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Calling all kid scientists

1205_collection1Gaby D'Alessandro

“One day, my sister will be bigger than me,” a friend’s 3-year-old recently announced. “How do you know that?” her mother asked, preparing for a preschooler’s take on polygenic inheritance. Leaning in closer, she whispered: “An owl told me.” What tickles me about this response is how perfectly it illustrates the creativity and open-mindedness with which children approach the world. Like the best scientists, they tackle the unknown with minimal preconceptions and aren’t afraid to employ a little outside-the-box thinking. Helping kids identify the right questions and the best ways to answer them is our happy task, a job made easier by this year’s finalists for the Science Books and Films (SB&F) Prizes for Excellence in Science Books. Sponsored by Suburu and AAAS (the publisher of Science), this annual competition highlights books that promote science literacy among children and young adults. Read on to see reviews of the finalists written by the staff (and families) of Science and our sister journals. – Valerie Thompson

A scientist finds her place

Lab Girl

Hope Jahren
300 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9-12

Growing up in a Norwegian community in rural Minnesota, Hope Jahren discovered her love for scientific inquiry in her father’s laboratory at the local community college. Today, she lives with her family in Mauna Loa, where she runs her own laboratory at the University of Hawaii, studying how plants interact with their environment. Lab Girl is a fascinating and at times harrowing account of her life’s journey so far.

Jahren tells of her battle with manic depression, madcap road trips to conferences, and field study sites, the deep friendship with her lab partner Bill, and the uphill struggle to succeed in a field of academic research that receives little funding. But she also writes of the wonders of the natural world and the thrill of her first scientific discovery, when she “finally knew what real research was like.”

The book is interspersed with short chapters that explain the meager chance of survival of individual plant seeds, the risks that a root takes as it grows from a seed, how trees can “remember their childhood,” and how they survive freezing temperatures in winter. Plants emerge as active agents that shape their environment, and Jahren never stops asking new questions about them. For example, standing on a hill in Ireland, she recognizes that the ground is as wet there as in the valley and immediately starts an experiment to test whether mosses are responsible for keeping the high ground moist.

Jahren writes that she became a scientist because, in her heart, she was never anything else. Her love for science and the tenacity with which she has pursued her goals are a true inspiration.


A Beetle is Shy

Dianna Hutts Aston
Chronicle Books
40 pp.
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Age Range: 5 – 8 years

Grade Level: Kindergarten – 3

A Beetle Is Shy introduces children to the staggering diversity of beetles, from common ladybugs to titan beetles to boll weevils. The book begins by explaining that a beetle is “shy” because of the way it enters the world— inside an egg case camouflaged under a leaf or tree root. A turn of the page reveals a basic diagram that chronicles the beetle’s transformation from egg to juvenile to full grown insect. The phrase “A beetle is…” begins nearly every page spread, followed by simple categorizations (e.g., “a digger,” “guarded,” “helpful,” and “tasty”). Readers are thus treated to charming descriptions of different traits exhibited by various beetle species. Young readers will be thrilled to discover that the pigweed flea beetle can hop up to 13 inches into the air or that the water-gliding rove beetle can “skate” along the surface of water. The vibrant, eye-catching illustrations are a highlight and will no doubt help to engage even those readers who may be a bit squeamish about bugs. This delightful book promotes a sense of wonder about a group of little creatures with whom we share this Earth and is an excellent choice for budding entomologists. It gently introduces some more advanced concepts, such as the use of pheromones and bioluminescence for beetle communication, so parents may find it helpful to read along with their children.

Bringing back the dead

Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things

M. R. O’Connor
St. Martin's Press
266 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9 – 12

The idea of genetically resurrecting animals long vanished from the Earth seems at once familiar and fantastic. Jurassic Park popularized the concept and fired the imaginations of millions, but the dinosaurs’ human creators came off rather more one-dimensional, primarily motivated by greed and hubris. In her book Resurrection Science, journalist M.R. O’Connor takes the reader beyond that simple premise into a thorny tangle of ethics, economics, politics, personalities, and, of course, science.

