December 4, 2018 § 1 Comment
On the list of books published this year which make me wish my children were little(r), Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star (Ages 2-5) is at the top. How I used to love reading stories about the moon to my kids (like this, this, and this). For our littlest ones, the world outside their windows is big and new and constantly changing. When they tuck inside the crooks of our arms and listen to us read, they’re seeking reassurance as much as understanding. In that vain, perhaps it’s not surprising that the ever-shifting moon is such a popular subject for children’s book creators, representing as it does the mystery, vastness, and allurement of the universe.
A Big Mooncake for Little Star is a captivating juxtaposition of warm and cold, of the intimacy of a mother and child’s bond and the starkness of the universe. Told in remarkably few words, the story begins without any words at all, on the book’s endpapers, where a mama and her daughter are baking a Giant Mooncake. The mama sneaks a peek at her daughter, who perches on a chair, proudly sprinkling sugar (or is it stardust?) into the bowl. (An Author’s Note explains that the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the time when these Chinese pastries are traditionally baked and enjoyed, was Lin’s favorite Asian holiday as a child.)
While Mama takes the flat, golden mooncake out of the oven and “laid [it] onto the night sky to cool,” she asks her daughter for something that’s typically in short supply in our little ones: patience. “Now, Little Star…your Mooncake took us a long time to bake, so let’s see if you can make it last awhile. Can you remember not to touch this Big Mooncake until I tell you to?” Little Star has every intention of honoring her mother’s wishes, as she gets ready for bed and falls asleep. But when she awakens in the night, the glint of mischief in her eye can only mean one thing.
For the next several nights, Little Star, with her stuffed bunny as companion, softly pitter-patters out of her bedroom and up to the Big Mooncake, which perches warm and luminous against the jet black sky. “Would her mama notice if she took a tiny nibble?” She takes a bite, “so sweet and tasty.” “Would her mother notice if she took another tiny nibble?”
Then, each night, Little Star flies—crumbs flying off her face like moon dust—back to the warmth of her bed.
Of course, for our little listeners, Little Star’s nighttime snacking is meant to correlate with the phases of the moon. On the last night of the story, Mama goes to look for the Mooncake and all that is left is a “trail of twinkling crumbs.”
What Mama does find is Little Star’s plush bunny, dropped and forgotten during her final nighttime escapade, a sign of Little Star’s blossoming confidence. But just because our young children may flirt with independence, doesn’t mean they’re entirely ready for its consequences. At the story’s conclusion, Mama offers Little Star both her bunny and her forgiveness, and the two share an affectionate moment of reassurance. “Little Star looked up, her grin reflecting her mama’s smile…‘Now let’s go make another one!’”
Review copy by Little Brown. 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!
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!
March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Raise the roof! My favorite fast-talking pastry is back in the house! Now, before you look at me like I have three heads (or 135 sprinkles), I’m referring to Laurie Keller’s new early chapter book series, based on the naive, loquacious, loves-the-limelight chocolate doughnut from her 2003 picture book, Arnie the Doughnut (Ages 4-8). I still remember the hysterics that my staff and I fell into every time we flipped through that first book 11 years ago, about a doughnut who narrowly avoids the fate of being eaten and winds up an unlikely pet (a “doughnut-dog!”) to the lonely but kindly Mr. Bing.
I’ve often wondered why author-illustrator Keller doesn’t get more props from the media and, as a result, remains relatively unknown by parents. Her kooky story lines are peppered with chuckle-inducing sidebars and animated through energetic, googly-eyed sketches (whose creativity, coincidentally, blows the roof off the Diary of a Wimpy Kids of the world). But I have a particular fondness for her ability to keep us parents just as entertained as our children (think puns, references to pop culture, etc.). If you’re not reading Laurie Keller, the world is less fun. It’s as simple as that. (Other non-doughnut-related favorites by Keller are listed at the end of this post.)
