The National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council have released their annual lists of the best science and STEM books. The Outstanding Science Trade Book list has been around since 1973 and features the best science book published in that year for K-12. The Best STEM Books list is in its fourth year. It features the best book with science, technology, engineering and math content.
The links above go directly to the pdfs of the 2020 lists.
Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh, illustrated by Scott Campbell (9781534414006)
This picture book is a rousing look at your head bones or skull. The book uses clever analogies to allow young children to understand the importance of your skull, such as skulls are “like a car seat for your brain” in the ways that they keep your brain safe. Skulls have your jaws and also your teeth, until they fall out. They have holes for various senses, including eating grilled cheese sandwiches. The book encourages children to not be scared of skulls because they are so very important.
This is Thornburgh’s debut picture book and it’s wonderfully unusual and interesting. She uses repetition cleverly in the middle of the book, almost creating a refrain about the holes in skulls, grilled cheese sandwiches and teeth falling out. Her focus on a child’s understanding is clear, creating scenarios that they will respond to and not making skulls frightening but fascinating.
Campbell’s watercolor illustrations are full of energy. He creates scenes full of life that then turn to full of bones at the turn of the page. His humor and zaniness keep the book from ever being creepy except in the friendliest of ways.
Face this one head on! Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Moth: An Evolution Story by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egneus (9781547600205)
This nonfiction picture book explains a specific process of evolution by following the story of the Peppered Moth. The moths emerge from their cocoons after the long winter, quickly seeking shelter from predators. At first, most of the moths had speckled black and white wings. It allowed them to better hide in the bark of the woods. The ones that happened to be born with dark wings got eaten by predators. So the speckled moths were able to survive to lay their eggs. But then the world around them changed with more soot and pollution covering the bark of the trees and other objects. Now it was the dark moths that survived best and could lay their eggs. Steadily, the moths started to become darker and less speckled. Now though, pollution is lessening and there is no longer as much soot. So the speckled moths are returning alongside the dark moths.
The tale of the Peppered Moth shows many elements of evolutionary process, including natural selection and adaptation. Both of those concepts are more fully described in the final pages of the book but are fully realized in the main part of the book as well. Thomas does a lovely job with the prose, giving the reader just enough information to allow the story to unfold before them. She limits the amount of words on the page, making this accessible for quite young children.
The illustrations are marvelous, inviting readers into the darkness of a moonlit woods as the moths emerge from their cocoons. The pages fill with moths of different mixtures of black and white. When day comes, more predators enter the pages. As the pollution enters, the world becomes dark and filled with dots and specks of dirty soot. The moths glow against the new darkness, or hide well, depending on their color. It’s a stirring and rich look at evolution happening right before your eyes.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this is a very special nonfiction picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman, illustrated by Heather Fox (9781250303172)
The book begins with the prediction that on Friday, Llama will destroy the world. On Monday, it all began with Llama eating far, far too much cake. On Tuesdays Llama dances, so he tried to put on his dancing pants. He had to squeeze in to them because they didn’t quite fit due to the amount of cake he had eaten the day before. His pants ripped, creating a sound loud enough to enter space and create a black hole. On Wednesday, Llama noticed the black hole, did scientific calculations and then made a sandwich instead of letting anyone know. On Thursday, signs of doom started appearing everywhere. On Friday, everything was sucked into the black hole. But what will happen on Saturday?
I love that the entire plot of the book is laid out in the title and again on the first page. Llama is going to destroy the world and it will happen on Friday. That hangs over the head of the reader, creating a sense of real drama. It also allows the book to head in a wild and zany direction that is incredibly engaging and that only gets sillier as the week continues. The ending is a great twist in a book that looks a physics, time and space.
Fox’s illustrations are so funny. Llama has googly eyes and a comical face with plenty of expression. The different elements of the story are given heft and drama by the illustrations, including the ripped pants, the pile of cake, and of course, the black hole.
Funny, scientific and zany, this picture book is so much fun. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt & Company.
Predator and Prey by Susannah Buhrman-Deever, illustrated by Bert Kitchen (9780763695330)
In poems for two voices, this book shows the cunning, evolution and beauty of predators and their prey. From bats to frogs to snakes to hawks to spiders, the poems feature all sorts of animals. Engagingly, often it is sometimes the obvious predator who is actually going to be the prey. That is certainly true in the example of the spider at the center of her web who is being preyed upon by the assassin bug. After each of the poems, there is a section about the animals in nonfiction prose that illuminates the relationship of the two species more clearly.
I was amazed to discover that this is biologist Buhrman-Deever’s first book for children. Her two-voice poems are very effective and could easily be used in classroom activities to be shared aloud by pairs of children who will enjoy being predators and prey since so many of the animals featured are very fascinating. She gives voice to the animals in her poems and then allows scientific information to be shared as well. The end of the book has a lengthy bibliography which is greatly appreciated.
The illustrations by Kitchen are exceptional as well, showing the reader the relationship between the two animals being discussed. They are realistic and dramatic as the animals stand off on the page. Several of the pages also have large gated pages that open to reveal the poem beneath them, allowing Kitchen’s full imagery to be appreciated without words blocking it.