Each chapter focuses on a different species, from the once ubiquitous and now extinct passenger pigeon to the endangered and maddeningly mysterious North Atlantic right whale to the northern white rhino, of which there are only three in the world, all in captivity. For each species, O’Connor explains, whether or how to “save” them is a question with its own cost-benefit analysis and no easy or right answers.

Take, for example, the northern white rhino, on the very brink of extinction, whose defense from poachers already comes with a human cost. Scientists have proposed a bold, controversial plan to save them: Use a stockpile of frozen sperm, stem, and other cells collected over decades to create new rhinos. Critics worry that the likely multimillion-dollar price tag could affect other conservation efforts. Even if it all works, O’Connor ponders, would these lab created rhinos really be the same species?

Each species’ story contains as much complexity and detail and has its own interesting cast of true believers who are passionate about the animal and/or the science. Many chapters feel open-ended, an implied “to be continued…” at the finish.

Resurrection Science is not a “young adult” book, in the sense that it’s targeted at a specific demographic or simplifies its complicated, provocative, and sometimes even disheartening subject. But thoughtful students with interests in conservation, biology, or zoology will find it an engrossing read.

Budding naturalists: head outdoors!

Outside: A Guide to Discovering Nature

Maria Ana Peixe Dias and Ines Texeira do Rosario
Frances Lincoln Children's Books
360 pp.
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Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 6

Turn off your electronics and open the door. What’s out there? These authors want you to go outside and look for yourself. A few pages of the book are set aside for full-color paintings of plants and animals, but most pages offer muted but inviting black-and gray- ink-wash paintings that hint at wild landscapes and the life that populates them.

Even rainy days are taken as an opportunity rather than a limitation: Rain soup, anyone?

Bright monochromatic color drawings illustrate the diversity of shapes in nature: of bird beaks, tree leaves, and insect legs; of rocks, seashells, and clouds. A two page cerulean-blue cutout shows readers the shape of a grasshopper (which are not, generally, blue), but if you want to see the grasshopper in all its multihued, iridescent, jumping glory, you’d better go outside and look for yourself.

From the big city to the wild mountains, the book is inclusive of a great variety of environments while reminding the budding naturalist about taking nothing but experience, leaving nothing but footprints, and being prepared for the sometimes unwelcome surprises that wild nature holds. The
authors detail sounds, tracks, and leavings (shedded exoskeletons, half-eaten nuts), as well as conservation, evolution, and endangered species. Field trip suggestions explore the diversity of biomes.

The roadmap for a nocturnal expedition listening to amphibians sing in wetlands would no doubt have come in handy on the night I mistook a not-so- big bullfrog in the Rocky Mountains for a really big moose.

Chew on this

Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers

Sara Levine
Millbrook Press
32 pp.
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Age Range: 4 – 10 years

Grade Level: Kindergarten – 4

What kind of creature would you be if you had two incisors that grew out of your mouth and up toward the sky? Or if you had one long canine tooth that grew through your upper lip? Or if you had no teeth at all? This clever book by Sara Levine, a veterinarian and professor of biology, takes readers on a tour of the types of teeth that one might find among vertebrate animals—with an emphasis on mammals because of their more diverse and interesting dentition. The book begins with human teeth as a reference, encouraging kids to look inside their own mouths, describing what they’ll see there and why. It then moves on to different kinds of teeth, such as tusks, long canines, and tall molars, showing them first incongruously in the mouths of children and asking readers to guess what animal(s) they really belong to, before revealing the answer on the next page. The book packs a lot of information into what feels—thanks to engaging narration by the author and fun collage-like illustrations by the aptly pseudonymed T.S Spookytooth—like a quick and easy read. Teeth are not always for eating, we learn; they can be for digging, defense, and, in the case of the narwhal’s mysterious tusk, maybe even sensory perception. (For younger readers, bear in mind that the text does not shy away from what some of the sharper teeth are designed to do.) Appended at the back of the book are more facts about teeth and a reading list for the dentally curious.

