The best children's books to introduce real scientists

Laura Gehl Author Of Who Is a Scientist?
By Laura Gehl

Who am I?

I am a former science teacher and science writer with a PhD in neuroscience. I have published thirty books for young readers, many with scientific themes. In elementary school, I was amazed by seeing pond water under a microscope. In high school, I sat in biology class feeling like my brain might explode from realizing how incredible it is that trillions of tiny cells work together to make up our bodies. I want to help my young readers find the same joy in connecting with science that I did, and to have that same feeling that their brains might explode—in a good way—from learning new, astonishing information.


I wrote...

Who Is a Scientist?

By Laura Gehl,

Book cover of Who Is a Scientist?

What is my book about?

Who Is a Scientist? features fourteen diverse modern-day scientists, showing gorgeous photos of each scientist both at work and at play. I wanted kids to know how many different types of scientists there are, and that while some scientists work in labs, others work in observatories or in forests or even in the Sahara Desert. I also wanted young readers to see that scientists are real people who have many of the same passions that they do...like playing soccer, dancing, and eating ice cream. I want kids to read this book and believe that they can grow up to be scientists too.

The book includes a scientist who wears a headscarf, a scientist with full-sleeve tattoos, a scientist who uses forearm crutches to get around in the field, a scientist with bright red lipstick, and many more. I hope the photos show kids that they don’t need to fit into any specific mold to be a scientist. 

The books I picked & why

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Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles

By Patricia Valdez, Felicita Sala (illustrator),

Book cover of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles

Why this book?

I generally enjoy stories about groundbreaking female scientists, but this one grabbed me immediately because Joan Procter defied multiple stereotypes as a woman working with (creepy, crawly) lizards! I wrote one of my picture books, Except When They Don’t, to remind young readers and their grown-ups that gender shouldn’t define what clothes kids can wear, what activities they can do, or what careers they can have. So these lines, “Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, young Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests. Slithery and scaly, they turned over teacups and crawled past the crumpets” instantly drew me in! 


Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

By Teresa Robeson, Rebecca Huang (illustrator),

Book cover of Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

Why this book?

Many books about early female scientists show the disapproval of their own families, families who wanted their daughters to conform to the societal norms of the time periods they lived in. In contrast, this book tells the story of a supportive family, who educated and encouraged Wu Chien Shiung, even at a time in Chinese history when having a daughter was “not considered fortunate.”  Also, it is no easy feat to explain physics at a level appropriate for a picture-book audience, but Teresa Robeson succeeds admirably.


The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just

By Mélina Mangal, Luisa Uribe (illustrator),

Book cover of The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just

Why this book?

Ernest Everett Just said, “The egg cell is also a universe.” Reading those words gives me chills. This book showcases the same wonders that amazed me when I first began studying biology, and which I later tried to show my own students as a biology teacher. At the same time, this is the story of a scientist who persevered despite racism and discrimination. While the text and illustrations will appeal even to very young readers, the back matter gives more in-depth information about Just’s research, perfect for older kids.


Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

By Helaine Becker, Dow Phumiruk (illustrator),

Book cover of Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Why this book?

I picked this book in part because many kids, including my own daughter, are fascinated by space and will be intrigued by Katherine Johnson calculating the course of moon landings. I also picked it because I very deliberately included a mathematician in Who Is a Scientist?, and I think mathematicians are often neglected in round-ups of books about scientists. My third reason is that this book does a great job of explaining the math that “human computers” like Katherine did, and why this math was important for NASA to send rockets into space.


Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist

By Jess Keating, Marta Álvarez Miguéns (illustrator),

Book cover of Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist

Why this book?

Eugenie Clark didn’t agree with people who thought sharks were ugly and dangerous. She thought they were beautiful creatures, worth studying and protecting. I don’t know if I myself could swim with sharks without feeling a little bit scared, but I do believe that most sharks have no interest in attacking humans, and I also believe that it is important for scientists to study every type of organism, from fungi to spiders to sharks. I also want kids to know that scientists can work underwater, like Eugenie did!   


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