31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Science and Nature Books
We’re now cresting into some of the longer lists in our month long series. We hinted at the return of Nonfiction when I presented the Informational Fiction list, but today we have the real deal. And not just any Nonfiction either. Science and nature, baby. 2021 turned out to be a remarkably strong year for Nonfiction in general and science/nature in particular. From biologists to topography to the life cycles of clouds and smoke, there’s a little of someone for everyone here. Check it out:
2021 Science and Nature for Younger Readers
All Kinds of Families by Sophy Henn
Families are as different in the animal kingdom as they are amongst humans. Come see which families display same-sex, sibling, solo, grandparent, and group parenting (and more!). Wow! That was a huge surprise! I was not expecting to feel any sort of affection for this book at all. I thought it was going to be one of those million or so “different families are good” titles. And it is, but what it does that’s so clever is back up that statement with the fact that different kinds of families, those that challenge the nuclear family structure, are common in the wild kingdom. So you have orangutans tending their kids into adulthood, daddy emus that raise the kids alone, long-tailed tits where the older siblings take care of the younger, grandparent orcas, albatross all-female couples, and (most surprising to me) the fact that two male cheetah will adopt lost cubs together. A book that upends the notion of the “natural”.
Animals! Here We Grow by Shelley Rotner
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
Everything grows but how do growing things change? Beautiful bright photography shows everything from frogs to puppy dogs getting older. Perfect for the youngest of readers. There you go. Like I always say, it’s the children’s books that make you wonder, “Why has no one thought of doing this before?” that are most deserving of your love. With this book Rotner has figured out how to do nonfiction for really young kids AND do it in an original way. And it’s so simple! Basically, she names off animals and then shows them at different stages at growth. The beginning has the usual all-stars like frogs and butterflies, but when she takes it down a notch and starts covering mammals I get seriously impressed. She includes information on baby animal names and then ties it all together with a baby human turning into a kid (not an adult) at the end. I just think she did a stellar job here making something new for, what I’d consider, the hardest age range to write for. If they don’t turn this into a board book in two years then they’re missing an opportunity.
Armor & Animals by Liz Yohlin Baill
Snails, lobsters, porcupines . . . and suits of armor? See how nature has influenced our inventions in this quirky melding of art and science. So the museum educator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art wanted to write a book that could draw some attention to the armor collection. What she hit on was how you could compare different aspects of armor to different protective elements found in nature. The book will do things like compare the bands on an armadillo’s back to the plates in a horse’s armor around its neck, or the shell of a lobster to the legs of a fancy suit of armor. I like the design of this book quite a lot, and I think they do a pretty clever job of showing how human ingenuity replicates nature. A fact it would behoove us all to remember.
Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Felicita Sala
Can you pretend to be a tree? It’s not as easy as it looks, so learn all you can about how they appear, act, and even communicate with one another. There’s a lot more to trees than initially meets the eye. Man. I’m just a softie for trees. For the first few pages of this book I was all set to write it off as perfectly nice but unnecessary for this list. Then the dang thing started talking about all that new research that’s been coming out about tree communication and it was all over for me. We’ve seen books touch on that topic before but this is the first that I’ve seen that really manages to make the “Wood Wide Web” comprehensible to younger readers. That image of the root systems exchanging food and information just put the nail in the coffin. I’m a big time fan of this book. Betcha you might be too.
The Beak Book by Robin Page
Did you know that a bird’s beak has a job to do? Marvelous cut paper art depicts 21 birds, their wildly different beaks, and why those beaks are designed the way that they are. Yeah, man. It’s a big old big beak book. I’ve read a lot of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page books over the years. And frankly, after a while they all kind of blur together. The thing about this book, though, is that Page keeps everything really crisp, clear, and simple. Her gorgeous portraits of the birds in cut paper (check out those marbelized colors!) zero in on the beaks specifically. Each one has a job that can be described in a single word. “Probing”. “Ripping”. “Clutching”. So you get the big picture with the big words (making the book is appropriate for younger ages) and then a small description with a small image of them using their beaks for what they were designed to do (for the older ages). The end result is that I couldn’t tear myself away. A very clever method of art and design, and a gorgeous (and educational) end product.