DIY science fun for everyone

Outdoor Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments for the Yard, Garden, Playground, and Park

Liz Lee Heinecke
Quarry Books
144 pp.
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Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 2 – 5

Add one part adventure, one part scientific method, and one copy of Outdoor Science Lab for Kids, and the result will be hours of educational exploration. Organized by 12 scientific themes, including Driveway Physics, Picnic Table Chemistry, and Glorious Gardening, each of the book’s 52 labs provides a materials list, safety tips, succinct methods, suggested further study, and an explanation of the underlying science. Vibrant photographs of kids doing the experiment accompany each lab’s instructions.

The scientific concepts behind most of the experiments are appropriate for kids in elementary school or middle school, although younger kids may enjoy tagging along. A few of the experiments could be used to fill some spare time, such as marveling at a playing card that sticks to an upside-down jar of water or learning about pendulums while on a playground swing.

Most labs, however, will require preparation and patience. In addition to simple household items, materials include microscopes, ball inflation needles, plastic tubing, Plexiglas, and reagents that may require a trip to the store, such as agar powder, buttermilk, and red cabbage. Many of the experiments involve the observation of plants or insects over the course of hours or days. And young scientists may have to travel to find the lakes,
fields, or forests that their intended objects of study call home.

Most of the experiments do not have flashy payoffs such as explosions or magical effects (with some notable exceptions, such as foaming slime and marshmallows burnt with a magnifying glass). Rather, Heinecke encourages her pint-sized researchers to log their observations in a lab book and then alter the variables to explore their results more thoroughly through follow-up experiments.

Whether the kids are hunting for water bears, creating a catapult, or comparing the growth rates of plants, this book will give new meaning to the age-old entreaty to “Go play outside!”

Fire in the forest

Ricky's Atlas: Mapping a Land on Fire

Judith L. Li
Oregon State University Press
111 pp.
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Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 6

Maps, field notes, and illustrations enrich the body text in Ricky’s Atlas, offering much to be unpackaged and explored for readers of all ages.

At the book’s heart is the narrative of Ricky Zamora, who is visiting his uncle’s ranch in Oregon, east of the Cascade Mountains. Ricky and his mother arrive at the start of a thunderstorm— one that initiates a fire in the drier forests found in the high desert terrain. During his visit, Ricky explores the base camp for the firefighter crews at an active fire site, visits a fire tower, and later—joined by his friend Ellie—helps survey areas previously touched by fires for regrowth and restoration.

Readers learn about the normal life cycles found in forested areas, some of the effects that arise from human use and alteration of the normal species diversity, and also the ways that humans monitor and track the health of the land. Each chapter concludes with notes and maps recorded by Ricky as he summarizes the day’s adventures and many of the things he learned.

Drawings of plants and animals that include descriptive notes about their features, identifying traits, and normal behavior are interspersed throughout. Even without reading the main storyline, these illustrations aptly capture the richness of the landscape and terrain.

Superficially, the book is targeted at children in the preteen to early teen range, which approximately matches the ages of Ricky and his cousins. But there is such a richness to the illustrations and information that this book has much to offer to older readers and could even find use in a classroom setting as part of a science unit on ecology.

Fish school

Fish Tricks: The Wild and Wacky World of Fish

Haude Levesque
MoonDance Press
80 pp.
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Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 7

Fish were the first vertebrates to evolve, more than 500 million years ago, and with over 30,000 species, they remain one of the subphylum’s most diverse groups. Haude Levesque’s colorful book takes young readers on a journey through the many wonderful adaptations possessed by these underwater creatures, providing the basics of fish biology and clearing up some misconceptions that are common among children (for example, whales are not fish!). Classifying each set of adaptations as “tricks,” she then gives intriguing examples of their physiology, morphology, reproduction, and behavior. We learn, for example, that some fish brood their young in their mouths, while others produce a nutritious mucus so the young can feed of their skin. Each description is brief and easily accessible, accompanied by fun and captivating illustrations.

The logic behind which tricks were chosen for the book is not clear; on one page, she discusses color change and on the next, tool use. It seems likely that these are the features that most intrigued Levesque herself. Given the target audience (between about 8 and 11 years old) and playful approach of the book, this seems entirely appropriate. In providing readers with her own favorite stories, she opens up the fascinating world of the fishes to a new generation.

Food for thought: farming for kids

Grow! Raise! Catch! How We Get Our Food

Shelley Rotner
Holiday House
32 pp.

