When it comes to scientific literacy, it feels like we’re living in both the best and worst of times. Though the Covid-19 vaccine, the fastest ever developed, has prevented millions of deaths, false claims about this medical miracle—that it can alter DNA or track people’s movements, for instance—continue to proliferate. And while scientists studying climate change are making momentous discoveries, there are far too many dismissing their findings; I was struck by the words of scientist Corinne Le Quéré in a TED Talk several years ago: “I have a mountain of data on my shoulders, but I feel so powerless.”
The consequences of this rampant misinformation are dire. So how do we combat it? As always, I believe literature offers a solution. Several picture books published this year will leave young readers enlightened and passionate about everything from astronomy to ornithology…and maybe, as they grow older, less likely to willfully ignore the science-based evidence in front of them.
In Kirsten W. Larson’s picture-book biography, a star is born—actually, make that two stars. The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of (Chronicle Books, Feb. 7), illustrated by Katherine Roy, explores the tireless search by astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne (1900-1979) for answers about stars’ elemental composition, while simultaneously tracking the progress of a star. This offering bursts with facts sure to tempt budding scientists. It’s also a mesmerizing portrait of an individual driven by an overwhelming love for her work.
To those not in the know, immunization might seem confusing or counterintuitive. In A Vaccine Is Like a Memory (Little Bee Books, June 20), author and physician Rajani LaRocca matter-of-factly demystifies the topic. She explains that vaccines trigger an immune response that helps the body fight off a virus and then chronicles their history. Though potentially frightening diseases like smallpox are covered, Kathleen Marcotte’s cartoonish images give the book a soothing feel—the result is a work that is, to quote our review, “authoritative and reassuring.”
“Around the world / reefs are under attack” from “Warming water temperatures, pollution, and overfishing,” warns Jessica Stremer in Great Carrier Reef (Holiday House, July 4). But there’s hope yet. Accompanied by Gordy Wright’s lush artwork, her graceful verse details how an aircraft carrier known as the USS Oriskany found new life as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida, providing a much-needed habitat for urchins, barracudas, and much more. Readers will be left with a realistically optimistic message: We can reverse the damage we’ve done to the natural world if we’re willing to try.
“There are bowerbirds in my yard, and I’m going to watch them all spring!!” a Black child scrawls in a notebook devoted to nature observations. In Maria Gianferrari’s You and the Bowerbird (Roaring Brook Press, Aug. 15), the young naturalist watches as a bird—dubbed Satin—builds a bower, fights off rivals, and woos a mate. Gianferrari’s playful text and Maris Wicks’ witty illustrations imbue their avian subjects with personality, and readers will find the protagonist a relatable stand-in. The detailed backmatter notes that the satin bowerbird is native to Australia, but children who live elsewhere will be quick to start observing birds—and other animals—closer to home.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.