What makes a great science book for kids? Scientific accuracy is certainly important but on its own it isn’t enough. Great books are also fun to read, but they are more than that too. The best children’s books spark imagination and understanding. They take the reader, adult and child, somewhere else. They lead kids to ask more questions, to seek more information, to try something out and see what happens. Great science books make for great conversations.
Daniel Loxton’s Ankylosaur Attack, illustrated with Jim W.W. Smith, is one of those books. It is carefully researched and fun to read but as a whole package it is truly a conversation piece.
(In an accompanying post today, I’ve also interviewed Daniel about the book, his motivations for writing it and how it was created.)
Ankylosaur Attack is a simple story of a day in the life of a young Ankylosaur. In his daily wandering he comes upon an elderly Ankylosaur who initially tries to scare the young one away. When a hungry Tyrannosaur approaches, though, it is the young one who saves the day with his mighty Ankylosaur tail. The story and the writing are simple, mostly descriptive, showing the dinosaurs’ actions without attaching too much human emotion to them. This sets it apart from many narrative science books for children which often rely on anthropomorphisms.
With this simple story, it is the images that are the real star. The illustrations integrate striking computer-generated dinosaur figures into photographed backgrounds. The effect it creates is of fantasy realistic photos of the dinosaurs and their environment. There are lush green ferns, complex undergrowth and stunning waterfalls. There are even beautiful reflections to notice in the dinosaurs’ eyes and skin.
So what to do with a great book like this? Have a conversation of course!
Science books provide a wonderful opportunity for young children to make insightful observations, to raise their own questions and to propose their own explanations based on the available evidence. They offer the chance to think and talk scientifically  and can make scientific thinking part of a treasured everyday activity like story reading.  Narrative books in particular can stimulate discussions of fantasy and reality and about what we can really know in science. This means there are plenty of things to talk about!
Having a great conversation about science with a kid follows many of the same principles of any conversation. For example, try not to ask questions for which there is an obvious right answer; reading a book shouldn’t be a quiz. The best conversations happen when both people are truly interested in what the other has to say and there is room for the unexpected. If you know the one right answer already, there’s nowhere else to go with the conversation. At the same time, though, very open ended questions can be difficult to answer and can stall the conversation while your young reading partner thinks about where to begin. Kids can sometimes be overwhelmed by these questions and end up just answering with a timid shoulder shrug or quiet silence while they try to figure out what you’re looking for.
A great place to begin is with attention-focusing questions.  These are questions that draw a child’s attention to a particular element of the story or illustration but keep the actual answer open. For example, “Wow, look at that bird! What do you notice about its feathers?” The question isn’t too open, your young reading partner will focus with you on the bird but you’re actually asking about what she sees and what she thinks is important and relevant. This can lead in surprising and fun directions. Kids will often notice things that you haven’t. Attention-focusing questions can begin with “What do you notice about...?” “What do you see in...?” or even “What surprised you about...?” They’re always open-ended but also focused.
Exploring children’s answers to attention-focusing questions can lead to measuring and counting questions and comparison questions. Just like the names suggest, these questions encourage kids to dig a little deeper and look at specific information such as how many long feathers and how many short feathers a bird has or to compare how many long feathers different birds have. Again in a great conversation counting questions aren’t asked just for purpose of practicing counting (but of course practicing counting is a great thing to do). The best counting questions follow up on what the child has found interesting or noteworthy and continue the conversation by adding new information and stimulating new questions. For example, counting the different feathers on the birds might lead to asking about why a bird has those feathers, do you think they help it fly?
Attention-focusing, measuring, counting and comparison questions are all ways of gathering observations. They ask kids and adults to pay close attention to what they see and to use their senses to gather interesting data. The next step is the most fun, moving from observations to inferences. Books like Ankylosaur Attack offer a terrific place to help children learn about the differences between observations and inferences and to practice both skills. Inference questions ask children to propose possible explanations for what they observe. Just like observation questions, they should be open-ended but focused. Making inferences from a story isn’t about guessing the right answer. Great inference questions ask kids to really express what they’re thinking, the connections and possible explanations that they see. Adding the simple words “do you think” can make a huge difference. Instead of asking “Why do those birds have different feathers?”, a question that sounds like it has a right answer, try “Why do you think those birds have different feathers?”. “Why do you think...?” “How do you think...” are great ways to ask children to propose their own explanations, showing them at the same time that science is not about reproducing answers but about people (them!) making inferences.
Helping children understand the idea of inferences can also lead to important discussions about how scientists know what they know. This is especially important for things we can’t observe directly, like dinosaurs. When researchers have asked young children about how scientists know what dinosaurs look like, the children often respond that scientists have seen dinosaurs, that they know what dinosaurs look like through observation, not inference. Creating opportunities for children to understand the difference and make their own inferences can be a great way to start a deeper discussion of how scientists know what they know. This is especially important in a book like Ankylosaur Attack that creates the fantasy of having photographs of dinosaurs. Children can and do understand the differences between fantastic and realistic elements of stories but direct conversations about it go a long way in helping them.
So what about reading Ankylosaur Attack? Play along with me and let’s have a conversation with a kid about it. On the second page, the young Ankylosaur looks up. We see a close up of its face in profile, mouth open towards the sky. The text reads, “Pterosaurs circled overhead. Their huge bat-like wings caught the wind. They turned and soared. The dinosaur watched as they squawked and screeched. He lifted his head and bellowed to the sky. But the pterosaurs paid no attention”
“Woah, look at that close up of the ankylosaur’s head!” I exclaim, “What do you think is interesting about his face?”
The child runs her finger over the page “Cool colours on his skin.” She moves her finger further and says with surprise, “Hey, look! He’s got no teeth.”
“No, teeth?” I ask, “Wow, that’s interesting. Let’s look at some of the other pictures and see if we can find any teeth.” We flip to the next page (to the image included above) and see, just barely visible in the back of the ankylosaur’s mouth a small row of rounded teeth.
“Hey look, teeth!” she says.
“Good observation. I wonder why we couldn’t see them in the last picture.” I flip back to the previous page. “Why do you think we can’t see them here?”
“Hmm...” she says “maybe they’re only at the back?”
“Good thinking. Maybe we’ll see some more pictures that will help us figure that out.”
On the pages that follow we see a few more pictures that show the ankylosaur’s teeth just barely visible at the back of his mouth. Next we meet, the aging ankylosaur, and before I can even ask, she exclaims, “Hey look, his teeth are the same. I can hardly see them!” “Great observation”
It’s the next page, the really jumps out at us though – a close-up of the tyrannosaur, with sharp teeth glistening. “Woah” I say slowly, “There’s some more teeth. How do those teeth look different from the ankylosaur’s?”
“Yikes, they’re pointy and sharp. They’re huge!”
“Ya, huge” I say. The difference is startling. With these great observations, maybe this is a place to start making some inferences.
So I ask tentatively, “Why do you think their teeth are so different?”
These simple questions offer a wonderful gateway to talking about the differences between plant-eating and meat-eating dinosaurs and, even further, how scientists can use teeth to make inferences about what a particular dinosaur ate. We can talk about how scientists know and how cool that is that they can learn so many things just from teeth. This could bring us back to talking about the fantasy pictures, that there aren’t any real pictures of dinosaurs. There are endless conversation paths to explore. Books like Ankylosaur Attack are wonderful resources for engaging with science. Through rich illustrations and fascinating texts that can be plumbed for observations and they can encourage inferences. They can allow adults and kids to have great conversations about science.
1. Sackes, M., Cabe Trundle, K., & Flevares, L.M. (2009). Using children’s literature to teach standard-based science concepts in early years. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 415-422.
2. Monhardt, L., & Monhardt, R. (2006). Creating a context for the learning of science process skills through picture books. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34, 67–71.
3. Elsteeg, J. (1985). The right question at the right time. In W. Harlen. Primary science: Taking the plunge. Oxford, UK: Heinemann. (pp. 36-46)
4. Broemmel, A. D., & Rearden, K. T. (2006). Should teachers use the teachers’ choice books in science classes? The Reading Teacher, 60, 254–265.