31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Science & Nature Books
Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho! And what, I ask you, could be more perfect for the holiday season than books about science and nature? Anything! But that’s okay. I love this list a whole bushel and a peck. Let’s take a look at those marvelous books for children that offer a peek behind the veil of some of life’s greatest mysteries. Whether it’s plants that resemble toilets, seemingly psychic horses, deer eating pythons, or the sheer scope of the universe itself, there’s something in here for everyone.
2020 Science and Nature Picture Books
Bear Goes Sugaring by Maxwell Eaton III
Did you know it takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup? Let Bear and his friends show you the science, the technique, and the fun behind your favorite pancake topping. Can I tell you secret? I think I’m too biased towards this Eaton fellow. I just love how he makes nonfiction books. Also, and I’m speaking strictly for me, this adheres way too closely to a subject that I was already interested in. I mean, it really and truly breaks down how to tap sugar from trees. Isn’t that crazy? It’s so simple that anyone could do it, and you actually get quite a lot of great science out of the accompanying images and descriptions. I love the way Eaton depicts sap rising and pressure build-up in trees, to say nothing of the illustration of how many gallons of sap it takes to get just one gallon of syrup. Funny asides and a delicious ending. Who could want for more?
Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre
Remember Nic Bishop? Where on earth did that guy go? I only ask since this cover reminds me of good old Red-Eyed Tree Frog. It’s a fortunate thing we’ve other talented photographers to fill in the gaps. Photographers like the incredible April Pulley Sayre. Though she had three books out in 2020, I’ve decided the best of the bunch to appear on today’s list is this one. And her photography is without parallel, no question, but I’d like to also give some credit to Sayre’s text. My favorite line in this particular book is, “This log. Its daily job? Support the frog.” If writing simply is the most difficult thing to do, Sayre is a master.
The Big Bang Book by Asa Stahl, ill. Carly Allen-Fletcher
An interesting and much younger telling of the beginning of the universe. We’ve seen a lot of books along these lines the last few years but there’s a clarity to this book’s simple language that I really grew to appreciate as I read and reread it. To begin, I very much like the first line: “This is the story of the universe. And it begins: Once upon a time, we don’t know.” There is a LENGTHY Author’s Note at the end and Notes and References that I greatly appreciated. A small Bibliography of similar children’s titles would not have been out of place, but it’s not a deal breaker. Allen-Fletcher’s art is rather fascinating to look at, so I was not too surprised when I saw she had done the book Animal Antipodes in the past (which I rather adore). This is a delightful use of her skills. Great to use with small kids. My own particularly enjoyed covering up the small universe with their thumbs pre-Bang.
Clever Hans: The True Story of the Counting, Adding, and Time-Telling Horse by Kerri Kokias, ill. Mike Lowery
Can a horse really be as smart as a human? Clever Hans sure seemed like it. A fascinating story of the equine that fooled the world with his true intelligence. It is difficult for me to put into the words the degree to which I love this book. I had heard the story of Hans before on one scientific podcast or another, but nothing was ever made as crystal clear as what Kokias does here. She sets up the mystery beautifully and then uses the debunking to prove that while Hans was not clever in the original sense, the ways in which he read social cues proved to be invaluable information for scientists. In a particularly prescient move, with all the COVID trials in the news, we wouldn’t have our current “double-blind” studies without him. Anyone teaching kids about the pandemic and the vaccine should reference this book. Plus, Mike Lowery’s art is always so fun, and he’s used perfectly with this subject matter. It reminded me a little of Meghan McCarthy’s books. Top notch science!
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals by Katy S. Duffield, ill. Mike Orodán
To a certain extent there’s a little checklist in my brain for each children’s book that comes across my plate. Some books only knock off a category here or there. And some, like this one, seem like they can’t STOP ticking off those boxes. It’s picture book nonfiction. It’s written at a younger reading level (though with plenty of older information in the sidebars, so that it can be useful to a wide range of ages). It’s an animal book, a science book, a conservation book. It’s illustrated with gorgeous art, rendered in graphite pencils and Photoshop. And most importantly, but perhaps not something you’d categorize, is the fact that it gives one the hope that humans can change to help others. In this book you look at real world locations where people have created architectural structures to aid animals on the move. Wildlife crossings are structures that aid animals, sure, but also ultimately help people as well. And that’s one lesson we need to instill in our kids more often.