Age Range: 4 – 7 years

Grade Level: Preschool – 2

Children in our increasingly urbanized world, we worry, are failing to understand where food comes from. A glossy store-bought apple looks manufactured, and a ready-made pizza is often topped with unidentifiable objects. This book aims to correct any misunderstandings that 3- to 5-year-olds may have about the stuff they eat, where it comes from, and who is responsible for producing it.

Using a large format and cheerful photographs of attractive people holding attractive plants and animals, city kids can see that apples grow on trees and bread first grew as a wheat plant. The photographs convey a sanitized view and are essentially about the people who do farming rather than farming activities themselves, although there is a fine photograph of a tractor that I predict will attract the most attention from child readers. The photographs are interspersed with some text, of the type: “We’re VEGETABLE FARMERS. We love to grow peppers, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes,” and “Lobsters shed their shells as they grow.” A glossary is provided at the back for more technical terms such as “nutritious,” “predator,” and “vitamins,” along with some valuable (but scant) key text explaining “You are what you eat.”

The direct connection between a child holding a vegetable or hugging a calf and food on a plate will need further explanation and possibly some more difficult conversations about combine harvesters and abattoirs. So, the chief value of this book will be as a prompt to what a teacher’s or a parent’s distant memory of the countryside can add to it. This handsome production will work in the classroom to spark conversations and, better still, may prompt children to get their hands dirty and ask to grow food for themselves.

Hands-on science for tree huggers

Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests

Monica Russo
Chicago Review Press
114 pp.
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Age Range: 7 – 12 years

Grade Level: 2 and up

Trees are the stuff of childhood memories. They provide nature’s monkey bars, ample matter for leaf-pile fun, reprieve from the summer heat, and home for myriad creatures of the animal world. In Treecology, author Monica Russo and photographer Kevin Byron present almost everything a fourth- to sixth-grader would want to know about this woody plant’s structure, a primer on the variety of tree species, and a discussion of their role in ecosystems.

Photos, illustrations, and text boxes carefully and effectively enhance the detailed descriptions. Exploration of nature is encouraged
through very simple activities requiring minimal materials, such as “your sharp eyes” and a plastic food storage bag or “your imagination” and a magnifying glass.

Elementary-aged children should enjoy these activities, but the detail in which each topic is discussed might be tedious for the very young. Educators will likely find the text useful for planning lessons and will no doubt appreciate the resources at the end, which include a teachers’ guide. Readers of Treecology are sure to view woody plants as not just a source of shade on a hot day but as critical parts of our neighborhoods and the world as a whole.

Marie Tharp, a pioneer of oceanic research

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor

Robert Burleigh
Simon & Schuster
40 pp.
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Age Range: 4 – 8 years

Grade Level: Preschool – 3

Sexism and the bottom of the sea: These disparate topics don’t sound like the stuff of children’s lit, but this charming book manages to offer insights into both, while still being appropriate for 4- to 8-year-olds. The story is told from the point of view of Marie Tharp, a real-life scientist who is credited as being the first to map the bottom of the ocean, thus confirming the theory of continental drift. As a female scientist in the 1940s, Tharp faced countless obstacles to her dreams of oceanographic research. The book does a good job of simplifying these issues to suit a young readership; it mentions that back then it was still considered bad luck to allow women on ships and that other scientists didn’t take her seriously, and smartly leaves it at that. But more than just a history, the book also gives an explanation of how she used soundings (echoes of sound waves measured to indicate ocean depth) to painstakingly piece together the geography of the ocean floor. This somewhat complex process is made simple through the book’s careful, engaging language and by the charming illustrations that accompany it. The soft colored-pencil images depict Marie Tharp gazing meaningfully into the ocean and the colorful topography of her maps with equal whimsy. The world today is, thankfully, better in many ways than it was in the mid–20th century, but women still face obstacles to success in science. Children—both girls and boys—need stories like Tharp’s.

Microscopic mammalian anatomy shines in a visual guide to cell biology

The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life

Jack Challoner
Ivy Press
192 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9 – 12

If you want a lovely coffee-table book about basic cell biology, you could do worse than The Cell. The book is very beautifully illustrated. (We cell biologists do love a good picture, after all.) Offering highlights from the history of the study of cells, the book reminds us that single celled
organisms are just as important, and indeed more numerous, than multicellular organisms.

