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Best Science Books for Children: the 2022 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize

recommended by Alan Wilson

The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize celebrates books that stimulate children’s curiosity and enthusiasm to explore, innovate and debate. Alan Wilson, Chair of this year’s judging panel, talks us through the six outstanding science books for kids that made the 2022 shortlist.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Before we get to the six excellent science books for kids that made it onto the Young People’s Book Prize shortlist, can you talk a bit about why the Royal Society supports this prize, and what makes a great science book for children?

The Royal Society is about supporting engendering science, and part of that is the next generation of scientists and how one can enthuse science to happen. Science has been described as adults with childlike enthusiasm and curiosity, so we all keep our inner kids slightly on hand. With children’s book prizes, I think that secretly the judges all love reading them. A book is great because you sit down and it focuses your attention, but it doesn’t completely subsume your attention. When you watch television it’s information flow. With a book, you can sit and read, and it makes you think in different directions. Books are about inspiration and getting the thinking process going. A book is nice because of that, because of the graphics, because it is transportable, and you can read it as slowly or as quickly as you want.

Am I right in understanding that you are a specialist in how animals move? What is the background of the rest of the judging panel this year?

I’m a vet originally, my background is in how animals work, the physics and mechanics of physiology. Whilst I’m a vet, I’m a bit like an engineer who looks at animals to understand why they’re put together the way they are and what they evolved to do. The panel is a mixture of people coming from different perspectives, from school teaching to publishing to people who have an interest in science, in the advocacy and communication of science. So we did have a range of expertise, and I think that made it a complementary panel.

“I don’t think you can put an upper age limit on any of these books”

In terms of the shortlist, getting to 12 was reasonably easy but then it took more discussion. We tried to get a set of topics, as there is no point in having more or less identical books. And we tried to get a range of sizes, you’ve got cheap ones, you’ve got expensive ones, and you have different styles of learning and engagement.

You mentioned engineering, so let’s first talk about How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal.

I love this book, because I like building things. When I was a kid I very much read books by Richard Scarry, which tell you about how the world works. How Was That Built? has got the basics of how things work in a very presentable way. It introduces concepts and covers a range of topics, nothing in too much depth but it pulls out succinct facts or features. It’s really nicely written and really nicely illustrated and it’s printed on quality paper.

The author is clearly committed to STEM communication and outreach; in addition to this book and a book for adults she has a podcast mini-series. I like how this book looks at construction examples in history and also has a chapter on building into the future, and building in particularly challenging environments.

Kids love building things, and this is the next progression from sandcastles because you can read this book and understand why your sandcastle falls down or how to make it stronger. I can see how kids can pick up this book and then the constructions that appear would be better as a result of reading it. It’s inspirational and gets you thinking about stuff, and that’s what we want.

Shall we talk about Microbe Wars next? This book will resonate with kids who have heard so much about COVID-19 and want to understand more about the science relating to it.

It’s got lovely pictures and nice stories. It’s facts you can pick up and build on. It doesn’t go into anything in too much depth. Some things you will have heard of, and as an adult you can also pick it up and find it interesting. This book will spark people’s curiosity. And it’s got poo in it; which kid doesn’t want a book with poo in it?

I found this book hugely informative, because it touches on various branches of science and history of medicine, and will appeal to kids who are interested in inventions as well – like the electron microscope that first allowed us to see viruses less than a century ago. I think it’s great that a book for kids about microbial science made the shortlist.

Again, it’s about presenting important concepts to get people thinking. They may not go and read more about it right now but they may remember something about it in five years’ time when they get further on in the education process. And it’s great for sibling education.

Let’s move on to a book about animals next, which is always a popular science topic for kids. Fourteen Wolves is about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s.

This is a nice picture book with some interesting concepts. At first you think it’s just a book about wolves, and then when you get into it in more detail there is rewilding and important points about ecology and why predators matter and so on. You get absolute nitty gritty detail about the original 14 wolves and it’s got facts that you can then go and research. It’s about how the ecosystem works, and it brings you nice starting points that form the basis of going further into discussion. And it has some lovely illustrations.

Yes, the illustrations are fantastic. And using storytelling as a way to engage kids is very effective. Younger kids can look at the pictures, whilst older readers learn about the interconnectedness of ecosystems and predators’ role in keeping them stable. What age of children would you say this science book is for?

