To find the best science books for kids, the judges of the Royal Society Young People's Book Prize look for books that are not only accurate but also entertaining. Mike Kendall, Professor of Geophysics at Oxford University and chair of this year's judging panel, talks us through the six fabulous books that made the 2020 shortlist (the final winner will be chosen by the real experts: more than 13,000 kids).
We’re talking about the best science books for kids (up to age 14) published this past year: books that made the shortlist of the 2020 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. Before we go through them individually, can you give me a sense of what kind of books you and the other judges were looking for? What were your criteria?
It was difficult, because there were so many good books. We were really looking for something that was a bit different, something that maybe wasn’t a standard type of children’s book. We were also quite clear in looking for books that represent the broad scope of people that could be scientists. Rather than very traditional backgrounds, we were looking for books that showed that people from a whole range of walks of life and backgrounds could be scientists.
The prize is very much about inspiring young people to become scientists?
Yes, definitely. We were all commenting and thinking back to when we were young and the books that we read that got us interested in science. Often it was quite difficult to predict which ones we really liked. Some of the six books we chose, I think, are maybe not that predictable. We tried to avoid books that we felt took themselves a bit too seriously. Science should be fun, and we wanted books that get that across.
I know it’s not just scientists on the judging panel, but I do think it’s wonderful having highly-regarded scientists picking out science books for kids. It gives me some sense, as a parent, that when I give these books to my kids, they’re not just entertaining, but also proper science.
Yes, we really look for accuracy. There were a few books where we knew from our respective fields that they didn’t get things quite right and that counted against those books. As much as possible, we tried to make sure the books were accurate and up to date.
Let’s look at each of the books in turn. I’m going to start with Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry because the author, Neil deGrasse Tyson, featured in a book about Kid Scientists on last year’s Royal Society shortlist. Can you tell us why you picked this book and also maybe a few words about who he is?
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve actually heard him talk: I was speaking at European AstroFest, giving a talk on comparisons between planets and Earth, and he gave a great talk on astrophysics, about detecting distant galaxies and other really interesting stuff.
We felt this book was just really nicely written. In the first sentence he writes, “in the beginning, nearly 14 billion years ago, the entire universe was smaller than the period that ends this sentence.” He really has a good way of capturing the enormity of what you’re looking at.
“Science should be fun, and we wanted books that get that across”
The book has nice little digressions too, where he talks about the physics. So there’s a little bit about Newton and the impact that had and then there’s things about the oblateness of the Earth—in other words, it isn’t exactly spherical—and that you’re a little bit lighter at the equator than you are at the poles. So there are lots of little titbits throughout the book, but also a really nice narrative through what is current in astrophysics, what we know about the Big Bang and other questions. The book is very readable and we thought it would reach out to a lot of children.
It’ll probably appeal to the parents too. Astrophysics is so incredibly hard to understand that it’s reassuring (for me, anyway) to read a kids’ book, as a way of learning more about the science. Actually, there was a book about numbers on last year’s Royal Society shortlist that my husband still occasionally reads out a fact to me from, because he’s got it by his bed.
I learned something from these books! Definitely. Reading all these books was good for me. I suspect a number of these books we’ll be constantly going back to for facts. Keep it simple, it’s great.
Let’s go on to a book with a sillier title—although I noticed from one of the judges’ comments that it’s gone down really well with her kids. It’s called Cats React to Science Facts.
This one is fascinating. When I looked at it initially, I thought there is no way we’re going to get even close to shortlisting it, with its classic cats-as-a-hook.
But when you start to read it, it’s really good. It really captures, for example, why the Earth has a magnetic field. It explains force and energy balances, the idea of electromagnetism. It’s really, really good, well explained science. And you’ve got the added fun of cats in it! As you said, one of the judges, for her children, it was the book they couldn’t put down; they would argue about who would take it to bed and read it.
The other thing that was really compelling in this book was that some of the more traditional books are really science books. They’re going to appeal to a young student or child who’s already really interested in science. We wanted to try and have some books that might reach out to children who are maybe a bit intimidated by science or don’t think they’re very good at it, or perhaps just aren’t very interested in it. And we thought this book could do that: it would appeal to a much wider audience. I suspect it will do quite well.