Budding cell biologists will quickly warm to the themes and ideas explained by author Jack Challoner, who takes the reader on a brief tour through intracellular organization, describes different types of cell division, and provides a snapshot of the variety of cell types that make up a human body. The book communicates the amazing complexity of a structure that, at first glance, appears to be “just a bag of chemicals,” to paraphrase Challoner.
Here’s the problem: The book looks and feels very much like a textbook. How many young adults do you know who will look at a textbook that they haven’t been assigned? Those that do will be rewarded with a very good introduction to fundamental aspects of the biology of the cell.

Monkey business

The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins

Sandra Markle
Millbrook Press
40 pp.
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Age Range: 9 – 12 years

Grade Level: 4 – 7

The Great Monkey Rescue is a soberly written yet inspiring guide through the near demise and science-assisted rebound of a squirrel-sized primate known as the golden lion tamarin. The easy-to-digest text is packed with interesting facts and set against vibrant pictures of bright orange
monkeys contrasted against lush green foliage. Golden lion tamarins live exclusively in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, an ecosystem that has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size in recent years.

Faced with a dwindling food supply and a diminishing habitat, the tamarin was nearly extinct 50 years ago. This launched an international effort to
breed the monkeys in captivity, along with parallel attempts to conserve their shrinking forest habitat. Markle explains clearly how captive breeding programs initially flailed, producing few offspring that often failed to thrive. The breeding programs became successful only when scientists recognized that tamarins prefer to live in small family-sized groups. Instead of removing the father after the mother gave birth, families were subsequently kept together, and the captive tamarin population began to grow.

By the mid-1980s, captive-born tamarins were being reintroduced to the now-protected natural habitat. Novel forest-management techniques such as connecting patches of forest with rows of trees continue to increase their range, helping to ensure healthy population growth. The rebound of the golden lion tamarin is truly something to celebrate.

One kid’s trash is another kid’s experiment

Recycled Science: Bring Out Your Science Genius with Soda Bottles, Potato Chip Bags, and More Unexpected Stuff

Tammy Enz and Jod Wheeler-Toppen
Capstone Young Readers
111 pp.
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Age Range: 9 – 15 years

Grade Level: 3 – 4

Popsicle sticks, toilet paper tubes, food packaging, and plastic bottles are great resources for school craft projects or children’s activities for a rainy day, but with a bit of knowledge and planning, they can also be used to explain a range of scientific concepts. Divided into four sections based on the type of “trash” material needed for the project, Enz and Wheeler-Toppan combine simple materials into easy projects to demonstrate ideas from physics, chemistry, and biology. Examples include Newton’s laws of motion, capillary action, optics, cloud formation, and surface tension.

In keeping with the idea of recycling trash into experiments, they refer to the scientific concepts as “reusable knowledge,” but this also reflects how the knowledge can be relevant to everyday life. Some projects—such as an exploding chain of woven sticks used to demonstrate potential and kinetic energy—require few resources. Converting those sticks into a series of linked rings requires a little more planning but also gets into less well-known concepts such as the structure of wood. The book includes a large number of photographs to show the completed projects and, where relevant, real-world examples of the same scientific concepts.

Although the instructions for each project are broken down into simple steps, only a few illustrations are included. In most cases, however, it is easy to envision the interpolated steps. Whereas some projects can be done by kids unsupervised and in a short period of time, others will require adult assistance or require longer periods of time while pieces set into shape or glue hardens. So while a little planning is needed to get the most from this book, it has the potential to be a useful resource for teachers and parents alike.

Shorter winters leave some creatures mismatched with their habitat

Hopping Ahead of Climate Change: Snowshoe hares, Science and Survival

Sneed B. Collard III
Bucking Horse Books
64 pp.
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Age Range: 7 – 10 years

Grade Level: 3 – 7

Hopping Ahead of Climate Change is a picture book by award-winning author Sneed B. Collard III that uses photos and diagrams to convey the effects of global warming on animals that change coat color with the seasons. It is simple enough for elementary school children but packed with information that even adults may not know. The book begins by introducing Scott Mills, a wildlife biologist who studies the snowshoe hare, a species that molts on a schedule based on day length, changing from brown to white each fall. Mills explains that, as a result of global warming, the changes in day length no longer correspond with snowfall in the hare’s native habitat, which means that the color of the hares is often not synchronized with their environment, making them easy targets for predators.