Begin With a Bee by Liza and Martin Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs and Phyllis Root, ill. Claudia McGehee
Every bumblebee colony begins with just a single queen, waking in the spring, doing everything herself. Colored woodcuts highlight one of the more peculiar tales in the insect kingdom. First off, I should admit that I might find this as interesting as I do because I had only just recently discovered from some other children’s book published this year that bumblebees start every year with just one single, solitary queen. That is INSANE! And now this book is telling me that not only that but the queen has to single-handedly tend to her workers, raising them as her own, until they’re big enough to serve her? I can see why some folks find the art cluttered. I like the woodcuts, though. Please don’t compare this last year’s Honeybee since the focus is completely different. A fascinating look at a truly weird way of promulgating your species.
Butterflies Are Pretty … Gross by Rosemary Mosco, ill. Jacob Souva
Get ready to stop thinking of butterflies as merely pretty and meet the ones that are loud, stinky, and sometimes carnivorous meat-eaters. You’ll never look at these pretty insects the same way again. I mean, it’s a book talking about carnivorous, pee-drinking, butterflies that can look like bird poop or have fake heads on their butts. What more do I literally have to say to sell it to you? Oh, and it’s really fun and weird. Since I have the sense of humor of a 9-year-old, this book made me snort. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Butterfly for a King by Susan L. Roth, ill. Cindy Trumbore
Gonna get all epic on me, huh butterfly book? 2021 turned out to be a rather interesting butterfly year. While 2020 brought us the rather marvelous Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery, 2021 gave us the aforementioned Butterflies Are Pretty . . . Gross and this book, Butterfly for a King. In this tale we meet a rare, disappearing species. The Kamehameha butterfly lives one place and one place alone: Hawai’i. Named after King Kamehameha, its eggs resemble small gold, spherical boxes. In this book Roth and Trumbore go back back back into history. We’re treated to massive volcanoes, the Hawaiian islands are formed and, in time, the butterflies migrate there. But how do you get people interested in saving something so small? A group of schoolkids had the brilliant notion to petition to make the Kamehameha Butterfly the official insect of Hawai’i. And once that was accomplished, citizen scientists were implored to help find and track the insects. Cindy Trumbore pulls out all the stops to bring this story to life, waves and all. Younger text at the top and older text at the bottom makes this accessible to a wide range of ages. I’ve a friend who’s a schoolteacher in Hawai’i and you can bet that I popped this in the mail to her as soon as I was done with it. A nice complement to an evolutionary unit.
Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme by Melissa Stewart, ill. Steve Jenkins
[Previously Seen on the Rhyming Picture Books List]
How can fourteen different kinds of monkeys all live in the same area? Come to the different heights of the Manú National Park and let this rhyming bouncy text introduce you to its furry little residents. A couple points that you need to consider here. First off, that monkey on the cover is eating orange mushrooms off a tree. I just happen to find that particularly cool. This also goes far beyond the usual Steve Jenkins catalog of things. There’s an aspect where you can see which part of the canopy each different kind of monkey lives in and a two-page spread at the end that shows the different layers (emergent, canopy, understory, etc.). The additional facts about the monkeys in the backmatter are almost as interesting as the front matter (and involve a LOT more urine), and check out that killer Bibliography! You can read the rhyming portions for younger children and the more wordy nonfiction for the older ones. And, as ever, Steve’s art is killer.
How to Find a Fox by Kate Gardner, ill. Ossi Saarinen
A book of pure photography has never won a Caldecott Award, but this one could have had a shot. Alas, photographer Ossi Saarinen is inconveniently Finnish. Breathtaking photography instructs young readers on where and how one might spot a fox in the wild. YES! This book shoots on all cylinders! The art here isn’t just beautiful. It illustrates the simple text well and is also just a ton of fun. It’s like the photographer knew how to shoot for a children’s book specifically. I loved the simple text for readalouds and younger kids, and the smaller more in-depth info on foxes and their lives. I think any kid who sees this title is going to be instantly obsessed with foxes for the rest of their natural born lives, so take that as a warning. This book is engrossing.
I Am Smoke by Henry Herz, ill. Mercè López
Smoke speaks in mesmerizing riddles: “I lack a mouth, but I can speak…. I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests…. I’m gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm…”. This rhythmically powerful narration is complemented by illustrations in which swirling smoke was captured on art paper held over smoky candle flames, and the dancing smoke textures were then deepened and elaborated with watercolors and Photoshop finishes. With this unique method, Merce López “let the smoke decide how the idea I had in mind would dance with it, giving freedom to the images.” The resulting illustrations are astounding, and they resonate with the otherworldly text. On a reread I discovered how careful Herz is to credit each Indigenous tribe as they appear. Essentially this book shows that water isn’t the only one that gets a cycle. Smoke cycles too, and in this era of forest fires everywhere, it’s nice to see a book that doesn’t demonize the smoke itself. Would be an excellent book to pair alongside When Cloud Became a Cloud (see below).
