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You may not be able to easily explain the theory of relativity to kids (or adults, for that matter), but you can introduce the life of Albert Einstein. And that’s why biographies of scientists are so valuable for young readers: they provide a way in, adding a human element to theories and formulas while showing that, behind every discovery, there was a person who dreamed about it, figured it out, and made a contribution to the world’s knowledge.
Charles Darwin, by Kathleen Krull
Krull, a seasoned pro, offers an illuminating, humanizing portrait of Darwin. Young readers will connect with descriptions of Darwin as a poor student who felt stifled at school but maintained a voracious curiosity for the natural world outside the classroom. “At age nine, his goal was to know something about every single stone on the path to the front door.” Krull writes in lively and conversational prose, knitting facts, anecdotes, and historical overviews into a fascinating whole. She not only offers clear definitions of Darwin’s theories but also notes that his greatest contribution to science was his theory of natural selection, not evolution, a distinction that sometimes gets muddied in the still-feverish debates about his work.
Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein, by Marfe Delano Ferguson
Einstein comes to life in both words and pictures. Ferguson moves briskly through Einstein’s life, clearing up misconceptions along the way (he was not a bad student as some have claimed). In the discussion of his success and failures, readers come to care about Einstein as a person, not simply see him as a genius. Ferguson offers just enough information about Einstein’s theories to give a sense of his work, keeping in mind that his ideas go over the heads of most people. Also impressive is the book’s oversize format, filled with well-selected photos. This is not only an informative introduction—it’s a handsome one, too.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola
This stunning picture-book biography invites young explorers to connect Sylvia Earle’s early life as a child “investigator” to her career as a world-renowned marine scientist and advocate. When Earle was 12, her family moved to Florida, and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, “she lost her heart to the water.” Many years later, in 1970, Earle plunged 50 feet below the surface and lived for two weeks at the deep-sea station Tektite II; nine years later, she walked in a “Jim suit” among the coral reefs, 1,250 feet down, on the ocean floor off Hawaii. Nivola’s lyrical text portrays Earle’s passion for and commitment to the ocean, particularly as she incorporates many of Earle’s own poetic words (the ocean is “the blue heart of the planet”). The double-page, delicately detailed artwork is exquisite as Earle looks into the “grapefruit-size” eyes of humpback whales, observes ballerina-like dolphins, and experiences a world most can only dream about.
The Little Plant Doctor: A Story about George Washington Carver, by Jeanette Winter
Told from the point of view of a talking tree, this begins on the plantation where George Washington Carver spent his childhood. The tree (nontalking version) actually exists, and today is a part of the historic site that’s Carver’s birthplace. Even as a child, Carver nurtured plants and studied them, but the law did not allow black children to go to school. Finally, at age 12, Carver tells his beloved tree the exciting news that he’s leaving for school. Ken Wilson-Max’s beautiful unframed acrylic paintings will entice readers with images of the boy with his beloved plants, and delighting in books, as well as the clearly labeled images of the peanut plant on the end papers. Extensive final notes with questions and answers for young children and for older readers fill in more fascinating facts, including the jaw-dropper that Carver discovered more than 300 uses for the humble peanut.
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, by Margarita Engle
Born in Frankfurt, in 1647, Maria Merian was a teenager, not a trained scientist, but she did something quite bold. She disagreed with the conventional wisdom, dating back to the Greeks, that “summer birds” (actually butterflies) were “beasts of the devil” that sprang alive from the mud through spontaneous generation. Engle writes in the voice of Maria, who carefully watches the slow transformation of caterpillars to winged adults, painting everything that she sees, always in secret. “Neighbors would accuse me of witchcraft if they knew.” In expertly pared-down language, the poetic lines deftly fold in basic science concepts about life cycles along with biographical details. Julie Paschkis’ brilliantly colored and patterned paintings are an exuberant addition.
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