guest post: gifts for the littlest scientists on your list

AllysonMy hypothesis is this: Children can never have too many good books to read.  In order to prove/disprove this hypothesis, I have set up the following experiment: I buy my niece and nephew stacks and stacks of books, and then ask them if it’s too many. We have yet to reach maximum bookage, and I’ve been sending several pounds of them every year for seven years. I plan to publish the results of my research once my four year-old niece turns eighteen in the Journal of Auntie Allyson, and am positive it will stand up nicely to peer review. 


Once again, I scoured the shelves of my local indie bookstore, Vroman’s, in search of science books for the kids.  The secret to finding some of the best science books for kids is to walk past the science section and just start browsing titles in the kids’ fiction section.  I mean, there are some decent titles to be found sorted by subject in science/math/education, which I’ll detail here, but sometimes books that seem like a silly story about a pair of cats playing all night is actually a fantastic conversation starter about the night sky and everything in it. Give it some thought when you’re browsing through the stacks. A book about different kinds of monsters with googly eyes and jagged teeth is actually kind of a neat way to introduce a child to adaptation. You just ask, “Why do you think the googly-eyed monster has that dark fur?” You hope the kid says, “So you can’t see him hiding in the closet!” At this point, you’ll of course have to invest heavily in nightlights and scooch over in your bed when the inevitable nightmare hits. But you know, ADAPTATION!  Maybe that was a crap example.


The books I got for my niece and nephew this year include the story of Galileo, a dinosaur who doesn’t know she’s extinct, a giant squid who eats homework, lots of poop (oh how little kids love poop), and a universe full of star dust. 


If you’re at a loss for what to buy the little ones in your life this holiday season, consider my recs, below. And then read to them. If you find a kid that has too many books, please send me your data. I’ve yet to discover one, and am sure that I have discovered a new law of physics, and will be shocked to find my hypothesis disproven. If you don’t have any little ones in your life, please consider buying a couple of these and tossing them in a toy drive bin or donating to your local school’s library. 


These are all appropriate for ages 4-7 (and grown-ups will get a kick out of them, too)! I’m linking to Amazon, but consider buying from your local bookseller this year, and explore the store.

Older Than the Stars
by Karen C. Fox. Illustrations by Nancy Davis. Charlesbridge Pub Inc; Reprint edition (July 1, 2011) Ages 6 and up.

This is the story of the Big Bang, told in a cumulative style, like This Is the House That Jack Built or The Twelve Days of Christmas. Author Karen Fox begins her story with a very heavy speck of dust that grows into a universe: electrons, neutrons, protons, all dancing together to make atoms. The illustrations expand and spread out over the pages using carefully considered color that looks like the messy/fun work of pre-schooler on Red Bull.  “These are the bits that were born in the bang when the world began.” You can almost hear Sagan reading it aloud to you. 

This is the dust, so old and new,

Thrown from the blast

Intense enough

To hurl the atoms so strong and tough

That formed in the star of red-hot stuff

That burst from the gas in a giant puff

That spun from the blocks

That formed the bits

That were born in the bang

When the world began 

And so she continues through to the inevitable conclusion: You, me, the dinosaurs, your mom, that mean kid down the street who throws rocks at cars, the street itself, the neighbor’s dog who poops on the lawn…all came from a star, which means we’re all connected and as old as the universe itself.  This is a lovely introduction to cosmology. Hell, I understand it better. I hope her next book is on quantum mechanics.


Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems. Hyperion Book CH; First Edition edition (August 1, 2006).  Ages 4 and up.

Edwina is a dinosaur. She bakes cookies, goes to school, helps little old ladies cross the street, and everyone loves her. Everyone but Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie. Reginald spends all his days trying to convince everyone that Edwina simply cannot exist, even though everyone in his class can clearly see that she is there, baking cookies.  You can see how this would be a good time to bring up the topic of Climate Change.


Starry Messenger Written and Illustrated by Peter Sis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (September 1, 2000). Ages 6 and up.

