Tag Archives: science book review


Today we a featuring an award-winning new nonfiction picture book Animal Teachers by Janet Halfmann and illustrated by Katy Hudson. For a full review of the book, see our sister blog, Wrapped in Foil.

Animal Teachers introduces young children to the idea that nonhuman animals learn from their parents and peers in similar ways as humans by giving a series of fun and instructive examples. Some of the examples in the book will probably surprise you. Did you know that chicks might need to be taught what is proper food or that cheetahs might need to be taught how to run? The book definitely gives you a lot to think about.

Related Information and Activities:

What is learning? What is teaching? It turns out that these are not easy questions to answer, especially when we think of animals other than humans. It also isn't easy to figure out what behaviors are inborn or innate (nature), which are learned or depend on experience (nurture), and which are a bit of both. Let's take a look at some vocabulary and activities from the field of animal behavior.

Learning:  the act or process of acquiring new knowledge, skills or preferences by being taught, practicing, or experiencing something.

An example would be learning to roller skate. You might watch someone else, have someone teach you how to stand up, and then practice for hours before you completely know how to do it.

Animal Teachers has a lot of good examples of animals learning what to eat, how to recognize their parents' voices and even how to stay dry.


Those who study animal behavior have had to come up with a definition of teaching that can be used for nonhuman animals. They have decided to be a true teacher, an animal must change its behavior when it encounters an inexperienced animal. At a cost to its own ability to perform the task, it must set an example so that the untrained animal can learn more quickly than it could have without training.

An example in Animal Teachers is a mother elephant teaching her baby to drink water.

alex-wild-photo-elephant(Public domain photograph by Alex Wild)

You might think that drinking water would be automatic, but a baby elephant starts out drinking its mother's milk with its mouth. Drinking water from a stream using its trunk is very different. It must suck the water half way up the trunk, hold it as it moves its trunk into its mouth and then release it into its mouth. It is kind of like learning to drink with a straw.

How does the mother change its behavior to be a teacher? Instead of simply drinking as much as she needs and walking away, the mother shows the baby and encourages it to copy her movements.

It turns out that even invertebrate animals can be teachers. Sometimes worker ants teach other worker ants from the same colony how to reach food by a behavior called "tandem running." An ant that knows the way to the food runs ahead and an ant that doesn't know the way follows closely behind. The "teacher ant" changes its behavior because it runs more slowly than it would have it was simply going to the food on its own. A learner ant can run to the food by itself after following the teacher ant, where it couldn't before tandem running (See more at  memory in ants from Wild About Ants).

Teaching Activity:  Playing School

Have you ever played school? It can be a lot of fun.

1. Find a place to use as your "schoolhouse and invite your sisters, brothers, and friends to play school.

2. Decide what you would like to teach and what your students would like to learn.

3. Gather some books, paper and pencils/markers. Or if you like sports, pretend to be a coach and gather some balls and other sports equipment.

4. Take turns being the teacher (or coach) and being the student.

5. Read and discuss Animal Teachers. Answer the questions in the book. Talk about what you learned as a teacher and what you learned as a student.

Other vocabulary used when studying animal behavior:

Anthropomorphism: This is a big word that means we shouldn't think all animals think and do things like humans. One problem with studying learning in other animals is that when a nonhuman animal behaves in a way that we recognize as similar to us, we think it is also has the same thoughts as we do. For example, when a cat rubs against us, we may think it is showing affection, whereas it may be simply rubbing its scent on us (marking).

Self-recognition: One test of animal smarts that has been used in the past is whether or not it can recognize itself in a mirror (a Scientific American article that reveals there are some faults with this test).

Even so, see the self-recognition rouge test in action with some babies and toddlers.

Some other animals are definitely capable of self-recognition, including dolphins and elephants.

Self-Recognition Mirror Activity:
See if your pets react to a mirror, either handheld or bathroom mirror (be careful not to endanger your pet by placing it somewhere too high or unsafe). While gently playing or grooming your pet, introduce the mirror. What do you observe? Does your pet try to get to the animal behind the mirror? Does it seem excited, as if meeting a new dog or cat for the first time? Or is it not interested at all?

Do you have a bird, guinea pig or pet rat? How do they react to a mirror? Compare the reaction of your different pets.

Design an experiment to hide a treat that your pet can see in the mirror but not without the mirror, such as placing a treat on the ground behind it when it is looking in the mirror. What does it do? Does it seem to understand the food is there and turn around or not?

