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STEM Books for Older Children

Barbara Aulicino, Katie L. Burke, Robert Frederick, Fenella Saunders, Dianne TimblinDec 16, 2016

The past year has delivered an array of STEM-related titles for young readers. Our second gift guide for 2016 features books we think kids in the latter elementary grades, middle school, and the first years of high school will thoroughly enjoy. (More on how we’ve categorized our gift guides for kids’ books below.)

This year's batch includes several books that strongly emphasize the connection between creativity and STEM, whether it involves designing bridges, mapping the landscape in innovative ways, or inventing iconic toys. It also represents a mixture of ways to learn: Some of the books facilitate deeply absorbed reading, while others are more about dreaming and doing.

For the purpose of our gift guides, by the way, the age range for books we’ve categorized for older children starts at around 9 years. We consult the publishers’ age-range guidelines, and many books fall on the borderline—so if you’re seeking books for kids who are 8 or 9 years old, you might take a look here as well as checking out our gift guide for younger children.

Amazing Paper Airplanes: The Craft and Science of Flight. Kyong Hwa Lee. University of New Mexico Press, 2016. $19.95. Ages 9–13.

Amazing Paper Airplanes is a seriously fun book. It gracefully divides its pages between theory and practice, ideas and creation, and, not least of all, the accumulation of knowledge and the disassembly of its vessel. In other words, after reading about the principles of flight and the aerodynamics of paper airplanes based on certain shapes and folds, kids can gleefully cut pages out of the book to make actual things. (Things, by the way, they can throw across the living room without getting into trouble!) The book’s informative opening section is followed by four chapters—categorized as basic, simple, intermediate, and advanced—that each contain eight paper airplane designs. Except for a few in the basic category, every design pays tribute to a specific aircraft, such as the Concorde airliner, the F-4 Phantom, the space shuttle, the B-2 Spirit (aka Stealth bomber), and even the P-38 Lighting, with its twin booms. (No surprise that the P-38 is included in the section for advanced designs.) Finally, the appendix provides the material for creating these mini aeronautic masterpieces: Every design in the earlier chapters corresponds with an appendix page decked out in the colors and markings of its real-life aircraft counterpart, ready to be constructed and flown. Helpful folding lines printed on these pages correspond with each plane’s folding instructions found in the design chapters. —Dianne Timblin

Animalium Activity Book. Written by Big Picture Press; illustrated by Katie Scott. Welcome to the Museum series. Big Picture Press, 2016. $14.99. Ages 7–10.

First things first: Animalium, the 2014 volume this activity book pairs with, is lavishly illustrated and contains examples of nearly every type of creature on the planet, along with statistics on size, habitat, and distinguishing characteristics, both physical and behavioral. The Animalium activity book pulls from these illustrations, beautifully depicting all sorts of creatures. Many of the activities are suited for older children, such as more intricate drawing exercises. But some pages—ones involving coloring, matching, or size ordering, for example—focus on less complicated fun that younger kids will find within their range. —Fenella Saunders

Bridges: An Introduction to Ten Great Bridges and Their Designers. Didier Cornille; translated by Yolanda Stern Broad. Who Built That? series. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. $17.95. Ages 6 and up.

The latest installment in Didier Cornille’s “Who Built That?” series (which has previously focused on modern houses and skyscrapers), Bridges is a handsome volume that will appeal to the budding architect or engineer. Fittingly, the form of the book cleverly serves its function: Its long, narrow shape, with pages designed to be viewed landscape-style and turned bottom-to-top instead of right-to-left, handily accommodates Cornille’s delicate, precise ink drawings of bridges and their construction. Ten iconic bridges get their due, each notable as a feat of design and engineering, whether for its innovative use of materials, its spectacular height or length, or its accommodation of site-specific hazards, such as ferocious currents. The prose style is fairly spare—discursive without being verbose. Cornille includes brief profiles of the architects and engineers, defines different styles of bridges, describes the engineering concepts behind them, and presents highlights from the construction of each featured span. Finally, as we might expect from an author who’s also a professor of design and its history, he does a marvelous job of drawing connections between the featured bridges and others—sometimes earlier bridges that inspired a particular design, other times earlier projects by the same designer that show the development of an aesthetic—that may inspire some readers to dig into their local libraries and find out more. —Dianne Timblin

A Reference-Rich Year

How Things Work. T. J. Resler. National Geographic and Penguin Random House, 2016. $19.99. Ages 7–10.

