March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

On the Radar: Top Picks from the Editors at Junior Library Guild: More Outstanding Science Books for Elementary Readers

Last month the National Science Teachers Association announced its Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12: 2013. Dispelling the myth that all scientists wear white lab coats and work in squeaky clean environments, many of these titles highlight the accomplishments of experts who are out in the field. From rescuing pelicans in an oil slick to studying insects and animals in the suburbs, students can learn about these experts’ feats in the following list of outstanding science books.

BURNS, Loree Griffin. Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard. photos by Ellen Harasimowicz. Holt. 2012. ISBN 9780805090628. JLG Level: SCE : Science Nonfiction Elementary (Grades 2-6)

Just as not every scientist works in a lab, not every scientist is a science professional. Contributions to science often come from ordinary people―citizen scientists. Even children participate in these studies, such as tagging monarch butterflies, counting frogs, and recording the number of birds in an area. In 2008 more than 60,000 ordinary citizens participated in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. The Lost Ladybug Project, with input from citizen scientists, recorded 96 different species of ladybugs, including three species previously thought extinct.

Divided into four chapters, readers will learn about specific ways in which to participate in these projects. From the fascinating story of migrating butterflies to how to count frogs from the sounds they make, Burns writes a fascinating, narrative nonfiction account of how science works in our everyday lives. Kids will identify with the children highlighted in the story. Resources, a glossary, and an index for each type of creature complete this “must-have” selection.

FRYDENBORG, Kay. Wild Horse Scientists. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. ISBN 9780547518312. JLG Level: B+ : Upper Elementary & Junior High (Grades 5-7)

Already a Booklist Editors’ Choice Book for Youth, it’s no surprise that another book in the “Scientist in the Field” series makes the list of science notables. Known for introducing older elementary readers to real scientists and their work, this series continues to win awards. This title tells the story of scientists who study wild horses in their natural habitats and learn how to manage the population without disturbing their environment.

Dr. Ron Keiper, an ethologist, and Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, a wildlife reproductive physiologist, spent their entire careers studying the wild horses of Wyoming and those that live on Assateague Island. Their challenge was to find a way to control the horse population through birth control. Assisting in the balance of nature without relocating, their success continues today. In both places, an annual injection maintains a reasonable number of horses who are able to live in their natural environment. An extensive glossary, resource list, and index give readers additional support and information they might need in using this work as a reference material.

LOURIE, Peter. The Polar Bear Scientists. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. ISBN 9780547283050. JLG Level: SCE : Science Nonfiction Elementary (Grades 2-6)

On the North Slope of Alaska, polar bear scientists gather data to aid in the search to save the polar bear which was listed as endangered in 2008. A team of scientists and researchers annually hunt, sedate, and collect data for each bear. Tracking collars placed on the animals assist the team in following their movement long after they are released and alert.

Scientists believe that global warming is impacting the ice that allows the polar bear to hunt. If there is less ice, it will not be able to eat enough to survive. Collecting data and recapturing bears allows them to compile and compare information. Lourie takes the reader through the process of the hunt to gather the information on each bear. Great care is taken not to harm them, including staying close by as the animals recover from sedation.

Lourie includes a generous number of photographs to punctuate the narrative. An enormous amount of thought and work goes into this research project. Samples must be processed daily. Equipment must be cleaned and dried. Weather and environment conditions must be taken into account. An extensive appendix completes another fascinating book in the “Scientist in the Field” series.

NIVOLA, Claire A. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Farrar/Frances Foster Bks. 2012. ISBN 9780374380687. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)

Sylvia Earle loved the world around her even at an early age. When her family moved from a farm where she filled pages with her observations to her new Florida home, the girl “lost her heart to the water.” She found life in every “spoonful” of water and read everything she could find about sea life. At sixteen, Sylvia used diving gear for the first time and dove thirty feet to the bottom of a river. She joined a research expedition in the Indian Ocean and was the only woman among seventy men. Earle designed a spherical bubble that dove 3,000 feet to the ocean floor. She spent two weeks under water in a deep-sea station learning about its environment. That project changed her life forever and inspired her mantra. “Learn everything I can…do everything I can…You can’t care if you don’t know.”

Through the beautiful illustrations of the picture book format, readers become immersed in the life of this important oceanographer. A concluding author’s note includes her testimony before Congress regarding the impact of oil spills on ocean life. A selected bibliography rounds out this informative biography.

Person, Stephen. Saving Animals from Oil Spills. Bearport, 2012. ISBN  9781617722882. JLG Level: NE : Nonfiction Elementary (Grades 2-6)

Part of the “Rescuing Animals from Danger” series, Person tells how animals are impacted by oil spills. Using large font in text boxes, readers will learn about the scientists and everyday heroes who work to save the innocent victims’ lives. In the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, veterinarians used 300 gallons of water on each pelican covered in oil. The damaging substance causes a bird’s feathers to stick together, allowing cold water and air to reach its skin, which can result in hypothermia. Other animals ingest the oil from the water and become sick. Predators eat sick prey also fall ill. In the Gulf disaster, sea turtle eggs were dug up and relocated. More than 360 adult sea turtles were cleaned and later released back to the water.

Scientists have learned with each disaster how to help the animals, but research continues as effects take years to be seen.

Providing numerous facts in a magazine-type format, Oil Spills will work well with older readers who are reading below grade level. Features such as sidebars, large photographs with captions, and supportive back matter complete this short nonfiction book that provides more information than you would expect in just 32 pages.

RUSCH, Elizabeth. The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity.  Houghton Harcourt. 2012. ISBN 9780547478814. JLG Level: B : Upper Elementary & Junior High (Grades 5-7)

Another “Scientist in the Field” book, The Mighty Mars Rovers’ content leans to the engineering side of science. Perfect for STEM curriculum, readers will learn about the Mars Rovers’ stories―from conception to development, and to the final mission. In 1976 Steve Squyres was a junior at Cornell University when he had the opportunity to talk to members of the Viking science team. “Suddenly, I was talking to people who actually did space exploration, Steve said. “ I thought, Wait a minute, maybe this is something I can do.” And do it, he did. For the next thirty years, Steve worked on his dream to explore Mars.

In 2000, NASA contacted him about building not one, but two Mars Exploration Rovers. (They had been turning down his proposals for years.) However, he’d have less than three years to design, build, and test them. With a team of 179 scientists and hundreds of engineers, they were able to complete their mission.

Rusch tells the story of the team’s setbacks, determination to solve problems that arose, and even the members’ sense of humor. When Spirit began rebooting herself, the team was forced to do a hard shutdown of her system. “The command, SHUTDOWN_DAMMIT” had never failed them before. It’s a story not just about the successes of the mission―finding evidence of water on Mars and the incredible longevity of the robots, for example. It’s a story of teamwork and hard work. It’s the story of people who asked questions and found ways to answer them. It’s the story of how every person’s job is important and leads to the success of the big picture. A lesson our students can all benefit from learning.

For ideas about how to use these books and links to supportive sites, check out the Junior Library Guild blog, Shelf Life.

Junior Library Guild is a collection development service that helps school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. Season after season, year after year, Junior Library Guild book selections go on to win awards, collect starred or favorable reviews, and earn industry honors. Visit us at

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Deborah B. Ford About Deborah B. Ford

Deborah is the Director of Library Outreach for Junior Library Guild. She is an award-winning teacher librarian with almost 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools.