The National Science Teacher’s Association compiles a list of outstanding science books each year. Click on this link to see their titles from years past.
Here were their criteria for selection in 2001, and I think 2003:
The books that appear in this annotated bibliography selected as Outstanding Science Trade Books were published in [insert year]. They are intended primarily for kindergarten through twelfth grade. They were selected by members of a book review panel appointed by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and assembled in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council (CBC). NSTA and CBC have cooperated on this bibliographic project since 1973.
The panel looks at both content and presentation. Selection is based generally on the following criteria:
The book has substantial science content;
Information is clear, accurate, and up to date;
Theories and facts are clearly distinguished;
Facts are not oversimplified to the point where the information is misleading;
Generalizations are supported by facts and significant facts are not omitted; and
Books are free of gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic bias.
The panel also uses rigorous selection guidelines relating to the presentation of material, including the following:
logical presentation and a clear sequence of ideas;
appropriate content level for the intended audience;
compatible text and illustrations;
illustrations that are accurate representations in size, color, and scale; appropriate trim size and format of the book for the subject and audience;
and well-organized layout that advances the text.
The panel also gives attention to the quality of binding, paper, reproduction, and the appropriateness of typeface.
As many of our readers know, we home educate using the methods of Charlotte Mason, which basically means that we provide a liberal arts education to our children from the beginning. Here are some of MIss Mason’s criteria for science (some of these are direct quotes, others are paraphrases, but since all were taken from my personal notes, I wasn’t as careful as I should have been about differentiating the two):
Science that does not communicate a sense of wonder and give a child something to admire has little educative value to children.
Science should be alive, quick with emotion, and communicated in literary language (that is, well written).
Science for children should not be merely utilitarian, as “The utility of scientific discoveries does not appeal to the best that is in us, though it makes pretty urgent and general appeal to our lower avidities. But the fault is not in science…- But in our presentation of it by means of facts and figures and demonstrations that mean no more to the general audience than the point demonstrated, never showing the wonder and magnificent reach of the law unfolded.”
In case you are wondering, Charlotte Mason had trouble finding the sorts of science books she really wanted in her day, and I have only found it slightly easier in my day. It seems that as soon as I do find a current science book that communicates something of a sense of wonder and excitement, clothed in literary language, it goes out of print.
I can ‘fix’ a book that has gender, socioeconomic, or ethnic bias. In fact, it’s ridiculously simple to scoff loudly and point it out, “Would you look at what Hillyer said about the aborigines? Just goes to show you that even well educated, intelligent people can be total idiots, doesn’t it? Let that be a warning to us- as smart as he was, he was unable to distinguish between the truth and some truly horrific, bigoted, and noxious ideas because they were popular with the *other* smart people of his time. We’ll have to watch ourselves, won’t we?”
It’s much harder to ‘fix’ a book that communicates scientific truths in hackneyed terms, with all the interest and excitement of an announcement that it’s time to wash the dishes.
Charlotte Mason said she wanted somebody who would ‘write for us about the true inwardness of wireless telegraphy, say, how truly it was a discovery, a revealing of that which was there and had been there all along, might make our hearts burn within us.’ I want science books that leave my scholars on metaphorical tiptoe, eager to see what other scientific truths have been there, hidden, but still there, all along, just waiting for the right person to be able to winkle them out into the light and communicate them to the rest of us. I want science books that light the fire in the soul, if this is their bent, making them eager to be those truth-finders if they can.
So the key is, as in most topics, good books that make science come alive- give us a sense of wonder, excitement, and discovery.
We should feed the appetites of children “with the best we have in books and in all knowledge… we must put into their hands the sources which we must needs use for ourselves, the best books of the best writers.”
A child is able to deal with much knowledge, but he possesses none worth speaking of”237 and it is this knowledge that we are to provide him, knowledge in the form of ideas presented in story or literary form rather than as bare statements of fact. We as teachers do not have “the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but he delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend. 237
Paraphrase of page 40, volume 6:
Our business is to give the children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur…”Children “experience all the things they hear and read of; these enter into them and are their life; and thus it is that ideas feed the mind in the most literal sense of the word ‘feed’”.
