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 Selecting Science Books for Children   

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by Maria Sosa, editor-in-chief, SB&F 

Educational research points to a reciprocal relationship between science and reading. For example, studies indicate that students who read for pleasure and have access to books also do better in science and math. At the same time, inquiry-based science learning helps children develop language and reading skills and strengthen the logical processes needed for content reading. Educators have also long recognized the motivating aspects of the best children’s science books, which feature quality, age-appropriate illustrations and text that rival the artistic and literary qualities of best children’s fiction books.

Most librarians, however, are well aware that flashy exterior is not necessarily an indication of quality. Still, many librarians are more comfortable selecting biographies, poetry, or fiction than science materials. Also, libraries must continue to be vigilant in the administration of funds in spite of booming economy.

Librarians are especially sensitive to the responsibility they have for assembling a collection of books that are appealing, useful, and free of obvious errors and distortions. Although adults may possess prior knowledge or have a context from which to evaluate the information and perspective provided in a book, this is not likely to be the case with children, especially with technical materials. This article attempts to help you enhance your skills in selecting excellent science books for children and young adults in the public library or school media center.

Qualities of a Good Children’s Science Book

Books offer young people opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. They guide young people to one of the major ways that they’re likely, as adults, to continue their learning. When a child experience the pleasure a book offers, reading becomes a habit, and a powerful one at that. Many of the same components that make a good children’s fiction book make a good children’s science book: presentation, organization, language, and quality of illustration, for example. But science books must do more than just tell a good story; they must also be accurate and present the processes of science in a way that can be understood by a child without misleading oversimplification. Along with this fundamental requirement of scientific accuracy, good children’s science books should encourage an interest in science by prompting young reader to want to know more.

Good science books should also have a well-defined scope and be free of jargon. Although gimmicks, characters, and other motivational features can often help make the subject matter more appealing to younger readers, the very best children’s science books allow the intrinsic appeal of the subject to shine through.  By fostering a genuine interest in a subject, good science books motivate children to explore the topic farther.

Children are naturally curious. This makes them, as many have pointed out, natural scientists. For the very young, science begins by asking questions: Why does it rain? What is thunder? How do birds fly? Why can’t I fly? As children grow and learn, the questions (if we’re lucky) become more focused: Why are dinosaurs extinct? Where does acid rain come from? How do you get energy from the sun?

Unfortunately, not all children continue to ask such questions. What is it that turns some children off to science as they grow older? Do they lose their curiosity? Or do they simply cease to equate curiosity with science? These questions are not easily answered. However, one way to keep children curious about science is to convince them that science is relevant by relating it to their lives in an active and direct manner. Successful children’s science writers, such as Patricia Lauber and Seymour Simon, effectively use both strategies.

Assessing Your Collection

Since the 1960’s the volume of scientific information has exploded. If we measured scientific literacy by an individual’s knowledge relative to all that is known, even many working scientist and researchers would fail. The sheer magnitude of knowledge available today has made it necessary for us to make choices about what is fundamental—what everybody needs to know. Librarians and media specialists however, needn’t be intimidated. Remember that you are an information specialist. Your role is to provide access to resources, not expertise on subject matter.

You can begin to assess your collection’s strengths and deficiencies with regard to science materials by considering the following points:

1.  What is the overall size of your collection? What is the ratio of science books to books in other subject areas? What is the average age of the materials in your science collection?

Remember, in science, more than in any other subject area, there are few classics. Resources can become quickly outdated as new discoveries are made. Short of replacing your entire science collection every year or so, there isn’t much that you can do about this. You can recruit volunteer scientists to help you weed out the most outdated materials, but for some libraries this might mean weeding out half the collection. A better idea is to develop a strategic plan to update your collection regularly, focusing on the subject areas that are most lacking.

2.  Which science topic is best represented in your collections? Which is least represented? Does this match your needs? In other words, if you have more books on rocks and minerals than on any other science topic, is there a valid reason for this? Perhaps your library has made a decision to specialize in a certain subject area because it has local or regional appeal. For example, a library in Florida may have a large collection of books on hurricanes. This is fine, as long as you review that decision regularly to make sure that it still suits your needs.

3. Do you have quality materials for all ages and levels represented in your school or community? If not, which level seems to be the most deficient? Are there any valid reasons for this deficiency? A valid reason might be that there simply are no quality materials available on the particular subject for a particular age group. You can check Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy to help you determine the especially relevant topics for children at various education levels.

