One of the things I wanted to emphasize in my book about homeschooling middle school (which you can still buy!) is how your middle schoolers reaching this new age makes them more fun to teach. You get to learn alongside them more. They have the ability to learn more complex information and discuss it in new ways, with new depth.
For science, that includes reading adult level nonfiction for many middle schoolers. It’s good to start slow with this sort of nonfiction. Read it aloud. Ask students to read articles. Magazines like National Geographic are a good place to start. But once they can do it, it opens up such a huge world of nonfiction reading, especially in the realm of science. Americans struggle with science textbooks and we all know that the science program options are limited for homeschool students. However, the amount of great science nonfiction for adults is terrific.
“Just read,” is also good advice for some kids for science and history in the middle grades. It’s great when you can do more and get hands on, but it’s also okay if you don’t have a formal curriculum and focus instead on engaging with good books and films. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few ideas to get you and your middle schooler started on reading popular adult nonfiction.
The Planets by Dava Sobel
The Science: Astronomy, specifically covering the planets.
Difficulty: It’s a very short book, which makes it useful for kids without much reading stamina. The text is very poetic, which can be a barrier for some readers.
Why Read It: Sobel is a great writer and this little volume is just beautiful. It combines the history, the science, and the poetry and art about each planet in our solar system (and includes Pluto, since it’s a little older). This is a great read for a middle school astronomy study.
Longitude by Dava Sobel
The Science: History of science, geography and engineering, specifically the engineering of clocks
Difficulty: It’s very short, which makes it within reach for many younger readers.
Why Read It: Who says history of science can’t be fun? This book was so compelling that it was even made into a mini-series. This would be a great addition to early modern history for a science lover.
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
The Science: Zoology, specifically the study of chimpanzees and a little about other primates.
Difficulty: This book is a very easy read overall. Goodall’s talkative style is what made it such a bestseller.
Why Read It: Most of the books on this list are by science writers or scientists writing about the science done by other people. This book is Goodall’s primary account of her own scientific studies. It discusses her methodologies and thought processes, as well as her observations. This is a science primary source. Aside from the fact that it’s just an interesting, compelling read, and enlightening about one of our closest biological cousins, it’s also important to read scientists writing about their own work sometimes.
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Science: Physics, primarily theoretical physics and astrophysics, with a little bit of engineering thrown in.
Difficulty: The concepts in some of these chapters get pretty heady if you’re not already versed in the basics of physics. The writing is accessible though, and the coolness factor helps make it more appealing. Still, not a book for a reluctant reader. One nice perk is that chapters stand alone, so someone can read a few parts they’re most interested in.
Why Read It: Kaku is one of the best writers when it comes to things like theories of multiple dimensions and time travel. This book covers all of the “cool” and out there physics concepts that young people like to imagine, like time travel and transporters.
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Science: Chemistry, specifically the elements.
Difficulty: This isn’t an easy book and it’s not short, but lots of interested middle schoolers have made their way through it. For interested students who need an easier read, there’s a new young reader’s edition that looks good, though I haven’t personally checked it out yet.
Why Read It: Kean’s account makes the Periodic Table much more interesting than anything else I’ve ever read on the subject. Little stories about each element’s uses and discovery make it really come to life. Parents should note there are a few adult leaning references, but I wouldn’t call it risque. This is a popular middle school read.
Gulp by Mary Roach
Science: Anatomy, specifically human digestion, with a lot of odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: The text is easy and talkative, however, Roach references a lot of popular culture and uses humor that might go above some younger students’ heads.
Why Read It: Mary Roach is one of the best science writers working today and her ability to make odd branches of science interesting is unsurpassed. A lot of the science she discusses is on the fringes, such as technology to see inside the body or the budding science of fecal transplants. However, in the process, she talks about the basics of digestion and generally gives insight into how scientists think and the difficulties of the human body. In addition to the books mentioned here, any of Roach’s work could be of interest to this age group, though she does occasionally tackle adult subjects, such as sex, in her writing.
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Science: Astrophysics and engineering, as well as more odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: All of Roach’s books have the same feel. They’re easy to read and she’s a talkative writer, but she also references pop culture and has a quick wit that might be too fast for some younger students.
Why Read It: Yet again, Roach’s sense of humor and ability to make science seem fun and approachable is unmatched. In this book, she imagines all the different aspects of getting ready to take humans to Mars, which includes a lot of the little practicalities like food, toilets, beds, and clothes. Parents should note that there is a chapter about sex in space. When I assigned this book for school, we just skipped that one.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Science: Feynman was a physicist, but this book just touches on his work and is more of a memoir.
Difficulty: This is an easy read. Feynman’s charm was part of what made him a popular figure, and it comes through in this writing.
Why Read It: This book isn’t so much enlightening about science itself, but rather what drives a person to be interested in science, how creative thinkers in science think, and how to approach problem solving in science. The memoir is really about various episodes in Feynman’s life and he tells little stories about the internal clock, lock picking, ant trails, and other things. He talks a good bit about his work on the atomic bomb here as well. Parents should note that there are references to things like drinking, drugs, and a nude models in a chapter about art, as well as some risque language. The opening chapters, which are much cleaner, can be read on their own if you want to tackle the book, but not deal with trickier conversations.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Science: Zoology, especially animal cognition, or how animals think
Difficulty: Montgomery has an easy, engaging style. It’s not for reluctant readers, but most interested middle schoolers could tackle this one. It’s also a perfect length and filled with light anecdotes.
Why Read It: Many middle schoolers are deeply interested in animals and zoology, so this is a great tie in for that interest and hopefully would expand a student’s interest from pets to more unusual animals. It tackles a lot of bigger questions about how animals think and how aware they really are of us and the world around them. There aren’t easy answers to these questions and our understanding of them is changing all the time, so the juicy discussions you can potentially have from a book like this are excellent.
The Code Book by Simon Singh
Science: Cryptography, the science of codes
Difficulty: It’s not for reluctant readers, but this is definitely a book middle schoolers can tackle. The math can get a bit hard to understand, but the historical anecdotes help the whole story feel engaging. There’s also a young reader’s edition. I use that in my Simplify class about codes. I’ll be teaching a mini-version of that course, including with the young reader’s edition, again this summer.
Why Read It: Secret codes are so much fun to learn about. This is a topic that I think inherently appeals to middle schoolers. Plus, it shows off how math has practical applications and how interdisciplinary topics like history, politics, math, archaeology, and science really are. There are a lot of fun ways you can extend this as well, by doing cryptoquote puzzles or writing you own codes.