dinosaurs, mars, and kareem abdul jabbar: science books for the kids on your shopping list

It’s the time of year again for my annual guest post on the
science books I chose to add to my niece’s and nephew’s growing libraries.

Children’s books are pricey, hovering around $20 a pop for a
hardcover, so they make fantastically generous gifts for families struggling to
keep shoes on ever-growing feet. Paperbacks are about half that, but I tend to
get the hardcovers because my nephew, four years older than my niece, can pass
them down to her with the covers still intact after multiple readings and that
game where you place the books on the floor and leap from cover to cover so
that carpet alligators won’t eat you.

My nephew is in the second grade this year, so he’s at that
murky in-between age where he’s still enough of a little boy to want to be read
to, but enough of a big kid to want to read to himself. It’s hard to find books
that bridge that gap. I got him a combo of books with more grown up stories of
real people, since he’s been getting into the nonfiction world of biographies
that still have cool illustrations. I also threw in some chapter books that are
appropriate for his reading level.

My niece is in preschool, so picture books are where it’s
at, and the sillier, the better. I’m going to start this party with books at
her age level because I share her love for the silly. 

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems. Balzer + Bray
(September 4, 2012). Ages 4 and up. 

GoldilocksKids love Mo Willems as much as they love dinosaurs, so this
book is like the chocolate and peanut butter of children’s books. This is his deliciously
ridiculous riff on the traditional Goldilocks story, with three dinosaurs
setting out bowls of pudding to lure a tasty little girl into their home for
dinner. My niece, like most preschoolers, is greatly impressed by expert-level
silliness, and Mo Willems should have an honorary Ph.D. in it. He’s also the
author of Caldecott Honor winning Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, which I strongly recommend even if it
doesn’t have dinosaurs in it.  Discouraging pigeons from driving buses is good advice
regardless of scientific merit.

There Was a Tree by Rachel Isador. Nancy Paulsen Books (October 11, 2012).
Ages 3 and up.  

Based on the song “Green Grass Grew All Around,” this story is paired
with vivid color and crunchy textured cut outs depicting the plains of Africa.
The song begins with a seedling that grows into an acacia tree that provides a
branch for a nest that holds an egg that hatches into a bird that serves as a
home for a flea.  There’s even some
sheet music in the back so you can sing along with a little one at
bedtime.  In case you need some
inspiration, here’s Melissa Etheridge’s version of the song. It’s a preschool course on ecosystems!

Nightsong by Ari Berk, Illustrated by Loren Long. Simon & Schuster
Books for Young Readers (September 25, 2012) Ages 4 and up. 

NightsongThere’s a special place in my heart for both bats and tracking
systems. I wrote a book  about a
baby bat named Sam a couple of years back, so I’m always on the lookout for books by fellow bat
lovers. Nightsong provides the most elegant explanation of echolocation I’ve
read. Chiro is a baby bat exploring the night sky for the first time.
mother teaches him a special song to sing so thathe can “see” the world in the
dark. Chiro sings out and the world sings back to him in a symphony of sonar.
He “sees” a flock of geese fly overhead, and tasty insects below. He’s also
unbearably cute, with the puppydog face of an Australian flying fox on the body
of a little brown bat. Just try and resist this face.

Willoughby & the Moon, by Greg Foley. Balzer + Bray
(May 4, 2010). Ages 4 and up.

Willoughby is afraid of the dark. The phases of the moon don’t help,
as it slowly melts
Willoughby away in the sky into nothingness. But Willoughby’s curiosity
about where the moon goes when it disappears overcomes his fear, and with the
help of a snail and a dream, he travels into space to find that even though he
can’t see it, the moon is still there in the sky. The illustrations of the moon
are silver over absolute black, and the pages shimmer with beautiful images of
the moon, including a diagram of its core. The silvery inks give off a halo
effect under a reading light, lending a dreamlike quality to the entire book.

There’s Nothing to Do on Mars by Chris Gall. Little, Brown
Books for Young Readers (February 1, 2008). (Age not listed, but in my opinion,
it’s appropriate for 4 and up).

