Best Books for Kids » The Best Science Books for Kids

The Best Science Books for Children: the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize

recommended by Usha Goswami

Am I Made of Stardust? Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Chelen Écija (illustrator)

WINNER OF THE 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize

Am I Made of Stardust?
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Chelen Écija (illustrator)


The judges of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize look for books that explain high quality science in an engaging and accessible way. Neuroscientist Usha Goswami, chair of the 2023 judging panel, explains why it is important to get children excited about science via books, and introduces us to the fabulous titles that made this year’s shortlist.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

Am I Made of Stardust? Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Chelen Écija (illustrator)

WINNER OF THE 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize

Am I Made of Stardust?
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Chelen Écija (illustrator)


Before we get to the books themselves, can you tell me a bit about your own work on neuroscience in education?

I work on children’s literacy, on how children learn to read across languages, and also what can go wrong. So I work with children who experience reading difficulties, on what is classically called dyslexia. I try to look at the brain basis of developmental dyslexia.

You started your career as a primary school teacher, is that right?

Yes, I’ve always been interested in reading. It’s such an important cultural thing that we do. Some children learn like ducks to water, and other children have such a struggle. I wanted to understand why that is, at the brain level.

And who were your fellow judges for the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize?

We had a real mixture of people. We had other Royal Society fellows, and also teachers and science writers and science communicators. We had a very good range of expertise, I thought.

Was it easy to agree, or did you have to make some difficult decisions to arrive at this year’s shortlist?

We were pretty good at getting our final twelve, but getting down to the final six was really difficult. The books we received were of exceptional quality. As chair of the judging panel I started with 105 books from which I had to pick 40. Then all the rest of the panel got those 40. We started off getting to a longlist of 20, then before the meeting we got it down to twelve. Then we had to get it down to six, and that’s where the most impassioned debate came. We discussed those twelve in depth. In the end, we agreed pretty much on those final six, the ones we really wanted to save for the shortlist.

And the winning book will be decided by children.

Exactly. I think that’s a really clever idea of the Royal Society. We’ve got our views as adults, but actually the books are for them. You want children to be engaged and to want to read these books. You process information more deeply when you read it, so it’s great to get children excited about science via books. You want to pick the books that will appeal to the children themselves.

Most of the books seem to be long picture books, and a couple are novel-length but highly illustrated. And there’s one shorter picture book with less text for younger readers.

We did try to have a balance of books for the younger and the older. In a way it’s easier to write a science book for older children, you can just give a lot more information and don’t have to worry so much about how to make the content appealing. Having a range of topics was important as well.

It was also about the quality of the information in the books. We had a lot of books that were visually very attractive, but some of them didn’t have such high quality science in them. So we were also looking for the level of explanation given, and whether it was not only accessible but also explaining something that’s really important.

The first book we are discussing from the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist is Bodies, Brains & Bogies: all you need to know about the gross, glorious human body!

We all felt that this is such an appealing subject for children. This book has the kind of questions children will ask you about what’s going on in their body and so on. The content is very appealingly written, so it’s the kind of book you can imagine a child getting out from the bookcase and then getting completely engrossed in. We thought it was a great book.

It has a very engaging tone. The author is a science communicator, and the illustrator seems quite cartoon-influenced, so it makes for very entertaining learning. Lots of fascinating facts…

Yes, lots of disgusting facts, which children love. And the humour is there in the writing. It is a well-judged book, probably mainly for 8-11 year olds.

I think it might work well for 9-12 year olds, it’s the longest of all the books on the 2023 shortlist. It has sections on different areas and functions of the body, and also a chapter on body image.

This is the one we think the kids might pick, to be honest, it’s such an appealing topic.

The next book we are talking about on the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist is Live Like a Hunter Gatherer: Discovering the Secrets of the Stone Age.

We thought that this is a really good way to get children out there trying stuff. You can make things yourself like the hunter gatherers used to make. The panel member who is teaching actually did some of the activities with her class, and they got really into it. I think we all love this book. It is a really novel topic, and gets kids involved in active, hands-on science. It’s also intended for children age around 8-11.

The author is a bushcraft instructor and forest school leader, and obviously very engaged in making kids connect with nature. But as well as a practical guide, it’s also a book about early human history.

Yes, it has a lot of interesting information. If I was reading it as a child it would make me interested in things like digging in caves and going to explore these ancient civilizations. You realise everything is connected to how we live now. Sometimes the author says that we can’t definitely know something, which is good, because science is never definite. There is always more to discover.

The next book we are discussing from the shortlist is Am I Made of Stardust? Dr Maggie Answers the Big Questions for Young Scientists. It has chapters on the universe, our solar system and humans in space.

This is a lovely book. Again, one of the Royal Society people who is in this field and does outreach was saying these are exactly the kind of questions children ask him all the time. It has really good detail, with good experiments in it. Again, it’s intended for children in the 8-11 age range.

The author is obviously an amazing scientist and communicator, and I thought you might be interested in her story. I read that she originally wanted to do physics but that because she is dyslexic she decided to do something more hands-on, and that’s why she did her PhD in mechanical engineering. She’s done missile warning systems, satellites, mine detection equipment and telescopes…

That’s interesting. There is some evidence suggesting that people with dyslexia are better at thinking outside the box, that they have a more holistic way of thinking about causal factors in the world. I read an article about how they are often quite innovative in the ways they figure out how cyber attacks are being mounted, for example, because their brains work slightly differently. So she’s picked a good field, probably. But I was just going on the book itself, because it has high quality content and the kinds of things that kids are interested in knowing about.

