Last November, I joined author Jennifer Swanson on the radio program Science Friday. We shared our favorite STEM kids’ books of 2023 and fielded questions from listeners seeking recommendations. We both agreed that the STEM books we read as kids were worlds away from the compelling offerings of today. One of Swanson’s favorite books as a child in the ’70s was Science in Your Own Backyard (1958), by Elizabeth K. Cooper, and while it was chock-full of intriguing, hands-on experiments, the black-and-white line drawings were on the dry side. Growing up in the ’90s, I remember librarians recommending lots of fun novels and even the odd history text or biography. But the science titles were dull, textbooklike selections, pulled out only when I had a research paper due and then just as quickly reshelved.

Happily, things have changed, and when an audience member asked us to suggest STEM titles similar to Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, I had the perfect book: Oliver’s Great Big Universe, by Jorge Cham (Amulet/Abrams, 2023). A blend of prose and comics, the story follows a self-described average kid with a passion for astrophysics who decides to write a book explaining everything from the Big Bang theory to dark matter. Cham has a gift for making complex concepts understandable as well as a keen sense of what makes kids laugh (here be fart jokes!). The result is side-splitting, irreverent, and insightful—Kinney’s Greg Heffley would approve.

The experience got me thinking about the wealth of other great middle-grade STEM books published last year—like Terry Virts’ The Astronaut’s Guide to Leaving the Planet: Everything You Need To Know, From Training to Re-Entry (Workman), illustrated by Andrés Lozano. A former astronaut, Virts blends facts about space exploration with compelling accounts of his own experiences. He also answers questions that will be top of mind for young readers: What do astronauts eat in space? Where do they sleep? And, of course, how do they go to the bathroom?

Both Swanson and I named Search for a Giant Squid: Pick Your Path, by Amy Seto Forrester (Chronicle Books), illustrated by Andy Chou Musser, as one of our favorites—and with good reason. This Choose Your Own Adventure–style tale invites kids to join an expedition to the twilight zone of the ocean to find the elusive giant squid. Will they succeed? That’s up to readers, who are tasked with picking a pilot, a submersible, and a dive site. Facts on ocean exploration are artfully woven into this dynamic work. Laudably, all the scientists depicted are people of color, and the cast is diverse in terms of ability and body type.

Readers who can’t get enough of all things undersea should also pick up Lindsey Leigh’s The Deep!: Wild Life at the Ocean’s Darkest Depths (Penguin Workshop), a hilarious graphic novel about the bizarre creatures that make their homes there. Realistically rendered but brimming with personality, animals such as a vampire squid, a dumbo octopus, and a yeti crab expound on the traits that make them well suited to life in this seemingly most inhospitable of regions.

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.