Super Cool Tech. DK, 2016. $24.99. Ages 8–12.

The Way Things Work Now. David Macaulay. HMH, 2016. $35.00. Ages 7 and up.

This has been a great year for reference books tailored for kids. Three especially comprehensive titles that have crossed my desk are How Things Work, Super Cool Tech, and The Way Things Work Now. They cover much of the same territory, especially the areas of technology, physics, design, and engineering. So, how to choose? I’d recommend that you take as your guide the reading style, particular interests, and age of the young reader you have in mind.

How Things Work is intended for somewhat younger readers. It has a bright and busy look, and it seems designed to work especially well for readers who like to dip in and out of a text, digging into their specific interests here and there. The chapters bring together items that fit into broad categories, such as technologies for the home, for school, and for transportation. Each chapter profiles a technologist, which helps make the field seem more personal and accessible, and includes a “Try This!” segment that allows kids to get in on the action themselves.

Super Cool Tech should interest kids who are fascinated by the details of how particular technological objects work—from the Xbox One to the Whill power wheelchair, to the New Horizons spacecraft—and how innovative structures are built, including Tesla’s Gigafactory, New York City’s Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, and the Lotus Temple in New Delhi. The book itself is sleekly designed to resemble a metallic silver laptop computer, and the text on each page is broken into bite-sized “windows” of information. One caveat: Those who aren’t big fans of capitalism may be put off by the emphasis on specific brands of technology, especially in the book’s opening chapter. Occasionally on the pages focusing on name-brand technologies, the descriptions skewed way too close to marketing copy for my comfort. That said, the exploded composite photographs of products like Apple’s iWatch are deeply interesting, and I’d expect them to be catnip for the kind of kid who likes to take things apart to see how they work. (Not so long ago, some kids were lucky enough to work under the hood with shade-tree-mechanic family members. Alas, rare is the family today that enjoys disassembling an iWatch together!) From a publishing standpoint, I can vouch for the difficulties, legal and otherwise, of showing and discussing how specific technologies work without the cooperation of the makers of that technology; the book’s acknowledgments nod to that debt. For some this may a deal breaker; others may see it as a conversational opportunity.

Finally, The Way Things Work Now, I’d posit, has the broadest appeal, the strongest addictive properties, and is hands-down the funniest and most charming. Sitting down with this updated version of Macarthur fellow David Macauley’s classic is like getting together with your brilliant, eccentric uncle who seems to understand everything in the world—whether it’s electronic paper, a car’s ignition system, a toilet tank, or nuclear fission—and loves to draw it all out on napkins as he describes it you and your rapt cousins. I especially appreciate that he starts at the beginning, with simple machines and scientific laws of motion, force, and energy, before moving on the ways in which these principles and mechanics are applied. Macauley’s cartoons, especially his whimsical drawings of expressive mammoths (in one, a merry band of humans has fashioned simple machines into a giant hairdryer to assist an amazed mammoth in curlers), create a playful mood throughout, even as young readers are learning some serious science and engineering.
—Dianne Timblin

Living Fossils: Clues to the Past. Written by Caroline Arnold; illustrated by Andrew Plant. Charlesbridge, 2016. $16.95. Ages 7–10.

It is fascinating for kids to think that there are species still alive today that were in existence when the dinosaurs were alive. Although in scientific circles the term living fossil is somewhat contentious, this book conveys how some creatures (coelocanths, horseshoe crabs, dragonflies, among others) have changed very little over eons. The book includes separate sections about the animals then and now, as well as a fact box on how the animals have survived for so long. Although some young kids—those in the early elementary-school grades, in particular—may enjoy the book, it’s text-rich enough that it may better hold the attention of somewhat older children. —Fenella Saunders

Mind-Boggling Numbers: Math for the Curious. Written by Michael J. Rosen; illustrated by Julia Patton. Millbrook, 2016. $14.99. Ages 7–11.

