Like many families in the path of superstorm Sandy, we’ve spent much of the last week indoors trying to stay sane. Fortunately, we live in a part of Brooklyn that was spared the worst storm damage, so I had the luxury of finally reading the children's science books that have been piling up on my desk at work. Where appropriate, I've also included reactions from my 6 year old daughter, Eliza, who read many of them with me. (Somehow, I had the foresight to bring all the books home last weekend before Sandy blew out the power at our Scientific American offices, which remained closed all last week). Here are my favorites:
Infinity and Me, by Kate Hosford. Even the littlest children will appreciate this picture book about a girl who asks her friends and family how they imagine infinity. A friend says it’s like a racetrack shaped like the infinity symbol: cars go around the track forever. Her grandmother says it’s like a family tree that goes on and on. It prompted Eliza to wonder, “What is infinity minus one?” The other night she also pondered a question that comes straight from the book: If you have recess for infinity, is it still recess? (Her answer: No, it’s just playtime.)
Unusual Creatures, by Michael Hearst. Eliza and I have been reading a few pages of this playful, meticulously illustrated book every night this week, and we both love it. Hearst profiles some 50 animals, including giant salamanders, strange looking fish, and exotic rodents and marsupials. At times, I’ve wished that the book were more information dense and less eager-to-entertain, as in this sentence: “I really hope at least a few of these unusual creatures make you stop and say, "Whoa, dude! What’s up with that?” But I do appreciate Hearst’s enthusiasm for his subject, which comes through on every page. Like "Infinity and Me," the book is a terrific conversation starter, and it has made Eliza wonder, for example, why parts of Africa and Australia seem to have many more ‘unusual creatures’ than the United States. I'm also glad she now knows that Madagascar is more than just a place where talking zoo animals get stranded in movies.
Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities and Thought Experiments, by Jerome Pohlen. (Ages 9 and up). This is a wonderfully accessible biography for children that does not talk down to its young readers. Parents who follow along with them will be reminded of Einstein’s myriad contributions to science and come away with a far clearer understanding of them. Pohlen grounds Einstein’s breakthroughs in the politics of the times, from the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of Jews; to the development of the nuclear bomb, which Einstein at first supported and later regretted; to the formation of Israel, which unsuccessfully tried to recruit Einstein as president. Most importantly, Pohlen clearly delineates Einstein’s breakthroughs – from his understanding of light as a wave and a particle, to his papers on the size of atoms, to special and general relativity. He also provides simple home experiments to help kids master such concepts as capillary action (the force the pulls a liquid “up” a tube), the speed of light, and gravity’s effect on light.
A Rock is Lively, by Dianna Hutts Aston. “A rock is lively … bubbling like a pot of soup deep beneath the earth’s crust … liquid … molten … boiling,” writes Aston. Along with illustrator Sylvia Long, Aston brings geology to life, mixing scientific facts (“a rock melts at temperatures between 1,300 and 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit”), with an engaging prose style that covers asteroids, arrowheads and the surprising fact that some animals swallow rocks to help them digest food or to dive more deeply in water. Eliza liked comparing the painted rocks in Aston and Long’s book with the photos in our DK Eyewitness book “Rocks & Minerals.” The two make a great combination.
I wanted to also mention two older books that we returned to this past week and that we have read again and again. If your kids are just learning the planets, “When is a Planet Not a Planet? The Story of Pluto” by Elaine Scott is a great read for kids as well as for parents who attended school long before Pluto's demotion. It traces the history of astronomy from the ancient Greeks, who first noticed planets “wandering” from east to west in the night sky against a backdrop of stars (planetes, in Greek, means wanderers), to Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006.
Finally, “Relics: Travels in Nature’s Time Machine,” by the Harvard entomologist Piotr Naskrecki, is not a kids’ book and yet kids will love it. Naskrecki travels the world, camera in hand, documenting known creatures and discovering many new ones. Children will love his tales of adventure in places like New Guinea and the Limpopo province of South Africa as well as his photos of some truly unusual creatures, like a horned frog that looks exactly like a dry leaf, and a katydid (a relative of the grasshopper) that deters predators by spraying them with its blood. Writes Naskrecki in one of my favorite passages: “I could never quite understand why such a tactic should work – after all, the predator is planning to put the insect, blood and all, in its mouth; why would a little taste of the future meal act as a deterrent? But having been squirted more than once I now understand – a quick squirt startles the predator, which gives the katydid time to arch its back and fully expose its sharp spines.”
PHOTO CREDIT: TOP AND BOTTOM IMAGES BY ANNA KUCHMENT