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2020 APALA Picturebook Winner for Literature

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

Written by Teresa Robeson

Illustrated by Rebecca Huang 

Published by Sterling Children’s Books, 2019

ISBN # 978-1-4549-3220-8

Book Review

“A girl! What would become of her?” Born in China in 1912, Wu Chien Shiung faced an uphill battle to show she was just as capable as–if not more than–boys to do whatever she wanted when she grew older. Fortunately, Mama and Baba had bestowed Chien Shiung with a name that means “courageous hero”, and they “believed girls should go to school and could become anything they wanted to be.” Leading by example, they had already opened a school for girls, where families in their hometown sent their daughters to learn to read, write, and do math. Once Chien Shiung outgrew the curriculum, so began a lifetime of full of sacrifice, hard work, travel, and discrimination as she pursued her education to ultimately become one of the most influential and accomplished scientists of the twentieth century. Hong Kong-born author Teresa Robeson captivates young readers with a voice that is both straightforward and animated: “And, oh, physics! Physics, the study of the very matter and energy around her, the study of things that could be seen or felt . . . . Physics captured her heart.” Taiwanese American artist Rebecca Huangh juxtaposes lively mixed media illustrations with a neutral palette, thereby highlighting the tension, fight, passion, and determination that characterized Chien Shiung’s career. As the 2020 picturebook winner of the APALA Award for Literature, Queen of Physics is a rich source of teaching ideas and invitations for your ELA, social studies, and STEM curricula.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Crowning the Queen. Although she never received the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work on beta decay, Wu Chien Shiung is widely regarded in the science community and was named the “Queen of Physics” by Newsweek Magazine in 1963. Who would your students crown as the queen of a disciplinary field that had typically been populated by men? For example, after studying about Jane Goodall, your students might declare her to be Queen of the Jungle, just as MiNDFOOD Media did, or they might agree with NASA and the Library of Congress to crown Amelia Earhart the Queen of the Air. Ask students about famous pioneering women they already know about, and enlist the help of your school or local librarian to gather a collection of picture books and chapter books about those women. Guide students in an inquiry unit about who they might declare to be the queen of a particular field. You might include debates and role plays in this unit to engage students multimodally in their learning.

Foundations of Physics. Although beta decay is not something often taught in K-8 science classes, many often do learn about atoms and the beginnings of nuclear science in some capacity. Use Queen of Physics as an introduction to the foundations of chemistry and physics (more specifically, nuclear physics, if your curriculum heads in that direction). The back matter, which includes a glossary, titles of texts for further reading, and more information about Wu Chien Shiung, may be helpful in this regard. Pair this book with other biographies of notable physicists, such as I am Marie Curie, by Brad Meltzer, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, by Jennifer Berne. Partner with science teachers and experts in your community to design lessons and learning experiences to help elementary and middle school students understand what the scientific terms and concepts in Queen of Physics mean in real-world settings.

Text Set: Girls in Education. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a collection of picture books and chapter books about girls fighting for their right to attend school and get a formal education. As a class, read through the books, noting similarities and differences across the books’ characters, plots, settings, and themes. Some books you might include are The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinckney, Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan, by Jeanette Winter, Nasreen’s Secret School, by Jeanette Winter, and Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges. Explore the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s website on “Girls and Women in STEM”, learn about the LitWorld/Global G.L.O.W.’s HerStory campaign, read the Forbes Magazine article, “It’s Time To Get Serious About Educating Women Around The World,” and explore other websites listed below for information about the current status of education for girls around the world. If your students show interest, encourage them to become involved in one of the many nonprofit campaigns dedicated to educating girls and women.  

Advice from Family and Community. When Chien Shiung felt the path ahead of her was getting difficult, she remembered how Baba often advised her to “Just put your head down and keep walking forward.” Have students brainstorm what nuggets of advice or wise sayings they’ve received from their family or community members that they follow. Invite students to explain the saying and storytell with peers about a time that advice worked for them. If students are independent enough as writers, have them write out those moments as small-moment personal narratives. Compile them into a class book of wisdom to share with family and community members. If your students are still emergent writers, have them rehearse their stories and record them, compiling them into a class storytelling project to share.

Text Set: Herstory. Despite her central role in the work on beta decay, Wu Chien Shiung was excluded from the Nobel Prizes that her colleagues received. History textbooks have often omitted or ignored the vital role that women played in a number of fields, even though their contributions were just as important, if not superior to, their male counterparts. Fortunately, the stories of these women are finally being told to children. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a set of picture book and chapter book biographies about these remarkable women. As students read these texts, encourage them to think about why these women were hidden from history and to conduct further research about them. Some noteworthy women whose stories have been penned in children’s literature include Katherine Johnson (NASA research mathematician), Maria Anna Mozart (musical prodigy and composer), Katharine Wright (who played a pivotal role in her brother’s historic airplane flight), Sophie Germain (award-winning mathematician) Fanny Mendelssohn (musical composer), and Bobbi Gibb (marathon runner).

The APALA Award for Literature. Although the APALA award for picturebooks is one of the youngest awards presented at the American Library Association Youth Media Awards, it has been in existence for 20 years. In fact, the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), has been an affiliate of the American Library Association for several decades. Invite students to research the different APALA Awards given for children’s and young adult literature. Gather a collection of award winners from past years and invite children to browse them and make observations. Engage older students in a discussion of the benefits of recognizing diversity in children’s books (see the We Need Diverse books website for resources). Have students review the criteria for the APALA Award for Literature and apply them to other children’s and young adult books written about Asian/Pacific Americans.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Teresa Robeson’s website and blog:

Rebecca Huang’s website:

Websites about Wu Chien Shiung

Smithsonian Science Education Center website:

APALA Award for Literature

We Need Diverse Books


Global G.L.O.W.

United Nations article on Women and Literacy

PBS News Hour segment on the gender gap in education


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Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.