The Eagle Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), ill. Natasha Donovan
No stranger to my lists, Gyetxw and Donovan previously created The Sockeye Mother and The Grizzly Mother (which appeared on last year’s 2019 Science & Nature list). Gyetxw is a member of the Gitxsan nation of the Northwest Interior of British Columbia, Canada, while Donovan is a member of the Métis Nation of British Columbia. Like “Sockeye” and “Grizzly” this book follows a mother in nature. In this particular case it is a bald eagle and her mate, raising two chicks. We see different aspects of parenting, food, nesting, and other integral aspects of the eagles’ lives. Terms are defined as footnotes throughout, though alas there is no glossary at the end with pronunciations of the Gitxsan words that appear throughout the text. The back matter does include information on the Gitxsan and the Gitxsan Moons, though. Most have definitions like “Black Bear’s Walking Moon” and “Budding Trees and Blooming Flowers Moon”. My particular favorite was the moon for November: “Getting-Used-to-Cold Moon”. I hear that. Smart writing in a smart book.
A Garden in Your Belly: Meet the Microbes in Your Gut by Masha D’Yans
Take a gorgeous trip into your microbiome, where good food and exercise will keep the more than 100 trillion microorganisms there happy and healthy. Lush and funny watercolors bring the impossibly small to life! When it comes to sheer beauty and artistic inspiration, D’Yans puts her whole heart into this effort. I have a weakness for any book where creatures too small for the human eye are shown sporting googly eyes (see: last year’s How Did I Get Here? by Philip Bunting or Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost). But on beyond the beautiful watercolors, the writing is some of the best I’ve seen. Lots of books tell kids to eat healthy food and exercise. This is one of the first to give a really good explanation about WHY. I love this book.
Grow: Secrets of Our DNA by Nicola Davies, ill. Emily Sutton
Am I the only one there that leans a little too heavily on nonfiction picture books to supplement their shaky knowledge of science? I have this weird fascination with DNA where I understand that it’s a ladder-looking thingy, but the details still elude me. Fortunately, Davies and Sutton are here to the rescue. This is hardly their first pairing, but it’s maybe the first book of theirs where I’ve taken a long, hard look at what exactly it is that Davies is doing. She’s talking about DNA to small kids, right? So watch how she starts it all off. She makes her focus incredibly broad (“All living things grow”) then slowly narrows it down, discussing how some things are huge and others quite small. Then she ties it into the child reading the book’s growth and then leaps on over to DNA. It shouldn’t necessarily work, but somehow she manages it. Sutton’s art, as per usual, is stellar. One for the shelves, certainly.
Honeybee: The Interesting Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
The life cycle of a bee is so much more than just getting honey. Follow an Apis mellifera as she cycles through multiple jobs in the hive, complemented by luscious, velvety oil paints. Pairs rather beautifully with Burleigh and Minor’s Tiny Bird, actually (see below). In both cases you follow a single tiny creature as it goes about its day. I loved the almost call-and-response way in which you are continually asked if the bee is ready to start flying yet. Also, this is a great example of how you might feel that every aspect of honeybee life has been covered in books before and then a particularly smart author comes along and highlights some aspect you’d never considered until now. Who knew that bees changed jobs? Love the backmatter with its parts of a bee, info on Helping Out Honeybees, additional facts, online resources, and a Bibliography of other books for kids. Phew! Oh, and did I mention it’s gorgeous? So gorgeous!
If You Take Away the Otter by Susannah Buhrman-Deever, ill. Matthew Trueman
The most adorable nightmare fuel you’ll ever have the chance to see. Playful sea otters aren’t just cute. Once they were hunted to near extinction causing an army of sea urchins to wreak devastation. A clever, enticing, and beautiful look at the interconnectedness of nature. The title reminded me a bit of the book If Sharks Disappeared, but I think overall this story does a better job of really drilling home how impossible it is to separate different parts of nature. Aside from the obvious lure of getting to looking at cute otters (mere moments before one is harpooned, but never mind) the text spends time really drilling home how the exploitation of the Unangax (Aleut) and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) tribes by whites devastated the region. But Matthew Trueman’s art! Aside from being gorgeous, I am now going to have horrific, horrible nightmares of sea urchins (not something I woke up expecting to say today). This is great.
I’m Trying to Love Rocks by Bethany Barton
I’ve always been fond of this series from Barton (which includes such hits as Give Bees a Chance and I’m Trying to Love Math). Now one of the arguments I’ve heard to the books over the years is that they start at a place of negativity. Like the book is a whole upward fight against a prejudice that kids might not have known that they even had. I think that might apply to the previously mentioned math book, to a certain extent, but in this book it isn’t that rocks are a bad thing at the start. They’re just relatively dull. And it is a lot easier to convince your audience that something isn’t dull than it is that something is “hard” like math. I love how Barton parcels out her information, and all the neat little tidbits and facts she hides in there. Do I wish there was a lot more backmatter or, say, any backmatter? Yes I do. But as gateway geology picture books go, this ones choice. Consider pairing it with the fun picture book Old Rock (Is Not Boring) by Deb Pilutti.
