Tag Archives: science books

Grown Up Science Books for Middle Schoolers

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.

Image result for the planets dava sobelThe 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.

Image result for longitude dava sobelLongitude 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.

Image result for in the shadow of manIn 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.

Image result for michio kaku physics of the impossiblePhysics 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.

Image result for the disappearing spoonThe 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.

Image result for gulp mary roachGulp 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.

Image result for packing for mars mary roachPacking 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.

Image result for surely you're joking mr feynmanSurely 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.

Image result for the soul of an octopusThe 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.

Image result for the code bookThe 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.

Hey, We’ve Been There!

I didn’t quite plan it this way, but somehow the last two science books we read for our third grade study of animals were about places we have visited.  And, wow, it’s really neat to read a nice picture book explaining what science is going on behind the scenes in a place you’ve actually been.

Caring for Cheetahs by Rosanna Hansen
This wonderful book is about the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, where we had the pleasure to visit last year during our Africa trip.  It was really out in the middle of nowhere (even for Namibia) but it turned out to be a very worthy detour for us.  If you’re not lucky enough to visit, the book has amazing photos and a great text that tells how the CCF rescues cheetahs and then rehabilitates them to the wild whenever possible.  To help the farmers who feel most threatened by the cheetahs, they also breed and train special dogs to protect their livestock against the cheetahs.  One cheetah they keep that isn’t wild is used to introduce children and others to cheetahs as a sort of ambassador.  That cheetah, Chewbacca, has his story in this book, along with several others, such as about an emergency surgery on another cheetah and the rescue of a baby cheetah.

Mushroom and BalletBoy playing on the CCF's "Predator Playground" which is used to teach kids about how amazing cheetah movement and senses are.
Mushroom and BalletBoy playing on the CCF’s “Predator Playground” at their center in Namibia last year.  It’s used to teach kids about how amazing cheetah movement and senses are.  Somewhere off in the distance, there are a lot of cheetahs roaming around, I’m sure.  Behind a fence.

Wild Horse Scientists by Kay Freydenborg
This book takes place in Montana, where there are thousands of wild horses roaming the mountain ranges, and Assateague Island, where about a hundred horses live in a tiny strip of land off the coast of Maryland.  Assateague is a popular camping spot for people in our area and we’ve had the pleasure of visiting there too.  Our most vivid memory is of a small group of wild horses that refused to be chased away and ate an entire bag of our marshmallows, including the plastic wrap, then used my chair to blow their noses.  Don’t worry, I decided to get rid of the chair.

This is from the excellent Scientists in the Field series.  Like many of the books in that series, the science gets a little complex for my kids, but is still very much worth reading.  Along with talking about the ecology of Assateague, the evolution of horses, and the anatomy of wild horses, the main focus of the book is a scientist’s two decades long quest is to find a way to humanely limit the population of the wild horses through birth control.  We had a number of good discussions about population growth and reproduction stemming from this book.

Mushroom and the Husband on Assateague a couple of years ago. I love this photo. One of my all time favorites.  Horses not pictured.

Read Alouds to go with Nature Study

I was lamenting as I wrote my post about fiction books about science the other day that there are so few great children’s books that really focus on science.  Then, I suddenly realized that there are actually plenty of books for nature lovers.  After we wrapped up Sassafras Science, we dove into The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and the relief I felt reading aloud rich, quality language was pretty excellent.  So here you are, a list of fiction books with nature themes.  May reading them bring on spring!

My Side of the MountainChasing RedbirdThe Evolution of Calpurnia TateGone-Away Lake (Gone-Away Lake, #1)

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
This is the classic story a boy who runs away to live in the woods alone.  The details about survival and nature bring this story to life.  It’s been in our required reading list this year but so far neither of my children have picked it out.  I’m thinking of doing it as our first all together read next month.

Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech
I think of Sharon Creech’s work as the middle grades answer to Barbara Kingslover because she weaves nature and everyday life together so well in several of her stories.  This one is about a girl who, in the middle of lots of pains about growing up, decides to spend summer clearing a path into the forest behind her house.  Note that there is a family death in this book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
As I said, this is our current read aloud and a story with lots of rich language.  It’s about a young girl in turn of the century Texas who wants to become a naturalist under the tutalage of her science-loving grandfather.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
I could have listed almost any of Enright’s books.  The Four-Story Mistake contains an entire chapter about a boy watching a moth at his window which is one of the most beautiful passages in any children’s book anywhere.  However, the entire focus of Gone-Away Lake is on the restorative power in nature and the descriptions of the wild plants and the progression of the summer season are the overpowering features of this book.  Don’t read it in winter like we mistakenly did.  Be sure to do it when summer is on the horizon.

A Week in the WoodsOperation Redwood

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Most people probably already know this classic about a girl who is revived by finding a mysterious overgrown garden.  It’s a lovely way to celebrate nature, gardening and life, especially in the spring.  As I’ve posted before, when we read it aloud awhile back, we especially loved the Inga Moore illustrated edition.

A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements
Clements’s book about a rich kid who finds his place in a small town is more about teachers and students than about nature, but there is an enthusiasm for being outside and getting to know the woods in the story.  Clements has a knack for making characters that kids relate to, so this book may make readers feel like anyone could spend a week in the woods.

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French
This book is full of humor and adventure.  Through a series of accidents, a boy takes on saving a small patch of redwood trees.  The redwoods are obviously the nature focus and the reader learns about these amazing trees as the main character struggles to fight his own family to save them.

Tiny Worlds

We have been ramping up our microscope use lately as we’ve gotten into our biology year.  The kids have been studying plants at the Botanic Gardens and with a friend and we’re about to turn our attention to biomes, ecology, and then genetics.  In the meantime, we’ve just been peeking through our microscope more and more lately at little things.  We’ve looked at bugs, pollen, plant parts, dust, mold, onion cells, blood cells, and various other things in recent weeks.  Wild orchids have been the best winner.  The picture below is of the drawing BalletBoy made after looking at the insides under the microscope.

Our microscope is the Celestron 44104, which was a gift from the Husband’s parents several years ago as we got started on our homeschool journey.  I did some research before I wish listed it and I’ve been very happy with it.  The price is even less now than when we received it.  And I’m hoping to add this attachable digital camera before the year is out, which will let us capture what we see.  I think that will just make it more fun.

We’ve found a number of microscope books useful.  First of all, we’ve had the Usborne book The World of the Microscope for awhile.  It has diagrams, explanations, and simple starting projects.  It’s a decent first book.  On recommendation, I also got the older book Adventures with a Microscope by Richard Headstrom.  I love the style of this book, with its talkative narrative and explanations.  We haven’t done many of the projects yet, but it’s really great at suggesting what to look at with the microscope as well as how to mount and dye.

The book we’ve actually found most exciting was a large picture book called Hidden Worlds by Stephen Kramer, which covers the work of scientist Dennis Kunkel, whose amazing images you can see on his website.  This book does many things.  It introduces the importance of microscopy and shows different ways it can be applied in a way children can understand.  It also explains different types of microscopes and their uses.  Most importantly, it is a biography of a scientist who has an enthusiasm that comes through the narrative so clearly that it’s catching.  Both boys came away from this book wanting to look under the microscope more.  I highly recommend it.

The Life of Trees

I know I haven’t been as vigilant about science posting.  Still, we’ve been at it, studying plants, including taking advantage of the National Botanic Garden’s new homeschool classes, peering in microscopes at onion cells and flower pollen, measuring trees and, as always, reading books and watching videos.

By far the best tree books we found were the four Tree Tales by Barbara Bash.  Each book covers a different tree in a different place: the saguaro cactus, the douglas fir, the baobab, and the banyan.  The books show a tree’s whole life span and how the tree fits into its ecosystem, both as a home for animals and, in some cases, a useful tree for humans as well.  These books hit the sweet spot for me with science books.  They were long enough to feel substantial, but not so long that they were overwhelming.  They were narrative instead of blurby.  And, so rarely these days, they had a beautiful writing style that was both informative and evocative.  The author’s background is as a calligrapher, so even the lettering was lovely.