The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest by Heather Lang, ill. Jana Christy
If you wanted to get to the tippy top of a tree in the Amazon Rainforest, how would you get there? If you were the intrepid Margaret Lowman, you might use trial and error, until you were able to convince the world that these trees are worth saving. You know, the cover and title are both so prepossessing that I didn’t really expect to like this story as much as I did. But once you get into it you really come to appreciate how the book shows an average scientist diving deep into something we all take for granted but don’t really know much about. Which is to say, what happens in the tops of the trees in the Amazon rainforest? I really appreciated that the book not only shows how hard it is to get up there, but also why this information can be pertinent and important to everyone. It plays by the rules (a.k.a. no fake dialogue) and works in all these interesting Amazon-related facts along the way. Plus, Meg sports some really nice sweaters in this book. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m giving her an extra 5 points on sweaters alone.
The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message by Michael Emberley
One might easily be fooled by its cover, thinking this a boring nonfiction dive into the intricacies of communication. I probably should have noticed early on that Michael Emberley was involved. Emberley is a master at the breakdown. I mean, when it comes to complex subjects, I just want my own pocket Michael Emberley that I can pull out whenever I need someone to explain something like, I dunno, cryptocurrencies or stock market price-earnings to me. In this book he does this infinitely clever thing of not only explaining the science behind how a text message travels across the world, but also how it travels from one brain to another. I guess I’d always assumed that texts bounced off of satellites or something. For me, The Message is a kind of wake-up call. Also, it sort of confirms that my faith in “the cloud” is misplaced, which I truly appreciated. This book? A delight.
Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small by Jesse Wade, ill. Melissa Castrillón
Do you want self-washing windows, stronger and lighter airplanes, and cleaner water? Learn about nanotechnology and what it’s doing to help the world! I guess I’ve never really sat down and thought through the implications of nanotechnology and, I dunno, how it actually works? Wade does such a lovely job of breaking it down to the atomic level and then working the reader up from there. And there is SO much cool stuff in here! Like the number of most common elements in the human body (11), and how scientists took graphite and made graphene, which is stronger than steel, and how super-sieves might make water drinkable. This is such a cool book and the art is just spectacular. Worth a gander.
Odd Bods: The World’s Unusual Animals by Julie Murphy
Meet the super survivors that use their unconventional looks to stay alive. From the aye-aye’s freaky finger to the leafy sea dragon’s seaweed looks, these critters stand out from the crowd. I had to test this one out on my six-year-old to be sure. Yep. We see a fair number of strange-animals-in-nature books out there, but few are quite as tight and succinct as this. I could live without the unnecessary summary at the end, but for the most part the strong photography and clear cut text makes this a nonfiction picture book that suits younger readers very well. Some of these critters you’ll have heard of, but I guarantee there’s at least one that’ll be new to you. For me, it was that thorn bug on the cover. Yowch!
Orangutan Hats and Other Tools Animals Use by Richard Haynes, ill. Stephanie Laberis
A worldwide, cross species collection of the ways in which animals, insects, sea creatures, and more use tools. I hope you like orangutans because in this book they make a LOT of appearances. Haynes has gathered together such a diverse array of critters and creatures. I dove into this book expecting something spare and slight and instead found it just brimming with a plethora of facts! My personal favorite section was in the “Tools for Health and Healing” chapter. The section on monkeys smearing various plant and insect products on themselves to repel insects, work as antiseptics, relieve pain, and even create their own burn cream, is extraordinary. Well worth discovering (just leave yourself some time to get through it).
Out of the Blue by Elizabeth Shreeve, ill. Frann Preston-Ganon
How can a dolphin be more closely related to a hippo than a shark? Take a trip back in time to the very origins of life on Earth and see how sometimes it comes out of the blue sea and then right back in again. I’d been sort of stumbling, trying to explain to my daughter why all mammals, including humans, came from small mouse-like creatures. It was really hard to convey, so the timing of stumbling upon this book was key. It has to conflate a lot of time together, so if you’re looking for something a little more complete I’d go with Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins. Still, this really makes a complicated subject understandable for young children. Plus it answers the whole how-are-hippos-related-to-dolphins question really well.