"Are we there yet?” It’s one of those questions kids ask before they have learned to estimate how long it takes to get from point A to point B. Even after kids can reliably perform the basic functions of arithmetic, it takes practice to learn the important skill of estimation. Once I’d learned basic math, my parents turned my questions around on me: “We’ve got 68 miles to go and we’re traveling at 55 miles per hour, so about how long do you think until we’re there?”

In Mind-Boggling Numbers, the questions are far more imaginative, such as “If I wanted to send a birthday card to everyone on the planet, how long would it take me to sign all those cards?” The estimates do take calculation because the numbers are mind-boggling, after all. But the reader is treated to both an approximate answer (222 years without time for “sleeping, eating, biking, swimming") and some discussion of how to think about the problem, which is the real skill of estimation. Although readers won’t need a pencil or calculator to appreciate the book, it provides enough guidance for advanced number crunchers to work out answers to the questions for themselves. Follow-up questions (And how long if 10 friends helped you?) encourage some estimation using mental calculations too (the 11 of you working together would take about 20 years). As readers might expect of a math book, the answers—or rather, the full step-by-step calculations—are in the back, along with an English/metric conversion table (mosquito weights, for example, are given in grams—yes, for the persnickety, that’s a measure of mass) as well as a very short glossary and suggestions for further reading.

With delightful illustrations, there are visual reasons to linger on the pages, too. That fits in well with the author’s maxim that all storytelling begins with wonder: “With this book, I found a chance to wonder with numbers.” The varying difficulty levels of the calculations, though, may mean parents find themselves sometimes wondering with numbers alongside their children. —Robert Frederick

Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Activity Book. Written by Zelda Turner; illustrated by Ben Newman. Flying Eye, 2016. $13.95. Ages 7–11.

In my house we’re already fans of Professor Astro Cat’s previous books, so we were excited to see what this latest edition had to offer. Kids who are not yet readers will need a lot of help with many of the pages. However, there are a number of spaces for kids to draw their ideas, and those were the biggest hit with my five-year-old. She drew an astronaut on a treadmill lifting a meteor as her idea for astronaut exercise equipment. Her favorite part was designing her own robot helper, which she called Tibo. It has magnets all over its body to lift heavy things, carries a tool kit, and eats “metal, electricity, oil, and battery food,” all of which my daughter drew separately and had me label for her. Click to Enlarge ImageThe book covers a number of issues that astronauts face and includes activities to simulate the sensation of astronauts’ actions, such as working with big gloves and pushing off things in zero-gravity. There’s plenty here to keep a young space enthusiast occupied: a page on Morse code for sending secret messages, quiz pages on matching images, a log page for recording Moon phases over a month, an experiment to collect “space dust,” instructions for building a balloon rocket, and much more. In fact, there are probably enough activities jammed in this book to keep a kid occupied for a span equivalent to several space missions. —Fenella Saunders

Ricky’s Atlas: Mapping a Land on Fire. Written by Judith L. Li; illustrated by M. L. Herring. Oregon State University Press, 2016. $17.95. Ages 8–12.

Ricky’s Atlas, written by stream ecologist Judith L. Li and wonderfully illustrated by M. L. Herring, is a sequel to the pair’s previous book, Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell. I highly recommend both books, but it’s fine to start with either one. Ellie Homesly and Ricky Zamora are friends who share a fascination with the natural world and who both enjoy sketching sightings and recording measurements in their field journals. The action in Ricky’s Atlas takes place on and around Ricky’s uncle’s east Oregon ranch, a vastly different and much drier environment than Ricky and Ellie are accustomed to where they live, in forested western Oregon. A lightning strike sparks a fire in the region soon after Ricky and his mother arrive for a visit; curious about the wildland fire Ricky describes, Ellie and her father join the Zamoras after the fire is mostly contained. The kids are intrigued by the elements of wildland firefighting culture they experience: Ricky sees a fire camp while helping his aunt deliver supplies to his uncle; later, Ricky and Ellie both get to take in the view from a fire lookout station and chat with a forest ranger about her work there. Later chapters find the two learning about the region’s natural history and observing a burned-over landscape. Throughout, the narrative conveys the complexities of fire-adapted ecosystems as well as what it’s like to live in them. Finally, Herring’s flexibility as an illustrator contributes a great deal to the pleasure of reading the book. Her renderings of Ricky’s notes, sketches, and hand-drawn maps are appropriately fun, detailed, and kidlike; at the same time, her illustrations for Li’s terrific marginal notations, as well as her watercolor landscapes that open each chapter, are just plain gorgeous.
—Dianne Timblin

Secret Coders. Written by Gene Luen Yang; illustrated by Mike Holmes. Secret Coders series. First Second, 2015. $10.99. Ages 8–12.

