12/08/2017

A Golden Age For Children’s Science Books

10:58 minutes

Credit: Shutterstock

If you’re a parent (and a fan of Science Friday) then you know that a good science children’s book is a wonderful thing, and also not so easy to find. SciFri’s Education Program Assistant, Xochitl Garcia waded through dozens of options to curate a list of engaging, accurate, beautifully illustrated science books for kids that even parents will want to read. She joins Ira along with children’s book authors Dianna Hutts Aston and Dominic Walliman to discuss her favorites.

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Segment Guests

Xochitl Garcia

Xochitl Garcia is Science Friday’s education program assistant. She is a former teacher who loves hanging out with her fat-tailed gecko, which, despite the efforts of students, family, friends, and a fantasy football league to name it, is still only referred to as “the gecko.”

Dianna Hutts Aston

Dianna Hutts Aston is the author of A Seed is Sleepy (Chronicle Books, 2014). She’s based in Austin, Texas.

Dominic Walliman

Dominic Walliman is the author of Professor Astro Cat’s Frontier’s of Space (Flying Eye Books, 2013). He’s based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now, if you’re a parent and you’re a fan of this program, then you know that a good children’s book is a wonderful thing. We mentioned one. We’re going to get into mentioning a lot of them now. But it’s not easy to sift the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff. So this holiday season, we’re going to give you some advice from the people who know. And who better to help us than a member of our esteemed education team, Xochi Garcia. Welcome, Xochi.

XOCHITL GARCIA: Hi, Ira. It’s nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s talk about– how do you just decide what to choose? What criteria did you use?

XOCHITL GARCIA: First of all, I have to say it’s so hard. There are so many amazing science-themed children’s books that are coming out. It’s an increasing flow every year. It’s becoming really popular.

But basically, I used three criteria. One, we looked for scientific accuracy in the books as well as we could. There are fictional narratives that take some license, of course. Then we looked at the journey, whether illustrations brought that science to life, or whether the story was something that could be really easily folded into a kid’s mind. And then we looked at engagement. So how engaging was the text for the learner or the child after reading it? So what could they do afterwards?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you had a large age range in your book choices. Right?

XOCHITL GARCIA: Yeah, all the way from 0 to age 11. So children’s literature is amazing because it spans such a wide developmental range. So it’s really cool to read how books change over the course of those age ranges.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on a few other authors that made our list of best science books for kids. Let me bring them on now.

Dominic Walliman is the author of the Professor Astro Cat book series. And Dianna Hutts Aston is author of A Nest is Noisy and other books. Welcome to Science Friday.

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: Thank you for having me here.

IRA FLATOW: Now, we have these books–

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We have these books in our office. And we keep all jockeying each other to read them.

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: That’s great.

IRA FLATOW: We have to pry them out of Xochi’s hand as she’s looking through them. Dianna, how do you come up with the ideas for your books, like A Seed is Sleepy, A Nest is Noisy?

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: OK, I’ll tell you how it started out. An Egg is Quiet was the first one. And it kind of went crazy. And that came about because all my life– I don’t know why– my mother would tell me this story. And it’s dedicated to her. Remember that time your best friend’s little brother was three years old. And he was in school. And the teacher said, tell us a little something about eggs, Dusty. And he thought. And he goes, an egg is quiet. And so my mom– I didn’t remember the story. But all through the years, my mom would tell me that little story.

And let’s see, one May, I was in my yard and picking up eggshells and just going, why is one blue? Why is one speckled? Cut to the chase, my manuscript landed up on Victoria Rock’s desk at Chronicle Books just when she was looking for an egg book for Illustrator Sylvia Long. So that’s kind of what kicked it off.

And then my agent, Rosemary Stimola said, how about one on seeds? And then butterflies.

IRA FLATOW: But did you realize you were writing science books at the time you had these ideas?

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: Oh. [LAUGHS] No, I didn’t even know I was writing science books until An Egg is Quiet won what’s called the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS and slash, Subaru, the carmakers– they contacted me and said, you’ve won the science book. And I said, science book? I write science? I’m just writing about what I love.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Well, to a lot of us, that’s science stuff that we love. Let me bring in Dominic. Dominic, you have a science background. Right? Did you plan to go into the children’s book business?

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: No, I didn’t really plan on it. But a friend who’s an illustrator, Ben Newman, who illustrates the books, he got me involved when he had the opportunity to draw the books. And I jumped at the chance when I did because I love science communication, explaining science to people, telling people all the things that I’ve learnt.

IRA FLATOW: And your book is based around a character called Professor Astro Cat.

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: Yeah. That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: How do you know how much information to include so that the kids can understand it?

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: Yeah, that’s often a challenge. I was fortunate. I’ve got a couple of nieces who are around the exact age range when I was writing all of the books. And I’d imagine explaining science to them and trying to, yeah, think about how they would take the information. So it’s a lot of, yeah, imagination and then talking to them about science as well helps me a lot.

IRA FLATOW: So Xochi, what made you put these books on your list?

