As a parent, as a science teacher, and as a writer about the history of women in science, some of my most beautiful moments in life have come from reading children’s books to my kiddos that have sparked in them a certain sudden and fierce scientific curiosity, creating that desire to go out and See the stuff of the natural world and Wonder how it all works. Here are some of my favorites from the past decade.

The Must Haves

out of school book cover

Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story (2017)
Writer: Suzanne Slade  Illustrator: Jessica Lanan

A heart-melting union of word, theme, and picture, Out of School tells the story of somebody who spent her life finding ways to get children out into nature, studying its mysteries first hand, instead of memorizing its facts rote from a chalkboard. Lanan’s watercolor images create a green serenity that the rustic narrative voice fits perfectly into. It creates a world and settles you into it, and afterwards if you don’t feel the urge to run outdoors and look under some logs, well, you might look into the possibility that you are, in fact, a highly sophisticated cyborg. Ages: 6-9 years

life in the ocean

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle (2012)
Writer and Illustrator: Claire A. Nivola

Visually, Life in the Ocean is positively mesmerizing. The mixture of visual textures and variation of rich color palette makes each page pop with energy and interest, and Nivola’s attention to detail brings Earle’s love of the sea palpably forward.  Combine that with the book’s beautiful message of the need to preserve ocean diversity, and the exciting story of Sylvia Earle’s pioneering life, and it’s a near perfect bed time read. (And, to be perfectly honest, I’ve pulled it down a number of times when entirely by myself just to let my eyes delight a while in the art). Ages: 4-8 years

summer birds

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (2010)
Writer: Margarita Engle Illustrator: Julie Paschkis

Maria Merian’s story is one that keeps attracting spectacularly talented people. Kim Todd’s biography of Merian, Chrysalis, is in my top five women in science adult biographies of all time, and this book, Summer Birds, is a masterpiece of its own. Engle chooses a first person perspective to allow us to really get into Merian’s mind and see the world how she did – as a unique and curious girl who refused to believe the superstitions of her time, and dedicated herself to unraveling the real secrets of metamorphosis. That point of view is combined with Paschkis’s stunning illustrations that do justice to Merian’s own pioneering work as a natural illustrator while adding 17th Century Fantastical details that root the scientific story in its own curious and superstitious time. For bug lovers, or people who just want a great story about a girl who trusted her eyes to tell her the story of nature, rather than the words of others, it’s a truly lovely book. Ages: 5-8 years

finding wonders

Finding Wonders: Three Girls who Changed Science (2016)
Writer: Jeannine Atkins

And speaking of Maria Merian, there’s Finding Wonders by Jeannine Atkins, which is unlike basically anything out there in the world of young adult women in science books. It’s written in a series of short blank verse chapters that tell the stories of Maria Merian, who invented the ecological approach to species study in the 17th century, Mary Anning, who was pivotal to the early development of paleontology, and Maria Mitchell, who was America’s first professional astronomer. It’s a neat selection of figures who had major impacts on science but whose stories still lurk in the dusk of our collective appreciation. Atkins’s choice of verse is a daring one that pays off, as every word on the page has been weighed and selected to express (and conceal) precisely what Atkins intends, resulting in tumbling rivers of phrases that are delicious to read and say aloud: “An invisible ribbon links an egg smaller than the eye of a needle to a caterpillar curling in on itself, like memory.” The whole book sparkles with gems like that, all put in the service of fully exploring the youth and significance of three great women scientists. For any middle schooler of your acquaintance who loves words and nature in equal measure. Ages: 10 and up

 The Good Reads

grace hopper

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (2017)
Writer: Laurie Wallmark Illustrator: Katy Wu

This is a book full of charm and mischief and delight, recounting how Grace Hopper grew from a dizzyingly curious child to one of the most important programmers of all time. Illustrated with a 1950s Advertising aesthetic that smartly shifts each page’s dominant color to keep drawing the kids’ eyes back into the page, and featuring an author who is willing to spend time on what Hopper was really like as a child to give children something to identify with and emulate, it’s a tale of curiosity triumphant that bounces along with electric energy. There aren’t many books out there that capture the raw creative adventure of coding in a way children can understand, so this is one to treasure. Ages: 5-8 years

margaret and the moon

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing (2017)
Writer: Dean Robbins Illustrator: Lucy Knisley