Paths and Portals. Written by Gene Luen Yang; illustrated by Mike Holmes. Secret Coders series. First Second, 2016. $10.99. Ages 8–12.

Secrets and Sequences. Written by Gene Luen Yang; illustrated by Mike Holmes. Secret Coders series. First Second, 2016. $10.99. Ages 8–12. Available in March 2017.

My 11-year-old self is dying for copies of these comics. I’d just started programming, in Basic, on a small metal box no other kid I knew had heard of. My dad used it for work, and I got to tinker with it during off hours. Programming simple games and operations was exhilarating but, especially at that time, somewhat lonely. The group of youngsters at the heart of this series, happily, have each other. Two of the main characters are independent thinkers who stumble into a situation where they have a chance to learn how to program robot turtles; the third isn’t a natural at math like the others, but he comes to enjoy it as part of the programming process. The way they work together—using their individual strengths and teasing each other along the way, as kids do—is a particular strength of the story. What starts out as a fun hobby for the kids becomes more urgent as their community comes under threat. No matter the suspense level of a given part of the tale, though, the books convey deft lessons in programming throughout. The narrative first clearly delineates the problem to be solved, demonstrates the programming method using similar examples, and then gives readers a chance to work out the commands for themselves before the answer is revealed. The comics format lends itself well to this kind of instruction—the kids are shown visualizing the problem as well as how a series of commands will instruct the robot turtle to act. The Secret Coders series is the brainchild of comics writer and artist Gene Luen Yang (of Avatar: The Last Airbender, American Born Chinese, and Boxers and Saints fame). His 15 years of experience as a high school computer programming teacher inspired the series and is no doubt responsible for the lucidity and fine pacing of the lessons. I should mention here that the third book in the series, Secrets and Sequences, won’t be out till March 2017, so I’m getting a little ahead of myself by including it here. But, while I’ve enjoyed all the books so far, I downright devoured the advance copy of Secrets and Sequences. It’s my favorite one yet, and I just couldn’t resist including it here so you can be on the lookout when the time comes. —Dianne Timblin

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. Written by Gwendolyn Hooks; illustrated by Colin Bootman. Lee and Low, 2016. $17.95. Ages 7–12.

This book provides not only a great introduction to heart physiology and surgery but also to the history of African Americans in medicine. It opens a door for important conversations about why Vivien Thomas, who pioneered heart surgery that saved babies born with fatal heart defects, was not formally a medical doctor, was not named on papers for his research, and was not considered for the Nobel Prize for it. The watercolor illustrations are especially compelling, with facial expressions and body language showing subtle, complex emotionality.
—Katie L. Burke

Under Water, Under Earth. Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski. Big Picture Press, 2016. $35.00. Ages 7–9.

Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, the team that created 2013’s mesmerizing Maps, are back with this winsome exploration of territories normally beyond—or, more precisely, beneath—everyday notice. The book is neatly divided into two sections; taken together, they examine seemingly everything that might be found below the soil’s or water’s surface. The book has two front covers and two tables of contents: A fiery red cover opens onto “Under Earth,” which is the longer section; flipping the book over reveals the turquoise “Under Water” cover, and from there readers can page directly into the beginning of the underwater narrative. The two sections meet at a striking illustration of the Earth’s core; half of the details may be read from one direction and the other half, from the opposite direction. It’s an elegant design solution—rotating the book to continue from one section to the next becomes a natural, almost unconscious gesture. Both halves of the book are fascinating to read and great fun to explore. “Under Earth” presents burrowing animals, root vegetables, underground utilities, transportation tunnels, archaeological and paleontological finds, mining enterprises, and much more. A description of the Kola Super-Deep Borehole is especially interesting, and a wonderful illustration of the Krubera Cave kept me gazing and gazing. “Under Water” includes fresh and saltwater environments, explains some of the physics of buoyancy and water pressure, discusses features like coral reefs and underwater sinkholes, and describes the endeavors of scientists and explorers along the way. A spread on the history of diving suits is wonderfully absorbing. But a word of warning: The illustration of Pierre Rémy de Beauve’s 1715 diving suit will haunt your dreams. —Dianne Timblin

Volcanoes: Fire and Life. Jon Chad. Science Comics series. First Second, 2016. $12.99. Ages 9–13.