GalileoThis is the history of Galileo Galilei, told simply and elegantly by author Peter Sis. I’m going to put out a warning that he doesn’t gloss over Galileo’s trial and imprisonment by the Church, and it might be a little upsetting for kids. Then again, if your kid didn’t need therapy after seeing Bambi’s mom get turned into venison ravioli, this shouldn’t be too difficult.  The illustrations are rich, intricate, and powerful.


Though it might be a little hard to get through the page on Galileo’s trial, the final artwork depicting the astronomer standing on his roof, secretly gazing up at the night sky while the unknowing guards stand below is inspiring and hopeful. In this way, Galileo is presented as victorious, because as the famous song goes, “You can’t take the sky from me.”

You see what I did there with the Firefly theme song? See? Also, this is a Caldecott Honor book, which means my contention that the illustrations are hauntingly gorgeous holds up under peer review.


One Moon, Two Cats by Laura Godwin and Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka. Atheneum Books for Young Readers (August 30, 2011) Ages 3 and up.

A country cat and a city cat live very far away from each other, but play under the same moon. This one’s a lovely conversation starter about how animals adapt to different environments, but I like it for more personal reasons. Though my niece is three-thousand miles away, we’re both sleeping under the same moon…or more likely, getting out of bed to get into some trouble. I like any book that encourages kids to look up at the night sky and wonder. This is one of them. 


11 Experiments That Failed by Jenny Offill and Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade (September 27, 2011) Ages 4 and up. 

I adore this. A little girl. A lab coat. Safety glasses. The scientific method. Eleven experiments and their results.

Question: Can a message be sent in a bottle to a faraway land?

Hypothesis: The hole in the bottom of the toilet leads to the sea.

What you need:

  • Message
  • Bottle
  • Toilet

What to do:

1. Write a secret message.

2. Place inside bottle.

3. Flush.


  • Toilet overflowed
  • Plumber called
  • Still awaiting rescue 

There are ten more of these, including one with a bologna sandwich and a pair of sneakers. This is science comedy gold.  With diagrams.  I once worked in a lab where an ant fried an 80k laser. This isn’t that far off.


The Boy Who Cried Ninja by Alex Latimer. Peachtree Publishers (April 1, 2011) Ages 5 and up. 

I’m cheating a little here in that is in no way a sciencey sort of book. However, the characters are: A boy named Tim, a ninja, an astronaut, a time-traveling monkey, a sunburned crocodile, and a giant squid.

I’m going to chalk up any story involving a giant squid as a win in the column of any fan of biologist and cephalopod lover, PZ Myers.


Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable by Nicola Davies and Illustrated by Neal Layton. Candlewick; Reprint edition (March 22, 2011). Ages 8 and up.

Scientists study it. Everybody does it. Dung beetles eat it. Archeologists dig it up by the truckload. Hippos make a lot of it. What is it? IT’S POOP! Kids love poop. This book takes its shit very seriously. Blue whales have big, pink poops because they eat a lot of shrimp. Hippos navigate by poop. Termites use their poop to farm mushrooms. Yes, termites farm. Holy shit.

I also purchased a brick containing fossilized dinosaur poop. It comes with a pick and brush so the kids can excavate the poop fossil. Yes, you can purchase fossilized dinosaur poop.


Why We Have Day and Night by Peter F. Neumeyer and Edward Gorey. Pomegranate (March 15, 2011). Ages 4 and up. 

Using an orange and a flashlight, Edward Gorey explains the earth’s rotation to a Goreygroup of crosshatch ink gothic children. Oh yes.  


I also picked up a few picture books and a flip-book on dinosaurs, that allows my niece to make different crazy looking dinosaurs by flipping any one of three cardboard panels. As I wrote earlier, you can find some gems by wandering away from the science section and into the fiction stacks. Look for pictures that make you gaze a little longer, and think of ways you can use the story to talk about science with the kids you love. This will help teach them critical thinking skills, and sharpen their imaginations. 


Happy holidays, all.  And happy reading!

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