Best Kids’ Science Books of the Year

A discussion-provoking assortment for all ages, to enjoy together over the holidays.

From Next Time You See the Moon, via NASA.

There’s a secret about good kids’ science books, even the ones nominally for five-year-olds: They’re also for adults. Most of us forget or never learn basic concepts. Or we see the world as disconnected facts, like the pieces of a puzzle strewn on the floor. Kids’ science books put the pieces together and, as such, they span ages and stages.

This leads to a second secret: These books are often best enjoyed together. They are together gifts. These are books that spark thinking, and it’s by having a parent or grandparent to extend and connect facts and ideas that these books really shine. So here’s a selection of the year’s best science books for kids of all ages to enjoy together over the holidays.

YOUNGER READERS

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. 48 pages. The Blue Sky Press (Scholastic).

The title presents a riddle that’s as challenging as the book’s topic: How do you bury sunlight? It’s a playful conundrum that ties together big concepts in this kids’ introduction to climate change science. Buried Sunlight is strongest in making the link between planetary science and environmental science—and between the sun on your face, the gas in your car, the gases in the atmosphere and global climate. The authors cover sunlight’s journey from photosynthesis to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. There are six pages of end-of-book notes, providing further detail tied to each page spread. Buried Sunlight is a call to action for young and old alike.

Next Time You See the Moon. Emily Morgan. 32 pages. NSTA Books.

This book belongs to a series “intended to be read with a child after he (or she) has had some experience with the featured objects or phenomena.” It’s a welcome nudge to put down the iPad and pick up the binoculars. As life at home and school increasingly involve virtual experiences, there’s nothing like starting story time by heading outdoors to look up together. Aimed at the K-6 reader, the book focuses on the mystery and reasons for the lunar cycle. Describing the orbital relationships between sun, moon and Earth isn’t always easy, and the book does a good job. It’s a great appetizer to examining some NASA Apollo mission footage and talking about how we got there—and back.

Bone-ology is a great introduction to the fascinating aspects of human development and comparative anatomy.

Body Bones. Shelley Rotner and David A. White. 32 pages. Holiday House Books.

If a broken bone has been part of your family’s life lately, now’s the time to sit down with Body Bones. Bone-ology is a great introduction to the fascinating aspects of human development and comparative anatomy. We’re born with 270 bones but, by the time we’re adults, they’ve fused into 206. (I’ve always loved gently touching a baby’s fontanel.) We all lose teeth and have new ones miraculously emerge, from 20 baby teeth to 32 adult ones. My favorite photo in the book is a smiling 10-year-old, his mouth a jumble of partially dropped adult teeth and gaps, along side an X-ray giving us a clearer view of this dental traffic jam. There are numerous examples of other animals’ skeletal structures, the coolest a cutaway of a snake’s Slinky-like ribs.

MIDDLE-SCHOOLERS

Editor’s note: Some of the books in this section also are nominally aimed at younger readers. For example, the publisher lists the first title in this section “for age 7 and up” and the last starting at 9 years old. In treatment, they are more of a kind with the other books in this section than with the picture books for younger readers above and will be happily devoured by middle-school readers.

It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families. Robie E. Harris and Michael Emberley. 84 pages. Candlewick Press (2nd edition.)

This is the 15th anniversary edition of this much-praised classic, a kids’ take on reproduction in the spirit of the women’s classic Our Bodies, Ourselves. So, now that many seven-year-olds watch Game of Thrones or are introduced to Internet porn with older siblings, does a book of cartoon-style drawings of often frumpy families still have a place in introducing kids to sex and reproduction? Yes—maybe more than ever. The book’s enduring accomplishment is that it seamlessly moves from microscopic to familial while emphasizing and capturing the emotional part of the journey. After all, it’s love and caring that ultimately drive reproduction and birth. Author Robie Harris uses straight-forward language, from eggs and ejaculation to homosexuality and adoption, to thoughtfully give readers the facts they’ve wondered about. The science is balanced by two cartoon characters: a curious, fascinated bird and a squeamish, “let’s not talk about it” bee who verbalize the two extremes of our reactions to learning the details of our most intimate and amazing selves.

From Get the Scoop on Animal Poop.
From Get the Scoop on Animal Puke.

Get the Scoop on Animal Puke. Dawn Cusick. 80 pages. Charlesbridge.

Insects do it. So do birds. Not to mention sharks, which go all out. What do they all do? Puke, of course. Author Cusick combines fun, facts and of course some gross-out in just the right mix in this Darwinian take on blowing chunks in the animal kingdom. We might associate hurling with collegiate early mornings of driving the porcelain bus, but Cusick provides amazingly wide-ranging examples to show that vomiting is an adaptive behavior used by legions of species for everything from food-sharing to house-building, predator-avoidance to courtship. Many seabirds spew projectile vomit, an acidic stream shot at would-be predators. Sharks can literally puke out their stomachs (stomach eversion) and pull them back in. And of course, there are ruminants, including cows, for which vomit is just another name for chewing the cud. The book is deeply researched, kid-tested and provides references for those who want even more to gnaw on.

Extreme Weather: Surviving Tornadoes, Sandstorms, Hailstorms, Blizzards, Hurricanes, and More! Thomas M. Kostigen. 112 pages. National Geographic Kids.

