From elementary to high school, we found the best science books for kids to help inspire them.
Science and reading go together like quarks and gluons. Every scientist I know is a serious reader, and a lot of them became scientists because of something they read. The books on this list are great ways to ignite a lifelong interest in STEM, no matter what year of school your kid is in. As always, the age categories here are rough guidelines. Nothing bad will happen if your middle school aged kid reads a book on the elementary school list.
Illustrator Simon Basher and a variety of co-authors have created a series of science books that are adorable and create excitement about science. My daughter read the Dinosaurs: The Bare Bones book so many times our copy went extinct. Basher’s kawaii-style illustrations get into some pretty obscure scientific territory at times. I don’t recall ever seeing a drawing of an alpha particle in any of the books about science I read as a kid, much less one where the alpha particle is personified as a standoffish kawaii guy surrounded by a wall of paper. Mr. Basher is a hard worker—he’s illustrated about 50 books, including books on fascinating non-science topics like grammar and punctuation.
Every naturalist starts by learning about the nature of their own neighborhood. This is a terrific book for young people who are just starting to explore the natural world. There are sections about insects, reptiles, amphibians, trees and mammals living in American suburbs and rural areas. The book explains what each critter looks like, what they eat, how to identify their poop, and other facts that your elementary school student will be happy to share with anyone within the sound of their voice. In the tree section, the book explains how to identify and take care of different kinds of trees, as well as what their seeds look like. Each section has cool projects to do, including how to make a chipmunk swimming pool, which is something I didn’t know chipmunks would be interested in. The book has lots of scrapbook pages, so your kid can start their own collection of interesting leaves, eggshells, sticks, lichen, and other samples, and maybe not leave their nature collections hither and yon like a certain kid that I know. This book is part of a series of Take Along Guides, including books on Birds, Nests, and Eggs and Wildflowers, Blooms, and Blossoms.
If you and your kids want to learn the basics about anything, I don’t think you can go wrong with DK’s reference books. The ones I’ve seen have all been great, and the First Human Body Encyclopedia is no exception. Each two page spread covers a different topic, like How Muscles Work, or Inside the Intestines, and provides a thoughtfully designed combination of pictures and text that sheds light on both the inside and outside of the human body. There’s also sections on important processes like healing, aging, and the ever-popular topic of where babies come from.
This colorful book has one-page biographies of 50 scientists, starting with Hypatia of Alexandria. The capsule biographies describe what each woman did, why it’s important today and outline some of the obstacles they faced. It gets across how careers in science can start, which is a good subject for middle school students who may have trouble finding their entry point into science. Many institutions in STEM still aren’t friendly to girls and women—the stories in this book might give your daughter the inspiration she needs to keep her interest in science alive during tough times. The book rounds out with a timeline and information about lab equipment.
The How Stuff Works book is an offshoot of the excellent Howstuffworks.com website. This book explains (surprise) how items and systems that your kids use every day work. Knowing how something works, like, say, a virus, is empowering and interesting for its own sake. Let me get up on my soapbox for a second here: People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and people who don’t understand what’s going on around them are afraid all the time. That’s no way to live. You can’t make it so your kids are happy, but you can pass along a foundational knowledge of how the stuff around them works. Combine this knowledge with an understanding that expertise is real, and that it’s possible for them to gain expertise, and you’ll have given your kids an adamantium/vibranium alloy shield against people who would take advantage of them.
The Way of the Hive, formerly published as Clan Apis, is the only graphic novel on this list, but it earned the spot. It tells a great story about Nyuki, a young bee learning how to be a bee. Nyuki and her friends are philosophical bees, and Jay Hosler’s imagining of bee beliefs is very cool. He also drops a lot of science about bees, and does it so subtly that the reader won’t know how much science has been dropped on them until much later. The art is very much in the same tradition as Jeff Smith’s Bone (in our article on Best Graphic Novels for Kids). Jay Hosler has made a couple of other science-themed graphic novels: Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, Last of the Sandwalkers, and Optical Allusions, starring Wrinkles the Wonder Brain!
William Kamkwamba is a young engineer who grew up in rural Malawi, where starvation was never far away. Kamkwamba writes with real urgency about waiting for the corn crop to be ready so that he and his family could eat. Despite these grim conditions, he did have a couple of resources available that changed the course of his life: abandoned farms full of abandoned farm equipment and a library supported by the US Agency for International Development. Guided by books he checked out from the library, Kamkwamba scavenged old farm machine parts and used them to build a wind turbine that provided his family with electricity for the first time. William Kamkwamba is the best example that I can think of what an engineer can and should be: someone who uses the forces of nature to solve problems. His story has also inspired a young readers edition, a documentary, a picture book and a movie.
This giant coffee table book introduces readers to the building blocks of all that is. This book got its start when author Theodore “Theo” Gray built a table based on the periodic table of the elements, which is a fascinating project in its own right. Each element in the book has a two-page spread, which features how they were discovered, what kinds of items they are in and where they fit in human history. Each visible element is pictured in great photos, and the invisible ones like Flerovium (or Ununquadium) are represented by the logos of the research institutions where they were discovered. The book is a tribute to the elegance and explanatory power of the periodic table. The Elements is part of a trilogy, which continues with Molecules: The Elements and Architecture of Everything and Reactions: An Illustrated Exploration of Elements, Molecules and Change in the Universe.