Back to the book, Animal Teachers is wonderful jumping off point to learn more about animal behavior. It definitely would be a great resource for the classroom and you will also want to share it with children interested in animals. Expect high excitement and a lot of lively discussions!

Age Range: 4 - 8 years
Hardcover: 36 pages
Publisher: Blue Apple Books (September 2, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1609053915
ISBN-13: 978-1609053918

Disclosures: The book was provided by the author for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.


Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great children's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.


Reviews of children's nonfiction books are posted Mondays at Nonfiction Monday blog.

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This week the AAAS/SubaruSB&F announced their 2015 nominations Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the children's, middle grade, and hands-on categories. Here is a quick look at the titles they are considering for top honors.

In the middle grade science category, let's start with Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey (Junior Library Guild Selection) by Loree Griffin Burns and with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz, which I reviewed here back in February.


Have you ever wondered where the beautiful butterflies in butterfly exhibits come from? Handle with Care answers that question with a trip to a butterfly farm in Costa Rica. "Read it and watch children's imaginations take flight!"

Age Range: 6 - 10
Series: Junior Library Guild Selection (Millbrook Press)
Publisher: Millbrook Pr Trade (January 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0761393420
ISBN-13: 978-0761393429

Another nominee in the middle grade science category is Plastic, Ahoy!: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Patricia Newman, with photographs by Annie Crawley,   reviewed here in January.

Plastic Ahoy! introduces the reader to the experiences of three graduate students who spend three weeks taking samples from what is called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch." They find out the plastic is breaking down into small pieces, some of which are being consumed by fish. The small pieces are also being used as habitat for other organisms. Plastic Ahoy! shows we have much to learn about plastic that ends up in the water. It is great read for those interested in oceans.

Recommended Ages:  8-12
Publisher: Millbrook Pr Trade (January 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1467712833
ISBN-13: 978-1467712835

Over at our sister blog Wrapped in Foil, we previously reviewed nominee The The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle.

The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees is a compelling story about the beekeepers recent problems with Colony Collapse Disorder. It mixes hard science, a complicated mystery, and a very real consequences to our dinner tables, all into one well-researched and well-organized bundle. As you can see from the cover, the illustrations are fabulous as well.

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group (August 1, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1467705926
ISBN-13: 978-1467705929

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman is an additional middle grade nominee with a strong environmental message.

This book isn't only about the science of environmental issues, but also about the politics, history, and psychology.

Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Candlewick (September 23, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0763675458
ISBN-13: 978-0763675455

Rounding out the middle grade category is Mission: Mars by Pascal Lee.

Not exactly traditional nonfiction, this book instead shows what is possible by revealing the latest designs for spacesuits and exploration rovers that might be used on future missions to Mars. Learn what is needed to be ready to go to the red planet.

Age Range: 8 - 12 years
Grade Level: 3 - 7
Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Inc. (October 29, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0545565324
ISBN-13: 978-0545565325

Nominees in the children's picture book category:

We were glad to see Parrots Over Puerto Rico (Americas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. Winner) by Cindy Trumbore and illustrated by Susan L. Roth was nominated. We reviewed it at our sister blog Wrapped in Foil last year.

It is the fascinating story of the Puerto Rican parrot, tied in a unique way with the history of the island of Puerto Rico. Once numbering in the millions, the parrots have faced lost of nesting sites due to hurricanes and deforestation, plus competition and predation from introduced species like black rats and pearly-eyed thrashers. Over time, fewer and fewer parrots have survived.

"Pick it up for units on birds in science class, or for discussions of environmental issues and conservation. It also has an important place in units on U. S. history, because the history of Puerto Rico is covered in detail. Add darling parrots and the ongoing drama of whether they are going to survive and it truly is outstanding."

Age Range: 6 - 11 years
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Lee & Low Books (October 20, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1620140047
ISBN-13: 978-1620140048

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm was released late last month.

With the combination of Caldecott Artist Molly Bang and M.I.T. professor Penny Chisholm, Buried Sunlight is sure to shine.

Age Range: 4 - 8 years
Grade Level: Preschool - 3
Publisher: The Blue Sky Press (September 30, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0545577853
ISBN-13: 978-0545577854

Books about birds have been very popular with children in the last few years. Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray and illustrated by Kenard Pak contrasts the calls of neighboring birds with how quiet an incubating bird is.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? is a treat for young ornithologists learning their birds and bird calls.

Age Range: 4 - 8 years
Grade Level: Preschool - 3
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (March 18, 2014)
ISBN-10: 054410580X
ISBN-13: 978-0544105805

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and illustrated Emily Sutton is a timely addition to any library.

