An Awesome Adventure in Science---For Kids

There are few things more endearing to the heart of a homeschooling parent than seeing a child sprawled on the floor, elbows propped, nose in a book. This is especially true when that book was specially selected and secretly planted on the shelf to impart knowledge as well as entertain.

There is nothing wrong with reading many novels and short stories, but talking animals, heroes fighting dragons, and school stories are insufficient fare on their own for the long-term growth of a budding mind. In addition, we have made efforts to sneak in history books with full color illustrations and encyclopedia-style presentations. This is an easy way to get kids up to speed on some of the humanities.

Science, however, is a much more difficult topic to sneak on the shelves and present as interesting. I’m not talking about books that get kids interested in the idea of science—there are plenty of novels that do that. But a book that presents vital scientific concepts in an original, interesting, and attention grabbing way at the level the kids can receive it can be hard to find.

I’ve previously reviewed a fun book, Thing Explainer, that provides an entry point into understanding how things work. That has gotten my son interested in inventing things, but he lacks the fundamental understanding of concepts to begin to understand why his proposed ideas are physically impossible. I’ve struggled to find ways to explain the physical limitations of the universe to him. Somehow teaching adults about nuclear power didn’t equip me to teach a first grader about quantum physics.

One excellent answer to this conundrum is a set of books by physicist Dominic Walliman. One title is Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space that was released in 2013. More recently, Walliman and his illustrator/co-author, Ben Newman, have released Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure. I’ve read both and both are worth your time and money.


Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure is a book about physics. Walliman’s volume explains concepts like gravity, basic material composition, and some of the beginnings of Newtonian physics. This is a book that presents basic topics in physics in terms that my son can understand. It has led to discussions about what “F = ma” means. I’ve needed to provide examples of acceleration.

Some of the concepts presented in the book are clearly beyond what my first grader can grasp at this point. However, that’s ok. Walliman and Newman have conspired to present the basic facts of physics in a way that is graphically appealing and draws a child in. While my son may not grasp why quantum tunneling matters (yes, this is a topic in the book) or how it works, he will at least have in his memory bank a basic understanding of the word and what it means so that in high school he can begin that topic with a baseline. Especially at a young age, comprehension is less a goal that awareness and acceptance of brute facts.

Atomic Adventure has opened up a number of fun conversations. Sometimes I’ll get blindsided by a question about physics and have to ask what my son has been reading. And, sometimes I have to admit that my own knowledge on a particular topic is fairly limited. But that is part of the learning experience and creating a healthy curiosity in kids. I have found the books fun to flip through, even as an adult.

One key to making this presentation of physics accessible and valuable is that the authors regularly point to applications of the physical concepts. For example, buoyancy is explained in clear terms, and then the ballast system of a submarine is used as a practical example. The authors do take a pot shot at nuclear power later in the book, but they explain the concepts remarkably well on a level children can understand.

Along with the books, the publisher has also produced an activity book that encourages children to explore science through a series of games, experiments, and thinking exercises. The activity book is consumable, which makes it somewhat expensive for what it does, but the exercises in the book could expand a science curriculum, fill a long summer afternoon, and encourage exploration by a curious child. Some contact paper could make the activity book reusable or the activities could simply be done on a separate paper so that multiple children can benefit from the resource.

If you are looking to add to your arsenal of stealth educational books, the Professor Astro Cat series is a good way to do that. This is an example of educational science enrichment done well.

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure
By Dominic Walliman

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Some Recent Research on Reading

I love reading. I love books.

Anyone who has been in my home will know that I love books, because I have several thousand on my shelves. The vast majority of them are cataloged online. (Sometimes new ones sneak in and don’t get cataloged right away.)

Reading is such a significant part of our household that we have to discipline our children for reading rather than coax them to do so. This is little surprise since my wife and I both grew up as readers and continue to read a lot.

A National Survey on the State of Reading

A recent Pew Research report on reading piqued my interest because, well, I’m a book nerd. They did a study to see what the state of reading in the US is.

On the side of being interesting and somewhat surprising, despite the proliferation of online media, approximately the same number of folks said they had read a book in the past 12 months. About 73% of respondents say they’ve read a book in any format and about 65% say they have read a real book (i.e., not a digital book). Only about 6% of people have transitioned away from real books to entirely reading on screens. This is comforting, since it promises that our local libraries likely won’t get phased out by publicly funded internet kiosks in the near future.

