Best Books for Kids

Best Science Books for Children: the 2021 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize

recommended by Katharine Cashman

In selecting the best science books for children, the judges of the Royal Society Young People's Book Prize identify books that are scientifically accurate as well as accessible and engaging. Katharine Cashman, Professor of Volcanology at Bristol University and Chair of this year's judging panel, talks us through the six wonderful books that made the 2021 shortlist.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Is the aim of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize to make children want to become scientists? Or is it to appeal to children who don’t even really think that they’re interested in science?

From my perspective, this is about reaching and engaging with as many kids as possible. I think recent experience with Covid has shown us that it’s very important for everyone to have some sort of science literacy. So it’s not necessarily trying to get kids to be scientists, but to engage with science in the same way that they engage with music or arts or English. And not to be intimidated by it, to just get them to see that science literacy is part of literacy in general.

Can you talk a bit about the selection criteria for judging the best science books for children? Do you emphasise communication and public engagement?

It’s the communication and engagement, but also that they’re scientifically accurate. It’s remarkable now how many children’s science books are out there, which is great. But that means we were looking for something that is a little different, with a more creative approach. The visual part of communication is important, and all the books have illustrations. I was looking for books that I wanted to have on my bookshelf, or I wanted to hand out to friends’ kids. Some books have content that just grabs you versus others that are like, oh, another one of these. And as I said, it was important that the science portrayed was correct rather than oversimplified.

Yes, you wouldn’t want to condescend to children in a science book, that would probably turn them off.

Yes, definitely not. Kids, particularly ages 9-12, are in a really good position to engage with science because they’re very capable and bright. They’re asking good questions, so you really want to build on that energy and enthusiasm. And they’re open-minded, before they get into the teenage thing where they start feeling a lot more peer pressure.

But then some of the concepts are quite complex. It’s a fine balance that these authors have to tread.

It is, and I think we were all impressed with the very high level of a lot of the books that we saw.

Yes, I was impressed too. And with how engaging these children’s science books are in very different ways.

We did try to choose a selection, because the final winner will be decided by kids, which I think is great.

Yes, children are the real experts after all, about what kind of science books appeal to them. So who are the people on the judging panel, mostly scientists?

No. I am, and there was another scientist, a chemist. There was a primary school teacher, a children’s author, and a woman who works with the BBC. So we were coming at it from different angles. I was pleased and surprised at how easy it was for us to make the final selection.

So you didn’t have any heated arguments about the best children’s science books?

We had discussions about some, but there were several that were just clearly at the top for all of us, which was really good, because we were quite a diverse group.

Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Everyone by Lisa Harvey-Smith, illustrated by Mel Matthews

Let’s move on to the shortlist. Shall we start with Under the Stars, since space is always a popular theme in science books for children?

Yes, it’s clear that astronomy and space travel and planets are very popular, we had several books on these topics. We really liked this one because it’s a more narrative form of non-fiction and the author is an astrophysicist who has won awards for outreach. It’s very clear that she’s used to talking to and engaging with kids. You can tell she’s writing from an academic perspective, but also that she’s writing to answer the sorts of questions that she gets from kids. We also liked the illustrations, but the big thing was the authentic nature of the author’s voice, and that she is clearly writing for curious kids.

I like that she sometimes asks questions of the readers, such as how would you design a system to get rid of space junk?

Yes, I can really see that teachers can use that in classes in a very fun way.

And I think parents will like this book, because it has the kind of science questions that kids might ask but parents don’t necessarily know the answer to. What age of reader would you say this book is for?

The age range we’re aiming at with all the books in the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize is 8-14. But clearly, individual books will be better for certain ages. I could see this one covering quite a large age range, because parts of it are the sorts of things that little kids ask, but then there’s a lot of it that I think would be engaging to the slightly older children in that range.

Such as ‘why do quasars shine so brightly,’ or ‘how does a star become a black hole?’

Yes, whereas the chapters on the night sky and why is the sky blue would be good for little kids. But I also learned a lot; when I read about astrophysics, it sort of makes my head hurt.

I know what you mean. But the author has limited each chapter to three pages, so it’s very digestible.

Yes, it’s very digestible and you could read it spread out over time, although once I got started on it I just kept reading it straight through. But individual chapters don’t rely on the previous one.

I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast by Michael Holland, illustrated by Philip Giordano

Let’s discuss another fabulous science book for kids which is good for dipping in and out of: I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast. The suggested reading age for this one is 7-11.

This was one of my favourites. It has stunning graphics.

I agree that the graphics are excellent, some pages look almost edible. I recognise the illustrator’s name, he has been featured in some prestigious children’s illustration exhibitions.