Let’s move on to In the Key of Code, which is a novel. What can you tell me about this book?
Like I said, we tried to pick books that were a little bit different. This is a really nice story. It’s about a young girl who’s feeling quite alone and a little bit detached and she finds comfort in music. Again, initially, I thought this was just too much of a story, that there wasn’t enough science in it and it didn’t get enough into the coding. But then, as the book progresses, you realize that she is also learning about scripting and coding. Towards the end, the book really is getting into the syntax and how you construct algorithms and how you logically solve a problem.
The book does it in a really nice way and so we felt, again, that this was a book that would be very good for someone who’s perhaps intimidated by the idea of coding. It’s for someone who is thinking, ‘Well, I’m not very good with computers and coding is not something I look at.’ Then very naturally—through what I think is a really well told story—you learn about coding and you realize it’s logical, that there’s nothing really that threatening about it. You can make mistakes and it’s not the end of the world. I think for a lot of people it’s just about getting that confidence to start, especially with computers and especially for young women. There’s a stereotype that maybe they’re not so good at coding which is completely wrong and this book addresses that.
I started reading the book last night and the young girl who is the main character actually gets put in the coding class by mistake. She doesn’t choose to do it, but then she does do it and—I didn’t get that far—but I presume she ends up enjoying it?
Yes, and she’s also quite good at it.
The next book is maybe for kids who are more ambitious about their science. This book is called How to Win a Nobel Prize and it’s by Barry Marshall, who himself won a Nobel Prize in medicine. What do you like about this book?
This book was the big hit in my family. Everybody put it as their number one. What’s nice about it is that it gives you some insights into how science evolves and works and very often it’s not somebody waking up one morning going, ‘I think I’m going to become a scientist and win a Nobel Prize.’ It’s often very accidental. Some of the big discoveries are opportunistic: it isn’t what somebody set out to do in the beginning. I think that’s really encouraging for young people, to see how scientists and scientific careers evolve and that there’s not one way to do this. Some of these people got Nobel prizes very late in life, some people quite early. Some people got them in disciplines that were a bit outside of what they were working on. Even Einstein: he was working in a patent office when he published his early papers on relativity.
“We wanted to try and have some books that might reach out to children who are maybe a bit intimidated by science or don’t think they’re very good at it”
The story is very nicely told, through the eyes of a young girl who meets Barry. By travelling through this special door, they get to meet Nobel laureates from the past. There’s also references to women like Rosalind Franklin, who probably deserves a Nobel Prize. So the book also points out some people who were overlooked.
Then, another thing I really liked about this book is that at the end of each chapter there was a little experiment you could do that demonstrated aspects of what the Nobel Prize winners won the prize for. The one that really stuck with me is that just by melting chocolate in a microwave, you can actually work out the speed of light. These really basic things were really fascinating. And it’s very readable. It’s very well written. Again, when I picked this book up, I thought it’ll be okay, it won’t be great, but actually it was really, really good.
So the last two books we’ve discussed were both novels in which there’s a story and you’re following a main character. Let’s talk about Gut Garden next, which is maybe aimed at a slightly younger age group, with lovely pictures and graphics.
Gut Garden, again, was a fascinating book. You’d have to be living under a rock right now not to realize that viruses and microbes are very important to us and can have good and bad effects. This is not my field, but I know we’re constantly learning more and more about these microbial communities both in our body and in nature and everywhere, really. They point out in the book that there’s orders of magnitude more microbes in our body than there even are cells: in a sense, we’re just a host for these microbes.
It’s really nicely presented. It’s clever the way it goes through the roles that the microbes play: in digestion preserving food, in our health when things go wrong, how our body tries to counteract this. There are some really good facts, like how they can lie dormant for years. There are even some speculations about what your appendix might be used for.
It’s really good and this is the type of book that 10 or 20 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to write, because we didn’t know a lot of this stuff. It’s a really fast-moving field, and this is not your typical science book. We all enjoyed it.
How many books were you choosing from?