Much less surprising was that the correlation between income, education, and reading seems to support the value of reading. Correlation does not equal causation. Thus, it may be that higher incomes provide more time for reading. Or, it may be that advanced education inculcates improved ability to read books. The data isn’t clearly causal. However, the correlation between apparent material success (as customarily defined) and reading is striking. It may be that there is a correlation between the discipline of reading and other important, higher order skills.

Children and Reading Habits

Findings from another survey, biennial research done by Scholastic, talk about about reading for children. Given that there appears to be a correlation between material success and reading, and that reading is just a great way to improve your mind, the Scholastic study is important as it shows some factors that influence kids’ desire to read. Again, correlation isn’t causation, but it might give hits about what causes it.

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith.

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith.

As a bibliophile of the degree that some might describe as being a hoarder, the number of volumes in a library is significant to me. As it turns out, my library is way over the expected average. Of the survey respondents, those with children who were frequent readers indicated they had 205 books in the house; those with infrequently reading children had 129 books in their house.

These findings surprised me. First, I was surprised that the number of books for infrequent readers was not lower. I’ve been in the homes of some infrequent readers and usually they live in a book desert, with an occasional pamphlet, but very little in the way of real literature. 129 books in the home of non-readers is surprising to me; I would have expected many fewer.

Second, I was surprised to see the number of books in the homes of frequent readers at only 205. I have more than 200 books on several distinct subjects. I’ll admit that I have a bias toward owning books instead of borrowing them from the library, but that is because by offering a buffet of books to my children (and myself) I feel that I am encouraging them to read. Apparently the several hundred children’s books are overkill by contemporary standards.

Some other interesting data points that correlate with children being frequent readers are consistent with the usual suspects. Parents that read to their children frequently before kindergarten are much more likely to have frequent readers. School age children whose parents read to them presently are more likely to be frequent readers. Frequent computer use has a clear correlation to forming infrequent readers.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Quality Books

For the most part, the Scholastic survey is informative and interesting. However, there are a few items that might be cause for concern. The percentage of students who say they either like or love readings books has declined by about 10% since 2010. The number of children (about 47% of respondents) who say that the amount of reading they have to do in school discourages them from reading for pleasure is unfortunately high. Additionally, more than 60% of students report that they read less now than when younger because there are other things they enjoy doing. Given the large percentage of students that report spending significant time on electronic devices, this may indicate the distractification of our youth, which may influence later educational outcomes.

Another point of concern, which is admittedly more based on generalization and personal observations of the public library shelves, is that about 73% of children report that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. This is natural, but I think it is having a negative influence on the quality of children’s literature overall.

I’ve read plenty of fluff in my day. I still enjoy a good Louis L’Amour book, or a mystery by Ellis Peters or Alexander McCall Smith.

However, the shelves of the local library shelves are sagging under the weight of junk kiddie lit. I’m not basing that merely on grumpy observations of book covers, but on earlier study of children’s literature and attempting to read some of the stuff my kids bring home. The bulk of recently published stories seems more likely to smuggle attempts to justify restructuring traditional societal norms than to provide substantial benefits to the mind through reading. Sometimes good societal changes come through children’s lit, but surreptitiously sneaking various forms of social engineering into children’s fiction is a bit annoying. Even among the good clean fun kids’ books that I’ve read recently, there seemed to be an emotional and intellectual vacuousness; in many of the current offerings the story line is interesting, but the plot predictable and depth of character are flat.

Parents report that they think it is important for their kids to have strong reading skills and strong critical thinking skills in life. Reading is, arguably, supposed to support those things. Kids report being much more likely to prefer books they pick out themselves (90%) and to want more books that they like. But by providing quick, fun, easy to read stories, publishers and book buyers may be subverting benefits of reading.

This is not a dire warning against the library shelves or a call to ban fun books. There is likely some benefit in reading, even if the reading is light and fluffy. The caution should be in considering what we purchase (for home or the local library) and asking questions about the purpose of reading for children as we select the books to populate the common shelves. The best books both delight and instruct. We shouldn’t let the hope of making cotton candy literature becomes a gateway drug to better literature undermine a main purpose of forming readers, which is to help teach people to think better.