I think it appeals to a wide age range because, as you say, it can be almost a storybook where you look at the pictures, but my son in his mid-20s identified it as his favourite book of them all. I don’t think you can put an upper age limit on any of these books.

Let’s talk about Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories, which is part of Kate Pankhurst’s bestselling Fantastically Great Women book series for kids. This is another title which works well for kids who are perhaps more drawn to stories than facts, but through this book they will learn a lot about the science these women were researching.

This book has a personal angle on scientists, which is different from the other books on the shortlist. In terms of format, it’s a small book. We didn’t want everything to be a big expensive picture book. You could stick this one in a pocket and read it for half an hour while you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment. It’s a book which someone will sit down and read and hopefully explore and feel inspired by. I think it’s wonderful because of all those things. The topic is important, and trying to understand people’s reason for being in science and how they went on to have that career path is really important. Diversifying the range of kids who are interested in science is about genuine diversity, so it’s good to tell the story of different people who are in it.

Let’s move on to If the World Were 100 People, which is more of a social science book for kids. Can you explain the concept of this book and why it made the shortlist?

It’s about percentages, it’s about showing the spread of characteristics across the world. It’s picking up interesting points, and it raises a lot of points that can be built on and explored. I’ve opened a page at random: five people speak English, four of whom are from North America. So English is a very widely spoken language, but there’s a vast number of languages, so it gives you interesting numbers that you may not be aware of, and can form the basis of a conversation or a discussion. You don’t have to read the book, you can open it at a single page and form a lesson from it or form a discussion from it, be it at the dinner table at home or in the school room.

It’s a brilliant way to represent information for children, and to introduce them to various indicators, such as population, literacy levels, access to clean water – all kinds of information about issues that are important in people’s lives.

It’s what a book should be, which is a foundation for going further.

We’ve come to our final science book for kids that we are discussing: Beetles for Breakfast. The author has a Master’s degree in physics and astrophysics, but she has written this children’s book about science and technology ideas to help us lead more environmentally friendly lives.

This is fun, the illustrations are great, the concepts are good. It’s got concepts of how the world works and gives some short sound bites, which can be picked up on and followed. Younger kids who can’t read can pick this up and love the pictures, and later revisit what it’s about. It’s great from that point of view, it’s a nice mix of concepts and visuals. The frontispiece has a bunch of insects and a bus with helicopter blades in the middle of it.

Jisu Choi is an acclaimed illustrator based in Seoul, she has quite a recognisable style. I also really like how not just the art but the content is very creative and solution-oriented – thinking outside the box about technology for the future. This book also looks like an excellent resource for teachers.

It’s got an index, which is great, so you can actually find things in it. And it’s got a glossary, so children do also learn about the structure of books, which is nice.

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After reading all the books for the longlist and seeing what is getting published, do you feel that there are any fields of science that are underrepresented in children’s books?

I think it’s about why you’re writing a science book. You could say, “why isn’t there a maths book on the shortlist?” but I think the topic is secondary to enthusing and exciting people about the process of science and asking “what is science?”. You might say that in school we have to teach a curriculum. But I don’t think these books are about teaching a curriculum. They’re about sparking curiosity on the basis of that exploration of information in the world, so I’m not really worried about what they’re about, I’m much more concerned that they’re nice to pick up and read. Science is about a thought process and an attitude; what you actually know is probably less important.

Is there anything you would like to add about any of the books or the experience of being on the judging panel for these wonderful science books for kids?

I think it’s an honour to do and it’s been fun. It makes you think about how information is presented and how you enthuse the earlier stages of science and how people engage in it. We do become linked to the world of the iPad and the visual information flow that’s defined by watching a TV programme, videos on YouTube, or whatever. Having a balance with books is important because they do engender curiosity. I think giving profile to books that try to do something different is very good indeed. It’s exciting, and I’m very pleased to do what I can to support that process.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

September 21, 2022

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Alan Wilson

Alan Wilson

Alan Wilson is Professor of Locomotor Biomechanics at the Structure and Motion Lab, Royal Veterinary College, University of London. He has a PhD on tendon injury mechanisms, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2020.