The Tarantula Scientist

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Sy Montgomery, Photographs by Nic Bishop
• Title: The Tarantula Scientist
• Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.
• 2004
• 80 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-618-14799-3
Awards: 2005 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book~2004 School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year~2005 Texas Bluebonnet Award~2004 John Burroughs Honor List of Nature Books for Children~2005 National Science Teachers Association and Children’s Book Council~Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. The book received the further distinction of being noted as a “Selector’s Choice” among these outstanding works for children.~2005 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts~2005 Voice of Youth Advocates Nonfiction Honor List consider the top books of the year.
• Author’s website:

In another excellent offering in the Scientist in the Field series, Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop team up and follow arachnologist Sam Marshall into the rainforest of French Guiana to discover more about tarantulas. The largest of spiders, with a life span of over 30 years, the tarantula is a lot less scary and a lot stranger than you might imagine. They smell with their feet, taste with the hairs on their legs and have their stomach in their head. Tarantulas are the dinosaurs of the spider clan and have been around since before the super-continent Gondwanaland broke up.

Sam Marshall’s infectious fascination with these intriguing creatures comes through clearly. As in the others in the series we learn of break-through discoveries he has made and are introduced to two of his young students back at Hiram College in Ohio, doing their own research in the spider-lab. Marshall and Montgomery make clear science isn’t a body of knowledge, it is a process: as simple as asking a question and then answering it and there are plenty of questions to ask. Very little is known about even glamorous species, such as the Goliath birdeater much less the estimated 70-100 thousand spiders science hasn’t even named yet. This is an excellent offering that reveals how close and accessible the frontier of science really is.

Front matter includes a map of the South American area of study. Back matter updates Sam Marshall’s whereabouts, advises how to handle-or better yet avoid handling tarantulas, guides those who think they might want a tarantula as a pet, offers intriguing spider stats, provides a glossary, a selected bibliography and web resources, discusses research methodology and acknowledges help, and provides contact information for the lodge in French Guiana.


Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures

Jacket-9• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Science related title
• Rebecca L. Johnson
• Title: Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures
• Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press
• 2011
• 64 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7613-4148-2
• Awards: Benjamin Franklin Award~Orbis Pictus Award~Junior Library Guild Selection~Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books~Society of School Librarians International Book Award~Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year~VOYA Nonfiction Honor List~National Science Teachers Association Recommended
• Author’s website:

In 2000 scientists from around the world set out on the largest ocean exploration in history: a ten-year quest to systematically learn more about the ocean and everything that lives in it. Johnson takes the reader along on the Census of Marine Life, as scientists explore all areas of the sea and find thousands of remarkable animals never seen before.

Amazing, jaw-dropping photographs grab attention and are backed up by engaging lucid text that describes the science behind the survey and tells some of what was learned. The book is very well designed, with sidebars, boxed inserts, charts and hundreds of photographs breaking up the text into digestible chunks. Johnson writes in the second person so the reader is placed at the center of the exploration: scrunched inside a submersible or helping to sift through the dredged muck for creatures new to science.

The book is divided into chapters based on the area of the ocean explored: abyssal plains, ridges and vents, shallow edges, etc. The chapters open with a clear graphics that place the survey on the globe and show at what depth we are exploring. Johnson provides clear context: we know what questions we are trying to answer and share the excitement as she describes, blow by blow, the thrill of discovery. Quotes from scientists provide insight and contribute to the reader’s sense of being along on the exploration. However, it is the animals that steal the show. Just the names of the new creatures inspire interest: ping pong tree sponge, sea butterfly, zombie worms, bubblegum coral, Dumbo octopus: that can turn inside out, spiral poo worm, Venus flytrap anemone: that excretes bioluminescent slime, Yeti crab, and the barreleye fish: that has a see-through head.

The final chapter reemphasizes the fragility of the sea and the threats against it: pollution, trawling and climate change. Simple steps to help protect the world’s oceans are offered.

