Science-related nonfiction books

I teach science at the elementary level. I’d like to improve our nonfiction science collection for students to read outside of class or for teachers to use during read-alouds. I want to be sure what we purchase is appropriate; do you have any suggestions or lists of recommended books for this level?
—Gina, Thornton, Colorado

One of my elementary colleagues notes there seems to be trend toward including more nonfiction in reading class to stimulate interest with alternatives to fiction, build vocabulary and background knowledge, and help students make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

At the secondary level, two recent articles show an increased interest in science-related reading beyond the textbook: “Reading Aloud to Teens Gains Favor Among Teachers” (in the January 4 issue of Education Week) and “Building Background Knowledge” (in the January 2010 issue of The Science Teacher).

To find appropriate books for all grade levels, I can recommend two sources on the NSTA website. Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 contains lists compiled by NSTA in association with the Children’s Book Council. The titles are listed by year and include an annotated description of each book, including a reference to the national standards and a suggested reading level. The criteria for selection include

  • The book has substantial science content.
  • Information is clear, accurate, and up-to-date.
  • Theories and facts are clearly distinguished.
  • Facts are not oversimplified to the point that the information is misleading.
  • Generalizations are supported by facts, and significant facts are not omitted.
  • Books are free of gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic bias.

Unfortunately, the list is not searchable, but all of these titles are also in the second source, NSTA Recommends. This broader list includes reviews of books and other media. The reviews are written by science educators and can be searched by format (e.g., print, kits, DVDs), words in the title or review (e.g., weather, machines, insects), and grade level (K through college). The lists can be exported as Excel spreadsheets. NSTA Recommends also has monthly updates in the NSTA journals.

Consider the grade level or reading levels as suggestions. Struggling middle school readers may be more successful with books at the upper elementary level. Likewise, some elementary students may be ready for books written at a higher level.

If you’re curious about a book that doesn’t appear on these lists, the article “What Teachers Need to Know About the ‘New’ Nonfiction” by Sharon Ruth Gill has a discussion of quality nonfiction. It’s in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Reading Teacher and is available online to members of the International Reading Association. If colleagues (reading specialists or a Title I coordinator) are members, they can access the article for you.

The author shares a detailed look at several books, discussing her three criteria for selecting nonfiction picture books:

  • Is the book visually appealing? – Do the illustrations contribute to the topic? Is the text broken up with illustrations, sidebars, headings?
  • Is the book accurate and authoritative? – Are sources or references listed? Does it include supplemental materials such as a glossary, index, or table of contents? Do illustrations relate to and accurately depict the text? Are there suggestions for further reading? Are animals depicted accurately without anthropomorphism? Is the book a blend of fact and fiction? If so, is it clear which parts are fact and which are fiction?
  • Is the writing style engaging? Are ideas logically ordered? Are new ideas explained clearly and simply? Are new ideas connected to what children might already know?

A group of teachers I know worked with their school librarian to examine books for their inclusion in a reading list of science nonfiction. They discovered some nonfiction science titles in their school library were more than 20 years old! Although some information is timeless, they were concerned many had outdated or incomplete information and did not recommend them to students.

I wonder about the future of print resources. Will we see a time when books as we know them are obsolete—when all of our resources will be electronic? If and when that time comes, I suspect we’ll use the same criteria for evaluation—visual appeal, accuracy and the source of the material, and writing style.

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13 Comments

  1. Virginia Malone
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    In the interest of saving money I get my used books from ABEbooks. The following are a few good ones, you will not find in school libraries.

    Ecology
    A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, a classic often sited even today.

    Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell – an easy read

    A Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, another classic first widely read
    public awareness book on the needs for conservation. Not one of my
    favorites, but some of my students thought it was great.

    The Lorax by Dr. Seuss Elementary but usable even in high school. Message is conservation.

    Evolution
    For Love of Insects, by Thomas Eisner. Very interesting easy read if you like insects and spiders. Rather long, but the chapters stand alone so you can assign just part of the book. Eisner provides simplified explanations of lots of different experiments he and his students have performed along with their meaning. My favorite is on the silk “writing” produced by some orb weaving spiders. His ingenious simple test of a hypothesis is classic.

    Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. By Olivia Judson. This is sure to attract lots of attention. Dr. Tatiana gives advice to all types of organisms on their “love lives.” As far as I can tell the information is accurate.

    The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, a much more enjoyable read than other Darwin works. Short and a classic that any serious biology student should read.

    The Descent of Man or Origin of the Species. Long, but classics by Darwin.

    African Genesis by Robert Ardrey – another easy read.

    The Flamingo’s Smile or any other Stephen Jay Gould book

    The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan – the evolution of plants with
    human help. The chapter on apples alone is worth the price of the
    book.

    The Grasses by Alma Chesnut Moore – similar to the above, but focused
    on grasses. My personal favorite chapter was on wheat.

    The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

    A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson’s one chapter on evolution. Print too small to be enjoyable read. Tries to cover too much, but has some interesting view points on the nature of science and misconceptions in history.

    The Beak of the Finch Jonathan Weiner Can be a bit deep from time to time but interesting.

    After Man by Dougal Dixon Great fun. There are some sequels, but this is my favorite.

    Origin of Species by Charles Darwin Not for a weak reader.

    Panda’s Thumb by Stephen J Gould anything by Gould is good

    Wonderful Life- The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History- Stephen Jay
    Gould

    The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, An interesting account of Darwin’s personal life and struggles to finish Origin of the Species.

    A Brief History of Time- Stephen Hawking – Evolution of the Universe. Good for kids who like physics and astronomy

    Technology

    Design Technology, Children’s Engineering by Susan Dunn and Rob Larson. The Falmer Press. Excellent introduction to engineering for young children. Hands on activities for kids, explanations for adults unfamiliar with engineering design processes.

    Animal behavior
    King Solomon’s Ring and other books by Konrad Lorenz Easy read books,
    full of examples that a student can draw from in many areas.

    Animal Architecture (ISBN: 0156075202) by Karl Von Frisch Animal homes beyond elementary school.

    An ecology, conservation, evolution, and nature of science

    Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond An interesting view of why some parts of the world developed various technologies and others did not. Focus on technology from agriculture on. The parts on agriculture and domestication of animals links to evolution and organism distribution on the planet.

    Journey to the Ants by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson.

    The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan

    The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas

    Ecology of Desert Organisms by G.N. Louw and M.K. Seely. A slim volume describing different strategies for surviving in the desert. Good for kids who like reptiles. It does include other animals and plants and provides simple graphs and photos.

    Anatomy
    Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William R. Maples, Ph. D. and Michael
    Browning. Great for a unit on anatomy or forensic science. This was written by the guy who started the “body farm” Easy read

    Genetics
    The Double Helix by James D. Watson. a personal account of the discover of the structure of DNA

    Chemistry
    Crucibles, the Story of Chemistry by Bernard Jaffee. A history of the beginnings of atomic theory. one of my all time favorites – an easy read even for my more “average” students. It provides the proofs for the backbone of modern
    chemistry. I have bought many copies of this book as it never seems
    to return when out on loan.

    Microbiology
    Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif be careful with this one some historic terms for people of different races may cause students and parents concern.

    The Hot Zone by Richard Preston a great tale for students

    Forensic Science
    Crime Scene Investigations : Real-Life Science Activities for the Elementary Grades by Pam Walker, Elaine Wood

    Detective Science: 40 Crime-Solving, Case-Breaking, Crook-Catching Activities for Kids by Jim Wiese

    Spy Science : 40 Secret-Sleuthing, Code-Cracking,Spy-Catching Activities for Kids by Jim Wiese, Ed Shems

    Cells
    The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas an oldie.

    Mathematics
    Flatland by Edwin Abbot a must read for geometry. Thought provoking very short book.

    Tectonics
    Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne Fiction. Easy read.

    Nature of Science
    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!- Richard Feynman fun life of a great physicist.

    Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E. O. Wilson Kind of deep, but good for advanced students.

    To Know a Fly by Vincent Dethier. A very slim book on scientific investigation. Easy and fun. The best of the other works by Dethier, in my opinion.

