The best books on inspirational scientists for children

Sigrid Schmalzer Author Of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming
By Sigrid Schmalzer

Who am I?

I'm a historian of science who specializes in modern China. My professional life revolves around teaching history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing for academic audiences. But my not-so-secret dream has always been to write for children. I've been a regular visitor to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I've gorged on illustrated books for children. Encouraged by a chance meeting with a publisher’s representative attending an event at the Carle, I decided to distill my academic book, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China, into a children’s story. I’m proud that my fans now include elementary-school students. (And at least one professional historian admitted he read the kids’ version first!)

I wrote...

Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming

By Sigrid Schmalzer, Melanie Linden Chan (illustrator),

Book cover of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming

What is my book about?

Moth and Wasp tells the story of a real Chinese scientist, Pu Zhelong, through the eyes of a fictional village boy—a composite character I created from people I interviewed who grew up in China during the Mao era (1949-1976). Melanie Chan’s illustrations bring the narrator’s memories to life while incorporating traditional Chinese folk art and elements of the Chinese written language.

Pu Zhelong was an insect scientist committed to serving the people by finding environmentally friendly and affordable ways to control agricultural pests. He personified the best of Maoist science, combining Chinese knowledge rooted in the countryside and Western scientific learning from overseas. The villagers are initially skeptical of Professor Pu’s proposal to breed and release parasitic wasps, but the city-born scientist wins them over with his willingness to get his hands and feet dirty. The narrator admires Pu and even makes a contribution to the research. He discovers that a university scientist can be at home in the villages… and a village kid can go to the university and become a scientist himself. 

The books I picked & why

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Snowflake Bentley

By Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Mary Azarian (illustrator),

Book cover of Snowflake Bentley

Why this book?

This Caldecott winner tells the story of Wilson Alwyn Bentley, whose stunningly beautiful and accurate photographs of snowflakes and other water formations fostered much scientific research, not to mention a popular fascination with this exquisite aspect of natural history. The book’s elegant prose and colorful woodcut prints bring to life Bentley’s nineteenth-century Vermont farming community, from his childhood explorations of nature to the state-of-the-art microscope camera that cost his parents as much as their herd of cows, to the slide shows he presented to friends and neighbors featuring his marvelous photographs.

In reading Snowflake Bentley, I was struck by how strongly the ideal of a farmer-turned-scientist, familiar to me from Mao-era Chinese history, resonated in US history as well.

The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver

By Gene Barretta, Frank Morrison (illustrator),

Book cover of The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver

Why this book?

The first chapter book I checked out from the school library when I was in third grade (in 1980) was a biography of George Washington Carver. I have always remembered how inspiring I found his story. This new picture-book biography is a beautiful addition to what is now a very large number of children’s book tributes to Carver’s legacy. Morrison’s use of light and color results in stunning images to illustrate Carver’s motto and the book’s central theme, “Regard nature. Revere Nature. Respect nature.”

The story follows Carver from childhood, when he first learned to experiment by gardening in a secret plot tucked in the woods of the farm where he grew up, to his days as a young scientist in the laboratories of Iowa Agricultural College and the Tuskegee Institute, the time he spent traveling through the southern countryside bringing new agricultural knowledge to poor farmers, and finally his elder years when he had become a nationally respected and internationally renowned figure who remained “always ready to serve humanity.”

Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon

By Jeannine Atkins, Michael C. Dooling (illustrator),

Book cover of Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon

Why this book?

In more recent years, Jeannine Atkins has given us the beautifully written “novels-in-verse” Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science and Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math. The richly illustrated picture book Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon is one of Atkins’s earlier efforts to showcase the contributions women and girls have made to science. The story of Mary Anning is also important for what it tells us about the role of working-class people in the history of science. Mary’s father had been a carpenter until his untimely death, and the family supplemented their meager income by selling “curiosities” (i.e., fossils) they unearthed on the seashore near their home in Lyme Regis, England.

Mary’s careful reconstructions of fossils (including the world-famous ichthyosaur that she and her brother uncovered) helped transform the field of paleontology, earning her as much respect as a working-class woman could get in the world of nineteenth-century British science.

Chattanooga Sludge

By Molly Bang,

Book cover of Chattanooga Sludge

Why this book?

This book is sadly out of print, but readers looking for a lavishly detailed and colorfully illustrated account of technology in the service of ecological restoration should hit the used book market and add this to their home libraries. It tells the story of John Todd, a scientist from Massachusetts who created  “Living Machines” that use biological processes to transform sewage into clean water. Meanwhile, down in Tennessee, factory pollution has turned Chattanooga Creek into a stream of sludge that poisons the land and sickens the residents. The city council invites Todd to visit, and Todd adapts his Living Machines to handle not just ordinary sewage, but toxic waste.

Bang’s illustrations bring the reader to the microscopic level and back again to show just how the ecological principles of the Living Machine work. We learn that success doesn’t come easily, and science alone will not fix every problem, but an understanding of nature combined with a commitment to healing the earth can do wonders.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace

By Jen Cullerton Johnson, Sonia Lynn Sadler (illustrator),

Book cover of Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace

Why this book?

The story of environmental activist Wangari Maathai has been told many times, including in several children’s books. I chose this book not only for its spectacular scratchboard illustrations of the Kenyan countryside but also because of its thoughtful attention to Maathai’s passion for science and her path-breaking journey as an African woman scientist. Having overcome gender barriers in the pursuit of her education, Maathai went on to become the kind of scientist who stands up against injustice and for the land and its people.

Her mobilization of village women to plant trees all across Kenya, along with her bold political activism for freedom and democracy, won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. This book’s depiction of a scientist who moves between villages and university laboratories, valuing the work of rural people as much as that of city elites, reminded me of the ideal I tried to convey in Moth and Wasp 

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