Emily Lakdawalla's Recommended Space Books for Kids, 2018
Welcome to my 10th annual list of recommended space books for kids! Here are the best space books out of the enormous stack I received from publishers this year. Get some for the kids in your life -- whether they're your own kids, your niblings, grandkids, or future space explorers who'll benefit from a donation to a library. One of the best things about writing this post every year is that afterwards I get to deliver boxes of books to local libraries and schools!
I couldn’t help but read this book aloud to myself from the first page. The poetry is enjoyable; the typography guides the reader to speak strong words with appropriate emphasis, and longer lines lyrically. All the while, it tells the story of where we came from -- the Big Bang, our Sun, our nebula, our planet. There’s not a lot of detail; this is a fable, told in rhyme, for young children, and it’s beautiful.
Does your child love books? Buy this book. Narrator Rose wants to bring something new for show and tell, so she sets out to discover something new. On the way, as any explorer does, she draws maps. Road Maps, Sky Maps, Ocean Maps. The hand-drawn maps are full of delightful details, hidden and waiting for the kid to discover through their own exploration. In the end, Rose fails to discover something new, but her maps and her stories of her journey captivate her class -- as they already have captivated the reader. It’s a good story book to read to a kid but it’s an even better book for a kid to discover at their own pace and then, perhaps, be inspired to go explore and map their own world.
by/por Rafael Rivera, Jr. and Tim Hoppey, illustrated by Christina Rodriguez
A heartwarming story about a boy who manages to distract his dad from a televised baseball game to enjoy an imaginary trip to Mars in their backyard. The kid narrator lets the readers in on various secrets -- like how the boards for his spaceship’s wings were taken from the wall of the garden shed, which his dad doesn’t know yet -- and in the end the dad is won over by his son’s imagination. The book is printed in both English and Spanish, a great read-aloud book.
by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by David Litchfield
“Hi, I’m Earth! But you can call me Planet Awesome.” In this adorable story, narrated by the awesomest planet, Earth introduces itself and its family (eight siblings and billions of cousins), shows baby pictures (including its “explosive” and “gassy” babyhood), and talks in a light and fun way about the forces that have shaped its surface over the titular 4.54 billion years. It’s a wonderful read-aloud book to teach young kids about writing personal narratives and Earth history simultaneously.
Nick Seluk is the cartoonist behind the Awkward Yeti and Heart and Brain comics, which my children adore, and he’s also a space geek. His latest book is aimed at a younger audience than his usual comics. The text is a straightforward nonfiction work about the Sun -- its size, position, and all the things that it does for us on Earth. Seluk’s humor shows up in the word bubbles spoken by all the planets, making it a cute and funny read. I know how I’d read this book if my kids were still into being read to -- I’d read the text, and the kids would read and voice the planets!
by Kevin O’Malley and Patrick O’Brien, illustrated by Patrick O’Brien
A spaceship piloted by a crew of dinosaurs comes to the rescue of mammalian scientists trapped inside an erupting volcano. As far as I can tell, this book (and others in the series) are an excuse for the artist to digitally paint dinosaurs in awesome armor having action-packed adventures in spaceships. No further reason is required! This book is not remotely educational, but hey, dinosaurs in space.
This four-book series describes Becoming an Astronaut, Space Travel, Life in Space, and Working in Space. The books are for new readers, with very simple sentences in large text on one page and full-page photos of astronaut activities on the facing page. It’s a standard format for nonfiction kids’ books but there’s something special about this series. The text is incredibly informative for all its simplicity, and full of amusing or surprising details about being an astronaut. The photo choice is really excellent also. Each photo is perfectly chosen for the accompanying text. Together the collection features a diverse array of faces; if you have a favorite ISS astronaut, you’ll likely find him or her in one of the pictures.
Each two-page spread in this book features one space vehicle, past or present (like Vostok 1, the Space Shuttle, Hubble, Rosetta, etc.) and uses simple illustrations to teach interesting tidbits about the spacecraft. It’s not exhaustive, either in its spacecraft selections or its detail, but it represents a wide variety of kinds of space missions, emphasizing the variety with a “building brief” for each that describes the goal of that particular mission. The book delivers facts about each mission along with some engineering details such as how Cassegrain and Gregorian telescopes work (for Hubble and WMAP), how trusses are built light and strong (for the ISS), and what a rocker-bogie suspension system does (for the Mars Exploration Rovers).
Who doesn’t love a book with flaps and doors you can open to reveal hidden facts? This book is broadly similar to Awesome Engineering: Spacecraft, though a bit less detailed. The flaps are an entertaining gimmick that invites exploration, making this book a good choice for reluctant readers.