But back to Arnie. As original and humorous as that 2003 picture book is, I’ve always felt that a precocious and paranoid pastry would really take off among the emerging reader crowd. My wish came true last fall, when Keller kicked off a chapter book series, beginning with The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Bowling Alley Bandit (Ages 5-7 if reading aloud; 7-9 if reading independently). The series picks up where the picture book leaves off, and each installment is concerned with a different predicament (translate: mishap) that Arnie falls into in his life with Mr. Bing. (Before you ask, no, you don’t have to read the picture book to dive into the chapter series.) Bowling Alley Bandit is an uproarious story filled with a bowling rivalry, a talking slice of pizza (Arnie’s BFF), numerous rounds of karaoke, and jealous, scheming bowling balls.
My six year old has literally been counting the days until the release of Arnie’s next adventure, this one titled The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Invasion of the UFONUTS (same ages). And now that it is here, the payoff has exceeded our wildest expectations. What could be better than a wise-cracking doughnut? How about a wise-cracking doughnut who gets hijacked by alien doughnuts?! As usual, the joke is on Arnie, who finds himself, not in the center of an inter-galactic conspiracy to put doughnut stores out of business, as he initially assumes—but, rather, in the starring role of a feature film, directed by his friend Peezo, the talking pizza slice. Speaking of friends, in case you think Keller is all fluff, she’s not. Buried amidst Hollywood humor, flying cups and saucers, and random George Washington asides, Invasion of the UFONUTS is a story about two friends who argue, make up, and learn a thing or two about the danger of jumping to conclusions.
Bowling Alley Bandit and Invasion of the UFONUTS are perfect read-aloud chapter books, designed to ignite both the imagination and a love for reading. At first glance, the large, graphic-styled text might seem like it’s targeted at a beginning reader. But both Keller’s vocabulary and her humor are quite sophisticated; and it will take several readings by a parent before a newish reader will want to take these on independently. But that’s what I love about them. I envision these books having a very long shelf life. With a dozen short chapters, they are long enough to split into multiple sittings, yet short enough to read straight through on a drizzly, Saturday morning. They’re the kind of books that can be read on multiple levels (a young reader might start by reading all the highly entertaining speech bubbles). And they’re the kind of books that, when our blossoming readers do take them on in their entirety, they will surprise and delight with new details every single time.
We’ve read Invasion several times since getting it last week, but I’ve deliberately left out the Afterward, a quirky little section called “How to Speak UFONUT” (the language of the alien doughnuts—apparently, “like speaking Pig Latin, only instead of words ending in AY or WAY, they end in UT or NUT”). Down the road, I look forward to JP discovering this bonus material on his own and leaving mysterious notes around the house for me to decode. Like I said, life with Laurie Keller is just more fun.
Other Favorites by Laurie Keller (note that even though these are picture books, their content and humor is great for the elementary set!):
The Scrambled States of America (Ages 5-10)
The Scrambled States of America Talent Show (Ages 5-10)
Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners (Ages 5-10)
Plus, while I never plug TV here, you really must check out the Scholastic DVD of the original Arnie the Doughnut–the accents are fantastic. This has been my family’s favorite thing to watch on car trips for years!
October 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
I may have given an audible little yelp the other day when I discovered that Jessie Hartland had published a new title in her “museum” series, but it was nothing like the squeal of joy that my six year old emitted when I brought it home and gave it to him. You see, How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum (Ages 4-8) and How the Sphinx Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10) are among our All Time Favorites, rivaled only by Hartland’s newest addition to the series, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10). All three books are brilliantly simple slices of science and history; they introduce children to paleontology, Egyptology, and now astronomy by following a specific artifact from its discovery in the field to its place in the exhibition hall of a museum.
Most great science books take their inspiration from true historical events. Here’s an especially awesome one: on a clear night in October of 1992, a meteor that had been predictably orbiting the sun for four billion years suddenly and inexplicably changed course, entered the Earth’s atmosphere, flew over Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and crashed into the trunk of a Chevy Malibu parked outside a house in Peekskill, New York (that’s right, crashed—as in, totaled the back of the car and sprung a leak in the fuel tank and precipitated a 911 call to police and fire fighters—pretty much the coolest thing my six year old has ever conceived of). Let me pause a moment to say that we own A LOT of books about outer space. Some boys have tunnel vision for dinosaurs, others for sports; my boy is Live and Breathe Outer Space. The problem with most of the fact-packed astronomy books, despite their amazing photography and mind-boggling statistics, is that it’s hard for kids (not to mention me!) to internalize the information, to retain it long past the time the book is closed. Don’t get me wrong: JP demands to read these typical non-fiction books over and over again; I’m just saying that the industry is primed for some really good stories about Space, stories that embed scientific definitions and concepts and processes within the accessibility of a narrative format.
Enter author-illustrator Jessie Hartland, who begins How the Meteorite Got to the Museum by painting a crystal clear picture of: the different kinds of debris in Space; the difference between an asteroid and a meteor (which is frankly something I’ve never totally understood until now); how a meteor that “survives a fiery fall to Earth” is actually called a meteorite; and how thousands of meteorites fall on Earth every year but usually land in remote places like seas, deserts, and jungles where they remain undiscovered. Hartland then goes on to give the utterly fascinating blow-by-blow of what happened when this particular meteorite landed in Peekskill, NY—and how it got from the scene of the crime to a museum near you.
Any good science book involves kids: sparks their imaginations and engages their senses. Hartland’s book does so by hitting on the kinds of details that would be funny or interesting to kids, from the dog who barks at the meteorite as it hisses across the sky, to the fans at a Pennsylvania football game who point their movie cameras towards the flying rock; to the giant BANG and CRASH as the meteorite hits the car and startles a teenager in her house; to the firefighter who cools off the smoldering rock with his hose. Only once we’re invested in the story are we introduced to geologists, museum curators, and cosmologists, each given a brief but worthy introduction before taking his or her place in the ever-increasing line-up (think House-That-Jack-Built style). “Here is the exhibits team at the Natural History Museum, designing the lighting, signage, and diorama for their newest acquisition…which was…explained by the COSMOLOGIST, acquired by the CURATOR OF METEORITES, measured by the GEOLOGIST, chilled down by the FIREFIGHTERS, protected by POLICE, phoned in by the TEENAGER,” and so on. Hartland is not just a compelling writer; her illustration style is equally accessible to a young audience, filled with childlike drawings, often loose and sketchy, and inclusive of quirky design elements like creative fonts and hand-drawn word bubbles. My son loves these books because they read the way he thinks and they’re drawn the way he draws.
At JP’s request, time and again, we have trekked to the Smithsonian to see the very same Diplodocus that’s discovered, excavated, and assembled in How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when, after hearing at the end of How the Meteorite Got to the Museum that a small piece of the Peekskill meteorite resides in the Smithsonian, JP immediately piped up, “We have to go the Hall of Meteorites! When can we go, when, when when? Do you think they’ll let me touch it?” Thankfully, now that Washington has gone back to work, the Smithsonian is again open for my son and his Big Plans. He’s also hoping, believing as he does that he has an “eagle eye” for fossil discovery, that he may find a meteorite in our own backyard someday—and that his discovery might make its way into the halls of a museum for children everywhere to ooooh and ahhhhh over.
Other Favorite Narrative Approaches to Learning About Astronomy:
If You Decide to Go to the Moon, by Faith Mcnulty & Steven Kellogg (Ages 4-7)
Mousetronaut: Based on a (Partially) True Story and Mousetronaut Goes to Mars, by Mark Kelly & C.F. Payne (Ages 4-7)
Reaching for the Moon, by Buzz Aldrin & Wendell Minor (Ages 5-10)
One Giant Leap, by Robert Burleigh (Ages 6-9)
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, by Brian Floca (Ages 6-12)
July 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
We interrupt our Summer School Series for some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor play—and because there happens to be two seriously awesome new picture books about riding a two wheeler (the Ultimate Summer Challenge, really). The first book is for the I-Think-I-Can-Beginners; the second is for the experienced, daring, and creative bikers (especially those with a love for all things Space).
Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (Ages 3-6) is a simple but poignant “how to” look at mastering a two wheeler, first with training wheels and then without. Now, if I were going to write a step-by-step guide to teaching a five year old to ride a bike, it might go something like this:
Lug ten tons of second-hand steel to park, at the request of eager child.
Help eager child up into bike seat.
Become temporarily deaf by imminent screaming of “NOOOOOOO get me off get me off get me off!”
