This fun collection of picture books will inspire your kids to develop scientific habits of mind, in other words, to think like scientists!
A while back (before the coronavirus), I hosted a science playdate. As kids sat around the table balancing their super ice structures, I asked them what it means to be a scientist. Kids suggested a lot of things that scientists do, i.e., ask questions and perform experiments.
However, it took a bit of prompting to arrive at the crucial understanding that it’s not all about what scientists do, but how they see things. Scientists have a particular way of thinking about the world.
They have the ability to:
- think critically
- evaluate information
- make connections
- consider different sides
- embrace failures
- draw conclusions
- solve problems, and
- communicate their findings.
Parents and teachers can do a lot to encourage scientific habits of mind from an early age. Kids seem to respond well, absorb, and integrate encouragements like:
- That was a creative answer. You’re thinking outside the box.
- I love the way you are choosing to be open-minded.
- You are demonstrating excellent analytical skills.
- Right now, you are being very persistent. That’s what scientists do.
- You’re considering different sides.
We can also share stories of inventiveness and creative problem-solving, introduce kids to exciting characters that they can model, and foster kids’ innate drive to experiment and explore.
After some serious digging, I rounded up some excellent picture books to encourage kids to think like scientists. As always, the suggested books are tested and kid-approved.
Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
Books to Inspire Kids to Think like Scientists
11 Experiments that Failed, Jenny Offill
Learning something new often starts with a question. In this clever and humorous book, a young girl with a passion for learning asks some fascinating questions, Can a kid make it through the winter eating only snow and ketchup? Will a piece of bologna fly like a Frisbee? Do dogs like to be covered in glitter? As you can imagine, something exciting happens when she attempts to discover the truth behind these questions via experimentation.
Despite all the hilarity, readers learn the workings of the scientific method and how to conduct experiments. The engaging illustrations are simply adorable, and don’t worry, your kids have enough sense to know that it’s not an invitation to replicate her experiments.
A Plan for Pops, Heather Smith
Lou is an ordinary kid who loves visiting the library, tinkering with nuts and bolts, and spending his Saturdays with Grandad and Pops. One day, though, Pop gets hurt. Lou comes up with a grand plan to cheer Pop up, but it doesn’t work. However, if you want to be a scientist, you need to keep going despite setbacks until you find what works. And that’s exactly what Lou is determined to do because one thing Lou knows for sure is the power of three Ps: perseverance, persistence, and patience.
Undercover: One of These Things is Almost Like the Other, Bastien Contraire
Attention to detail is a learned skill. Invite your kids to practice their junior scientist skills by practicing visual deciphering and categorization. Each page has several objects tied by a theme, for example, vegetables, but among them is hidden an imposter. Which one is the imposter? It’s a sausage link. Next to zucchini, sausage looks like it almost belongs. Almost. Small details make all the difference, and the task is surprisingly tricky.
The Book of Mistakes, Corinna Luyken
Do you teach your kids that sometimes there is a positive side to getting things wrong? This humorously illustrated book demonstrates this point beautifully. The protagonist of the story is drawing a picture and makes one eye bigger than the other. While trying to balance them out, the other eye ends up even bigger than before. All bad mistakes it seems, but once glasses are added, it’s clear that glasses were an excellent idea. And so it goes…
With each mistake, the picture moves farther away from what was initially planned but ultimately becomes more enjoyable to create. Why? Because the unexpected mistakes provide the new raw material for the imagination, and dealing with unexpected twists takes creativity to a whole new level.
Science Verse, Jon Scieszka
Evolution, precipitation, black holes, and pterodactyls fill this book’s pages but trust Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith to make it wacky and funny. In our house, the laughter started with the dedication page, “To? For? Six, eight. Who do we appreciate?”
In this story, a kid in Mr. Newton’s class gets zapped with a curse of science verse, and now he hears everything as a science poem!
Here is a Virus poem:
“Eenie, meanie, mynie, mo.
