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Science Books for the Kids on Your Shopping List (Guest Post)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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[Note: Please welcome guest blogger/author Allyson Beatrice with her annual list of cool science books for kids.... just in time for some last-minute shopping!]

It’s the time of year again for my annual guest post on the science books I chose to add to my niece’s and nephew’s growing libraries.

Children’s books are pricey, hovering around $20 a pop for a hardcover, so they make fantastically generous gifts for families struggling to keep shoes on ever-growing feet. Paperbacks are about half that, but I tend to get the hardcovers because my nephew, four years older than my niece, can pass them down to her with the covers still intact after multiple readings and that game where you place the books on the floor and leap from cover to cover so that carpet alligators won’t eat you.

My nephew is in the second grade this year, so he’s at that murky in-between age where he’s still enough of a little boy to want to be read to, but enough of a big kid to want to read to himself. It’s hard to find books that bridge that gap. I got him a combo of books with more grown up stories of real people, since he’s been getting into the nonfiction world of biographies that still have cool illustrations. I also threw in some chapter books that are appropriate for his reading level.

My niece is in preschool, so picture books are where it’s at, and the sillier, the better. I’m going to start this party with books at her age level because I share her love for the silly.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems. Balzer + Bray (September 4, 2012). Ages 4 and up.

Kids love Mo Willems as much as they love dinosaurs, so this book is like the chocolate and peanut butter of children’s books. This is his deliciously ridiculous riff on the traditional Goldilocks story, with three dinosaurs setting out bowls of pudding to lure a tasty little girl into their home for dinner.

My niece, like most preschoolers, is greatly impressed by expert-level silliness, and Mo Willems should have an honorary Ph.D. in it. He’s also the author of Caldecott Honor winning Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, which I strongly recommend even if it doesn’t have dinosaurs in it.  Discouraging pigeons from driving buses is good advice regardless of scientific merit.

There Was a Tree by Rachel Isador. Nancy Paulsen Books (October 11, 2012). Ages 3 and up.

Based on the song “Green Grass Grew All Around,” this story is paired with vivid color and crunchy textured cut outs depicting the plains of Africa. The song begins with a seedling that grows into an acacia tree that provides a branch for a nest that holds an egg that hatches into a bird that serves as a home for a flea.  There’s even some sheet music in the back so you can sing along with a little one at bedtime.  In case you need some inspiration, here’s Melissa Etheridge’s version of the song. It’s a preschool course on ecosystems!

Nightsong by Ari Berk, Illustrated by Loren Long. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (September 25, 2012) Ages 4 and up.

There’s a special place in my heart for both bats and tracking systems. I wrote a book  about a baby bat named Sam a couple of years back, so I’m always on the lookout for books by fellow bat lovers. Nightsong provides the most elegant explanation of echolocation I’ve read.

Chiro is a baby bat exploring the night sky for the first time. His mother teaches him a special song to sing so thathe can “see” the world in the dark. Chiro sings out and the world sings back to him in a symphony of sonar. He “sees” a flock of geese fly overhead, and tasty insects below. He’s also unbearably cute, with the puppydog face of an Australian flying fox on the body of a little brown bat. Just try and resist this face.

Willoughby & the Moon, by Greg Foley. Balzer + Bray (May 4, 2010). Ages 4 and up.

Willoughby is afraid of the dark. The phases of the moon don’t help, as it slowly melts away in the sky into nothingness. But Willoughby’s curiosity about where the moon goes when it disappears overcomes his fear, and with the help of a snail and a dream, he travels into space to find that even though he can’t see it, the moon is still there in the sky.

The illustrations of the moon are silver over absolute black, and the pages shimmer with beautiful images of the moon, including a diagram of its core. The silvery inks give off a halo effect under a reading light, lending a dreamlike quality to the entire book.

There’s Nothing to Do on Mars by Chris Gall. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (February 1, 2008). (Age not listed, but in my opinion, it’s appropriate for 4 and up).

I have to be honest, I got this because it reminded me of the Spaceman Spiff stories in the old Calvin and Hobbes strips. Davey Martin and his robot dog Polaris live on Mars, and they are SO BORED.  Even with the Martians and his awesome hovercraft, Davey is BORED. The story isn’t spectacular, but the illustrations of a completely fantastic Mars are, which is why I decided to buy it.

What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African American Inventors, by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. Illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford. Candlewick; First Edition edition (January 3, 2012). Ages 8 and up.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar writes the story of a brother and sister who discover the history of African American inventors by exploring an old house and the everyday items within it. Frederick Jones brought us refrigerated trucks, allowing us to get fresh food from thousands of miles away. Dr. Henry Samson invented the gamma electric cell, which brought us nuclear power.

Dr. Valerie Thomas invented the Illusion Transmitter, giving us 3D projection, and George Crum gave us potato chips. Potato chips!!! There are 16 inventors covered in the book, which has fold-out pages with mini-bios throughout.  I’m unsure if these scientists and  engineers will make it into my nephew’s curriculum in school, so I’m glad Jabbar was inspired to put this out into the world. It’s just wonderful.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. Illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon. Dial (January 19, 2012). Ages 6 and up.

This is the autobiography of a young teenager in Malawi named William Kamkwamba who brought electricity to his village by following a diagram of a windmill he found in a library copy of an old textbook. He salvages junkyards for parts to build it after being forced by poverty to quit school in the eighth grade. He’s now attending Dartmouth College because HE BUILT A WINDMILL OUT OF SCRAP METAL AND POWERED HIS VILLAGE.

Yeah. When I was fourteen, I was sitting on my ass watching MTV and wishing I could quit school and become Joan Jett. This book is a bit on the youngish side for my nephew, but I think the story itself is geared toward a kid his age. It’s somewhere in the gap between little boy and big boy that I mentioned earlier.

Who Was Leonardo da Vinci? by Roberta Edwards and illustrated by True Kelley. Grosset & Dunlap (September 8, 2005). Ages 8 and up.

The Who Was? series is a great collection that gives brief, simple-to-read biographical facts on various historical figures. I also got my nephew one on primatologist Jane Goodall, but she’s in the Who Is? category until further notice.  The da Vinci biography contains line drawings of his inventions from weapons to life preservers to flying machines.  It’s a solid bio told simply, but there’s also a bit on da Vinci’s study on anatomy that kids might love for the gross, or be frightened because, well, corpses. Think about the kid you’re buying for and make a judgment on whether s/he will be happily grossed out or miserably freaked out.

Of course,there’s  lots of biblical stuff interspersed with Copernicus. The Renaissance was nuts, am I right? The Goodall bio is chock full of facts on chimps as well as biographical information on Goodall.

I also got a special gift for the kids; Mattell Hot Wheel versions of the Curiosity Mars Rover, in packages signed by some of the “Blue Shirt” members of the Mars Science Laboratory team. I got each a rover to open and play with, and another that’s signed so they can be the Supreme Rulers of Show and Tell. Auntie Allyson believes in giving them a show-and-tell edge.

I can’t really express to all of you how much a new book means to a family. Story time is precious bonding time between a child and a loved one, as well as an opportunity to teach and learn.  Books are pretty tough, and can be tossed around without breaking, and easy to store, which means they’ll be in good condition to pass along to younger siblings and cousins when they’ve been outgrown.

If you don’t have a little one to buy for, please consider picking up one of these titles to toss into a Toy Drive bin. I promise, a needy family will cherish a book that they can own and read again and again (and again and again and again until parents want to pull their hair out). It helps kids learn to read when they’re read to.  Plus, you could be giving a kid a lifelong memory of a beloved story.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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