The long hot days of summer are the perfect time for kids to hone their knowledge of the wizard world, King Arthur’s court or the magical land of Narnia. And while many summer reading lists are sent home with the hope that students will bone up on fiction during the dog days, reading nonfiction can be just as beneficial — and just as exciting — as a great novel. And though some kids might balk at choosing to read a “science” book for summer fun, children’s author Vicki Cobb says that’s only because they haven’t been exposed to the right books.
In an effort to put more high-quality nonfiction into students’ hands, Cobb has created the iNK Think Tank, an organization of award-winning children’s authors who write Common Core-aligned nonfiction books for kids of all ages. (During the school year, iNK will even bring the authors to classrooms, via videoconference, to discuss their books directly with students.) For summer science reading, Cobb wants students to know about true stories that contain both captivating stories and science themes.
“There are many science books that are narratives and biographies that are fascinating,” Cobb said. “Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts tells the story of the first women who trained along with the men for the Mercury program, but never got to fly. And Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma tells the love story between Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, who was deeply religious. Darwin dragged his feet in publishing Origin of the Species because he had to write it so that it wouldn’t offend his wife’s religious beliefs.”
Cobb notes that great nonfiction writers employ the same literary devices as fiction writers, with a definitive advantage: every word is true. “There is no invented dialogue or sugar-coating by anthropomorphizing subject matter. But literary devices, including poetry, foreshadowing, irony, and metaphor, are all present.”
Yet iNK Think Tank’s efforts to increase children’s nonfiction diets are in sharp contrast to what kids are consuming: according to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend about four minutes a day reading nonfiction, and Publisher’s Weekly reported that, last year, kids bought four times more fiction than nonfiction.
Cobb says kids don’t read as much nonfiction because teachers and parents don’t know where to find the good stuff – a large reason why she started iNK. And, after getting good books to parents and teachers, Cobb says it’s important to realize that some science books need to be read differently than plopping down with a novel. For example, in one middle-school book about sound, “Bangs and Twangs,” Cobb encourages readers to stop periodically and try out certain concepts, from making noise with their bodies to producing sound with household objects. “Science is not about passive reading,” she writes. “It’s all about active involvement. In other words, following this book models the behavior of scientists.”
More Summer Learning Ideas
Consuming true stories might also be beneficial to kids’ academic growth. Reading nonfiction builds students’ background knowledge, which is essential to reading comprehension, according to CitizenshipFirst Executive Director (and former Core Knowledge Communications Director) Robert Pondiscio. So much nonfiction is included in the Common Core State Standards, he said, in part because “building knowledge is building literacy.” Comprehension requires that the reader know something about what she’s reading.
“Speakers and readers assume a shared body of vocabulary and background knowledge. When there are gaps in knowledge and vocabulary, comprehension breaks down,” Pondiscio said. “In short, lots of nonfiction means lots of background knowledge. And that enhances kids’ abilities to make correct inferences and contextualize accurately when they read.”
Both Pondiscio and Cobb mention that one benefit of reading nonfiction is that it helps kids look outward, not inward, and science-based nonfiction is a great way to learn about the world. Pondiscio said kids might perceive nonfiction as not quite as exciting as fiction because humans are “hardwired for narrative,” but that the history of civilization and progress, from history to science and technology, is a true story but also a grand narrative, “and we should teach it that way.”
So what should young scientists read this summer? Cobb has included a list of iNK Think Tank’s favorite science books below (including her own) — science biographies and narratives, plus some books full of experiments. Cobb suggests finding books that connect experiments with what kids already know about life and nature – otherwise they might incur what she calls “the ‘so what?’ factor.” Good science activity books ask questions, Cobb said, and give procedures for open-ended discovery, “so that the thinking child can continue the quest afterwards.”
Rah, Rah, Radishes! by April Sayre
I Get Wet, by Vicki Cobb
The Beetle Book, by Steve Jenkins
If You Hopped Like a Frog, by David M. Schwartz
From Caterpillar to Butterfly, by Deborah Heiligman
Will It Blow? Become a Volcano Detective at Mount St. Helens, by Elizabeth Rusch
All in Just One Cookie, by Susan Goodman
Lizards, by Sneed B. Collard III
The Frog Scientist, by Pamela Turner
Bug Shots: The Good, the Bad and the Bugly, by Alexandr Siy’s
A Life in the Wild: George Shaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts, by Pamela Turner
Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein, by Marfé Ferguson Delano
A Whale Biologist at Work, by Sneed Collard
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman
For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, by Peggy Thomas
How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning, by Rosalyn Schanzer,
Marie Curie: a Photographic Story of a Life, by Vicki Cobb.
Some books combine Science with Social Studies:
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone
The Buffalo and the Indians, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World, by Rosalyn Schanzer
Everglades Forever: Restoring American’s Great Wetland, by Trish Marx,
Monteverde: Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent.
Good examples of books suitable for high school readers as well as middle school students:
Biodiversity, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet, by Alexandra Siy
The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray, by Carla McClafferty
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.