends would realize that once we got started.
“Let’s go downstairs,” I said.
I led the way to my science lab. My cat, Astro Cat, was already napping inside the fish tank. On the worktable nearby was everything we needed to create my herb garden. There was a bucket of gravel, some activated charcoal, a bag of potting soil, and several plants from Mom’s greenhouse.
My tablet was sitting on top of my favorite book, The Universe. I picked up the tablet and opened my plans for the terrarium. “I figured out where each plant should go for optimum success—-” I began.
“That’s nice. I did some planning, too!” Ling exclaimed. She set her bottle next to the fish tank. “It will be really fun to put our garden inside this bottle. See? I printed out some examples from the internet.”
She passed us each a handout with our name at the top. It showed several photos of bottle terrariums.
Wallace bounced the Baby on his hip and squinted at his handout. “I didn’t make mini Zixtar small enough to fit in there,” he said. “But Val’s fish tank would give us plenty of room to make a whole planet! I brought some meat--eating plants that look like aliens. And Val’s mom has some cool spiky succulents. They definitely look like they’re from out of this world!”
I shook my head. “Succulents are desert plants. They won’t thrive in the same ecosystem as Venus flytraps!”
Abby looked at Wallace’s plants. “These are beautiful,” she said. “But they won’t work in a fairy garden.”
I clenched my fists. “This is supposed to be a science project!” I cried so loudly that Astro Cat woke up and the Baby chortled. “It’s not about alien landscapes or fairy gardens or cool skinny bottles!”
“But Ms. Ortiz said we can get creative,” Abby protested.
Ling shrugged. “Let’s take a vote to decide what to do. Who votes for my bottle garden?”
“We don’t need a vote!” I yelled. “I wish this was a space mission, since I’d be the commander and you’d all have to do what I say!”
“I wish your mom had real alien plants in her greenhouse!” Wallace said at the same time, staring at his Venus flytraps.
The Baby squealed as the room began to spin . . .
Copyright © 2021 by Cathy Hapka and Ellen Vandenberg; Illustrated by Gillian Reid. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.