  2. Posted July 30, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Good list of books and I’ve found a few more on Amazon related to forensic science. There are solid works on DNA, forensic science intro and even delving into the criminalist career path. You can find more info at:
    Forensic Science Careers

  3. Posted August 9, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    A book I read a long time ago comes to mind it’s called “Lads Before the Wind : Diary of a Dolphin Trainer by Karen Pryor. It’s an easy read but it’s a great primer on animal behavior. It’s the story of Marine Land in Florida. It shows how the first Dolphin trainers came from other training backgrounds like horse trainers, dog trainers and wild animal trainers and through trial and error developed the training techniques that are still in use today.
    Vince Reina Owner Southland Dog Training

  4. Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    This book isn’t non-fiction but it is a modern classic with life lessons available to all age levels….even into adulthood: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

  5. Posted September 9, 2010 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    I really like all the post and all the comments. I will be back.

  6. Posted October 16, 2010 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    I personally prefer e-books, audiobooks and online articles for information. I kind of have something against cutting down trees. I understand it’s necessary, I just want it to be done less.
    Online information seems to be the way of the future…

  7. MaryB
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Helena–Thanks for your comment–you’re at the leading edge of an inevitable transformation of how we share information. E-books and online articles require access to the appropriate technology resources (electronic readers, recharging batteries, etc.). To use fewer trees, I would also encourage students and teachers to use their local libraries as a way of sharing traditional paper-based materials among many readers.

  8. Posted November 17, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    I can’t envision a future without real hard-copy books. I can imagine the frustration of constantly needing to update resources though, when the internet is right there providing up-to-date information. But reference books are wonderfully useful as a starting point for basic information which doesn’t change much over time, and I don’t think they’ll ever be completely replaced by technological replacements. And I agree with Joni Dogtra 1900NCP about The Alchemist – it is a truly great book with many valuable lessons for young and old.

  9. Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I personally prefer audiobooks and online videos for information. Last year (2009) the e.Book sales where up 15 %, I don’t think that was tha case books from the bookstore?
    Online information is going to be the way of the future…

    Tom

  10. Posted November 27, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Nothing can quite beat the smell of an old and well read book.
    I accept that technology is moving at a very fast pace and from what source we digest our reading seems to be changing just as fast.
    But for me, a book is something to treasure, and i’m not just talking about the mechanics of actually turning a page, but everything that goes with it.
    Not sure if i quite put over how i feel about all this, but i tried.

  11. Posted January 14, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    I can’t see the future without hard cover books either. Now that doesn’t mean that those hardcover books are going to be read. No I can see them collecting dust on a shelf in some quiet old room. I believe the more modern our lives become the less we will see hard covers in our homes. In fact some families only have a hardcover book in their house because they have kids and little Betty Sue loves her red fish, blue fish stories. I think its sad though. Real books and I do mean real hardcover books capture fractions of time and they hold on to those fractions until curiosity happens along and bears witness. Even when you’re holding a cover in your hand you can feel it contains substance. Well…that is all I have to say about that.

  12. Eric
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I beleave, The older you are the more you will read hard cover books. And yes, The younger generation will not. Simply because they were brought up to read computers. Looking for more information on Training your dog, Check out http://www.Trainingadogvideos.com

  13. bidzina savanelli
    Posted October 22, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    For publication of non-fiction, peer-reviewed and breakthrough research on Global Issues at the intersection of the Natural, Human, Social and Environmental Sciences.
    Bidzina Savanelli, Creative Transformation of the Universal Order of Orders in Human Society to Ensure a Sustainable Peace, 445 pages.
    Key words: Universal Order of Orders is “Elegant; Natural and Artificial Laws; Mankind and Womankind; Male’s Genetics, Terrorism and Bioethics; Prevention of Wars and Environmental Disorder.
    Main themes are: the Universe is “Elegant”; timelessness of energy and temporality of time; the spiral motion of the synergistic pairs of energies; symmetry of energy and entropy of substances; “Black Holes” maintains Universal order of orders; “We Are Taught to Join the Universal Order of Orders”; mankind and womankind; male’s genetics, terrorism and bioethics; harmonization of natural and human sciences; dialectical transformation ‘to be’ and ‘ought to be’; applicability of synergy of the nature to the human society and statehood; synergy and dialectical transformation of legal order and positive law; rule of human rights law instead of rule of law; economics and law; five ways to prevent environmental disorder.

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