Age Range: 5 - 8 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten - 3
Publisher: Candlewick (August 26, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0763673153
ISBN-13: 978-0763673154

The last (and best!) category is Hands-on Science Books for Children.

Our absolute favorite book this year was nominated in this category: Plant a Pocket of Prairie by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Betsy Bowen (our previous review).


Plant a Pocket of Prairie specifically explores the prairies of Minnesota, but has a much more general appeal and a serious message that can apply anywhere.

Phyllis Root's free verse text starts out by explaining,

“Almost all gone now
to farm and town and city,
even before we knew
all of the things a prairie could do.”

She then highlights examples of relationships between specific plants and animals in the prairie ecosystem, such as between foxglove beardtongue (a type of Penstemon) and hummingbirds; monarch butterflies and milkweeds; and goldfinches and sunflowers. The back matter includes lists of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and plants commonly found in prairies. Each example comes with a call to action to plant your own prairie, whether in pots, gardens or landscapes. If enough people do this, who knows what might be achieved.

Ages 5-10
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press (April 15, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0816679800
ISBN-13: 978-0816679805

The Kid's Guide to Exploring Nature (BBG Guides for a Greener Planet) by (none less than) the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Educators and illustrated by László Veres is both an identification guide and nature activity book.

The activities are organized by season (list of activity titles here). It also includes summaries of common careers, such as nature educator and field biologist. Edit:  We now have a full review at Wrapped in Foil blog.

Age Range: 8 - 12 years
Grade Level: 3 - 7
Hardcover: 120 pages
Publisher: Brooklyn Botanic Garden (August 5, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1889538884
ISBN-13: 978-1889538884

I don't know how I missed this title by one of my favorite publishers, Chicago Review Press. Junk Drawer Physics: 50 Awesome Experiments That Don't Cost a Thing by Bobby Mercer mixes step-by-step instructions for experiments (over 50!) with sidebars of intriguing physics facts.


Using inexpensive household items to do interesting hands-on science? It doesn't get any better than this.

Age Range: 9 and up
Grade Level: 4 and up
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (June 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1613749201
ISBN-13: 978-1613749203


Congratulations to all the nominees!

Disclosures: Some of the books mentioned were provided by the publisher for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.


Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

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What better way to launch our week of ocean science books and activities than with a new children's biography of marine botanist and ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle, Sylvia Earle: Ocean Explorer (Women in Conservation) by Dennis Fertig?


Most of us go to the beach and marvel at the the beauty of the ocean, but we rarely get even the smallest glimpse of what is happening under the waves. Sylvia Earle has had a different experience because she is an explorer. Over her lifetime she has delved deeply into the oceans and learned as much as she can about what is happening under the sea, logging in more than 7,000 hours underwater. Now she shares her passion and knowledge with others.

As appropriate for a children’s book, the book starts with Earle’s childhood. Sylvia Earle spent her early years on a farm in New Jersey, where she remembers visiting the Jersey Shore at the age of three and discovering the power of the ocean. When she was twelve, Sylvia and her family moved to Dunedin, Florida. Suddenly, she had a beautiful ocean to investigate right in her own backyard. She jumped in and her life was changed forever.

Dr. Earle learned to scuba dive as a teenager, and then began studying marine botany. She earned her doctorate in 1966. Since that time, she has been pushing the boundaries of marine science, diving, and more recently, ocean conservation. Her passion has been rewarded, as she has been given over 100 awards and recognitions for her work, including Time magazine's recognition as the first "Hero for the Planet" in 1998. She has also been in the news in the last few months because she is the subject of a new documentary, Mission Blue (official trailer).

In addition to being packed full of information about Sylvia Earle's life, this book is illustrated with numerous color photographs. The back matter includes an extensive timeline and glossary, as well as suggestions for places to visit to learn more about oceans. It also has a list of three things people can do to help oceans starting today.

Sylvia Earle: Ocean Explorer is will be a hit with children who are interested in oceans, in science, in women's history, and/or in conservation. The incredible story of Sylvia Earle’s life is sure to inspire future explorers and conservationists alike.


2009 TED Talk

Age Range: 8 - 11 years
Grade Level: 3 - 6
Publisher: Heinemann InfoSearch (July 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 148460475X
ISBN-13: 978-1484604755



This post is part of our ocean science series. Visit the landing page for links to all the related posts.


Disclosure:  This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.


Looking for more children's nonfiction books? Try the Nonfiction Monday blog.