I first fell in love with the title. I like the fact that it had activities, the DIY pages in the mix. I could really see teachers or parents using this, because although they’re very simple things to do they definitely looked like fun activities. And I liked that it was put in a context by having the different sections: all about plants (the parts of the plant and photosynthesis); the world of plants, about adaptation and evolution; from breakfast until bedtime, about all the ways that plants are involved in your everyday life; and the power plants. I like that span from the very fundamental information about plants, all the way through to things that you don’t think about, how we use plants and how plants can help us.

Agent Asha: Mission Shark Bytes by Sophie Deen, illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

Let’s move on to Agent Asha: Mission Shark Bytes. Some people might be surprised to find that a novel has been selected as one of the best science books for children of 2021.

I actually love the fact that we got some novels. That’s a new trend. I know that in last year’s Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize there was a novel in the top six, that was also about a girl doing coding. I gave that one to a 12-year-old friend of mine, who was just starting a coding class in school. Her mother said that she read it in one sitting, she was just really excited. I liked it because I think that storytelling is a very human way of communicating. It can be a really effective way to engage the reader in science. Storytelling is something that I think we as scientists haven’t used to the extent that we could.

It’s an effortless way to learn, isn’t it? Children will be learning about computing science without realising it with these kinds of books.

I don’t know about you, but there was that little secret message in Morse code at the beginning of each chapter. I was actually decoding it as I went along, reminding me of my Morse code. The protagonist is a girl and is Asian, non-white, so the book also provides an interesting role model without it being obvious.

There’s Asha’s drone’s activity log at the back of the novel noting the percentage of homes with internet access in selected countries. If children learn to be aware of how the bias and quality of information found online may reflect the level of internet penetration, and how lack of diversity gives you bad algorithms, that’s a very useful thing to realise.

Yes. And I love the fact that a lot of it is very here and now but it’s also a little bit futuristic. So it spans that range nicely; I’ve never been a big sci-fi person but the slightly futuristic is nice.

Also, this book is very much about encouraging critical thinking skills.

Definitely critical thinking, and also about algorithms and debugging and all these very fundamental computing skills.

Asha joins a children’s spy agency to save the internet from a villain, but the book is also a reminder about how vulnerable our infrastructure and communications are and not to over-rely on the internet. And it raises ethical questions, whether it is ok to do something wrong for a good reason, and the relationship of an individual to a group. I think this is a very thoughtful and funny book about computing science for children aged 8-11.

Inventors: Incredible Stories of the World’s Most Ingenious Inventions by Robert Winston, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke

Let’s talk about the next book on the shortlist: Inventors. This author, who is in his eighties, has apparently won the Young People’s Book Prize four times in the past.

I didn’t know it was four times! There were numerous books on role models; what I loved about this one was that although there are kids’ books about inventions, there aren’t many about inventors. Most books about role models are about scientists. We all liked this one because it was a little bit different in flavour. It also just spans such a wide range of types of inventions and types of inventors over time and over different cultures that, again, it provides diverse role models implicitly rather than explicitly.

Yes, it’s a very good message that inventors can be famous or unknown, they can be good at school or not—anyone can do it.

Yes, they could be a 13 year old Maasai in Kenya.

You have mentioned role model books, which can be quite earnest. But the tone of this one, which is aimed at 7-9 year olds, is more fun and inspiring.

I was particularly taken with it when I got to the Lizzie Magie story. Shortly before I read this book, I’d read a much longer article on her, which was the first I knew about this woman who was incredible. She was a feminist. She was interested in economics, which is why she developed what she called The Landlord’s Game. She invented all sorts of other things. She actually had patents on them. Then the Monopoly game base was stolen from her without any credit. I’ve been fascinated by the story and then I got to Inventors and found that Lizzie Magie is in it!

The author, who is a scientist—a fertility specialist—is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and was Vice President of the Royal College of Music. I find this cross-disciplinary aspect very interesting. And the first person featured in Inventors is Leonardo da Vinci, who is known for art and mechanical engineering and so on.

I read an amazing book several years ago, it’s called Fortune Is a River, about da Vinci. He was working also for military purposes. At that time, Florence was battling with Pisa. He was working for Machiavelli who had decided that one way to lay siege to Pisa would be to divert the Arno River out to the sea before it got to Pisa. Da Vinci actually knew enough hydrology that he constructed a workable plan to do that, it’s just that the people trying to carry out the plan didn’t follow the directions.

Do you think there’s more awareness now about cross-disciplinary approaches, especially in teaching children?

Well, not just children. Here at Bristol, I have several friends who are artists. In fact, we have a programme in our department that we call EarthArt. We try to bring a couple of artists in every year and connect them with scientists who they want to interact with. We also have a small gallery where they exhibit their work. It’s a very low budget thing, but the artists are very eager to talk to scientists. And what I’ve noticed is when the scientists start working with artists, the scientists recognise that the artists provide a different perspective. So it’s a good cross-fertilisation. So I would say definitely, yes, that there’s really a growing appreciation for cross-disciplinary approaches. Personally, I’m a very visual person and I’ve found that I can communicate very well with artists because in art there’s a lot of experimentation, there is a lot of problem solving. Artists have an idea of what they want to do, but a lot of it is very technical. So I see a lot of similarities between art and science.