XOCHITL GARCIA: Well, I’ll start with The Nest is Noisy because this book can really be read in a bunch of different ways. It’s got a poem stretching through the pages of the book. So you could just read the poem and study the illustrations. It reminded me of Beatrix Potter, who I loathed when I was growing up. And these illustrations by Sylvia Long are really– the attention to detail for nature is amazing. She isn’t what I would call a naturalist, similar to Beatrix Potter in that vein. And then also the descriptions provided by Dianna are just really informative in, like, these tidbit ways that young children love, these little factoids that they can bring out.

And then the Astro Cat series, immediately when I presented them to the kids in my life, they were captivated by the illustrations of Ben Newman. And after we finished reading the solar system book, they were like, I didn’t know Mars had the biggest mountain in our solar system, and all of these little facts that made them in our age of technology want to go online and explore further. And that’s what you want out of a science children’s book is not just staying with the book. We have so much information at our fingertips so you can go further. And these books definitely light the flame of inquiry in kids.

IRA FLATOW: We got a whole series of books. And I’m trying– now, I’m going to have a senior moment. I can’t remember the author. But I’m sure you will. But the baby books.

XOCHITL GARCIA: Yeah so–

IRA FLATOW: Particle physics for babies.

XOCHITL GARCIA: Yeah, that’s the Baby University series by Chris Ferrie. And right now, he’s in Sydney, Australia. But he writes these books on large concepts for very, very young kids. And I think the point of the books is not necessarily that they’re going to learn quantum physics from the book. It’s that even kids at a young age can have the language of science in their vocabulary. So as they develop and as they’re learning words, it’s awesome that they learn the word “electron” or “neutron” or they learn about general relativity. And some of that may stick, and some of it may not.

But with his newest book, Rocket Science for Babies, you can definitely take that off the page. And I know. We talked about this because rocket science, the principles of flight is one of your things.

IRA FLATOW: My favorite topic, why airplanes fly.

XOCHITL GARCIA: And it’s accurately represented. Right? I think that’s one of the things that hit us.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, they did it the right way.

XOCHITL GARCIA: He’s a physicist. And he made sure.

And one of the things that I respect about publishers of children’s books– and this is more in the late ’90s, early, like, now, in our time period– is that they bring on scientists to review the science in a lot of the books they publish. And so we do have a book like Grand Canyon by Jason Chin where the back is full of citations and other facts you might want to know because he cares that you have something further to go on, and that it’s accurate. So it’s amazing.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with my guest, Xochi Garcia, Dominic Walliman and Dianna Hutts. And of course, we have all these books on our website at sciencefriday.com/books.

Let’s go to the phones. Let’s see if we can get one call in. Time is– time’s rushing. Hi, let’s go to Natalie in Pittsburgh. Hi, Natalie.

NATALIE: Hey, thanks for taking my call. So when my son was young, we read a lot of those science books, just like you’re recommending. And so now, what I’m looking for is, do you have any middle grade science recommendations? He just finished reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and loved it. He read– there’s a book called Bomb. And it goes through the invention and the ramifications of the atomic bomb. But I just wondered if you had any recommendations for 11, 12, 13-year-olds?

XOCHITL GARCIA: Yeah, there is a great book that just came out called Ruby Goldberg’s Bright Idea. Actually, I’m really excited about this book. I didn’t write it because it didn’t quite fit in our age range. But it’s basically about this girl who’s an inventor. And she’s in middle school, and her trials and tribulations. But along the way, they talk about Rube Goldberg machines and the spirit of invention. So I would highly recommend that book. It’s by Anna Humphrey, by the way.

IRA FLATOW: Anna Humphrey, OK. We’ve just about– is there one book– and I’ll ask all my guests– that you can’t live without this holiday season, that you’ve got to have?

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: A Beetle is Shy.

IRA FLATOW: A Beetle is Shy.

XOCHITL GARCIA: It’s so good.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: Well, that was also– it was a AAAS/Subaru award winner too. And let’s see. Sylvia Long and I love beetles. We love rocks. We love nests, all of the things that we’ve written about. But I think what I like most about this book, in addition to the illustrations, is its dedication. And it’s dedicated to the ladybug warriors. And that’s who I consider– guys can be ladybugs too. All of us who mimic ladybugs that go around quietly and beautifully eating up all the stuff that would destroy the aphids, that would destroy our food supply. And I think it’s really time in this world that we go about quietly and beautifully, or not so quietly, with our art and our science and our technology and engineering and math and concerts and do beautiful things to round up people to remember the Earth. Because I think you attract– ladybugs attracts more attention than any other kind of camouflage.

IRA FLATOW: All right, I’m going to leave it right there because we’re running out of time. Dianna Hutts Aston, author of A Nest is Noisy. Dominic Walliman is author of the Professor Astro Cat book series. And Xochi Garcia, education program assistant who is invaluable to us here at Science Friday. Thank you all.

XOCHITL GARCIA: Thank you, Ira.

DIANNA HUTTS ASTON: Thanks, Ira.

DOMINIC WALLIMAN: Thanks for having me today. Thanks.

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