Aliki, bones, children's literature, Day-Glo Brothers, day-glo paint, dinosaurs, discovery, Eloise, exploration, Hilary Knight, mummies, paleontology, Philo Farnsworth, science, science books, scientists, Smithsonian, TV, William Beebe
Children should be—need to be—curious about the world they live in but it isn’t always an innate default. Curiosity needs to be fostered; it’s hard to learn to ask questions when so much of what surrounds us is taken for granted. A little prod, in the form of a well-written and engagingly illustrated book, will often do the trick. In a recent blog post, the Smithsonian Magazine published a great list of science-themed children’s books and there are a few others I would like to add simply because they are really good and shouldn’t be forgotten.
As science and discovery combined, nothing beats the story of William Beebe’s (pronounced BEE-bee) vision of a craft that could withstand the pressure of the deep ocean, allowing researchers to explore marine life at dark depths for the first time. Into The Deep by David Sheldon describes Beebe’s early research interests and the production of the Bathysphere, a cramped, two-man, iron bubble designed by Otis Barton, the engineer who accompanied Beebe on all the initial voyages in the 1930s. When I first read Beebe’s account of this remarkable event (probably from one of my father’s books), I was 8 or 9 years old and in my dentist’s waiting room; I was so fascinated I forgot where I was and why I was there. Some of the luminescent fish they discovered were represented by strings of light on black pages which immediately made me think of Hilary Knight’s illustration of Eloise in the dark, surrounded by dotted-line animals. The two images are forever connected in my brain, the mysterious fish made more approachable by its resemblance to Eloise’s adventure and the adventure made more dreadful by its resemblance to the fish.
No child’s personal science library is complete without books by Aliki. Aliki Brandenberg wrote (and continues to write) a considerable number of carefully researched books exploring topics such as dinosaurs and mummies, among others. Dinosaur Bones is an introduction to paleontology, covering the early days of fossil discovery and the mistakes and successes of the earliest fossil hunters. Digging Up Dinosaurs goes into more detail about the scientific procedures followed from the discovery of fossils in the field to their eventual display in a museum and all the people along the way who facilitate that process. It has been recently updated with some minor changes including the female paleontologist (yay!) on the cover. My Visit To The Dinosaurs provides brief bios of several dinosaurs—exactly what you might see on a walk through a natural history museum—while Dinosaurs Are Different explains some actual morphological differences between the dinosaurs, separating them on the basis of bone structure into two orders: the saurischians (lizard-hipped) and the ornithischians (bird-hipped). The illustrations are easy to follow (as usual); the discussion balloons from the children that swarm the pages of Aliki’s books provide as much information as the text. She is always very complete. The process of mummification, from corpse to tomb, is described and illustrated step by step in Mummies Made In Egypt.
Television is ubiquitous in our lives; it’s hard to imagine our days without it, but did you ever wonder who first came up with the idea? It all started with a scary-intelligent 14-yr-old boy plowing a field. His fantastic ideas and the people who both helped and hindered him are the subject of Kathleen Krull’s The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story Of Philo Farnsworth.
Finally, as a great example of how well necessity and imagination can work together, there is The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton. Joe and Bob Switzer experimented with ultraviolet light and various chemicals in their basement (unfortunately, this might be regarded with a few hairy eyeballs today) to come up with the first fluorescent paint that could be seen in daylight. In the beginning, it was just a way to jazz up Joe’s magic act but, among its other applications, their paint was used in WW II to help guide night landings on aircraft carriers. The 50s look of the illustrations reminds me of my old Scholastic books; the gradual increase of day-glo color on the dark pages might induce some late 80s flashbacks but, overall, makes its point.
And don’t forget that there is an important benefit to increasing your child’s knowledge of the world (besides the obvious)—dinner table discussions and car pool drives will be more interesting by magnitudes.