I am a book. I am a portal to the universe. by Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick

You must love the next book, then: I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.

My very favourite of the books. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought fifteen copies and I’ve been giving them out to everyone.

You must be the publisher’s favourite judge.

Yes, but I wasn’t the only one who loved this book. I think everyone was intrigued by it, because it’s so interactive. It’s a true and very creative art and science fusion.

Can you explain it for our readers?

The artist describes herself as a designer and artist who uses data as a creative material. The author is a data journalist and researcher who explores novel ways of communicating data. So this book was interesting to me because even at the introductory university level, and certainly at high school level, many science books are written as what a friend of mine calls dictionaries with pictures—just definitions. What I loved about this is that it has a lot of very quirky fun facts, but they’re presented in a way that you engage with the book, you actually bounce it on your head or drop it on the floor.

I like how the book speaks directly to the reader.

Another page that a friend of mine loves is where they show the different animal eyes, and that the eyes are scaled to actual size. The book also has an appendix in the back, which is where all the data sources are.

Yes, which they call the small print.

The small print pages have sources, encouraging you if you want to go find out more. I loved the way everything is scaled properly, all of the different tongues, the size of your tongue versus that of a butterfly. Also, I like the fact that things are in different orientations so that you physically have to turn the book upside down or turn it on its side. It’s unusually interactive.

It’s a great book. And of all the science books for kids on your list, I think it’s the one that appeals to the widest age range. It has more detailed information at the back, but the shapes and colours of all the information visualisation, I can imagine younger children enjoying that too.

Yes it’s simple, but very effective.

100 Things to Know About Saving the Planet

Let’s talk about the final book on the shortlist: 100 Things to Know About Saving the Planet, for children age 8-11.

This year, in the books that we were given, there were a lot on climate change, and problems with plastic, and other problems with the planet. Some of these were rather negative and disturbing. What we liked about this one was that it was actually aimed at what you can do. And not only what you can do, but what people are doing. Some were sort of quirky and funny, like how woolly sweaters can protect penguins from oil spills. Imagine scientists in Australia knitting woolly jumpers for penguins! The book also discusses something that I’m quite passionate about, which is problems of light pollution. I get very frustrated, living in the city, that I can’t actually see the stars. Another fun example is how oyster shells can clean up polluted water. It’s really engaging, with quirky examples that still felt practical. There are things you could do, as well as things that other people are doing.

I like the approach that they first ask why does the planet need saving? And whilst there is an urgency to the message, the tone is positive, and includes both technological and behavioural solutions. So it avoids, as you say, the negativity which can be almost paralysing.

Yes, for a lot of people I think it is. So that’s why I like this book. It also had many humorous approaches, so it was fun to read.

It has some quite thoughtful aspects about unintended consequences of certain actions and the interconnectedness of ecosystems. And also about developing critical thinking skills, to learn to question statistics that may not be based in fact because it depends on the circumstances.

Yes, that’s a very good point. Just a few days ago I was reading an article about reusable cloth bags, pointing out that there’s an environmental impact of those if you make too many cotton bags. So the simple trade off of buying lots of cotton bags instead of reusing sturdier plastic bags becomes a more complicated question. I’ve heard the same trade-off for eating local. There are some cases where although eating local means that you don’t have the transportation costs, maybe there’s more damage done in growing the crops there than in other places. So it’s very complex. That comes back to a friend of mine in Iceland who is a glaciologist and a very serious astronomer as well. He’s the one who first raised my awareness of the issues of light pollution. In Iceland, you would think that’s not a problem. Well, no, they have numerous greenhouses to grow fruits and vegetables, and it’s the greenhouses that are causing the light pollution.

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Is there anything you would like to add in conclusion?

I just want to say that this was the most fun committee I’ve ever been on. What I personally realised is that there’s a real dearth of earth science books out there for kids. I’m going to move back to the US at the end of this year and I hope to work with the American Geophysical Union to set up a similar book competition for kids’ books on earth and space science. The level of this year’s books was really high, and that’s very exciting; it would be nice if the content were expanded into some other fields. As a final comment, everyone on the committee said: ‘I wish we’d had books like this when we were kids.’

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Katharine Cashman

Katharine Cashman

Katharine Cashman is Professor of Volcanology at the University of Bristol, UK, and former Philip H. Knight Professor of Natural Science at the University of Oregon, USA. She has been awarded the Murchison Medal by the Geological Society of London and holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.