But are hares aware of the mismatch? Are mismatched hares more likely to be eaten? Would the mismatches worsen over the years, or would hare populations evolve? Collard explains how Mills set out to answer these questions, describing everything from the tracking devices the researchers place on the hares to monitor their movements in the forest and determine where and how they die (the more mismatched a hare is with its environment, the less likely it is to survive, we learn) to a device called a “bunny chiller,” which the scientists use to simulate temperature changes and monitor the hares’ reactions in the laboratory. The author concludes the book by offering advice to the readers on ways that they, too, can protect the hares—and the rest of the planet.

Taste testers wanted

Amazing (Mostly) Edible Science: A Family Guide to Fun Experiments in the Kitchen

Andrew Schloss
Quarry Books
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Age Range: 7 – 10 years

Grade Level: 2 – 5

Professional chef Andrew Schloss brings a culinary flare to kitchen experiments in this diverse and colorful recipe collection. It reads like a souped-up cookbook: Each project contains a list of ingredients and instructions, followed by a section called “How did that happen?” that introduces
the experimenter to the scientific principles behind the concoction. And the book doesn’t shy away from detail: Kids will learn that carbon dioxide released during an acid-base reaction aerates melted caramel into a crispy snack and that agar bubbles hold their shape in the mouth because their melting point is higher than that of gelatin.

Some recipes are old standards, like cornstarch-based finger paint and ice cream shaken in a bag of salted ice. Others are elegant and unusual, like cookies that model the phases of the moon using baking soda to darken the dough. And while some are merely nontoxic—a psyllium-based slime made palatable with lime juice and honey, for example—others could actually add up to a family meal, like the alfredo sauce that relies on pectin-rich cauliflower to replace the fat.

Those not yet skilled with the oven or stove will need an adult helper for many of these projects, and a few are downright ambitious. (One requires a whipped-cream siphon that runs about $100.) But a colorful key displays the cost, time, complexity, and safety of each recipe, so young scientists and their supervisors know exactly what they’re getting into.

The curious case of New Caledonian crows: toolmakers, tool users

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird

Pamela S. Turner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
73 pp.
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Age Range: 10 – 12 years

Grade Level: 5 – 7

For many years, human beings were considered unique among animals for their use of tools. This notion was dispelled with the discovery that our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, use tools to fish termites out of their nests. Crow Smarts explores how one species of bird, New Caledonian crows, are also sophisticated users and makers of tools. Remarkably, while 284 of more than 1 million animal species have been observed to use tools, only 5 are known to make multiple kinds of tools, so the New Caledonian crows are in elite company.

Crow Smarts begins with stories of two individual crows, an adult that Turner refers to as “Munin” and a juvenile she calls “Little Feather.” Faced with an enticing morsel placed just out of reach, Munin must implement a strategy to secure the food scrap. What will he do? The reader is left in suspense as we turn to Little Feather, who struggles to learn how to use sticks, twigs, and dry leaf stems to retrieve grubs, all while begging to be fed directly from the adult crows.

Accounts of the adventures of Munin and Little Feather are woven into stories about researchers, all of which are interspersed with descriptions and facts about other tool-using creatures. The book examines key questions such as how nature and nurture play roles in tool-making and usage and the motivations that lead scientists, both seasoned and in training, to devote their careers to biological research. It is wonderfully illustrated with hundreds of close-up photographs of crows, their tools, and the scientists at work. While it is quite engaging, readers under 10 may find Crow Smarts challenging, and even adults would benefit from reading it more than once. In light of what I learned, I for one vow never to use the term “bird brain” in a negative way again.

