I hope everyone had a good Halloween. Here in Southern California, it decided to rain for the first time in about six months, bad for outdoor costume parties (like the one I attended), but good for quelling forest fires. Now the rain is gone and the sun is back and I’m pleased to announce the return of Ask a Book Question. Ms. Frizzle has written in with a challenging and interesting question:
I like reading popular science books like Genome by Matt Ridley, Best Science Writing of…, The Botany of Desire, Red-Tails in Love, etc. I teach middle school students who read on a much lower level than I do and have far less science background. I’d like to find books like the ones above, but written for 10-15 year olds. Suggestions? I already know about science
picture books by Seymour Simon,Gail Gibbons, and others… I’m looking for something in between.
After reading Ms. Frizzle’s question, I stepped into my wayback machine to see if I was reading anything interesting about science when I was eleven. Aside from reminding me how dorky my glasses looked, my eleven-year-old self, while very interested in science, appeared to read only Hardy Boys books and would turn to his set of Golden Books encyclopedias when looking to read about something scientific. Not very helpful. Sadly, it appears that things haven’t changed much since I was in middle school, and there remains a huge void somewhere in the middle of the wealth of popular science books for adults, the wealth of science-related picture books, and the wealth of science textbooks of which I’m sure Ms. Frizzle is well acquainted. Nonetheless, I did my best to come up with some makeshift recommendations (in three parts). First: As I scanned through various titles, I noticed that there are tons of picture books about science for little kids, but I also noticed that some of them are complex enough and advanced enough to hold the interest of older kids. By far the best one that I came across is a brand new book called The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by author and illustrator Peter Sis. Sis uses Darwin’s copious journals as a jumping off point for a multi layered narrative full of exquisitely rendered maps and charts and illustrations. Sis does a good job of keeping the text at a challenging but not impossible level, and the book is so densely packed with informative eye-candy that it probably would keep an eleven or twelve year old interested. Second: I thought that maybe some of those really good, really engaging science books for adults might work for younger teenagers. They probably couldn’t handle the books on their own, but perhaps taking some excerpts from these books would be useful. My pick in this category would be Longitude by Dava Sobel because it has a good narrative that sticks to solving a single problem (how to calculate longitude) and it includes a fair amount of drama on the high seas. I also thought that the books of Gerald Malcolm Durrell might also serve this purpose well. Both My Family and Other Animals and A Zoo in My Luggage are about growing up fascinated by the flora and fauna around him. Maybe some of these kids will see themselves in the young Durrell. Third: Sadly, I was only able to find one measly book written for this age group about a scientific subject, but at least it’s a pretty good one. I think kids will always be fascinated by Jane Goodall and the idea of living with chimps. Luckily she wrote a book for all those kids called My Life with the Chimpanzees. Finally, I should also mention the really cool Way Things Work series by David Macaulay. There are lots of entertaining illustrations that show the inner-workings of household objects from can openers to computers, a must for future inventors. The most recent installment is called The New Way Things Work.
Ms. Frizzle: I hope this helped. Everyone else: hurry up and write some good science books for kids; they need them, and also, make sure you check out Ms. Frizzle’s blog about being a middle-school teacher in the Bronx.