A Young Scientist’s Bookshelf

An offering of new seasonal science-themed books for little ones to teens that are meaningful to share, ponder and lose yourself in.

Detail from Chitchat: Celebrating the World's Languages.(Illustrated by Kathy Boake, Kids Can Press.)
Detail from Chitchat: Celebrating the World’s Languages.(Kids Can Press. Illustration by Kathy Boake.)

During the holiday season, our family institutes at least one “screen-free day.” No TV, iPad, Playstation 4, or Facebook. Not even texting. OMG!

This unplugging creates a greater sense of domestic peace than a day at a spa. At first our kids responded like hooked fish, gyrating and fighting as if they were being pulled to their dooms. Now it’s a holiday tradition they welcome. (OK, they might not admit it.) Removing screens means two things. We interact. And we turn to that amazing prescreen technology, the book. (No e-readers allowed.)

After a board game, we invariably find ourselves cuddled up on the living room couches, reading. In these moments, having a new book or two to read with kids or grandchildren, or sibling-to-younger-sibling, can be a wonderful holiday highlight. Here’s a selection of new seasonal science-themed books for early readers to teens that are meaningful to share, ponder and lose yourself in.

Given the season, it’s only appropriate to begin with the miracle of gestation. Robie Harris’ early-reader book What’s In There: All About Before You Were Born (illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott, Candlewick Press, preschool) is a straight-talking, upbeat, caring and playful story that speaks to kids’ basic curiosity about what’s happening in an expecting mom’s expanding belly. Colorful, gentle cartoonish images include the mom’s see-through belly and the developing baby. Although there’s no mention of sex (there is a bedroom scene of a widely smiling dad bringing his wife a breakfast tray on Mother’s Day), the author uses real words (vagina) rather than euphemisms. There’s the memorable exchange: “Did Sophia’s new baby sister grow in her mommy’s tummy?” the younger brother asks. “No, Gus!” his older sister explains. “She did NOT grow in her mommy’s tummy. She grew in her mommy’s uterus.” The story of their soon-to-be sibling Jake’s gestation and arrival is told with love and humor using key holidays as temporal markers, from early spring to a Christmastime birth.

To expand on the infant theme, there’s Melvin and Gilda Berger’s 101 Animal Babies (Scholastic, grades 2-5). Yes, the cover is a pastiche of neotenous furry faces that had my teen daughter sigh, “Ooooh, cute!” What’s appealing as a parent (along with the cuteness, of course) is that, though there’s no overarching narrative, taken together the 101 anecdotes convey a powerful and nuanced overview of the amazing diversity of infant-parent relationships. Each colorful photograph of reptilian, insect or mammalian offspring and parent is accompanied by a short narrative with a key interesting tidbit. Badger cubs are born deaf, blind and furless. Chinchilla kits emerge good to go, with fur and eyes open. There’s joy and tragedy. Opossums are born with up to 20 siblings, but the mother has only 10 teats, making it a race to the nipple: “The other joeys die.” We also meet endearing dads, from bad-ass bass dads that guard their fry for a month, to emu dads that “don’t eat or drink for two months while incubating eggs.” In all, a wonderful book to read with a child curled up beside you.

Detail from 101 Animal Babies (Scholastic).
Detail from 101 Animal Babies. (Scholastic.)

Kevin Kurtz’ A Day in the Deep (illustrated by Erin E. Hunter, Sylvan Dell, grades prekindergarten-4) is a stocking stuffer that will keep on giving (educationally). Written in playful rhyming verse, this short, informative book takes primary grade readers down into the ocean’s lightless depths (the aptly named midnight, abyssal and hadal zones). Depicted against ink-black pages, we meet a cast of spooky-looking predators and prey that fascinatingly use bioluminescence to attract or avoid one another: “The vampire squid makes its get-away by spraying out mucus that glows.” Along with a back-of-book “Creative Minds” facts and activities section, A Day in the Deep is homeschooler heaven, with more than 15 pages of related online activities.

Early-reader books aren’t all about reading. Pictures draw us in and provide meaning, and provide a point of discussion, especially when a child can’t yet read the words. Emma Stevenson’s Hide-and-Seek Science: Animal Camouflage (Holiday House, grades 1-4) is a great book for fun interaction between an adult and early reader. The gorgeous, colorful illustrations depict seven diverse habitats, from mangrove swamp to African savannah in which readers are challenged to find the total of 293 animals. (Don’t worry, you’ll find them, or at least the kid will.) If your kid’s into this wildlife version of Where’s Waldo?, you’ll take part in finding them again, and again and again. Once found, it’s your turn to read the brief species descriptions on the next page spread in which the animals are number-labeled in the image. You’ll talk about the coral reef’s false cleaner wrasse: “These sneaky fish look like the cleaner wrasse, so they can safely approach larger fish. But instead of cleaning, they bite off fins and scales for food.” (Sounds like the holiday meal.)

Football fields have reached NASA-level technological sophistication.