Catch a virus, watch it grow.
Once it’s got you, it won’t go.
Eenie, meanie, my – oh no!
What prevents us from being daring? Sometimes it’s the fear of being ridiculed. The trick is to avoid taking oneself too seriously and open up space for play. As this book demonstrates so delightfully, science can be funny, and scientists have a sense of humor!
Jon Scieszka’s writing is superb, and when he came to Chicago, we were lucky enough to meet him and learn that he’s as funny in person as you when he writes. A fantastic author who’s worth getting to know.
Here is a true story that will surely inspire your little scientists, engineers, and inventors. “Penny poor, curiosity rich” Tracy Hall was a curious and persistent kid who was bullied in school. He studied hard, frequented the library, and grew up to be a physical chemist. All this career, he experimented, failed, and failed again until one day he discovered how to make diamonds. For real!
The left side of each double spread narrates the scientific story of diamonds, while the right side of the page is dedicated to Tracy’s life and work. This dual-narration might be a bit confusing for younger kids. But you can get over this problem by reading only one side at a time, then coming back to read the other side. Digitally colored illustrations by Jay Fleck (Tilly & Tank) brighten the narration and move the story along.
Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, Jenny Offill
Every result can teach us something, even if it’s not the result you wanted. My kids adore the energetic little protagonist of this hilarious story who is determined to test her wacky ideas. This is a great book to talk to kids about the importance of thinking things through. Plus, kids can be invited to reflect upon things they have done in the past that brought about “unexpected” results, and appreciate what they learned from the experience.
Look-Alikes Jr., Joan Steiner
Every scientist knows that things are not always what they seem. This imaginative book allows kids to practice visual discrimination and critical thinking. Amidst the familiar scenes of domestic life, as well as at a construction site and a farmyard, there are familiar things disguised as something else. The clock on the wall is actually a peppermint candy, the tea kettle is a Christmas ornament, and the tree outside the window is a head of broccoli! What?! Each page offers about 50 hidden surprises. No matter how many times my kids scanned these pages over years, they always find something new they haven’t noticed before. A book to keep your kids busy!
Melia and Jo, Billy Aronson
The two girls in this story are as different as can be. Melia loves science and invention, while Jo loves dancing and singing. At first, Melia has a hard time accepting Jo’s different frame of mind. After all, the process of accepting different perspectives doesn’t come easy to most, even us grown-ups! But after a bit of tension and a few misunderstandings, the girls learn to work as a team and realize that by combining their strengths, they can create more super-cool stuff than they could ever do alone. Jennifer Oxley’s illustrations (Peg+Cat series) add to the appeal of the story. All my four kids love it, and we choose to read it often.
Sam Sorts, Marthe Jocelyn
Sam is a young boy who is tidying up his room. To make the task more exciting, he invents categories: soft toys, bumpy toys, noisy toys, and things that float. He sorts his toys by color, shape, and even rhymes (bat-cat, house-mouse). The ability to organize things into categories is not just an important aspect of everyday life but an essential part of thinking like a scientist. It might start with a simple toy box, but over the years, it can evolve into clear, organized reasoning, what we call logic and rationality.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, Deborah Heiligman
Do all scientists behave in a certain way? Not at all. Paul Erdos was an odd child, and he grew into an odd man. From an early age, he could do complicated calculations in his head, but he couldn’t do basic things like putting his shoes on or taking basic care of himself. Despite these strange challenges, Paul Erdos grew up to become the most prolific mathematician of all time. He holds a record for publishing over 1,500 mathematical papers and for solving many previously unsolved mathematical problems.
Another thing Paul Erdos was very good at was interacting with people, infecting others with his enthusiasm, and communicating his findings with the scientific community. (He even died at a math conference). So what does his life teach us? Embrace what you love and tell the world all about it.