For videos, we greatly enjoyed Climbing Redwood Giants, which you can find on Netflix streaming here.  The kids were captivated by just watching people climb these enormous trees.  Can you imagine that some animals live their whole lives inside them?  In case you don’t have Netflix, there’s a clip from the film here on Youtube:

Max Axiom

Max Axiom is a series of science comic books that I’ve been hearing about for awhile, but finally broke down an bought a few of.  Unfortunately, they don’t have them at my library. There are many volumes of the series out, covering a wide array of topics across the sciences.  The ones I bought were about cells and photosynthesis, to tie into our life science study this year, but there are titles about nearly everything.

There’s a lot to like about them.  The information in each volume is great and the concept is just plain cool.  I like that the main character, as well as many of the other characters, are people of color.  Sometimes series like this have very mediocre art, but the art in these is perfectly fine.  The writing is also fine.  Each volume is short and would be readable by most kids second or third grade and up and could be a good introduction to the topic all the way through middle school.

Sadly though, they weren’t quite what I hoped for.  The publisher advertises that Max Axiom uses, “powers acquired in a freak accident,” and that he can shrink down to explore an atom or actually ride on a sound wave.  Cool concept, right?  Reading that, I imagined Max Axiom was a superhero Mrs. Frizzle, using the powers of science to catch the bad guys.  I wanted him fighting El Seed and explaining plant reproduction at the same time or riding that sound wave to defeat some bad guy who made annoying noises while explaining how sound waves work.  Or something along those lines.  Regardless, I imagined there was a plot.  There’s not.  That description on the back of the book is more plot than is actually contained inside the book.  If Max Axiom did get his powers from a freak accident, it’s never referenced in these volumes.  Max Axiom just looks cool and explains the concepts for us or some random kid who asks about them.

Basically, I think these were a wasted opportunity.  They’re not bad or anything, and they do look appealing so they may get some kids reading about science and have probably sold well to schools looking for “fun” supplements.  If they did have them at the library, I would definitely check them all out.  However, they don’t really do anything more engaging than a Let’s Read and Find Out book (though at a slightly higher level of knowledge) and they’re not even as creative storytelling as a Magic School Bus book.

For a better, more nuanced comic about science, take a look at Jay Hosler’s work for older kids and adults.  For younger kids, the two Zig and Wikki books from TOON Books cover ecology topics and also have a lot more creativity to them than this series.

Science Returns Soon…

As I split the science year with another mom, I admit I got really lax and didn’t post about what we’ve been up to, but I’m getting back on track very soon.  I have two posts queued up to finish, filled with books, videos and experiments.

Seymour Simon Volcanoes BookSeymour Simon Mountains Book

In the meantime, I wanted to recommend a series I discovered in the last few months which was extremely useful for our earth science year.  It’s the detailed picture books by Seymour Simon.  Most of these are slightly older, from the late 1980’s.  However, they are still in print, in paperback no less, making them easy to find and affordable.  The books cover many topics, including biology and astronomy, but we made use of the ones about topics in earth science such as EarthquakesOceans, Glaciers and Icebergs, and Mountains.

Each book contains mostly photos with occasional diagrams.  The layout is very simple, but the text is solid and explains the topic well.  Because these books are older, you’ll find that there are examples that feel out of date (a section on tsunamis that doesn’t mention the 2004 tsunami, for example).  However, this is the first series I’ve found that feels like it’s a step up from the well-loved Let’s Read and Find Out series without being overwhelming or frantically blurby.  The kids have found these compelling, many of the photos are beautiful, and it’s always nice to have a go-to book to start a topic off.  Now that we’ve gone through and outgrown many of the Let’s Read and Find Out books, I’m glad I found a replacement.