Since they were tiny, all three of my kids loved books. Just last night while reminiscing, I asked my husband if he remember at what age our (almost) 3-year-old started loving books. He said two months. Obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but pretty much as soon as she could move on her own she was stacking books in a pile, cozying up with her blanket and “reading”.
Kids learn from books, but they also learn from asking me approximately ten thousand questions a day. And although I am super smart and know almost everything, they do slip some questions in that I don’t know the answer to.
It was due to one of these rare occasions that I ventured into the non-fiction children’s section of the library. What I found was…disappointing. While a lot the books were full of pictures and used a child friendly vocabulary, they were not narrative and not meant to be read like a picture book. They dumped lots of useful information for say, a school report, but I wouldn’t want to read them cover to cover. My kids’ eyes glazed over after the second paragraph on the first page.
Thus began my quest to find great science picture books that read like fiction. After years of searching I’ve found my top ten:
(click on the image of each book to be linked to it on Amazon)
10, Hidden Critters Can you find them All? By Stan Tekiela- Picture books should be formatted to engage children. In Tekiela’s book, each page has a photograph with a hidden animal in it, along with a few sentences about that animal. The child finds the animal as you rea
d. On the next page there is another relatively short paragraph about the animal along with a photograph of the animal no longer hidden. The seek and find format keeps kids engaged as they learn about the ani
mals. As I mention above, each page has a limited word count. Children have short attention spans. When looking for children’s books for my kids, one of my first tests is to open the book to a couple random pages. If I see small type and lots of paragraphs, I pass. I’m sure they are really interesting, but my kids aren’t going to listen to all those words. This book is great because it tells us a little about each animal, but it doesn’t try to fit every little fact in. It hits a few and moves on.
9. Paddle Perch Climb Bird Feet Are Neat by Laurie Ellen Angus—Taking an unconventional approach to a topic can give it the right scope and pique interest for kids. Angus’s book does this by looking at how birds’ feet help them survive. This allows her to show many different kinds of birds in one book, which keeps the kids interested, but creates connections between them at the same time. Through the pictures and words, kids can see what is similar about the bird’s feet and what is different. I love that it shows how animals’ different features have purpose and usefulness in their environments. And, like our previous book, the pages are dominated by pictures, with few words. For older kids, there are a couple of pages in the back that have more details about each bird.
8. Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers; Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Steward—Understanding, accepting, and loving people that are different from ourselves is a difficult lesson for children to learn. (At least it is in our house.) This book helps to teach that lesson while also entertaining and informing kids. Steward takes a look at less popular animals and explains how what makes them different is also what makes them perfect for where their environment. I love that this book teaches us a few facts (no word-overloaded pages) about animals that don’t usually get the spotlight and that it sends the messages that just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s bad.
7. Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins—I love the format in this book. Each page starts with a “never” statement about an animal, for example, never smile at a monkey. It then explains what might happen if you do. The monkey may think showing teeth is a sign of aggression. The original statement is bold and large and the illustrations are simple but beautiful. My two-year-old didn’t want to listen to the whole paragraph explaining the behavior of each animal, but although the facts are slightly longer than her attention span, they are pretty reasonable for an older child. Like many non-fiction books that have limited information in the text, this book has a couple pages at the end that elaborate on each animal for children who do want to know more.
6. How Tall was a T. Rex by Alison Limentani—Since I’m a geologist I’m partial to any books about the earth or fossils. (Paleontology is a subdiscipline of geology.) The limited word count in Limentani’s book supported by the illustrations creates easy to remember facts. The book also uses comparisons to help kids visualize a T-rex. While I may understand that a dinosaur is twenty feet tall, young kids often don’t know what one foot is, let alone twenty, so comparisons are essential for helping them understand. Plus, T-rex is practically every kid’s favorite dino, so they’re going to love it.
5. My Name is Stardust by Bailey and Douglas Harris—This is an exceptionally cute book that mixes fact with an uplifting theme. A little girl named Stardust narrates the story, explaining what is made of stardust and why. She gives a short summary of some of the major parts of our universe and Earth. Of course, it includes dinosaurs. Kids love dinosaurs, so many of these books make an effort to include them. (spoiler) When Stardust the girl explains that you are made of stardust, my kids’ jaws literally dropped, and my daughter asked, “Really!?” When a book gets my kids to react like that it’s a good one.
4. Dinosaurs Dinosaurs by Byron Barton—This is one of my favorite books on the list and is a great book for very young kids, especially as a bedtime story. It has a lyrical prose that almost feels like a lullaby. There are no technical terms, no actual dinosaur names (except inside the front and back covers). Most pages have less than ten words. The pictures are simple, with bold colors. It shows different ways dinosaurs looked and some of the things they did. All three of my kids have loved it. My son memorized it and it was one of the first books we used to help him learn to read. If you have an eight-year-old blossoming encyclopedia for a child, this book is probably a little too simple. But for your toddler or early reader, it is a beautiful story.
3. The Sun is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk—The bold illustrations in this book are great and it has a star-studded cast of characters. (Yes I just made that joke.) This book does break the too many words per page rule, which is its one drawback. But there are larger words for the main text and then smaller boxes and dialogue tags that could be left out for more restless listeners. And yes, I said dialogue tags. The planets and sun have their own commentary in this book. It’s wonderful. It’s hilarious. It’s not true. Planets don’t really ask for the sun’s autograph. One thing I have found with non-fiction picture books is that often the best ones mix reality with fictional characterizations. This helps the kids relate to the story more, and in my opinion, does no harm. My kids aren’t going to grow up thinking the sun actually wears sunglasses. They are going to understand that our solar system has 8 planets that circle the sun.
2. Eye Spy Wild Ways Animals See the World by Guillaume Duprat—This is one of the coolest books, but it breaks my word rule in a big way. This book has TONS of words, especially at the beginning of each section. In fact, I never actually read all the words in the book. But, it is still awesome! The beginning of the book has a fold out page that shows a garden scene as humans see it. Each page has a different animal’s view of the same scene as they would see it. The words explain the whole thing (presumably) but the power of this book is in the pictures. Because of the fold out, you can look at human vision next to the animal vision to compare. Are the colors brighter for a hummingbird? Are colors missing for a cat? Can the horse see more than us? When we reached the bug section, my son observed that the bee’s vision looked like Minecraft. A picture is truly worth a thousand words in this book.
1. Earth My First 4.54 Billion Years by Stacy McAnulty—I have to admit, I’m a little bit biased about this book. I’m a geologist, and this is a book about Earth, so it has to make my list. (I’m unashamedly trying to convert my children to geology.) McAnulty’s book, written with a similar style to #3 above, is narrated by Earth and gives Earth characterization to make the story more dynamic for kids. Earth as a narrator is lovable, funny, and very knowledgeable. Each page has beautiful illustrations, limited word counts, accurate facts, and sometimes, funny asides. (My two-year-old wants Pluto the dwarf planet as her next pet, thanks to this book.) It makes a short but hopeful commentary on humanity’s role on Earth. At the end there is one page with detailed information for those kids who want to learn more. I believe this is the first book my kids actually wanted me to read the extra information at the back. If you get one book from this list for your kids, get this one. It will be worth it. (And hopefully I’ll be responsible for turning your children into geologists too.)
There is my list of the best children’s science picture books. Check them out and tell me what you think. Did your kids like them as much as mine did? Some of these authors have other books that I have on my to be read list. I have high hopes for those ones as well. Do you have a favorite science picture book—or any non-fiction picture book for that matter? Let me know. I’m always searching for new books.