Charlie Numbers and his gang of Whiz Kids—along with a few new allies—are on another mission: this time, to uncover the truth behind the mysterious mammoth tusk they found buried in the Boston Public Gardens.
Their hunch? Blake Headstrom, eccentric billionaire, philanthropist, and collector of some renown, has been smuggling mammoth tusks into the city. The only question is: Why? Selling woolly mammoth tusks isn’t illegal...but selling elephant ivory is. And Charlie’s certain Headstrom’s plans are more sinister than they seem.
But Headstrom is a powerful man, with powerful connections. If the Whiz Kids want to expose him for the criminal they know he is, they’re going to have to catch him red-handed. Now if only Headstrom’s henchmen weren’t lurking at every turn...
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About the Author
When Tonya Mezrich was little, she preferred art to reading. But then she learned that reading could be just as cool, and so could writing books. She attended Tufts University, where she studied French literature and art history. She later developed a jewelry line and clothing line and launched and cohosted the TV show StyleBoston. She is the resident fashion expert at NECN and writes a blog about style and fashion at TonyaMezrich.com. She and Ben live in Boston with their two kids and a pug.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 1
CHARLIE LEWIS BRACED HIMSELF against the rocking of the deck beneath his feet, as the cold metal railing pressed into his lower back. He’d never been great with boats, or, for that matter, water in general. He wasn’t much of a swimmer, and he couldn’t catch a fish to save his life. The fact that he was now standing on a cargo ship parked at a dockyard in Boston Harbor, rollicking and rolling above choppy waves as high as Charlie was tall, made him question every decision he’d made over the past few weeks—if not every decision he’d made over the past twelve years.
It certainly didn’t help that the remaining rays of winter sunlight were shining blindingly down. In the distance, he could barely make out the giant face of the clock tower, rising up above the pincushion of buildings that made up Boston’s Financial District. The giant digital display told him it was five thirty in the afternoon, which meant Charlie should have been home from school already, maybe telling his mother about his day, or watching cartoons with his dad. Having professors for parents meant someone was usually home when he got out of his classes, and usually that was a good thing. But sometimes, like when things got seriously out of control, it meant when Charlie got home—if Charlie got home—he’d have a lot to explain.
Like how an otherwise normal Thursday late afternoon in February had gotten him here, to the very edge of a giant boat, his sneakers inches from the long drop down to the icy water of Boston Harbor.
The briny smell of the waves filled his nostrils as his mind began calculating the drop itself. The math wasn’t hard—not nearly as difficult as keeping his balance as each wave pushed against the mammoth boat, sending it bouncing high in the air despite the ropes that tethered it to the dock. It was 60 feet to the water; 720 inches, 1,828.8 centimeters. Given enough time, Charlie could have calculated how fast he’d be going when he hit, even how much liquid his body would displace.
He’d always found comfort in the math, the numbers. Numbers were concrete, something you could count, and count on. His affinity for numbers was so well known among his sixth-grade classmates that they’d attached the word to his name. Nobody had called him Charlie Lewis since fourth grade, when he’d aced a ninth-grade math test that had been handed out to his class by mistake: It was always Charlie “Numbers.”
As he stood on the edge of the ship pondering the numbers, he suddenly caught sight of something moving behind a barrel down below, on the nearby pier. He could see the border of a red swing coat under a yellow neon vest and a mop of familiar auburn hair: Crystal Mueller and Jeremy “Diapers” Draper were hard to miss, despite their best efforts to remain hidden. Crystal, known for her vast knowledge of geology that far surpassed any high school student’s, was the quasi coleader of the Whiz Kids. That was the de facto name of his squad of friends from Nagassack Middle School, the public school in Newton that served as home to Charlie and more than three hundred other students—the worst of whom had granted Charlie’s best friend, Jeremy, with his inescapable nickname. Charlie would always remember the day his friend had transformed from Jeremy Draper to Jeremy Diapers: The school bully, Dylan Wigglesworth, had tripped Jeremy, who’d then inadvertently emptied out his ever-present backpack all over the cafeteria, revealing his baby sister’s disposables instead of his science project.
Looking down at Jeremy and Crystal in their fairly awful hiding places, Charlie realized that—no matter how close they were—he was still on his own. Jeremy and Crystal might as well have been all the way across town.
So, instead, he let the numbers do their magic; he began to calculate. Not just the distance to the water, but suddenly everything became numbers—the height of the ship, the depth of the harbor, the density of the water, the temperature of the air. As his mind ran through the calculations, he absentmindedly glanced down at his hands, at the curved white object he held as it caught the sunlight, flashing almost as bright as a star.
Charlie looked up from the object and again found the clock tower in the distance. The display had shifted from time to temperature: The city of Boston was registering a blustery thirty-six degrees. Charlie knew that thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit was slightly above freezing, but mathematically still cold enough to illicit hypothermia; a human body hitting water at that temperature would have only a few minutes, even less if that human body happened to be the size of an average third grader. And the water of the harbor had to be many degrees colder than the ambient air.