A Last Goodbye by Elin Kelsey, ill. Soyeon Kim
As I mentioned earlier in the year in my post Trendwatch 2020: Death Death Death Death Death, this was a year where a surprising number of picture books confronted the mortality of all living things for young readers. Prescient. Kelsey’s book is a Nonfiction offering on the same subject, presenting the topic through the death of animals and how they handle it in nature. My personal favorite has a lot to do with a Radiolab episode I listened to years ago about what happens to a whale’s body when it dies. Naturally, we’ll be seeing a nonfiction picture book on that topic either in 2021 or 2022. And I don’t know if Kelsey heard the same episode, but when she writes, “Will new undersea communities flourish on the nutrients found in your skeleton?” I thought it a wonderful way of celebrating how bodies feed other organisms as they decompose. This book is infinitely gentle. And I think that of all the death books of 2020, it might be my favorite.
The Nest That Wren Built by Randi Sonenshine, ill. Anne Hunter
“These are the twigs, dried in the sun, that Papa collected one by one / to cradle the nest that Wren build.” Gentle rhyming text show how wrens construct intricate homes to shelter and protect their eggs. An interesting take on nest building (which appears to be a hot theme in 2020 books for some reason) that, on first glance, appears to be emulating the cumulative tale form. If I have any reservations with this book, it’s that it isn’t really cumulative (or, at least, not in the same way that ‘Ohana Means Family is cumulative). That said, it’s neat! I love how it works in tiny details, like the fact that the wrens might add a spider sac so that the baby spiders eat mites that could hurt the eggs. And who can resist a species where the male makes several nests, the female chooses one, then proceeds to rip it apart and rebuild it from scratch? A woman after my own heart.
Only A Tree Knows How To Be a Tree by Mary Murphy
A simple encapsulation of the world and your place in it is told in clear, straightforward terms for younger readers. The diversity of experience is simplified. I’ve rarely seen a book this young do this good a job of paring down information to its simplest and most rudimentary parts. When I think of Mary Murphy I think of board books like I Kissed the Baby, but don’t confuse her uncomplicated simplicity for ease. Much as Lucy Cousins once made Yummy (which took fairy tales and made them as easy to understand as possible) so too does Murphy tackle the very essence of what life is and what a child’s place in the world can be. It’s poetic but also scientific. Rather amazing.
The Reason for the Seasons by Ellie Peterson
My favorite kind of book for kids is one that clearly explains and shows concepts that even adults get wrong. In this particular case, the book starts with a very simple question: Why do we have seasons? To test this book, I tried it out on my six-year-old. When asked why we have seasons he initially thought that it was because our planet turned and when we were near the sun it was summer and away was winter. Peterson does a great job of covering not just that theory but also the theory that it’s because the planet is closer to the sun in the summer and farther in the winter. She integrates concepts like tilt, rotation, the equator, and even the angle at which light hits an object with aplomb. I was particularly taken with a section on how different the length of our shadows are at different times of year. If it were easy to explain scientific concepts then we’d see a million books like this one. As it stands, this book is a rarity. A necessary rarity!
There’s a Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost
I was such an incredible fan of Ben-Barak and Frost’s previous collaboration Do Not Lick This Book that when I heard that there was a follow-up title I snapped it right up. Though lacking the high-powered microscopic photographs of its predecessor, this book employs a very clever method of showing how your bones, muscles, and nerves all work together in the human body. A floppity alien wants to fix her spaceship. To do so she has to grow bones, muscles, and nerves in her hands. With all the interactive elements you’d expect from the first book, and bright colors to boot, it’s a delightful human body book for rather young readers. Want a science storytime title? This is an ideal choice. You can even have the kids in the audience high-five the book at the end!
Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird’s Amazing Journey by Robert Burleigh, ill. Wendell Minor
If a hummingbird is no larger than your hand, how can it possibly fly five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico? An enticing exploration of a seemingly impossible migration. Burleigh and Minor make an average hummingbird’s life come alive in just the loveliest of ways. They don’t skimp on the problems a tiny bird might encounter when it flies nonstop for twenty hours over treacherous oceans. “Can Tiny Bird make it? Many hummingbirds never do.” Harsh! Additional Bonus: Who better to replicate a hummingbird’s jewel-like feathers than Wendell Minor? Two creators come together at the top of their game.
Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery by Meeg Pincus, ill. Yasmin Imamura
If you didn’t know where monarch butterflies flew every winter, how would you go about solving the mystery? Meet all the people who worked together to come up with an answer to a question spanning continents. Sick of butterflies yet? It’s hard not to be, what with them popping up in every other book some years. That’s why I have to doff my cap to Meeg Pincus here. In a lot of ways the central conceit of this book is how the credit for a “discovery” should not rest solely on the shoulders of the white scientist that initially wrote it up. When you look at all the people involved with solving the mystery of where the monarchs would fly, it’s staggering. Pincus even writes at the end, “It’s also important to note that history depends on who tells the story – Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis asks: “ ‘Did the white scientists really ‘discover’ the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico knew about for centuries?’” A self-aware, smartly illustrated, and very cleverly written tale.
You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration by Loree Griffin Burns, photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
Would you care to see a wide array of moths that live in your general part of the woods? Turns out, if you hold a “moth ball” of your own, you get a front row seat to seeing them intentionally (rather than flitting about your porch light). I greatly appreciated the fact that Harasimowicz was given a chance to include a lengthy Photographer’s Note in the back of this book. She really gets into the apertures, f-stops, and shutter speeds when discussing the amount of work and attention it takes to make a book of this sort. As she says, “Light played a very significant role in this book, just as much as the moths and the people who came to see them.” I appreciate the distinction. Plus, who wouldn’t be awed by those graceful luna moths sitting on top of a woman’s hands?
Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin
From kids to the cosmic web of the universe, gorgeous watercolors encompass the sheer scope and scale of everything inside and beyond our own galaxy. Just as good as everyone says it is. It sounds strange to mention that I like a book that makes me feel insignificant, but what other way is there to describe what it is that Chin is doing here? Now he could have overplayed his hand and started with microbes, but he keeps it simple, talking about average kids, and things that are taller than them. I’ve never seen a book that shows the sheer scale of the universe as effectively as this one has. It’s an absolute jaw-dropper. Both of my children were utterly gobsmacked by it. Considering how much they love fiction, that’s saying something.
2020 Science and Nature Books for Older Readers
Darwin’s Rival: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Search for Evolution by Christiane Dorion, ill. Harry Tennant
Living a life of adventure and exploration, this canny scientist helped Darwin unlock the secrets of evolution, though his name is practically lost to history today. Man. They say the meek shall inherit the earth but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever be remembered for it. Wallace, by all accounts, lived a fascinating and exciting life. The title is a bit misleading since it takes a while for Darwin to make much of an appearance at all. “Rival” would also suggest that Wallace resented Darwin for taking the bulk of credit for the theory of evolution, but instead the guy just seemed grateful to have helped in any way. A fun, large, long, lengthy, exciting story of science and discovery.
Pretty Tricky: The Sneaky Ways Plants Survive by Etta Kaner, ill. Ashley Barron
When I was in college I got myself a venus fly trap. It was a tiny little thing, and I kept its soil incredibly moist, when I wasn’t trying to feed it hamburger or dead flies. One day I saw tiny wormlike bugs in the soil and that was the end of my fascination with plants carnivorous and otherwise. Pretty Tricky, being no fool, puts those very plants on its cover but this isn’t a book that laser focuses on one kind of plant. The vegetation between these pages covers plants that use unique camouflage, fool bees and other animals with their appearance (the one that acts like a toilet on purpose may be the most fascinating), grab on to passerby, and essentially use animals and insects to their own advantage. Beautifully illustrated with Barron’s cut paper images. I’ve heard mild criticisms of the book but I don’t buy the SLJ review’s objection that kids will believe that plants “knowingly use these skills to achieve their goals.” Yes, an understanding of what these plants are doing will require a close read, but since I consider this a book for older child readers anyway, that’s not a big issue. It’s fun and funny and how can you not love a book that talk about something called “bladderwort”?
Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Catch an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem by Kate Messner
It’s a master of disguise, can swallow an entire baby deer, and is rapidly devouring the Florida natural wildlife. How do you stop an invasive species you almost can’t see? These scientists may have found the answer. Honestly, this was gripping (no pun intended, python-lovers). I’ve read some books about scientists that drag on a bit, but Messner knows how to keep the information peppy and popping. Who knew that there were so many different methods of attacking the python problem? It’s sobering to think that sometimes you have to give up your dreams of eradication in favor of the more realistic containment. Great photography all the way through, this is a clear cut winner of a book.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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