We started with just over 100 and then I had to do a first cull. That was often books that just weren’t science or just 10 pages long and part of a series that’s just churned out like a conveyor belt. Then the judges were sent around 50 books and we had to get it down to six.
We came up with our own shortlist of 12. Then we tried to see whether there was commonality and actually there was surprisingly little—which shows you, actually, how good these books were. It was really, really tough and there were so many of them where I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great book!’
Then we had long conversations. I think everybody had their mind changed—the book that they thought was a dead cert for not being shortlisted all of a sudden was shortlisted. We were all very open-minded and I really enjoyed the process. I thought it was great.
Do you follow children’s books enough to say whether there are more out there these days that are both accurate about science and fun to read?
I don’t know. I have children myself and they’re both studying science at university. They didn’t really start reading science books until they were in their teens.
What do you think inspired them?
A combination of things: it’s what they enjoyed, it’s what they were naturally good at. I’m a scientist, my father was a scientist, their other grandfather was an engineer. They are not the type of people we are trying to aim the books at, they’re more for somebody who wouldn’t naturally be thinking about science. In fact, I’m always encouraging my children to read and write because I think that’s so important in science. I always say to my PhD students, ‘You can do some great work, but if you don’t write it up well and publish it, you might as well not have done it. It’s not going to help anybody.’ So, I think the communication of science is crucial—as important as doing the science itself.
“I think the communication of science is crucial—as important as doing the science itself”
In terms of books, sometimes it’s quite difficult to predict what a child will like. Often, children will be mesmerized by a book that when you look at it, there are a lot of facts. It’s not necessarily great pictures. It’s not necessarily a great format. But there’s something about it that’s compelling. Thinking of myself as a child, it was a series of books published by Time Life on everything to do with the natural world and physical sciences. I just found it really fascinating and would flip through it on the weekends.
I think there are more, better books out there. There are also definitely some books with scientific flaws. There are also some books that aren’t making much of an effort to captivate people. But of the 100 or so we looked at I would say there were a great many that were excellent.
That’s another thing I love about this prize, that once you—the adult judging panel—have chosen the shortlist of six science books, it’s down to hundreds of kids to choose the final winner. That seems completely right, because kids have their own ideas about what’s funny and what’s interesting.
Have we got one more book?
Yes, it’s called The Everyday Journey of Ordinary Things. This is something that used to—and still—fascinates me. I love it if there’s a show on TV about how something is made. There was one recently on yogurt, how it’s made and put in cartons. I just find the whole automation stuff fascinating.
This book is really, really good. It’s got lots of interesting facts, and it’s explained really nicely. I’m just looking at a page here, “Where do clothes come from?” It’s the journey of a pair of jeans and there are little facts—like where the word denim comes from, ‘de Nîmes’ in France—and then the whole process, from growing the cotton right through to shipping it to shops.
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The book looks at how the internet or GPS work, how electricity works when you turn on your lights. The book is just raising awareness that everything we do, at any moment in our lives, has a big knock-on effect: somebody, somewhere in another part of the world has done something, has grown something, something has been burned to provide electricity. It gives us a better understanding of our context in the whole natural world which I think, often, even as adults we don’t fully appreciate.
Here’s another one I like: “The journey of milk.” It sounds pretty straightforward, but actually it’s not, it’s very interesting.
The book is aimed at kids aged 8-10, with lots of pictures, but again there are lots of facts in there that I didn’t know. Why does a light switch on—or how does a text get sent or a phone call work—is exactly the kind of stuff kids like to ask which, speaking for myself, one is not always fully equipped to answer as a parent.
I also like the page on how you get fuel into your car. If you drive anywhere you need to have fuel, but it has an environmental impact. It’s much better to understand the whole problem.
Mike, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me and, more importantly, for judging this prize, because choosing from more than 100 books must have been pretty time-consuming.
It was really pleasurable though. The Royal Society is so well organised. I’m really happy that they run this prize. I’d also like to thank my fellow judges—Cressida Cowell, Konnie Huq, Gail Eager and Rosalind Rickaby—for their hard work. Everything was done over Zoom, but we had a really good time chatting and arguing.
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