The new science of sports

Faster Higher Smarter: Bright Ideas that Transformed Sports

Simon Shapiro
Annick Press
120 pp.
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Age Range: 11 – 14 years

Grade Level: 5 and up

Most sports books for young readers put athletes on a pedestal. Given the unsavory off-field conduct of many of today’s players, however, that’s an increasingly problematic approach. A delightful new book on how science has improved athletic performance over the decades avoids that dilemma by shining the spotlight on the technology that fuels their exploits. Unlike most sports books, Faster Higher Smarter doesn’t want its readers to “Be Like Mike,” as in the famous Gatorade commercial about basketball legend Michael Jordan. Rather, it explains the science behind Jordan’s apparent ability to defy gravity when dunking the basketball. (Spoiler: Lifting his legs and waiting to shoot until he’s headed down creates the illusion of hovering.)

Colorful anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of both athletes and those behind the new technologies help author Simon Shapiro educate as well as entertain readers. And he doesn’t dumb things down. In describing the origins of hockey’s terrifying slap shot, so powerful that it forced vulnerable goalies to adopt a face mask in self-defense, Shapiro also explains how a player’s actions convert kinetic energy to elastic energy and then back to kinetic energy. Likewise, his tale of how the clap skate revolutionized speed skating includes a painless lesson in how levers work.

Shapiro also deserves credit for giving equal space to women. His chapter on the pioneering efforts of Marilyn Hamilton to make a lighter and more maneuverable wheelchair after a hang-gliding accident left her with paraplegia is a lesson both in materials science and in how to overcome adversity: Hamilton became a champion wheelchair tennis player and cofounded a company that makes “Quickie” wheelchairs. Unfortunately for baseball crazed readers, Shapiro’s chapter on baseball’s increasing use of obscure statistical metrics to assess performance is a tale already told better by many other writers. But that’s a minor flaw in anotherwise excellent book.

The non-expert’s guide to modern physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Carlo Rovelli
96 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9 – 12

To the average person, physics is likely either a subject struggled through in school or an abstract set of theories behind mind-blowing hypotheses about the universe. Carlo Rovelli’s short book is designed to help the novice understand not just the basics of the primary physical theories but their elegance as well.

Beginning with special relativity (“[t]he most beautiful of theories”), he presents seven theories that most contribute to our current understanding of physics and the universe. Throughout each lesson, he weaves a substantial amount of history regarding the development of each theory, focusing heavily on the people behind them. For example, in chapter three, Rovelli describes how Albert Einstein and Max Planck formulated
early ideas related to the theory of quantum mechanics, which Niels Bohr later built on. In chapter four, simple images help to describe how our understanding of our relative place in space and time has changed from ideas put forward by early philosophers like Pythagoras.

In the last lesson, “Ourselves,” he succinctly and compellingly describes the human condition and our relationship to the immense universe. The idea that we are but blips in the immensity of space and time may cause some to feel overwhelmed, but it has always left me feeling better about our place and our effect on our own world. Rovelli’s last chapter captures this feeling elegantly and leaves the reader having learned not only a little bit about the mysteries of the universe but about his or her place in it, too.

Tiny but mighty: an acorn’s role in the ecosystem

Because of an Acorn

Lola M. Schaefer and Adam Schaefer
Chronicle Books
36 pp.
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Age Range: 3 – 6 years

Grade Level: Preschool – Kindergarten

For a large swath of the Appalachian Mountains, white oak trees represent a foundational species, one upon which a diverse ecosystem thrives. Acorns and saplings serve as food, while larger trees offer shade and help prevent soil erosion, adding a rich compost of decaying leaves to the forest floor each fall. Through a combination of vivid illustrations and simple text, this book offers small children a glimpse into the complex connections that underlie the forest’s vibrant web of life. “Because of an acorn, a tree. Because of a tree, a bird,” the book begins, concisely revealing how seeds beget flowers which beget fruit and how these, in turn, support chipmunk, snake, and hawk populations.

The book’s final pages contain more detailed information on ecosystems and food chains, and the threats posed to both by mining and logging, concluding with a section on what readers can do to help. “Use fewer napkins and paper towels,” the authors advise, and “[b]uy products that are made from recycled paper and cardboard.” They might also have added “purchase this book” to the list: A portion of proceeds from its sale will be donated to support the work of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of sustainable environmental policies.