It’s fun. Each double-page spread starts with a question, such as how big is the universe? What would happen if I fell into a black hole? What does space smell like? Does it really rain diamonds on Jupiter?

Again, the judging panel felt that it was a well-judged book with very rich content.

Let’s move on to the next book, Step Inside Science: Germs. It is a colourful picture book, a board book.

This is a terrific book. It’s one of the ones for the younger end, for kids age around 5-7. It has really exceptional design. You want to keep turning the pages with this book, the way they’ve made those little flaps. It’s all about what are germs, what are viruses, how do they get into my body, and what can I do about it? So it makes a scary topic acceptable and understandable.

It explains that there are good bacteria as well as bad ones, and how vaccines work.

Yes, it’s a balanced picture. The explanations in it are very good. It’s very inspiring, really, for children when they can understand what germs are, and that some are good, some are bad. And this book feels very good in your hands, I would say.

The next book we are discussing from the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist is Ben Rothery’s Deadly and Dangerous Animals.

This is a great book. The picture of the tiger! I think any child would pick this book out of the shelf.

The illustrations are incredibly detailed and realistic. At first, I wasn’t sure if they are photos, to be honest.

Yes, they’re fantastic. He drew them all himself. It’s an amazing production, and very good information. It’s got the right anatomy, it’s got the Latin names, and it’s a really interesting way to present it. The idea that these animals are deadly is quite exciting and scary for children, isn’t it? And then you look in the book and you find they’re not all big tigers, some of them are little toads.

I think that’s brilliant. It shows that there are different ways of thinking about a question. I’ve never thought about dragonflies as being especially deadly, but apparently an adult dragonfly catches up to 95% of the prey it chases and a juvenile eats any living thing smaller than itself. The peacock mantis shrimp punches so fast that it causes the water in front of it to boil. This book is organised into sections such as teamwork, speed, stealth and mimicry.

That’s a good point. It makes you think about how to be deadly in a more analytical way. You might be an ant, but if you’re the fastest to strike then you’re going to get your prey. It has shades of Steve Backshall-type adventure and natural history television programmes about it, of going out there and exploring, but having it in a book. And it’s got really stunning illustrations. I would say this book is aimed at children age five and up.

We have come to the final book on the 2023 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist, A Bug’s World. The author is a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and the artist is a prolific illustrator of birds, flowers and insects.

This one is also very beautifully done. It has a very nice set of illustrations and well-chosen content. It doesn’t repeat lots of stuff you already know about bugs, so I think it is going to inspire children. There are some things that are well known, like bees vomit out honey, but there are quite a few things in this book that I read for the first time. I learnt that a vinegar fly fell into some milk 6,000 years ago, and that’s what led to us having cheese and yogurt, and we’re still using those bacteria.

Interesting. I missed that, but I did notice that for every human there are 200 million bugs, that the dung beetle can pull over 1,100 times its own body weight, and that the thermometer cricket can tell us the temperature.

A lot of the facts are really unusual, and they’ll engage children. And there is something about insects that children love to watch, especially when they’re really tiny. Bugs are all around us. This book makes you think about their place in the ecosystem and how helpful they are.

Yes, how important they are! This book is also a good introduction to classification methods for the natural world — species and family and all those categories. And the evolution of insects. And it’s a very colourful book as well, it’s lovely to look at.

Yes, I agree. We all thought it is quite an exceptional book. Everyone on the panel felt they learned new stuff by reading it. Of all the books on the shortlist, this is probably the one for the widest age range, from around 5-11.

Do you want to add anything about the books, about communicating science to children, or about the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize?

I do think getting kids reading is so important. The more you read, the better for your brain. And you probably process the information more deeply when you read it. Science is such a big topic. If you can come up with the right angle or perspective to get children reading about science from the youngest ages, then you’re doing something great. There are lots of children who grow up in homes with zero books, so you really want them to go into school and have books that they want to take out of that school library, and you want children to want to learn how to read.

It’s super important whether your parent reads with you. Even if your mother can’t speak English, but she goes through a book you’ve chosen at the library and tells you in, say, Bengali what the pictures are, that still helps your reading, it’s still really important. So books in schools are really vital.

We were trying to have topics that were treated in a fresh way. You always get books on dinosaurs, but we wanted to look at a range of topics. AI and coding and climate change are areas of science that are growing in importance but, in my personal view, the books we looked at in these areas weren’t really getting into the topic from a young child’s point of view, so they didn’t go on the shortlist.

I enjoyed being on the judging panel for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize a lot. The books you get sent are gorgeous. Some of them didn’t cover enough breadth to make it on the shortlist, maybe they were about one animal species or just one aspect of something, but they were still gorgeous books. It’s an honour to judge a prize like this, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

November 1, 2023

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Usha Goswami

Usha Goswami

Usha Goswami is a cognitive developmental neuroscientist. Having started out as a primary school teacher, she went on to study child psychology and then neuroscience, specialising in dyslexia. She is a Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education.

Usha Goswami

Usha Goswami

Usha Goswami is a cognitive developmental neuroscientist. Having started out as a primary school teacher, she went on to study child psychology and then neuroscience, specialising in dyslexia. She is a Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education.