There seems to be a profusion of fabulous kids' books these days, including many engaging books on scientific topics. Indeed, there are so many that I wouldn't even know how to boil them down to a top ten list.
So, I'm going to just point you towards some of the books my kids have enjoyed, especially in the early grades of elementary school (roughly K-3).
A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers, illustrated by Edward Miller.
The text of this book is straight-ahead science for the grade school set, explaining the key components of blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets) and what they do. There are nice diagrams of how the circulatory system gets involved in transporting nutrients as well as oxygen, pictures of a white blood cell eating a germ, and a step-by-step explanation of how a scab forms.
But this unassuming text is illustrated in classic horror movie style.
All the "people" in the drawings are either vampires or ... uh, whatever those greenish hunchbacked creatures who become henchmen are. And this illustration choice is brilliant! Kids who might be squicked out by blood in real life cannot resist the scary/funny/cool cartoonish vamps accompanying the text in this book. The drawing of the Count offering Igor a Band-aid for his boo-boo is heart-warming.
Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about blood.
* * * * *
Octopuses and Squids by Mary Jo Rhodes and David Hall. Photographs by David Hall.
Seahorses and Sea Dragons by Mary Jo Rhodes and David Hall. Photographs by David Hall.
We love books with chapters, lots of photographs, and glossaries. What can I say?
These two books pair with each other nicely, since evaluating the relative merits of syngnathids and cephalopods is kind of like weighing whether you'd rather be able to fly or to become invisible. Is it better to have leafy bits on your body the better to hide in seaweed, or to be able to change color and shape to camouflage? (What if you got distracted and forgot to do it?) To keep your fertilized eggs in a cave, or to have the father incubate them in his brood pouch? To enjoy solitude in your corner of the ocean, or to be social?
Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about these choices.
* * * * *
How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan. Illustrated by Loretta Krupinski.
This is a nifty science book for little kids. Our favorite thing about this book is that it's all about getting empirical.
After some unassuming storybook text (with lovely illustrations) about different kinds of seeds and the different kinds of plants that grow from them, the book gets down to business and lays out an experiment for the young reader to do: Plant a dozen bean seeds and see what happens to them over time.
After planting the seeds, each in its own eggshell or other container, and watering them daily, on day 3 you dig up the first seed and examine it it. Two days later, you dig up the second seed and see what's happening. Every few days you dig up another seed so you can observe the roots growing and developing root hairs. Once the shoots start pushing out of the soil in the containers with the not-yet excavated seeds, the kids can examine the growth of the plants without digging them up. At this point, if the kids are still interested, they can plant the bean seedlings in the ground.
The charm of this book is not just that it lays out a hands-on experiment for kids to do. It also makes it clear to the kids that there is likely to be some variation in what is observed -- not only might your bean seeds grow more quickly or more slowly than the day-by-day development illustrated in the book, but that your 12 beans of the same kind might develop at different rates, even if you do your best to plant them and water them just the same. As well, the idea of sacrificing growing seeds to learn something is presented in a way that kids can handle. (If a book doesn't give you permission, sometimes kids are a little too precious with the seeds they have planted.)
This is a fun way to get your hands dirty.
* * * * *
The Periodic Table: Elements with Style, written by Adrian Dingle, illustrated by Simon Basher. (Boston: Kingfisher, 2007)
The book introduces several representative elements from the periodic table. For each element, there's a listing of crucial information like the element's symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, color, standard state, density, melting point, boiling point, and data of discovery. But the real story is the first person introduction to each element's character, tendencies, and common uses. Hydrogen says, "I am the simplest and lightest of all the elements, the most abundant in the universe, and the source of everything in it -- from matter and energy to life." Cesium pipes up, "Soft and golden, I'm way more exciting than gold." Magnesium chirps, "I'm happy to mix in any social gathering of the elements, making friends with anyone." Iron hollers, "I am at the center of everything."
Clearly, there are a lot of strong personalities here.
For all the elements that appear in this book (except hydrogen), the introductions to the elements are preceded by a discussion of the group they run with -- the alkali metals, the halogens, the carbon elements, and so on. The book offers a description for each of the groups in the periodic table, including the lanthanides and actinides and the transactinides (although given their instability, we don't get to meet individuals from the latter group). The group descriptions are a little less gripping than the portraits of the elements in each group, but they do a nice job conveying which groups have elements that seems to copy each other closely and which of these periodic table cliques seem to tolerate more individualism.
Each element also has a portrait, a bold graphic that conveys some visual clue to the element's temperament of common uses.
Of course, the book includes these portraits in periodic table layout, too. And the book includes an index and a glossary.
As a casual read, this is not a book that will leave a kid with exhaustive knowledge about all the chemical elements. However, the "personal information" about these elements comes across as quirky and compelling, and it's hard for the young reader to resist forming some opinions about which elements he or she would like to hang out with.
Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about this book.
* * * * *
Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent E. Selsam, illustrated by Marlene Hill Donnelly.
This book helps kids to become "nature detectives" by getting them to look at different kinds of animal tracks for clues about the animals that left them. The presentation is pretty Socratic: What do we see in the prints? What do we know about how this animal or that animal moves about?
The approach of inferring what happened from clues is fun. There are some facts that are kind of cool to learn (e.g., seagulls run into the wind to take off, so you can tell by the direction of their footprints what direction the wind was blowing when they launched). But the ick factor for this book is pretty low. (There is a trangressive moment where cats and dogs switch places, but it's not gross.)
Along the same lines, but harnessing the magnetic power of the gross:
Who Pooped in the Park? Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Steve Kemp, illustrated by Robert Rath.
Like Big Tracks, Little Tracks, this book gets kids interested in the inferences they can draw from their observations. However, it beats out Big Tracks, Little Tracks for the simple reason that poop (as a charter member of the Pantheon of Gross Things) is absolutely hilarious.
In fact, scat is only the bait that attracts kids (like flies, if you will) to learn about the other clues animals leave in the National Park: tracks, nibbled twigs and scraped tree bark, rocks that have been moved. This book doesn't just talk about the particular animals that inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it describes some of the ways they interact with each other in the ecosystem. (For example, the non-native wild hogs eat up the native salamanders.) Scattered through the book are "The Straight Poop" boxes of related facts (e.g., that rabbits eat their own scat to maximize the nutrition they get out of their food by digesting it twice).
My kids loved this book, and it gave them something intelligent to say about animal droppings we came upon in family hikes -- at least, once they were done giggling.
There are versions of this book available for many other National Parks, each of which deals with the particular fauna that inhabits (and poops in) the particular park.