Often volcanoes are thought of as destructive, creating widespread calamity when they erupt. Jon Chad’s vividly illustrated science comic Volcanoes: Fire and Life shows us the duality of the Earth’s volcanic forces. After an unexplained catastrophic event in Chad’s fictional future, Earth’s inhabitants eke out an existence in a frozen world where small tribes survive and stay warm by burning scavenged materials. We follow a small scavenger team of three young siblings and their teacher on their search for fuel. They find a library full of books. Initially I had a horrifying moment, wondering, “Oh, they’re not going to burn all those books?” Happily, though, we learn that the team will in fact archive the contents of the books on their solar-powered computers. Young Aurora, the main character, finds herself enraptured by a book about volcanoes. As she learns all she can about them, the germ of an idea grows that there must be some way to harness this powerful heat source deep within the Earth to solve the problem of a dwindling supply of burnables.

Aurora tries to convince her team that all the heat energy they need is beneath their feet, if only they can figure out how to tap into it. While her siblings, who have never heard of volcanoes, and their world-weary teacher remain skeptical, Aurora explains all she has absorbed from the book. In illustrated detail, we learn about volcanoes alongside Aurora’s companions: how they shape our planet and are sources of power, heat, and life. Although the comic is written for kids, anyone interested in geology and volcanoes would enjoy this graphic guide to the yin and yang of forces at the heart of our planet. —Barbara Aulicino

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. Written by Chris Barton; illustrated by Don Tate. Charlesbridge, 2016. $16.95. Ages 7–10.

Eye-catching cartoon-style illustrations feature prominently in this book about Lonnie Johnson, well-known inventor of the Super Soaker water gun. Whoosh! digs farther back into Johnson’s life, however, chronicling his space-cramped invention attempts as a kid, as well as numerous setbacks on his way to success. It’s a testament to perseverance, especially for those whose calling is engineering—and hopefully it will inspire creative kids with all kinds of interests to take the same principle to heart. —Fenella Saunders

Wild Animals of the North. Dieter Braun. Flying Eye, 2016. $35.00. Ages 7–11.

Chock full of beautiful illustrations, Wild Animals of the North takes readers on a tour of the colder regions of North America, Asia, and Europe to view some of the animal inhabitants of those ecosystems. Although all entries are named, only about half of them include descriptions, which led to some fast googling in our household. Even a brief factoid on each species would have been useful for curious kids. For instance, an illustration of a very fluffy small Asian cat called a manul (Otocolobus manul) left us wanting to know more about this critter. (An online search revealed that it has a large vocal repertoire and that its pupils contract to form circular shapes, unlike the standard slits of other cats. Either fact—or both—might have been nice to have in the book.) Other entries, such as an explanation of the color of the blue-footed booby, were just right. We also appreciated the visual index, which helped kids find entries themselves.
—Fenella Saunders

Women in Science: Fifty Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. Rachel Ignotofsky. Ten Speed Press, 2016. $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

Occasionally I fret that the only female scientist kids hear about is Marie Curie. Imagine my delight in discovering that Women in Science includes a profile of Curie alongside those of 49 other women researchers. Through these profiles, readers explore numerous realms of STEM, from anthropology to medical physics to entomology to industrial engineering. With its vibrant artwork and thoughtful text, this is a truly engaging book that does a fine job of presenting the scientists’ work in the context of their times—regardless of whether the researcher happens to be a historical or contemporary figure—making it very clear why their work matters. Author and illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky interjects helpful illustrated guides here and there as well: a timeline of opportunities for and advances by women in STEM, a visual guide to lab tools, and charts showing women’s representation in STEM fields. —Dianne Timblin

This post is published in Science Culture

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