Cece Loves Science, Kimberly Derting, and Shelli R. Johannes
Why? How? What if? Cece wants to know everything. Her teacher tells her she would make a great scientist “because science is all about asking questions.” But when it comes to answering Do dogs eat vegetables? for her next science project, Cece runs into a few unexpected problems. That’s when she remembers that scientists need to think outside the box and this revelation helps her discover that scientists can have fun finding answers to their questions. If your kids are just now mastering the basics of a scientific method, the book will help them see it in action.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly
When I told my friend that I was putting together a list of books to inspire kids to think like scientists, she said, “You can’t leave out Hidden Figures!”
Have you read it yet? This book generated a lot of buzz and even a movie deal. It is a great book, and you’ll learn the little-known history of women who were employed as “computers” during the NASA space race. However, I have to admit that I have yet to meet a child who could sit through this book without moaning, groaning, fidgeting, and complaining. If you want to learn about women in science, go ahead and read this book for yourself, but don’t expect your kids to like it for another ten years or so.
Marie Curie, Demi
If you want to talk about breaking gender stereotypes, get Demi’s kid-friendly biography of Marie Curie. Marie Curie is best known for discovering radium and coining the term “radioactivity.” But what few people know about her is that she was the first woman to win the Nobel prize and the first person to win the Nobel prize twice (in physics AND chemistry). But that’s not all! She was also the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from a French university and the first female professor at the Sorbonne. What a trailblazer!
Writing a kid-friendly book about such a fascinating and complex life is not easy, but Demi does it with great skill and enthusiasm. We get a picture of a hard-working lady who is undaunted by the challenges of motherhood, poor working conditions, and her husband’s tragic death. We learned she even drove and operated a mobile x-ray track during the First World War! Through beautiful artwork and elegant narration, Demi manages to turn all the different facets of Marie Curie’s life into an inspiring story about an extraordinary scientist.
The Chinese Mirror, Mirra Ginsburg
This book might seem an unlikely candidate for a science booklist, but it is actually quite relevant. One thing that scientists (and everyone else) need to remember is that every problem has more than one side.
In The Chinese Mirror, a Korean peasant travels to China and brings back a fascinating little trinket. When he looks into it, he sees a man laughing with pleasure. His wife looks in too. “Oh, oh!” she cries and runs to her mother-in-law, complaining that her son has brought home a pretty new wife from China. But when her mother-in-law takes a look, she sees only a wrinkled old crone.
You’ve already guessed that this mysterious object was a mirror. The point of this funny story is that we are all self-centered, and it takes a bit of work to see someone else’s side. When my kids start saying, “he took my book without permission; he did it on purpose to annoy me!” I say, “Chinese mirror.” It means, “Have you considered other possibilities? Can you interpret the situation from your sibling’s point of view?”
By the way, the distinctive watercolor illustrations by Caldecott medalist Margot Zemach were inspired by 18th-century Korean painters and are beautiful.
Anything is Possible, Giulia Bellini
One of our favorites! Not only does this story have a great message – anything is possible – but it also has drama, a fast pace, and relatable characters (one a dreamer, the other a skeptic). Watching the birds fly, the sheep dreams of possibilities and decides to build a flying machine, but she can’t do it alone. At first, she has trouble talking her friend the wolf (a skeptic) into the idea, but her enthusiasm rubs off on him. And then they work as a team: drawing plans, making designs, failing, and trying again.
The collaged images by award-winning Italian illustrator Marco Trevisan only add to enjoyment. My kids exclaimed, “he uses MATH to make illustrations!” before I even read on the back cover that the illustrator’s university major was mathematics. We love how the images incorporate pages of densely scribbled mathematical equations, while the characters tumble off beyond the margins.
Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, Camille Andros
Let’s talk about evaluating information and making connections. Charlotte was a “serious scientist,” but she had one big problem: her large family. Not only were they crowding her out, but they also got in the way of her scientific endeavors. So, she came up with a hypothesis: If I can get rid of my brothers and sisters, I will have room to be a real scientist – and set out to test it.