I have to be honest, I got this because it reminded me of the Spaceman
stories in the old Calvin and Hobbes strips. Davey Martin and his robot dog Polaris live on Mars, and they are SO
BORED.  Even with the Martians and
his awesome hovercraft, Davey is BORED. The story isn’t spectacular, but the
illustrations of a completely fantastic Mars are, which is why I decided to buy

What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African American Inventors
by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. Illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G.
Ford. Candlewick; First Edition edition (January 3, 2012). Ages 8 and up.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar writes the story of a brother
and sister who
Jabbardiscover the history of African American inventors by exploring
an old house and the everyday items within it. Frederick Jones brought us
refrigerated trucks, allowing us to get fresh food from thousands of miles
away. Dr. Henry Samson invented the gamma electric cell, which brought us
nuclear power. Dr. Valerie Thomas invented the Illusion Transmitter, giving us
3D projection, and George Crum gave us potato chips. Potato chips!!! There are
16 inventors covered in the book, which has fold-out pages with mini-bios throughout.  I’m unsure if these scientists and
engineers will make it into my nephew’s curriculum in school, so I’m glad
Jabbar was inspired to put this out into the world. It’s just wonderful.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.
Illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon. Dial (January 19, 2012). Ages 6 and up.

This is the autobiography of a young teenager in Malawi named William
Kamkwamba who brought electricity to his village by following a diagram of a
windmill he found in
Boywhoharnessedthewind_zunon a library copy of an old textbook. He salvages junkyards for
parts to build it after being forced by poverty to quit school in the eighth
grade. He’s now attending Dartmouth College because HE BUILT A WINDMILL OUT OF
SCRAP METAL AND POWERED HIS VILLAGE. Yeah. When I was fourteen, I was sitting
on my ass watching MTV and wishing I could quit school and become Joan Jett. This
book is a bit on the youngish side for my nephew, but I think the story itself
is geared toward a kid his age. It’s somewhere in the gap between little boy
and big boy that I mentioned earlier.

Who Was Leonardo da Vinci? by Roberta Edwards and illustrated by True
Kelley. Grosset & Dunlap (September 8, 2005). Ages 8 and up.

The Who Was? series is a great collection that gives brief,
simple-to-read biographical facts
on various historical figures. I also got my nephew one on primatologist Jane
Goodall, but she’s in the Who Is? category until further notice.  The da Vinci biography contains line
drawings of his inventions from weapons to life preservers to flying
machines.  It’s a solid bio told
simply, but there’s also a bit on da Vinci’s study on anatomy that kids might
love for the gross, or be frightened because, well, corpses. Think about the kid
you’re buying for and make a judgment on whether s/he will be happily grossed
out or miserably freaked out. Of course, lots of biblical stuff interspersed
with Copernicus. The Renaissance was nuts, am I right? The Goodall bio is chock
full of facts on chimps as well as biographical information on Goodall.

I also got a special gift for the kids; Mattell Hot Wheel versions of
the Curiosity Mars Rover, in packages signed by some of the “Blue Shirt”
members of the Mars Science Laboratory team. I got each a rover to open and
play with, and another that’s signed so they can be the Supreme Rulers of Show
and Tell. Auntie Allyson believes in giving them a show-and-tell edge.

I can’t really express to all of you how much a new book
means to a family. Story time is precious bonding time between a child and a
loved one, as well as an opportunity to teach and learn.  Books are pretty tough, and can be
tossed around without breaking, and easy to store, which means they’ll be in
good condition to pass along to younger siblings and cousins when they’ve been

If you don’t have a little one to buy for, please consider
picking up one of these titles to toss into a Toy Drive bin. I promise, a needy
family will cherish a book that they can own and read again and again (and again
and again and again until parents want to pull their hair out). It helps kids
learn to read when they’re read to. 
Plus, you could be giving a kid a lifelong memory of a beloved story. 

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