Telling the story of the people who work behind the scenes at NASA is difficult – shifting scale from the massive drama of spaceflight back to the neck-breaking minutiae of the rank and file who make that drama possible is tricky. Fortunately, Robbins has an intuitive sense of how to do that and Margaret and the Moon both puts you in the skin of a girl and woman who loved thinking about all of the contingencies of spaceflight and how they could be counteracted through the nascent potential of programming, and displays how she fits in with the vastness of the undertaking around her thanks to Knisley’s bold lines and comic style. Ages: 4-8 years

tree lady

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (2013)
Writer: H. Joseph Hopkins Illustrator: Jill McElmurry

This book answers a question I never realized I had been carrying with me since childhood. I grew up in San Diego, California, with memories of trees, trees everywhere, especially the cool shady spots of Balboa Park where we’d rest and eat after a day at the Natural History Museum or the San Diego Zoo. But it wasn’t until reading this book that I stopped to think How They Got There. So much of the area is stringy, underwhelming chaparral, how did these oases of towering trees come to pass? It turns out, it was because of one woman, Kate Sessions, who came to San Diego as a teacher in the 19th century and found a desert environment devoid of the wooded vegetation she had known as a child in Northern California. So, single-handedly, she set out to do something about it. She established a nursery on the site of a dump and researched drought resistant trees from the world over, growing them and tending them and ultimately giving them to the city, transforming a barren region into the cool and lovely place of my childhood. The Tree Lady is a beautiful story, and Hopkins introduces neat repetitive elements that are perfect for out-loud reading to a child. The art style is neatly reminiscent of those Golden Books we grew up with, if a bit on the static side, which is perhaps unavoidable in a story about trees. Whether others, who won’t find there the long-hidden answer to their childhood joys, will love it as much as I did, I can’t distance myself enough to determine. Suffice to say, love it I did. Ages: 5-10 years

Honorable Mentions

solving the puzzle under the sea

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor (2016)
Writer: Robert Burleigh  Illustrator: Raúl Colón

The story of how Marie Tharp discovered the Mid Atlantic Rift through painstaking analysis of ocean floor sounding data is an important one in our understanding of the Earth, and Burleigh details that process clearly and with a sense of contagious excitement as the pieces click into place for Tharp. He doesn’t shy away from explaining HOW she did what she did, and that’s a refreshing choice in a children’s book. Colón’s art is immediately striking in its textures, and could have made a magnificent complement to the text if he didn’t depict so many of the people in the book from behind or in obscured profile. Children like faces and expressions, and having people resolutely and repeatedly turned away from the reader is an odd choice, though when you do see faces the people often look dejected or miserable or stare with dead white eyes that lack pupil or iris. Those depressed, expressionless faces tend to undercut the excitement the text is trying to convey. Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea is a good story, it reads well, and the visuals are memorable, but the disconnect of tone between text and image keeps it from being one of the greats. Ages: 4-8 years

to the stars

To the Stars!  The First American Woman to Walk in Space (2016)
Writers: Carmella van Vleet and Kathy Sullivan Illustrator: Nicole Wong

As a human being, I adore Kathy Sullivan. One of the first batch of women selected by NASA to become astronauts (along with Sally Ride and Judy Resnick), she was also the first American woman to walk in space. She is an amazing person, and is here teaming up with van Vleet and Wong to tell a bit of her life in To the Stars!. Wong’s art is vibrant and is given depth and motion by her hatched shading technique, resulting in some really stunning pages that capture both the carefree romp of youth and the massiveness of spaceflight. Van Vleet and Sullivan have structured the narrative itself in an interesting parallel manner where Sullivan’s childhood and adulthood advance in tandem on alternating pages. So, Sullivan as a child will experience something, and then on the next page you’ll see the adult Sullivan doing something related to that, except on a NASA-sized scale. It’s a neat idea, and can make for a fun game of guessing with your kids what might be on the next page. The tradeoff is that you keep hopping back and forth between the two timelines, meaning it’s harder to cozy into either story. But if nobody experimented with the form of children’s books, it would be a dull world indeed. Ages: 5-8 years

poet of science

Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer (2016)
Writer: Diane Stanley  Illustrator: Jessie Hartland

The Difference and Analytic Engines that Charles Babbage designed and Ada Lovelace wrote about are tough things to communicate to children engagingly. “Look here, kids, this device would have made logarithmic tables MUCH easier to calculate!” Stanley and Hartland’s approach in Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science, is a smart one – while Hartland employs a childlike artistic style that makes the imposing complexity of the engines approachable and fun, Stanley tells brisk tales of Lovelace’s early imaginative efforts and communicates her visionary sense of what Babbage’s machines might do on beyond their basic missions as calculators. The result is some good zany fun that serviceably gets across why Lovelace is such a significant figure still in the history of programming. Ages: 4-8 years


**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out the archive and Dale’s books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two

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