Utilitarianism: Again, she says that if our focus on education is monetary (will that help them with a job), then it is too narrow, and will fail in producing people of character and integrity. Utilitarian education produces, Charlotte believes, moral bankruptcy.
Our goal should bring up our children to have “self-sustaining minds” to “awaken and direct mind hunger” so that every adult will continue to learn and to love to learn, to think carefully about each idea that he meets, to read and to read well. Education should “make our boys and girls rich towards God… towards society and rich towards themselves.”
Charlotte expected that a well-educated student would find the “scientific work of the day’ more than slightly interesting. In studying science, I want to give my children the tools that will make it possible for them to read of the ‘scientific work of their day’ with more than passing interest, and also with understanding and discernment.
15-What they are reading should be of literary quality, for the “mind concerns itself only with thoughts, imaginations, reasoned arguments: it declines to assimilate the facts unless in combination with its proper pabulum.” When presented with a “literary presentation,” the mind can embrace a wide “variety of subjects”. This, and the following quote, explains why simply teaching a list of facts such as the table of the elements or taxonomy terms, while good things to know, is not enough:
20 the mind “is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang.
24 “life is sustained on what is taken in by the organism, not by that which is applied from without.” Hence the need for the child to read for himself the great thoughts of others- as that is the best way for the mind to take in the widest variety of ideas.
Simply teaching science as science (or all those other important subjects listed above) is not enough. “They also need “relations with places far and near, with the wide universe, with the past of history, with the social economics of the present, with the earth they live on and all its delightful progeny of beast and bird, plant and tree; with their own country and other countries, and, above all, their relation to God.” Apologies, once more, somebody stole the page reference from my notes.;-)
When deciding what to do for science (‘what does he really need to know?’) we should keep this in mind: The world our child lives in is one “full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognize and know how to name… and whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know. 157
“… We have a contention with some teachers of science who maintain that a child can only learn what he discovers for himself de novo. The theory is plausible, but the practice is disappointingly narrow and inexpansive. The teacher has got his knowledge through books; why then are they taboo for the children?” 275
In science, too often, the interest of the subject is made to depend upon side issues. The French scientists know better; they perceive that as there is an essence of history which is poetry so there is an n essence of science to be expressed in exquisite prose. We have a few books of this character in English and we use them in the P.U.S. in conjunction with field work and drawing- a great promoter of enthusiasm for nature.” 275
We wish to introduce children to ideas, not merely facts, and God has made us so that we get ideas primarily through words- written or spoken, but through language. (109) Sometimes the language is musical, sometimes pictorial, but even there, it is in language that we communicate most of these ideas even to ourselves.
In our day people like to emphasize that we learn by doing, or by seeing, by learning for ourselves through crafts, projects, acting out, and these can be valid ways of learning. But must the children always reinvent the wheel? If this is the best way of learning, why did God choose the written word to impart the story of His salvation? Human beings have the remarkable gift of language, one not given to any other species in existence. No other species can communicate ideas and thoughts in this way, and we, in this postmodern age, spurn the gift.
In selecting the material, we should beware of offering opinions to children in the place of ideas. She quotes someone named M. Fouillee, and I think the quote pertinent to those of us who need help in selecting material:
” ‘ Scientific truths,’ said Descartes, ‘ are battles won.’ Describe to the young the principal and most heroic of these battles; you will thus interest them in the results of science and you develop in them a scientific spirit by means of the enthusiasm for the conquest of truth… How interesting Arithmetic and Geometry might be if we gave a short history of their principal theorems, if the child were meant to be present at the labours of a Pythagoras, a Plato… a Pascal….’
Great theories instead of being lifeless and anonymous abstractions would become living human truths each with its own history like a statue by Michaelangelo…”(110)
Many of the books suggested seem hard, above the children’s heads, especially in this uneducated generation. Charlotte quotes from a Mr. Pett Ridge who says, “It is possible to make education too easy for children and to rob learning of the mental discipline which often wearies but in the end produces concentration and the capacity to work alone…” 119
You can read the entire series online here.