Among extreme-weather book contenders, this one stands out for its focus on climate change and what readers can do to survive the associated uptick in extreme storms. The author, an environmental journalist, is at his strongest recounting in story and images a disturbing panoply of record-breaking weather disasters. It’s an anecdotal approach that will appeal to readers who enjoy perusing the Guinness Book of World Records. I spent 11 days without electricity during the 1998 Great Ice Storm that hit eastern Canada. Like me, many readers will relate personally to these stories because they’ve lived through an extreme weather event, whether California’s current drought, the haboob—a massive dust storm that hit Phoenix in 2011—Hurricane Sandy’s flooding of New York or Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.

It’s just the book to have with holiday time for hands-on creating.

The Robot Book: Build & Control 20 Electric Gizmos, Moving Machines, and Hacked Toys. Bobby Mercer. 208 pages. Chicago Review Press.

A remarkable number of the 20th century’s great scientists, engineers and inventors got their start tinkering with broken or discarded radios. Robot tinkering is the 21st century equivalent, and The Robot Book is a great curiosity kick-starter. High school science teacher and author Bobby Mercer provides clever, clearly explained guides to building 20 robots. Each turns household detritus—an old toothbrush or a broken remote-controlled car—into the stuff of hands-on robot building. Varying levels of complexity provide lots of points of access, from an electric toothbrush strapped to the top of a Styrofoam cup to turning a pull-back car’s geared guts and a toilet-paper roll into an upright, C3PO-like robot (coloring optional). It’s just the book to have with holiday time for hands-on creating. The book emphasizes safety guidelines and asking for parental permission (for example if soldering), but the approach ensures that many readers will graduate to robot experimenting (safely) on their own.

PRETEENS AND TEENS

Vintage FDA milk poster, reprinted in Red Madness.
Vintage FDA milk poster, reprinted in Red Madness.

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat. Gail Jarrow. 192 pages. Calkins Creek (an imprint of Highlights).

Red Madness tells the fascinating, tragic story of America’s early 20th-century version of Ebola. If your teen, like me, hasn’t heard of pellagra, she’ll quickly turn pages in this epidemiological who done it, one that for decades stumped the world’s greatest medical minds. Pellagra (Italian for rough skin) had a trajectory similar to Ebola’s. It was linked to foreigners (identified by physicians in Europe before America) and caused a “4-D” cascade of awful symptoms: dermatological (severe, scabbing skin rashes), debilitating diarrhea, dementia and, finally (mercifully), death. Between 1900 and 1940 more than 3 million Americans suffered from pellagra and at least 100,000 died. The author plots the pellagra mystery chronologically, with straightforward storytelling and dozens of heart-rending anecdotes and images. The story combines medical competition, regional politics and media sensationalism, along with several public health heroes. Dr. Joseph Goldberg concocted a “pellagra pill” made from a patient’s feces, urine and scabs and a little flour and ate it to prove that pellagra wasn’t infectious. He was right, and his dramatic act of self-sacrifice helped turn the medical tide toward the real culprit: niacin deficiency, the reason grains are now fortified with this B vitamin.

A gripping, nuanced overview of differing scientists’ experiences, experiments, results and opinions on the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: Life in the Death Zone. Rebecca Johnson. 88 pages. Twenty-First Century Books (Lerner).

The 1982 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in northern Ukraine stands as the world’s worst nuclear accident: The meltdown of reactor No. 4 vaporized 50 tons of radioactive fuel, releasing 400 times the radioactivity of the Hiroshima bomb. The accident also created one of Europe’s largest wildlife preserves—the cordoned-off Exclusion Zone around the plant—and thus the basis for the world’s largest experiment in the long-term effects of radiation on animals and plants. For the budding researcher, this exceptionally researched and well-written story provides a gripping, nuanced overview of differing scientists’ experiences, experiments, results and opinions on the long-term effects of radiation exposure. The answer is anything but clear. Tales of Frankenfish in the highly irradiated cooling pond turned out to be 18-foot-long wels catfish that had reached their impressive, normal adult size. The author details studies of a radiation-contaminated rodent called the bank vole that made dosimeters squeal, yet individual voles appeared to be physically and genetically healthy. In contrast, studies of barn swallows showed birds with physical deformities, tumors and shortened lifespans, and there’s evidence of greatly reduced insect and spider populations.

The Science Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. Edited. 352 pages. DK Publishing.

This is a stunning compendium of scientific ideas simply explained. In fact, in a rare case, the subtitle underplays the book’s overall strength. It not only introduces the curious reader to big ideas, it helps guide him or her to see their historical and intellectual interconnections and context. For example, its description of the exploration of light’s properties extends in brief sections from 1000 C.E. Baghdad-based astronomer Alhazen to Newton, Huygens, Thomas Young and Einstein and Planck’s insights into the photon’s wave-particle nature, laying the foundation for quantum physics. Thus, the book’s chronological structure takes the reader on a great journey of discovery, from Platonic philosophical reasoning into the modern Baconian model of science founded in the triumvirate of observation, deductive theorizing and experimentation. This focus on the pedigree of ideas in biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy and earth sciences is reinforced with excellent sidebars. Today’s teens are often baffled and dissuaded from science by school’s focus on subject-specific facts over cohesive, ideas-based understanding. This book is a great antidote. It’ll be under the tree for my son, a high school junior.

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).

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