Children love knowing things adults don’t, and this book is full of astonishing animals and facts that are new. Not so long ago we assumed light and warmth were necessary for life. That idea is put paid by pink sea slugs, 2000 feet below the surface, eating bacteria that feed on frozen orangesicle-colored methane gas. We now know there are rubbery, un-crushable fish that live in the deepest trenches: nearly seven miles below the surface. In previous centuries it was understood that the ocean was the real frontier. With an estimated 10-50 million more species waiting to be discovered and only five percent of the ocean explored, Johnson encourages us to, once again, recognize that the greatest area for exploration in the universe is in our ocean.

Front Matter: Includes Acknowledgments and Contents. A Foreword establishes the diversity and unexplored nature of the sea. A Prologue introduces us to a massive, meaty jellyfish “wide as a doorway and the color of a bad bruise” and goes on to outline the methodology and objectives of the census. A side bar explains scientific classification.

Back Matter: Thumbnail photos and brief biographies put faces and qualifications to Scientists quoted in the book. A Glossary defines scientific terms and equipment. Source Notes identify quotes. A Selected Bibliography includes a few books and ten websites. A Learn More page offers more annotated websites, books, videos and DVDs for further research. An Index and Photo Acknowledgments conclude the book.

Every Bone Tells a Story

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 6th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw
• Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions and Debates
• Publisher: Watertown, MA, Charlesbridge
• 2010
• 186 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-58089-164-6
• Awards: A Junior Library Guild Selection~CCBC Choices~NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People~NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12~Subaru/SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books–Young Adult finalist~YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist
• Author’s website: and

In discrete chapters the authors tell of the discovery of four ordinary people who lived thousands of years, and in one case more than a million years, before recorded history. Most of the action takes place after the exciting discoveries, when in the lab, scientists uncover how these four individuals lived and died.

Rubalcaba and Robertshaw do an excellent job of representing the excitement of the find. They write evocative descriptions of the moment each hominin died and describe the fate of the remains over centuries until the moment their bones are found by a modern human. The vivid images of the Turkana boy’s body bobbing face down in the lagoon or the surprise of college students who pluck a rock from a river only to notice it has teeth, grab the reader’s attention and set the stage for the details that follow. Each chapter includes sections on discoveries, deductions and debates and concludes with further reading, websites and source notes.

The four hominins are drawn from different countries and time periods and represent a diverse assortment of anthropological issues from questions about when language began, through whether humans mixed with Neanderthals, to who has the right to claim pre-historic human remains. Another advantage of the hominin’s diversity is that the anthropologists and filed workers represent both genders and varied ethnicities.

The book outlines arguments and evidence but strongly encourages readers to come to their own conclusions. The evidence and reasoning presented is detailed and sophisticated but written and explained engagingly. Rubalcaba and Robertshaw never talk down to their readers and their strong scientific and anthropological backgrounds come through in their familiarity with long-raging debates, scientific practice and rich ancillary information. Not only do we learn a lot about these four individuals and where they fit into human evolution we also acquire fascinating facts: such as the insight that while agriculture is necessary to support large populations, the hunter gatherers farmers superseded were healthier and taller, and the tidbit that our prominent noses help conserve moisture and give us an edge over our primate ancestors.

The book offers plenty to interest forensics fans, those drawn to both field and lab science, anyone intrigued by human behavior and evolution, and those who just want an exciting, and slightly gruesome, story.

Front matter: A prologue outlines the distinctions between Hollywood archeologists: who find things, and modern day scientists in the field: who seek to find out about things Each chapter and hominin are linked to larger debates: when did language begin and why did we start talking, how did humans disperse and populate the world and are we all part Neanderthal, who were the first North American peoples and how did they get here, and did Asian farmers displace early Europeans or did European hunter gathers simply switch to farming.

There is substantial back matter in addition to each chapter’s list of resources and notes. Further reading is grouped by subject. A timeline provides an overview back 1,800,000 years and focuses in on 50,000-5,000 years ago. A five page glossary defines terms. A cast of characters: Hominins and friends, describes the individuals featured in each chapter. A bibliography is broken down by chapters and topic and includes many web resources. An index, acknowledgements and photo credits concludes the work.