This book is going to have a fairly short shelf life, but for a happy reason: it focuses almost entirely on discoveries that have been made in space within the last five or so years. So many kids’ space books rehash the same dusty old facts and it’s tremendously refreshing to read a book that discusses Kepler exoplanet discoveries (specifically, Kepler-10c and Kepler-37b), recent supernovae, new moons of Neptune, developments in the estimate of the numbers of galaxies in the universe, and so on. I do have two reservations. I noticed at least two factual errors -- but the book contains lots of very new “facts,” many of which will likely be found to be wrong eventually, anyway. I’m more lenient on factual errors in books discussing cutting-edge work than I am on reference works. A bigger issue is that all the people mentioned by name as contributing to all this new science are white men.
by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Starstruck is a well-written biography of Tyson’s childhood and youth, with just a few tidbits from his adult life. It paints a picture of a space-obsessed kid whose focus helped him navigate racism, and whose gregariousness helped him achieve professional success. The accompanying illustrations are lively and vibrantly painted, bringing the story to life.
A beautiful book that tells a suspenseful story of the Apollo program in free verse across 144 pages. The verses are paired with stunning, carefully researched paintings. Between each pair of chapters, a two-page spread contains photos and facts. I struggled with which age to recommend this one for -- it is marketed at middle-grade kids, and will be useful for kid research about the Apollo program, but the verse format makes it a captivating read-aloud book. This one will last on a kid’s bookcase for a long time.
I just love the Scientists in the Field series, which shows how individual scientists do field work to answer current questions in science. In so doing, they introduce kids to many different kinds of active scientific careers. Impact! is a thorough review of impact and asteroid science for kids. It opens with the story of the Chelyabinsk event and then profiles meteorite hunters, meteorite curators, field geologists studying impacts, astronomers doing asteroid surveys from the ground and from space, and concepts in planetary defense.
The Science Comics series cleverly uses Socratic dialogue to teach comics-loving kids about scientific topics. Both of these books employ (usually) animal characters with well-drawn personalities asking questions and talking (or arguing) among themselves to propel the reader through an incredible quantity of facts. I love the device of a multi-party conversation because different readers may identify with different characters -- the know-it-all, or the quiet one, or the nervous one, or the bold one -- and keep reading to see how the argument resolves. Of the two, Solar System weights story more heavily, traversing the solar system, while Rockets is more of an argument among the characters that traverses the history of rocket technology. Both are fun. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction to Rockets and fact-checked Solar System.)
With a conversational style, Dr. E delivers an enjoyable comparative planetology book for the middle-grade set. Eschewing the dull format of hopping from one planet to the next, the book’s chapters introduce the worlds of the solar system and then discuss “frozen worlds,” “erosion and weathering,” “volcano worlds,” and so on. It includes lots of up-to-date science, profiles of a diverse array of active scientists, and suggestions for hands-on activities. At the end, Dr. E -- a Caltech professor who does spectroscopy of solid solar system worlds -- takes a crack at explaining spectroscopy to kids.
A beautiful and poignant story about a neglected, space-obsessed kid who makes his way to an amateur rocket-launching rally, and discovers family (some literal family, some not) among lost and lonely souls. See You in the Cosmos is one of those books that has a straightforward story for younger readers -- a road trip story, and a story about creating community -- but in between the words, Cheng implies conflicts and challenges that only older and wiser readers can see. The book deals matter-of-factly with serious mental illness.
Books for 14- to 18-year-olds and up
Unfortunately, I did not have time to read these books cover to cover; these recommendations are based on reading bits and skimming the rest.
An inspiring and frank memoir by a Mexican-Amercan who surpassed everyone’s expectations and became, first, a rocket scientist, and later, CEO of the Girl Scouts. Sylvia Acevedo explains the sometimes painful process of assimilation (such as when she was forced to give up two of her names upon enrolling in school, something that most Latinos are still expected to do) and tells stories of everyday sexism and racism and alienation from her more traditionally minded peers. At the same time, she tells charming stories about family and her delightfully bookish teen self. Throughout, she’s conscious of herself as a role model to girls who want to follow in her footsteps. The book is available in both English and Spanish.
This hefty, 400-page tome is an authoritative history, beautifully illustrated and clearly written. I’m especially happy to see the sections on the history of space agencies other than those of the U.S. and Soviet Union, histories I wasn’t familiar with before; Launius covers ESA, Japan, China, the UK, Canada, and the global south. The book devotes approximately equal time to rocketry, human spaceflight, and robotic spaceflight.
This book is so much fun. With vivid language and great photo choices, Campbell delivers an authoritative and irreverent review of astronautics. It covers science fiction and technological fact, from past to present and future, following how developments in space fueled pop culture imagination, and vice versa. It’s quite dense but can be picked up and read from just about any point.
This one is a little difficult to classify. It’s both fantasy and factual. It’s written as a travel guide from the year 2218, complete with hotel recommendations (of which there are dozens, across the solar system, apparently). But like any good travel guide, it recommends preparations you’ll have to do to visit each location because of varying environment, climate, weather, and...gravity. The author is an active planetary scientist (and, ahem, president of The Planetary Society’s Board) so it features plenty of extremely up-to-date information on every planet, moon, asteroid, and other world that it describes. There are some high school kids who will get it and love it, and others who’ll just be confused by the mix of fantasy and fact. Hopefully, you know who your kids are.