Plants on the Move by Émilie Vast
Plants don’t move . . . do they? Yes they do! Watch as plants fall, cling, float, burrow and even EXPLODE to get around. This one’s as slow and inviting as a creeper. The first thing I noticed about it was that it had a nice appeal for younger readers. Simple words. Clear images. But then I saw that it was divided so neatly between the different methods that plants use to move around and spread. I just found the whole design so doggone appealing! Certainly a more unique method of teaching about the wonders of plants, that’s for sure.
Robo-Motion: Robots That Move Like Animals by Linda Zajac
Robots mimic nature in remarkable ways. From tiny RoboBees to surgical octopuses to Nano Air Vehicle spies that look like hummingbirds, prepare to be astounded! If you’ve ever been creeped out by those YouTube videos of headless dog-like robots (like the one I’ve inserted below) then this may not be the book for you. But if you’ve ever been creeped out AND intrigued, then I think you’ll really enjoy the collection that Zajac has gathered here. I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen these particular robots before. The photos are fantastic and the text light but informative. It would be nice to have something for our robot fans on this list, don’t you think? Can’t all be bios and animals.
She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey, Pioneering Nature Activist by Andrea D’Aquino
If you were to meet Florence Merriam Bailey, you might never know that she was the premiere bird activist in the United States. This is a story of an ornithological hero. It’s also a quieter, subtler book than we usually see about environmental activism, and I think that’s a real key to its success. So many picture book bios make it seem necessary to be brash and loud to get things done. Fewer understand the power of quiet, unyielding persistence. I like how the author/illustrator breaks everything down for the child reader. No fake dialogue, and that backmatter is a treat.
The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story by Maria Popova, ill. Ping Zhu
Is a snail born with its organs on the wrong side of its body doomed to a life of solitude? Not if Doctor Angus has anything to say. A luscious, lovely dive into snail habits and genetics. Popova does what I wish every nonfiction picture book author could do. She manages to stay well within the range of accurate informational fiction while also managing to make her story read as fluidly and beautifully as any work of fantasy. There’s no fake dialogue. No jumping into the mind of the snail to get its perspective. She does linger on the idea of Jeremy the snail being lonely a bit too long, but it’s a minor point. And the art is just stunning and strange. Wordless gatefolds appear for what appears to be no other reason than to just be pretty. There’s also a strange bit of art accompanying the section on mirror-image bodies that seems to say as much about loneliness as science. All told, this is top notch science. Could have used some backmatter, but at this point I do not care.
Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Bliss by Gregory Mone, photos by Levon Bliss
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
Glowing, pulsating, iridescent Microsculpture photography introduces you to insects as you’ve never seen them before. A book to make bug lovers of us all. Photography is my first love, so photography that utilizes Microsculpture to stitch together thousands of photographs into a single image? This book may as well just stamp “For Betsy” on the cover cause that’s how much I like it. You’re going to overwork the word “luminous” when you describe what’s in these pages. I was less enchanted by Mone’s jokes but even that definite dad humor isn’t enough to turn me off of the glorious facts on these pages. Now can someone please explain to me how scarabs are in both Egypt and Peru?
Summertime Sleepers by Melissa Stewart, ill. by Sarah S Brannen
Everyone knows about animals that hibernate in the winter. Now it’s time to discover those animals that sleep all summer long! Aww. This reminds me of that book Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins, only I’m not so sure that that book really went into estivation all that much. This book does a great job, and then (for all of us science nerds) I just loved how at the end both author Melissa Stewart and illustrator Sarah Brannen described in detail the choices they made during the process of making this book. Very glad Stewart dropped the “lively humorous” voice in favor of this one. This is just a really well done book in general.
13 Ways to Eat a Fly by Sue Heavenrich, ill. David Clark
I am a huge fan of this book. Like, seriously, there were a lot of things I didn’t know going in. Wood frogs use their eyeballs to push flies down their throats? Bats use their tail membranes to flip flies and mosquitoes into their mouths? And is that actually how a fly emerges from a maggot? Just the right amounts of gross and informative all mixed together. I particularly loved the Non-Human’s Guide to Fine Dining at the back, featuring the edible parts of the fly.
When Cloud Became a Cloud by Rob Hodgson
On a hot day a little cloud forms over a lake. What follows is a robust series of adventures backed up with clear science in a marvelous introduction to the water cycle for younger readers. Oh, that is delightful. I love it when someone takes a concept that’s been done a million times, but never particularly well, and then just blows it out of the water. And let us not put aside the fact that this is a really smart way of selling the science. I wish there was backmatter (doggone Europeans) but it’s so charming and fun that I can’t begrudge it a spot on this list. Hooray!
They provide food, shelter, shade, oxygen, wood, and more, but did you know they could also communicate, send out alarms, nurture their young, and tend to the less fortunate? The mysteries of trees, accompanied by small poems, are revealed. Judge really dives into the intricacies of trees, but still makes the writing understandable to kids. For sheer kid-friendliness, the aforementioned book Be a Tree comes off as younger. In any case, this book certainly deserves more reads. I guarantee you’ll find something you didn’t know before, and it really breaks down what the Wood Wide Web is capable of. And on a personal note, I think it explains why a box elder tree in my neighbor’s yard continues to live, against all odds.
Science and Nature for Older Readers
How Do We Stop Climate Change? by Tom Jackson, ill. Dragan Kordíc
Climate change can be scary. So what are some of the solutions to the problem? A smart look at what’s going wrong and how we can fix it. I’m the kind of person that can’t hear about a dire problem without also immediately wanting to hear possible solutions. This book is part of the “Mind Mappers” series (motto: “Making difficult subjects easy to understand”) and foregrounds the problem with climate change beautifully. Terms are clarified right at the start, with a nice bit of distinguishing between it merely being warm outside and “climate change”. I’ve rarely seen a book for kids explain how interconnected some of these problems are. Example: Climate change begats forest fires begats the release of carbon into the atmosphere begats more climate change and around and around we go. But the solutions are fun. Some are practical and some I would have liked a little more discussion about since they clearly would lead to unforeseen problems of their own (like releasing silver iodide dust into the air to reflect back the sun’s rays). I loved the section on Mars, which should really be titled something like Look, We Can’t Just Give Up and Move to Mars. And I hope you like GM crops because this book is ALL for them. Definitely worth more reads.
Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World by Jan Paul Schutten, photography by Arie van ‘t Riet, translated by Laura Watkinson
Take a trip into the rarely seen world of x-rays and learn about all the insects, fish, birds, and mammals that make up our world. See them as you’ve never seen them before! We think of x-rays as ubiquitous but the key to this book is something that Schutten explains at the beginning. Apparently it is incredibly difficult to find books of x-ray photographs. Why? Well, there are the safety guidelines to consider as well as just how difficult it is to even get access. That’s part of what makes this book so unique. Animal after animal is shown without their skin or feathers or prickles. The end result is that you get these amazing connections drawn by Schutten between similar types of animals or animals you might never think had anything in common with us. They’ve also been posed to look like they’re mid-jump, leap, run, or swim (which takes off a bit of the morbid taste that comes with knowing that they are, in fact, dead). Definitely needs some consideration.
A Shot in the Arm! by Don Brown
From smallpox to measles, from polio to COVID-19, we owe vaccines a lot. Take a trip back in time to see where they came from, how they work, and why we need them right now more than ever. A couple years ago I read Brown’s book on the 1918 flu pandemic, and when COVID-19 hit I kept thinking about that book. It’s all the more fitting that he should create his next book in the “Big Ideas That Changed the World” series on vaccines. I know we don’t do much with series titles, but Brown’s books all stand on their own. This one is hugely timely, and though the information at the end feels a bit dated (he wasn’t able to include any information about COVID after November of last year) it’s also fascinating to see such recent events rendered on the page. Oh, and the book’s super gross. Like super super gross. So that’s a good selling point with the kids, don’t you think?
The World’s Most Pointless Animals by Philip Bunting
The moral of today’s story is that Australian author/illustrator Philip Bunting has lots of books out there that we Americans are not yet privy to. This needs to be corrected. Oh sure, I greatly enjoyed How Did I Get Here? when it came out in 2019 (mostly because I got to write the words “googly eyes” repeatedly) and he seems to have some board books here that proved ludicrously difficult for me to get my hands on, but one quick glimpse of his website and there are all kinds of books there I want to read! Books with titles like Another Book About Santa or one that shows two googly eyed cells dividing with the title We Go Way Back. In lieu of these treasures, we at least got this one this year. The World’s Most Pointless Animals plays with the idea of some smart aleck going through this book writing their own thoughts on animals, even as the text gives you accurate information. This is yet another interesting example of using handwriting to convey when information is untrue in a book vs. factual. It’s not dissimilar from the technique we see in books that use comics to convey true information with fictional characters. The selections here are fun as well. And, of course, I just LOVE that there’s an ostrich. Go figure why.
By the way, Bunting’s website shows this image, and I pretty much figure it sells the book itself:
Interested in seeing other books for kids about science and nature? Then check out these previous lists:
And here’s what else we have happening 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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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