Similar books: Written in Bone, Bodies from the Ice, The Skull in the Rock.

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley

Jacket-3• Grade Range: 6th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Sally M. Walker
• Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley
• Publisher: Minneapolis, MN. Carolrhoda
• 2005
• 112 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-57505-830-6
• Awards: Book Links Lasting Connections of 2008~Robert F. Sibert Medal 2006~ALA Notable Book 2006~BCCB 2006 Blue Ribbon Book~2006 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book~Bank Street College Best Childrens Books of the Year~Booklist Top 10 Sci-Tech Books 2005~Master List 2007 Rebecca Caudill Award~VOYA Nonfiction Honor list, 2006~2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teenage~Winner 2006 Children’s Nonfiction Award, Society of Midland Authors~Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist 2006
• Author’s website:

The fate of the Civil War submarine: the H.L. Hunley, remained a mystery for 131 years. The ship and her crew were lost, after sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic, until 1995, when underwater archaeologists discovered and raised her. Walker traces the history of the ship and reports on the cutting edge science and forensic anthropology that allowed archeologists to find the ship and unravel her story.

Chronological chapters outline the construction and design of the submarine, which was spurred by wartime necessity. Confederates desperately needed to break the crippling blockade of Charleston’s harbor and the Hunley offered a way. Walker discusses the submarine’s potential importance to the Confederate War effort but goes no further into Civil War history. The only discussion of race is the fact that it was an African American Union sailor on the Housatonic: Robert Flemming, who spotted the Hunley and gave warning. Pictures, maps, photographs and primary sources help convey the physics, drama, excitement and danger connected to the Hunley. Before her first official mission two crews gruesomely died in training exercises. These historic chapters take us up to the moments just after the Hunley earns her place in history: as the first submarine to sink and enemy ship in war, and leaves us with the questions: what happened to the ship and crew; what caused them to perish?

The second half of the book seeks to answer these questions as Walker traces attempts to locate, excavate and study the ships remains. Walker does a good job including the various elements leading to the ships successful recovery: tracing the efforts of a passionate amateur: Clive Cusssler and a team of underwater archeologists, through the legal tangle associated with finding a famous shipwreck, to the scientific and research breakthroughs necessary to piece together the puzzle of exactly what happened to the ship and her crew. Drawings and photographs help personalize and elucidate the science, which includes stratigraphy: the study of sediment, forensic anthropology: which reveals astonishing personal details from human remains and high-tech artifact conservation.

The range of topics covered by Walker makes the book appealing to kids intrigued by the Civil War, as well as those attracted to the submarine’s dangerous history and the adventure of treasure hunting. It is also a natural for kids interested in forensic anthropology. The team does full facial reconstruction for all eight of the crew. While an astonishing amount is learned from studying the ship and crew’s remains, many questions are left unanswered. Walker makes clear the story isn’t over and the preserved artifacts may yet tell a more complete tale.

A prologue sets the stage and creates a dramatic frame for both the historical and the scientific stories. We are introduced to the mystery surrounding the Hunley’s disappearance, the engineering marvel she was and the compelling science behind her recovery. Contents include not only the chapter titles but also list all the back matter including the glossary. At the end an author’s note describes Walker’s research methods and motivations and thanks various experts. A page of source notes attributes quotes and background information. Photographs are credited. A nine volume selected bibliography is included, but gives no guidance as to which works are most likely to be accessible to children. Two websites are included. Clive Cussler’s site links to reports on hundreds of shipwrecks he has investigated and the Friends of the Hunley site has lots of up to date information. A brief glossary gives definitions for twenty or so terms likely to be unfamiliar. An index concludes the book.

Isaac Newton-Giants of Science


  • Biography related title
  • Age Range: Grades 5-8
  • Author: Kathleen Krull, Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
  • Title: Isaac Newton
  • Publisher: New York : Viking
  • 2006
  • 126 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0-670-05921-8
  • Awards: BCCB Blue Ribbon~School Library Journal Best Book~A Booklist “Top 10 Youth Biography”~ALA Notable Book for Children~Finalist for the Cybils, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award~A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year
  • Author’s website:

Arguably Isaac Newton is the most influential scientist ever. In lively and anecdotal prose Krull explains and contextualizes Newton’s massive scientific contributions and illuminates his prickly and often vindictive personality. Wry pen and ink illustrations compliment this irreverent treatment.