“Not a good idea, kid. You might survive the drop, but not for very long.”
The voice cracked through the air like a leather belt pulled tight. Charlie looked back and saw a large, trash-can-shaped man coming toward him across the deck, followed by a second man, stringy and tall, dressed in green.
“Popsicle city, kid,” the second man added, grinning. His teeth were crooked and yellow, like thirty-year-old Pez lost for decades in the bottom of a drawer.
Charlie turned away from the men, forcing himself to go back to the math. Back to his calculations: distance, weight, temperature. How his exact body weight—fifty-eight pounds—would interact with the water, how much time he’d have before frostbite hit.
“Just hand it over,” the trash can of a man said, still moving closer. “Give it to us, and this doesn’t have to get ugly.”
Charlie inhaled deeply, the saltiness of the ocean palpable in his throat. Then he looked down again at the object in his hands. The object felt smooth and cold and heavy against his palms. He knew that if he handed it to the men, they probably would let him go. After all, without the object—without that important piece of evidence—he was just some kid that nobody would believe. Without evidence, he had nothing but a story. Wild, incredible, terrifying—but just a story.
Charlie shook his head. He had come this far. Too far. And people were counting on him. His friends were counting on him.
And then he paused, a sudden thought trickling through the fear in his head. He balanced the heavy object against his chest with one hand, and reached into his pocket with the other.
His fingers closed against a cool plastic tube—and his mind started to whirl. Could it work? Was it possible?
He made a sudden decision, and mashed the tube with his fist, squirting the clear jelly inside all over his palm. Then he quickly yanked his hand out of his pocket, and began rubbing the stuff on his cheeks, forehead, neck, his hands and wrists—any exposed flesh—in as thick a layer as he could.
“What the heck are you doing?” the man in green asked, through a cruel laugh. “You don’t need sunscreen where you’re thinking of going.”
Charlie ignored the voice. He knew it was a long shot, but it was all he had.
As a cold breeze touched his cheeks, he grasped the object in his hand even tighter, then focused on the water—and the long drop down.
“Kid, don’t! You’re crazy!” one of the men shouted.
“I might be crazy,” Charlie said, “but I never miscalculate.”
He stepped forward off the edge of the deck, and suddenly he was plummeting toward the icy water below.
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
Charlie Numbers and the Woolly Mammoth
By Ben and Tonya Mezrich
About the Book
In this third book in the Charlie Numbers Adventures series, Charlie and the Whiz Kids accidentally unearth a mysterious bone fragment in the Boston Public Gardens. Right off the bat, something doesn’t seem right. Along with two new friends, the gang combines their math, science, art, and design skills to uncover eccentric billionaire Blake Headstrom’s nefarious plans to smuggle and traffic illegal elephant ivory. Can Charlie and his friends reveal the truth behind Headstrom’s scheme and save countless elephants in the process?
1. Charlie Lewis is a numbers guy; he adores math. Discuss the following text from chapter one: “He’d always found comfort in the math, the numbers. Numbers were concrete, something you could count, and count on.” What do you think this means? How can one “count on” numbers? Give examples from your personal experience and from observing the world around you.
2. Readers learn that Charlie and his friends, the Whiz Kids, are targets of a handful of bullies at their middle school. Discuss the scenes in the book in which Charlie and his friends are bullied. Why do you think the bullies pick on the Whiz Kids? What advice do you have for Charlie and his friends?
3. The Whiz Kids use math and science knowledge and skills to solve the mystery of the unearthed tusk fragment. Discuss the following: “But the fact that they could solve mysteries by using their mental tools gave them a sense of purpose, and made Charlie feel special.” Why do you think it’s important to have a sense of purpose? How can having mental tools help you feel that way?
4. Recall the part of the book in which readers learn some background information about Charlie’s friend, Jeremy. Charlie wonders if Dr. Church “might have been able to shed some light on the subject” in terms of Jeremy’s “awkward” behavior, and if “Jeremy’s nurture had trumped his nature.” What is meant by nature versus nurture? Discuss how both aspects contribute to how people act and behave.
5. The Whiz Kids return to the university science labs to learn the results of their find, which turns out to be a tusk fragment from a woolly mammoth, a mammal that lived 20,000 years ago. Dr. Church and his team are working to “bring back the prehistoric creature by synthesizing the animal’s DNA from frozen samples brought from the Arctic Circle.” Discuss the ethical aspects of such a project. How do you feel about human efforts to bring back species that have gone extinct? Explain your viewpoint. What do you think might happen if woolly mammoths did return?
6. Janice and Rod are new additions to Charlie’s team of detectives. Janice uses a wheelchair and does not let her disability hold her back. Discuss this quote from Janice: “‘I know I’m different, but we’re all different, right? We’ve gotten here walking—or rolling—along different roads, but we’re all here now, aren’t we?’” How might our differences be assets? Which parts of your personality, culture, or experiences are you most proud of?