A very successful mix of poetry and science, this one is sure to be preyed upon by hungry readers in classrooms and activities. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks (9781368008440)
Living on Wilnick, an outdated and aging space station at the end of the galaxy could be dull, but not for best friends Sanity and Tallulah. Sanity, who has always wanted a pet despite rules against having one, decides to create one herself. It turns out to be a very cute three-headed kitten with a taste for meat. The kitten manages to escape soon after Tallulah’s mother finds out that she exists. The girls set out to find out whether the problems that are happening across the space station are the fault of one cute kitten or maybe it’s something else. Meanwhile, there seems to be a very large monster on the loose and the coolant tank appears to have been drunk dry. As disaster looms aboard the space station, it’s up to Sanity to save the day thanks to the technology she explored when creating her illegal pet.
Brooks sets exactly the right tone in this graphic novel. The girls best friends who tend to talk one another into getting into even more trouble while trying to fix what they have already done. Add in a three-headed kitten and mayhem follows. The two girls could not be more different, which makes for an odd-couple chemistry between them. The story is fast paced and a delightful mix of STEM and girl power.
The art in the book is done in a limited color palette with pinks and deep blues. The art brings to life the space station and its size, conveying the hazards of keeping it functional while giving the girls a lot of space to run into trouble. The cast of characters is wonderfully diverse and that extends to all of the people who live aboard the space station.
A strong graphic novel with plenty of appeal. Appropriate for ages 9-12
Reviewed from library copy.
The Dinosaur Expert by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780553511437)
In this new book in the Mr. Tiffin’s Classroom series, the class visits the natural history museum. Kimmy loves fossils and has been to the museum many times before. She can’t wait to share everything she knows about dinosaurs with the others. But when she starts to tell the others about dinosaurs, Jake tells her that girls can’t be scientists. As the children walk through the exhibits, Kimmy sees only men’s names on the displays. Kimmy stops talking about what she knows, even when Mr. Tiffin tries to get her to share. When they enter a new special exhibit, Mr. Tiffin points out that a female paleontologist was the one who discovered it. Inspired, Kimmy starts to talk about what she knows.
A book about the power of modeling to inspire young people, particularly girls to get involved with science, this picture book forgoes subtlety and takes the issue straight on. The strength of other children’s opinions is shown very clearly but so is the ability to suddenly shrug that off and be who you are without hesitation when you are inspired by another female scientist. Don’t miss Kimmy’s list of her favorite female paleontologists and their discoveries. Karas’s illustrations are done in his signature style. He shows Kimmy’s emotions very clearly as she moves from questioning herself into owning her knowledge.
A great book to share and inspire science exploration. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Random House.
Otherwood by Pete Hautman (9780763690717)
After Grandpa Zach died in the storm, pages of his book strewn around him, Stuey and his mother packed his writing up and put it all away. Grandpa Zach had told Stuey that ghosts walk on the golf course that has now become an overgrown wood. It was where Stuey’s great grandfather disappeared along with the district attorney who was prosecuting him. The two were never seen again. Now when Stuey and his best friend Elly Rose go into the deadfall of trees that seems to form a sort of castle or ship in the woods, they hear voices and music. Stuey has even seen a figure like his grandfather appear. When Elly Rose disappears one day right before Stuey’s eyes, no one believes him. But Elly Rose is gone though Stuey can occasionally still make contact with her. It seems she has entered a different reality where Stuey is the one who vanished. In this splintered new world, how can the two of them restore their own reality?
Hautman beautifully combines a mystery with a ghost story with quantum physics in this ode to a woods. The woods itself, the overgrown golf course, is as much a character here as the two children. It is a woods from all of our childhoods, one that seems far larger than it actually is, one that invites you in, scares you a bit, and releases you back into reality. Hautman cleverly uses the woods as the way that people vanish, that hatred is fought and that people take a stand.
Stuey and Elly Rose are unlikely friends which makes the book all the better. Stuey has suffered great loss in his life with only his mother left. He is surrounded by his grandfather’s home and his grandfather’s secrets. Elly Rose is imaginative, playful and a bit bossy, deciding what games they will play together. Still, they are fast friends even as their reality splits apart around them.
Smart and sophisticated, this middle grade novel is a dynamic mix of fantasy and science. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (9780763678838)
Released September 4, 2018.
This breathtaking picture book looks deeply at the Big Bang and how it created all of us. The book begins with darkness where there is no time or space. Until BANG! matter is created and the stars flare to life. The stars burn and eventually explode themselves creating planets. Still, there is no life yet. In our solar system, there is one fragile blue planet where life eventually begins, where dinosaurs and humans live and die. And then finally, you arrive from your own speck and flare into life too.
Newbery Honor winning Bauer has written a poem that takes the science of the Big Bang and adds a feeling of mythology to it without damaging the scientific aspect. Her poem soars through the primordial darkness, journeys directly into the Big Bang, floats beside emerging planets, visits Earth, and welcomes children to life. It’s a big ask for a poem but Bauer’s words create a vehicle to really experience the wonder of the universe. Her poem also celebrates the fact that all of us are made of the same matter as stars.
The illustrations of this picture book defy explanation. They are unique and wondrous, filling the page with swirls of darkness, defining emptiness, creating reality. They are done with collage, marbled paper and combined digitally, but those words don’t capture what they do on the page. Holmes has managed to create a universe before your eyes, one that shines, explodes and manifests right there.
An exceptional picture book that celebrates science and beauty. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.