After much cajoling and pleading and promising for the 45th time that you are going to hold on the whole time, convince child to remount bike and begin pedaling forward.
After 10 minutes, whereby you are still holding fast to the training-wheeled bike and said bike has moved exactly 10 feet, suggest that he try turning.
Feel an abrupt jerk as child slams on the breaks (this, oddly, comes very naturally), jumps off bike, and announces that he is Most Definitely Not Doing This Right Now.
Lug ten tons of steel back home.
Fortunately, Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle paints a much rosier picture of a child learning to ride a bike, along with the help of her patient and gently encouraging father.
But, actually, what I love about this book is that things are not always smooth sailing: the little girl has lots of false starts, falls down again and again, and needs both hugs and Band-Aids. “Oops! You nearly had it,” the book coaches. “Don’t give up. You’ll get it. Find the courage to try it again, and again, again, and again, again, and again, and again, until by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding a bicycle!”
Rashchka’s signature watercolors, seemingly effortlessly executed with thick, breezy, rough strokes of paint, are perfectly suited to the subject at hand. Every single painting exudes movement—whether it’s the little girl pulling her father’s hand toward the bike shop, her sideways and backwards tumbles off the bike, the neighborhood kids zooming past her on their colorful two wheelers, or her triumphant forward-leaning fast-pedaling stance at the end.
Rashchka’s greatest gift has always been his ability to capture emotional expression with just a few brushstrokes; and it’s the determination, bewilderment, frustration, joy, and pride on the little girl’s face that will make this gem relatable for children—those struggling to ride and those who’ve newly mastered the skill. I’m not promising this book will work miracles, assuming there might be other parents out there who are having similar bicycling battles on the playground (please tell me I am not alone); but I can promise that your child will identify a kindred spirit on the page.
Moving on to more advanced bicycling (and a longer, more sophisticated story), I fervently recommend How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in 24 Easy Steps, by Mordicai Gerstein (Ages 5-10). If the irreverent title alone hasn’t sold you, let me sing the praises of this most entertaining book, particularly for the kid who loves science, invention, numbers, the Moon, and bossing people around (that would be my son to a T, minus the bicycling).
First, when was the last time your child read a work of fiction that was laid out in steps? Each of this book’s 39 pages outlines a different step, numbered 1 through 24, many of them sub-categorized with letters (12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, etc.). Kids love this stuff; it’s exactly the way their mind works when they are bossing us around.
Secondly, there’s the very idea of bicycling into outer space, not to mention for the purpose of planting sunflowers to cheer up the Moon’s “big, sad clown face.” Thirdly, there’s the intricately involved and scientifically supported plan that the boy conjures up—a plan involving 2,000 used truck inner tubes, a 25-foot flagpole, a ship’s anchor, 238,900 miles of garden hoses wound tightly around a giant spool, a rented XS space suit from NASA, and various provisions, including “nourishing, flavored Glop, squirted through a straw in your space-helmet.”
Finally, there’s the climactic adventure itself, Boy On Bike, pedaling up miles of garden hoses that have been anchored into the Moon’s surface, stopping to wonder at “the trillions of stars.” Within the largely comic narrative, written in the boy’s instructive voice, there are also many clever descriptions, my favorite being the notion that the Moon looks “like a coloring book that hasn’t been colored yet.”
Gerstein’s pen and ink drawings have a comic-book feel, but the crudely colored line art is mixed with grace and subtlety (the Moon’s changing expressions are a particular delight). This is the same Gerstein who wrote and illustrated one of my (and my son’s) favorite books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Ages 4-8), the true and serious story of Phillipe Petit’s dramatic tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974. The two books could not look or feel more different (a rare feat for a picture book artist); yet, oddly, they both involve moving atop a skinny, rope-like material suspended over great heights.
Gerstein writes books about dreams—about the mystery, wonder, and excitement in planning for and achieving those dreams. I have a dream that my children will both ride two wheelers some day, that they will taste the victory that comes from balancing up high on their own, and (as I vividly remember doing as a young girl) that they’ll speed around the block, dreaming and scheming and making their own Big Plans.
June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)
I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).
I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.
Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”
I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)
Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)