7. After Charlie and his friends are caught in the museum exhibit, they find themselves in a makeshift office within the exhibit’s construction site, where they meet Mr. Headstrom for the first time. In this suspenseful scene, Charlie senses that he and his team are in danger. Referring to his henchman, Headstrom tells Charlie, “‘I know my associates can be a little blunt . . . but sometimes a blunt instrument is as valuable as a sword.’” What does this expression mean? What is Headstrom signaling to Charlie?
8. Crystal reveals that she had stolen a piece of tusk from Headstrom’s desk. One line of text appears near her confession: “Curiouser, and curiouser, and curiouser.” How is curiosity a key component of this book? What role does curiosity play in science? Discuss specific examples from the book in which curiosity leads Charlie and his team to important discoveries. Can you name three things that you’re curious to learn more about?
9. While doing research into Headstrom’s business history, Marion discovers that the multimillionaire hunts big game, such as lions, tigers, and elephants. Discuss what it means for a species to be endangered. Think about current global issues around the hunting and poaching of endangered species, such as killing elephants for ivory. What ideas do you have for young people to participate in helping to stop this practice?
10. Janice demands to accompany Charlie and Alice to their interview with Headstrom. Janice tells Charlie, “‘Sounds too exciting to miss . . . and besides, you’ll see, sometimes my chair can make people more honest than they mean to be. They feel sorry, then they overcompensate. It’s like a magic wand.’” Discuss what Janice means by this statement. What does it mean to overcompensate? Why might seeing a person in a wheelchair cause a person to become “more honest”?
11. The story takes a suspenseful turn when Charlie and the Whiz Kids place themselves in a highly dangerous situation. As Charlie begins to realize that he should have an adult with him, he says he’s “never felt more like a kid than at [this] very moment.” Put yourself in Charlie’s shoes. Why do you think he feels more like a kid in this scene? Have you ever felt similarly? How did you handle the situation?
12. Discuss the evolution of Charlie and Rod’s relationship from the beginning of the story to the end. What does Rod mean when he says to Charlie, “‘You’ve got to be the coolest nerd I’ve ever met’”?
1. Charlie has to decide whether or not to jump off a ship into the freezing water of the Boston Harbor. He uses mental math to calculate the 60-foot drop into both inches and centimeters. Use this scene to introduce or review basic units of linear measure: yards, feet, and inches; meters and centimeters. For advanced students, demonstrate how to convert between systems. Visit the following site for helpful instructions: http://lessons.atozteacherstuff.com/410/metric-conversions/
2. Throughout the text, readers witness Charlie and his friends, as well as professional scientists like Dr. Church, using the branches of natural science, physical science, earth science, and life science to solve the mystery of the tusk fragment. Create a list of the various disciplines within each branch, and allow students to choose a discipline to research. For example, if students are interested in rocks, they can research geology and what geologists do and create a slide presentation about various types of rocks. Allow time for students to present or display their final projects.
3. In each chapter, readers encounter science- and math-related vocabulary. Have students keep a list of these new words. After reading, assign a group of words to each student to define and illustrate. Compile student work into a STEAM dictionary.
4. Marion interrupts Mrs. Hennigan by saying, “‘We have a hypothesis!’” Use aspects of the text to teach students the steps of the scientific method. Using a topic from your school’s science curriculum, place students in small groups and help them to develop and test a hypothesis.
5. Blake Headstrom’s company is creating an artificial African savanna at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. Introduce the word biome to students and share its definition: a large, naturally occurring community of flora and fauna (plants and animals) occupying a major habitat. Examples include forests, savannas, or deserts. Share the following link with students: http://kids.nceas.ucsb.edu/biomes/. Give students time to read the information on this page, after which they will choose one biome to study. For a final project, each student or pairs of students will create dioramas of their selected biomes.
6. Readers learn that to Charlie, “There was nothing more magical than the science of pulleys and levers.” Introduce students to simple machines by watching the following YouTube tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvOmaf2GfCY. Place students in triads or groups of four. Challenge students to use simple machines to complete basic tasks. To get started, visit the following National Geographic site: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/simple-machine-challenge/
7. At the end of the book, Alice appears on the local news to report the ivory poaching and smuggling story. Help students identify major issues in the scientific community, such as climate change and genetic engineering. Have students choose one issue to research. Create a class newscast to report the facts on these issues.
8. Crystal makes a plaster cast of a mysterious footprint. Give students an opportunity to experiment with casting. Go on a nature hike to gather a variety of natural objects, such as rocks, leaves, flowers, and seedpods. Follow the steps from this link to walk students through the simple process of making plaster casts: https://artfulparent.com/leaf-casting-with-plaster-of-paris/
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
This guide was written by Colleen Carroll—reading teacher, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series How Artists See and the four-volume How Artists See, Jr., as well as How Artists See Animals and How Artists See Families, both in second editions (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.