The Cultural History of Science—for Kids? Or, the Sorrows of the Nonfiction Fan

We were at the beach, which was oh so wonderful, with our excellent across-the-street neighbors. (Yes, I could just say neighbors, but it feels wrong.) We spent a few hours bobbing the waves, because that's kind of the thing that I love in the world, and then we sat on towels. The conversation worked itself around to what everyone was reading, and it turned out our across-the-street neighbor was reading this:

How was it? She said it was awesome—compulsively interesting. It turns out that this is exactly her type of book: something that looks at science from a cultural perspective. I was mostly struck by the fact that it's the type of book I would never choose for myself.

BUT. When we were talking about these types of books—this whole cultural histories of scientific phenomena—Chestnut  cried out, "But that's the kind of book I like! And there's hardly any books like that for kids."

Is this true? I mean, I don't know anything like this for kids. I think Muse magazine does a pretty good job about talking about compelling nonfiction and scientific concepts. But books? I don't know. There are a slew of books about the Titanic, and there are all those technical books, then list-y books, but cultural history? Nothing comes to mind.

Myself, I tend to be a predominantly fiction-reading person. But Chestnut made me think. When I've ventured forth into the nonfiction world, it's been pretty cool, really. It's good to be reminded that there is a wider world out there. But I wish it were there for her, too. Or maybe it is, and I just don't know it? Do you?

13 thoughts on “The Cultural History of Science—for Kids? Or, the Sorrows of the Nonfiction Fan

  1. I like those kind of books, too. I’d recommend Mark Kurlansky’s “Cod” and “Salt,” as well as maybe some of John McPhee’s shorter works for a strong younger reader. And if biology/environmental science turns her on, David Quammen’s books are super.


  2. (cont) Ooh, and Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” There’s a version for kids, too: “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything”


  3. How Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson & Marina Budhos
    An American Plague: The True and terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic by Jim Murphy
    Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer
    Chew on This by Charles Wilson & Eric Schlosser


  4. My fourteen year old son has always loved non-fiction, historyish books. He loved “Into Thin Air” and Zinn’s “History of America” — others come to mind, but I have to check in with him to make sure —


  5. Chestnut is right that there aren’t a lot of cultural history type books written specifically for kids. On the other hand, all popular nonfiction is more or less available to her. The reading level for most popular nonfiction is going to be fine for say, a proficient 5th grader.
    In fiction the division between middle-grade and young-adult is based on the age of the protagonist, sexual situations, and profanity, (mostly) none of which are really much of an issue in nonfiction. So take her out there and let her see what interests her.


  6. I think that I’m probably just yes anding Kaethe’s comment in saying that there’s a lot of popular nonfiction books that are a terrific bridge for young readers making forays into “adult” reading.
    I’d add Freakonomics, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I’d second Bill Bryson (who is also funny in a Terry Pratchett manner). Also, Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.


  7. Yes, I think a lot of the books mentioned above are right up her alley! She can dive right into them. David Quammen changed my life (although I was college-aged when I read him). Song for the Blue Ocean, by Carl Safina, is similar to Quammen’s work, and also very good. And there are very few authors as funny as Bill Bryson; he’s also very accessible.
    I thought of Cod too. Interestingly, while at a completely awesome children’s bookstore (Eight Cousins, in Falmouth, MA) I saw a version for children ( It’s for ages 7 and up, so a younger age group, but I thought it was pretty neat that this version had come into being.
    While it’s less cultural and more straight science, I also love Bernd Heinrich’s work. Respect the raven!


  8. I’m late to the conversation, but no one has mentioned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is awesome, and disturbing, and about cancer cells.


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