4. What curriculum area do you need to support with your collection? Are these well represented? Work with the teachers to consider not only what they are currently teaching, but also what they might like to introduce to their classes if they had the appropriate resources.

5. Does your collection consist of a good mixture of different types of books---that is, hands-on science books, science-related fiction, information books on single topics, and reference books? It is important that children have access to a wide variety of genres.

After answering these questions, you may well decide that your collection needs to be enhanced. This brings us back to the issue of how best to utilize your financial resources in order to achieve your goal of balanced, accurate and appropriate science collections. One thing is certain: To acquire anything short of the best available materials would be a disservice to readers. For help in choosing the best items, you may wish to use expert reviews.

Finding Experts Reviews 

Many tools provide expert reviews. Some publications are devoted entirely to reviewing, such as Science Book and Films (SB&F), which publishes an annual Best Books for Children list. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) also publishes Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children in partnership with the Children’s Book Council. This list can be found at the NSTA website at http://www.nsta.org/pubs/sc/ostblist.html. In addition to review journals, look for expert reviews in specialized publications for educators, such as those published by the NSTA, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), the American Chemistry Society (ACS), and others.
When turning to an expert review, the librarian needs to feel confident that the reviewer is indeed an expert. Therefore, look for publications that list the affiliation of each reviewer. Also, look for review sources that include a detailed explanation of the criteria by which materials are evaluated. For example, SB&F reviewers are given the following general instructions, which are summarized in each issue: 

Please write a critical evaluation of approximately 200 words (slightly more, if necessary), emphasizing the merits and /or demerits of the book (and accompanying supplements, if any). Describe and critique the content, technical quality, and instructional value. Take special note of the overall quality of the presentation of the facts, theories and processes of science and their interrelationships. For example, does the material accurately depict the uses and limitations of the scientific method? Indicate for which audiences the material is most appropriate and why. Also mention how the materials could be used (reference, classrooms, general awareness, other). 

The more expensive the product you are considering purchasing the more you need to get a second or even third opinion. Remember that reviewers are human and that in the vast majority of cases, only one person reviews the material.

Don’t forget to ask the expert in your own building. If you are a school media specialist, work with your science teachers. Ask the children themselves. Consider having focus groups in which you invite a group of students to the library and examine their attitudes about science books. Find out that works for them and what doesn’t. An adult reviewer can praise a book, but if a child is turned off, the target is missed. You can also form a rotating panel of your reviewers who can recommend books for other children.

The Importance of Factual Accuracy

Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observations, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. It is important that students recognize that science is not a collection of static facts and that scientific knowledge is subject to modifications as new information challenges prevailing theories and as new theories lead to looking at old observations in new ways. Thus, we want to avoid the impression that science is a collection of facts. 

However, some facts are more important than others. For example, one book may say that there are 10 billion nerve cells in the brain while another may say there are 100 billion. Such a discrepancy may arise because new discoveries in neuroscience are so abundant that it is difficult for books to be completely current. Although you may not necessarily want to discard a book for citing the lower number of neurons, you may rightly be wary of a new book that does not reflect current developments. Keep in mind, however, that there are areas in which scientists legitimately disagree---global warming, for example. The best reason for rejecting a book with a blatant error (for example, that Venus is the closest planet to the Sun) is that such carelessness with regard to readily available facts may carry over to less well known details.

Avoiding Dangerous Science Books

Can science books be dangerous? Although the question may seem facetious, there are some scenarios in which inappropriate materials can actually be harmful.

1. A boring science book can be dangerous, for such a book conveys to children the sense that science is uninteresting, tedious, or difficult. Books can be boring because they are poorly written or illustrated or worse, because the author cannot convincingly convey the excitement of science.

2. Another dangerous type of science book is one that makes children feel that science excludes people of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Books that use settings or example that are not relevant to all children can make some readers feel the science is not appropriate for them.

3. Books that portray science as a static collection of facts, rather than a process, endanger children’s innate sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world.

4. Books that are inaccurate to the point of creating or fostering misconceptions are dangerous because such misconceptions can be stumbling blocks to children’s understanding or science.

5. Hands-on science books that don’t take safety into account can be dangerous for obvious reason. Some safety issues to consider are detailed below: 

In general, when evaluating hands-on science activities, consider whether children will have to handle any of following: chemicals that are poisonous, harmful to their skin or eyes, or flammable; flames or electrical currents with enough power to shock or burn; or knives, razor blades, broken glass, or other objects that can cut. If an activity includes one or more of these things, you need to make sure that appropriate safety precautions are listed, whether the activity indicates it should be done with adult supervision, or the age of children who will do the activity.

Selecting Books That Open Doors

Books help us to set our own perspectives. Very early on, children move from learning to read to reading to learn. They shift from learning the mechanics of pronunciation, grammar, syntax, the flow of ideas, and what the author is saying to them to use the books to find out what they want to know. Children, as they grow, become selective and begin to search for what interests them.

Reading to learn ought to be the central theme of children’s science books. Children are curious; they have many questions about the world around them, and with guidance, they may learn to ask many different kinds of questions. Tradebooks put science in the context of people, places, and the methods that lead to discovery or a new theory, stimulating more interest—and more questions---by the reader. Textbooks, on the other hand, typically present facts superficially, ignoring the power of good storytelling to create excitement as well as to inform. Good tradebooks take advantage of a child’s personal interest at a time when the child wants to know something. Good tradebooks open children’s eyes to things they didn’t know---or didn’t know they wanted to know.

Good books also let children see the inside of how one comes to know. To simply present a fact without helping a child see how we came to know the fact doesn’t promote good learning. A good book can promote such learning by sharing information about the people behind a scientific enterprise, by discussing the ramifications of knowing, and by giving the reader a glimpse into a scientist’s mind. A good book won’t tell all the answers. It helps children know how much is known and what else there may be to find out, and it gives them clues to help find out other things, e.g., through hands-on activities, other books and guides.

Good science books help children understand how science is done by going beyond traditional recitations of facts to see how scientific work is done; the train of logic that is followed in building and expanding ideas, models and schema; and the testing of those ideas against evidence can be incorporated into well-told children’s science stories.

It is important that students realize that doing science involves many different kinds of work and engages men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Biographies of scientists can help do this. Books not only can open up worlds of interest, they can put faces on those worlds. For children who might not perceive a future for themselves beyond the limits of their present circumstances, a book can introduce them to people who not only look like them, but who made career choices they may never have considered or even known existed.

Utilizing Human Resources 

Like Rome, model science, mathematics, and technology library collections cannot be built in a day. Nor can just one person build it. The human resources required to build your collection are as important as the books, video, and software that line your shelves. The following tips can help you get started.

1. Work with science teachers in your school or community to select and focus on an area that correlates with that they are teaching. After you have built up one area, it will be easier to convince an administrator that other areas need to be enhanced as well.

2. Make an effort to involve parents in your library programs. If you don’t already have one, consider an inexpensive newsletter that informs parents about the library and about what it needs. Public librarians can enlist parental assistance in enhancing the science offerings in the children’s section. School librarians can work with parents to devise fund-raising strategies and to develop family programming that is centered in the library. Once parents understand how an exemplary collection can help their children achieve in science and mathematics, they will be your staunchest supporters.

3. Bring your science resources to the attention of library patrons through displays and special activities. When something good happens in your library, spread the news. Many local newspapers will be happy to feature stories about your efforts to enhance science, mathematics, and technology programs in your library.

4. Start a collection in your library on science and mathematics reform. Keep teachers informed of such materials and encourage them to share reform issues with parents. Teachers may not have time to stay abreast of current information about research and standards-based reform. You can be a resource for them on exemplary practices and new products for the classroom. Much information is available online through electronic bulletin boards.

5. Develop a resource list in conjunction with local companies, science organizations, university departments, and other community groups, and join them in devising fund-raising and program strategies. These might include sponsoring lectures or readings, forming children’s book clubs, and developing hands-on activity kits or materials to check out with books. This can position libraries to support out-of-school learning in science, increase the interest and involvement of donors and organizations that have special interest in the sciences, and support the National Education Goals in science and mathematics. A more comprehensive approach might involve teachers and area scientists in a review of current titles and holdings with joint planning of a collection.

You can see how it could take some effort to develop a collection of equitable, excellent science books that meet the needs of all the children you serve. At the same time, you can imagine the possibilities that would open up for you, for teachers and parents and especially for students as everyone uses these quality books to expand their understanding of the world.