Gift Guide 2014 (No. 4): Three Books for the Scientist (Ages 5-12)
December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.
Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.
[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison.
Besides talking robots and bikes that fly, this story boasts DroneBug spies, Universal-Strength Peanut Butter Bubble Gum, and an evil chimp who talks in sign language. But lest you think this is just another science fiction romp: nearly every page boasts real science. I’m talking actual neuroscience (how do robots’ brains work?); biophysics (what are the three states of matter, and how do they become antimatter?); chemical equations; and, above all, the power of “asking questions and finding your own answers,” despite trophies or prizes.
Much of this science appears in the form of black-and-white (and red) notebook sketches by popular illustrator Brian Biggs (remember the Everything Goes series?). In this way, Frank Einstein draws on the popularity of books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid—only it sneaks in a good deal more education and sophistication.
One thing we can always count on from Scieszka: he never underestimates the intelligence of his readers (remember Battle Bunny?). When I finished reading Frank Einstein to my seven year old (who, admittedly, is still too young to grasp much of the science), his response was: “Mommy, please leave the book next to my bed, because I want to read it a lot more.” Only, because we were only talking robot by then, it sounded more like, “LEAVE BOOK NEXT TO BED SO WE CAN READ AGAIN THANK YOU GOODNIGHT.”
If Scieszka’s book is in-your-face science, then Jennifer Holm’s warmly witty novel, The Fourteenth Goldfish (Ages 9-12), is through-the-back-door science. This is exactly the kind of chapter book I would have loved as a girl, especially a girl who didn’t think she was terribly fond of science and certainly wasn’t looking for a “science book” for fun.
Quiet, grounded, and skeptical sixth-grader Ellie is more peeved than astonished when the acne-dotted boy whom her mom brings home one afternoon turns out to be her grandfather. Sure, her scientist grandfather has discovered a way to reverse aging—only now, as a man turned minor, he can’t live on his own, drive a car, or operate his science lab. Suddenly, Ellie is stuck sharing a bathroom with her adolescent grandfather and helping him navigate the politics of her school cafeteria (all kids have to go to school, even ones with brains responsible for 19 scientific patents). To top it off, Ellie’s best friend is suddenly more interested in her new volleyball friends, and Ellie’s mother has her head in the clouds directing a high school production of Shakespeare.
In the spirit of If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Ellie finds herself increasingly drawn into her grandfather’s scientific mind: listening to his pontifications on famous scientists (from Galileo to Jonas Salk), beginning to apply the Scientific Method to everyday life, and later leading the charge to break into her grandfather’s lab to recover the Turritopsis melvinus, the jellyfish species which, when ingested, turns out to be the secret to her grandfather’s age reversal. As Ellie begins to second guess her own assumptions about the aging process, she comes up against the moral implications of eternal youth. Like a modern-day Tuck Everlasting (which had a profound effect on me as a child), The Fourteenth Goldfish ultimately raises difficult and fascinating questions. Is immortality worth achieving? Or is their precious value in our own mortality?
Existential questions also lie at the heart of Stephanie Roth Sisson’s new picture book biography, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos (Ages 5-8), a perfect choice for anyone not ready for the chapter books above. As a boy, Carl Sagan’s curiosity about the night sky—stars like “lightbulbs on long black wires”—leads him to the library, where his “heart beat faster with every page he turned” (a boy after my own heart!). His research into the sun and solar system parlays into his adult work, sending mechanical explorers to nearby planets, where he makes the famous discovery that “the very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars.” In other words, we are made of star stuff.
While our house has no shortage of fact-filled treasures about astronomy (see favorites here), I couldn’t resist adding Star Stuff to our collection, for its beautiful and virtually unparalleled simplicity (Jason Chin’s 2014 Gravity would be a close contender). With only a few choice sentences on each page, the economical text allows the scientific content to sink in, to penetrate our children’s minds and set up camp for a long time to come.
But the biggest draw is Sisson’s art, blending expanses of watercolor washes with bold black lines. I especially love the way in which she plays with perspective to show children how the sun appears as part of the milky way (a tiny speck); as part of a “neighborhood of stars” (not the biggest, but not the smallest); and, finally, as the center of our own solar system (an enormous fiery ball that dwarfs our own Earth).
There’s humanity present on every page, echoing Sagan’s own passion and approachability. Of particular note is the spread devoted to messages from Earth, which Sagan encapsulated in the Voyager spacecrafts before they were launched into interstellar space in hopes of encountering alien life. A reading of the index is critical to deciphering some of these messages, like the recording of Sagan’s lover’s heartbeat, or a message from his six-year-old son announcing, “Greetings from the children of planet Earth.” How cool to have a conversation with our children about what they would like to say to living creatures elsewhere in the universe? JP’s mind nearly exploded when we read that just last fall, Voyager 1 finally made it beyond our solar system and is now traveling towards distant galaxies!
Science can be robots. It can be inventions or experiments in a garage or a laboratory. It can cure things we didn’t know needed to be cured (and maybe shouldn’t be cured). And it can expand our concept of our place in the universe. But it all starts with curiosity, with asking questions, and with a relentless search for answers. Perhaps it can also start with putting the right book in our children’s hands.
All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
These beauties cannot be omitted from our children’s reading list. So many of us missed the magic of science, experiencing it so much later in life. Let’s give our children the excitement so they can build on it for a lifetime.