What would Christmas be without big men in tights pummeling one another before a cheering multitude? Shane Frederick’s The Technology of Football (Capstone Press/Sports Illustrated Kids, grades 4-6) will give pre-teen readers the techie behind-the-scenes factoids for discussion between downs. This slender volume is aimed at the so-called young male reluctant reader, in this case one whose love of the gridiron will propel him through the text. Each page-spread offers an interesting point. High school football players take a “baseline concussion test”—a computer-based assessment that, when redone after a whack to the head, can be used to gauge the impact’s cognitive effect. To deal with player overheating (which has led to on-field deaths during practices) some National Football League teams have players swallow “radio pills,” sensors that relay their core body temperature to coaching staff. Football fields themselves have reached NASA-level technological sophistication. Gone are the rug-burn days of Astroturf. The majority of NFL teams have stadiums with Field Turf, 100-plus-yard stretches with grass-like, soft fibers sewn into a base that includes “cryogenic rubber made from recycled tires.”

Some pre-teens (boys in particular) favor fun and fascinating facts over story. Books such as DK’s elementary-to-early-middle-school-targeted It Can’t Be True! The Book of Incredible Visual Comparisons (no author credit) cater to this preference. Divided into four categories (from the astronomical through natural wonders and engineering marvels), the comparisons are a great way of putting a reader’s notion of  “-est” (biggest, strongest and so on) and what’s possible into perspective. This is particularly true when it comes to American exceptionalism. The Grand Canyon’s big, but it’s neither the deepest nor longest on Earth, a title that goes to the Yarlung Tsango canyon in Tibet. Similarly, North America’s Great Lakes are indeed inland freshwater seas, but their collective volume wouldn’t fill Russia’s Lake Baikal. The book is loaded with clever, eye-catching visuals. One depicts the fact that an adult heart pumps enough blood in a month to fill five tanker trucks. And during a holiday meal, a young reader can drop the factoid that in the hour it took to eat and kibitz, 8,000 babies were born—showing the gathered what a crowd 8,000 strong looks like.

Detail from Space Encylopedia. (National Geographic Kids.)
Detail from Space Encylopedia. (National Geographic Kids.)

There are library shelves full of astronomy and space books for tweens and early teens. Why add another? Because the universe is changing, or rather our view of it is. Parents who flip through David Aguilar’s Space Encyclopedia: A Tour of Our Solar System and Beyond (National Geographic Kids, grade 5 and up) might experience time warp when reading that there are officially 13 planets in our “new” solar system, from good old Mercury out to newcomer dwarf-planet Eris – to say nothing of dozens of other solar systems from the amazing field of exoplanets, worlds orbiting stars other than our sun. In the first, narrative-propelled section, Aguilar takes readers on an exploratory tour of the solar system aboard the imagined, fusion-powered spaceship Stella Nova. The journey combines informative text (“much of Venus is covered by lava”) the latest space-probe snapshots (close-ups of inch-sized rocks on Saturn’s moon Titan) and Aguilar’s deeply imaginative and informed space art that greatly heightens the feeling of being there. Astronauts stand on Europa’s glacial surface, Jupiter’s massive bulk filling their view. Beyond our solar system, the book jettisons its journey storyline and takes on a strictly encyclopedic tact. There’s the life cycle of stars to galaxy types and mathematically conceived other universes (thanks to a kids’ book I now know that the string theory term “branes” is from “membranes”).

You don’t have to leave Earth to find aliens. They’re among us. At least the four-footed, winged and shelled variety in Ann Downer’s Wild Animal Neighbors: Sharing Our Urban World (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner, late elementary-mid-high school). For the budding teen wildlife biologist or vet, Downer opens with the rather deep question: What does it mean for an animal to be urban and wild in the 21st century? Each of the seven chapters tells a nuanced story of the challenging dance of human-critter interactions as cities push into wild areas and animals adapt to the concrete jungle. As if raccoons aren’t already smart enough, we might be selecting for uber-raccoons by making our garbage harder to access; and in Japan, it’s jungle crows that are the generalist species making themselves at home in cities. We learn about “wildlife corridor technicians,” a new discipline devoted to helping urban animals (including mountain lions and black bears) safely cross roads, and there’s the powerful story of Floridian loggerhead turtle hatchlings drawn to their doom by coastal light pollution. This is truly a leading-edge science book; the author cites the latest news and research findings and there’s even a bibliography and source notes. Yet Downer writes with a conversational, peer-to-peer tone that will have the interested teen flipping pages and wanting more.

Selfie. Twerking. Frenemy. The current mash-up of teen culture and technology is morphing language so quickly that many dinner conversations at our house are punctuated with WTF? Jude Isabella’s engrossing Chitchat: Celebrating the World’s Languages (illustrated by Kathy Boake, Kids Can Press, grades 3-6) makes it clear that this is so, whatever. (I mean par for the historic linguistic course.) In this Chomsky for beginners, Isabella mixes abundant wit and detailed insight to take us from the origins of communication (sigh language?) to the dynamics of today’s neologisms. Although pockets of North America can still sound like a monolingual oasis, most of the world’s citizens are bilingual, or speak three, four or five tongues. Isabella explores our polyglot nature, including the fascinating SVO (subject-verb-object) equation. In English we say: An elephant ate my homework. Koreans put it SOV: My homework an elephant ate. And Irish-Gaelic speakers explain the missing assignment VSO: Ate an elephant my homework. Readers will learn that for all the talk, we live during the age of language extinction. “A language dies every two weeks,” Isabella writes, and half of the current 7,000 languages will probably go silent this century. All the more reason to celebrate the dynamic development of language, words that, as Isabella notes, “make us human.”

Jacob Berkowitz is a science writer and author of the children's science book Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and Others) Left Behind (Kids Can Press, 2006). His latest book, for adults, The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars, was published in 2012 (Prometheus).