You will have to read on to find out what happens. This book is hilarious. We read it again and again, and as one of my kids commented, the illustrations are “awesome.”
Infinity and Me, Kate Hosford
Infinity and Me explores the idea of thinking as a way to interact with the world. It provokes many conversations about science and the philosophy of life. Would you want to be eight years old forever? Would you want to eat your favorite ice-cream for eternity? How many times can you cut a noodle in half? Do you know the names of your grandparents’ parents?
The whimsical illustrations by very talented illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska make this seemingly complex book interesting for even little kids.
Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas, Cheryl Bardoe
This book can be educational and fascinating if you ignore the recommended age guidance and save it for older kids. In my experience, 12 and up is best. Besides the introduction to genetics, the book does a lovely job of demonstrating that studying is not a burden. It’s a privilege.
We are lucky to live in a world where obtaining an education is so easy. Back in the 1800s, Gregor Mendel had to choose between a full stomach and his lessons. You probably already guessed that he chose lessons. When his growling tummy kept him up at night, Gregor pondered the truth about how the world works and tried to develop new ideas.
He liked to observe the natural world and also experiment. When he experimented with peas (his most famous endeavor), he doggedly grew 28,000 plants to test his theory. Today geneticists still use Gregor’s discoveries, now known as Mendel’s laws. He didn’t become famous during his lifetime, but he showed that good science is about finding the truth, no matter what personal inconvenience it might cause.
Palazzo Inverso, D. B. Johnson
Creativity and inventive thinking is essential to scientific work, and generating ideas beyond prescribed expectations is necessary for scientific progress. The good news is that everyone can develop their imagination and creative thinking skills at any time. When a young architect’s assistant accidentally modifies his master’s palace plans, things go wrong. Very wrong. Will the boy get in trouble? Can he run away from his master’s workers who are sent to catch them?
What I like about this book is that it takes a fairly simple concept – designing a building – and turns it upside down. The book is intended to be read front-to-back (reading only the bold black text running along the bottom of the page), then turned over and read back-to-front (reading only the light grey letters).
The things to look for on each page are patterns, geometrical shapes, optical illusions, multiple points of view, negative space, reflections, and tessellations.
Violet the Pilot, Steve Breen
Meet our favorite inventor of all time, Violet. She lives in a boat-shaped house next to a junkyard her family owns. From an early age, she has loved tinkering with junk more than anything else in the world. And then an air show competition inspires her to make her best invention yet, The Flying Hornet. But an unexpected turn of events prevents her from ever reaching the competition…
Many children’s books cover tinkering and invention, but not many have such a satisfying ending. This book will have your kids jumping up and down in excitement, grinning from ear to ear.
The Most Magnificent Thing, Ashley Spires
I can’t publish a reading list for young scientists without mentioning The Most Magnificent Thing! Not only does it have a fantastic message, but it’s also been hugely popular with all my kids, and each one of them went through the stage of needing to read it daily. It’s definitely a great book to own.
Through expressive (one might even say magnificent) drawings, the award-winning Canadian author tells a story of a creative girl who knows exactly how her project is supposed to look and work…only it doesn’t come out right on the first (and even tenth) time. If you want to teach your kids a powerful lesson about the creative process in a humorous way, this book is for you.
What Do You Do with the Problem? Kobi Yamada
And finally, in conclusion, here is another book you might want to own. As we all know, kids (and many adults) get very frustrated when their projects don’t turn out the way they had hoped. What we all need to remember is that we get better with every project, even when it doesn’t come out looking exactly like what we had in mind. This attitude is what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset: a belief that you can learn and grow from the effort. There are many things parents can do to encourage a growth mindset, including reading books like this.
Kobi Yamada has a few great books on growth mindset. The main message of What Do You Do With a Problem? is that problems are challenges that push us to be better and more inventive. This book lets kids in on a secret: inside every problem, there is an opportunity to learn something new.