Krull’s Giant’s of Science series sets a high bar for entertaining and informative biographies. Her conversational and assured tone carries the reader along as she explains the personalities and scientific accomplishments of these fascinating and influential individuals; her Isaac Newton is no exception. While most of her unflattering observations are well supported by facts included in the text, some of her more speculative topics: his sexual orientation, mental illness and religious beliefs, suffer from a treatment that feels too glib and condescending. For example can it really be right to refer to the man who elucidated the scientific method, developed calculus, the reflecting telescope, the laws of motion, the theory of gravity and of optics as “several slices short of a loaf.” While Krull does provide a bibliography, her lack of source notes combined with her sensationalist speculations diminishes her otherwise excellent and valuable book.

Front matter includes acknowledgments for research help and contents. Back matter includes a bibliography that highlights books and articles suitable for young readers, websites and an index. The lack of source notes, quotation sources or even an annotated biography is a real flaw in an otherwise outstanding, and highly readable, biography.

The Elephant Scientist


  • Science related title
  • Age Range: Grades 5-8
  • Author: Caitlin O’Connell & Donna M. Jackson
  • Title: The Elephant Scientist
  • Publisher: Boston :, Houghton Mifflin
  • 2011
  • 72 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-05344-8
  • Awards: Robert F. Sibert Honor Book ~ Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book ~ School Library Journal starred review ~ A Junior Library Guild Selection ~ Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, K-12~ Amelia Bloomer List ~ Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bank St. College of Education ~ The John Burroughs Association Literary Awards, Nature Books for Young Readers Award.
  • Author’s website: and

Caitlin O’Connell studies elephants in the wild. Solid background information is delivered and O’Connell’s surprising insight that elephants communicate through underground vibrations is followed. We see experiments designed to test her theory that result in fresh understanding and practical applications.

The Elephant Scientist continues Jackson’s excellent ‘Scientists in the Field’ series. Strong book design and superb photographs compliment a text that manages to inform, thrill, inspire and move the reader. A thorough explanation of scientific method is affectingly coupled with the visceral pleasure of discovery and the satisfaction of helping to develop practical solutions that may help preserve and iconic and appealing animal.

Front matter includes acknowledgements, photo credits, a map of the African area of study and contents. Back matter includes an opportunity to adopt an elephant, resources for further study, a glossary, selected source notes and an index.

The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins


  • Science related title
  • Age Range: Grades 4-6
  • Author: Lee R. Berger & Marc Aronson
  • Title: The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins
  • Publisher: Washington, D.C. :, National Geographic
  • 2012
  • 64 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-4263-1010-2
  • Awards: AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prizes for Excellence in Science Books, 2014 Finalist, Children’s Middle Grades Books ~CCBC’s Book of Choice 2013~Richie’s Picks
  • Authors’ website: and, companion website to the book

Speaking directly to the child-reader Aronson traces the career of a dynamic paleoanthropologist: Lee Berger, and captures the excitement of scientific discovery as Berger uncovers some of the oldest and most astonishingly complete human ancestors ever found, including the newly discovered Australopithecus sediba.

The Skull in the Rock is part biography, part fossil discovery story and part exhortation to kids to develop observational skills and make discoveries. It tells an exciting tale of exploration fueled by theories and insights. I found the interactive tone of directly addressing questions and remarks to the child reader to be distracting, but can see it could be very effective for younger children age 10-12. The science is explained well and the large photographs add interest and break the text into digestible chunks.

Front and back matter include contents, a schematic of hominid evolution, suggestions for further reading, a glossary/index and an author’s note. The authors pledge to maintain a website that keeps current with the science and discoveries associated with the Australopithecus sediba fossil at the center of the story. A link is provided.