Brain-Friendly Giftables, part 1: Books.

As promised, I bring you some gift recommendations for kids who are into math or science (or could be if presented with the right point of entry). The first installation: books.

Books are the best. They don't need batteries or assembly. They don't have lots of little parts that will end up strewn on the floor (or lost under the couch). You can read them alone or read them with others.

You can buy 'em new, but you can also find some amazing books at used bookstores, or garage sales, or library sales. And of course, if you have a library card you can partake of an astounding number of titles for free (provided you return them by the due date)!

Esteemed reader Jake also reminds us that, especially for younger kids, the real present isn't the book so much as the time you spend reading the book to them:

This is an eminently affordable gift if one makes use of the public library. A promise of a read aloud every night before bedtime can provide many benefits to both parent and child. It definitely counts as quality together time. If the books that are read are a bit ahead of the child's own reading level, but not ahead of their comprehension, then they can help provide curiosity about what more there is to be found in the world of books, can help expand vocabulary, can provide a vehicle for the child to ask questions about various things/situations/ideas in a comfortable situation, and can help relax an active child so that bedtime doesn't become a stressful event.

It doesn't matter if what you read is fiction, science, history, or biography, so long as the child is interested and engaged.

If they are old enough to sit up and focus, they're old enough to start enjoying books.

With that sage advice, here are my recommendations.

First, it turns out that I've already made about a gazillion recommendations for the sprogs' age group (roughly 4 to 9), so I've just collected links to those earlier discussions below.

This frees me up to talk about my favorite series of books for a slighly older age group, the late-elementary grades. A few years ago, when my parents were moving out of the house they lived in for more than two decades, where I and my three siblings grew up, I did not use that occasion to acquire silver, or china, or furniture, or even the LP of sea chanteys.

I grabbed these books.

It's a big series, and I won't even describe all of the books that I have in it, let alone those that I don't. But these six are my favorites, and if you know a 10 to 12 year old for whom school is threatening to make learning boring, one of these might make school subjects fun again.


The I Hate Mathematics! Book by Marilyn Burns, illustrated by Martha Hairston.

The first of these books I got, and still my favorite. The big idea here is that there's a lot more to mathematics than arithmetic, including:

  • working out how many permutations you can make with your three favorite ice cream flavors and a triple-scoop ice cream cone
  • the reason your parents would be wise not to approve an allowance structure that pays you $0.01 the first day and doubles each day thereafter
  • all manner of math games -- nim variants, games with dice, car games, sidewalk-chalk games, ...
  • magic tricks, including a cool topological feat
  • a section on math-y activities to do when you have the flu which seems to have disappeared from my copy (whose binding is broken from much use); if any of my siblings should have this section, I urge them to return it to me before anyone gets hurt!

It's a fun book for adults, too.


Math for Smarty Pants by Marilyn Burns, illustrated by Martha Hairston.

Math is a big subject, so it figures that the parts of it that will light up a kid's brain might spill over into a second book. This one includes:

  • lots of geometry activities, including ways to fold cubes, geometrical riddles, and a challenge to locate sides for an impossible triangle
  • exponents and really big numbers
  • fun with statistics
  • logic puzzles!
  • more math games
  • more math magic tricks

Either of these two math offerings is lovely on its own. The two together are awesome.


Blood and Guts: A Working Guide to Your Own Insides by Linda Allison.

Is grade school science class getting you down? Some serious anatomy and physiology -- serious in that it won't talk down to you; it's still plenty fun -- might do the trick. The book's tour through the body's major systems includes:

  • dissections of muscle, tendon, and joint, a heart, an eye, a brain, and a tooth (most with items from the butcher)
  • cool cross-sectional diagrams showing various organs and cell types
  • instructions for building a model lung and a model arm (with muscles)
  • cool activities like mapping the sensors on the back of your hand, decalcifying a bone and tying it in a knot, measuring your lung capacity, and testing your peripheral vision

Especially for the kid who enjoys the gross-out more than his or her peers, this book is, well, engrossing.


The Night Sky Book: An Everyday Guide to Every Night by Jamie Jobb, illustrated by Linda Bennett.

I've mentioned before that my mom has had some professional involvement with the world of astronomy, but I'll confess that my interest in astronomy didn't really take off until graduate school, when I took a sequence of history of cosmology courses. I think I would have been a star gazer much earlier had my family acquired this book before I was a sullen teenager. In addition to your standard information about stars and planets (and former planets), this book also includes:

  • star maps for different constellations and different times of year
  • zodiac ring games
  • tips making doing naked-eye observations of stars and planets
  • instructions for making (and using) your own sundial, night clock, solar stone, cross-staff, astrolabe, and magic calabash
  • interesting examples of the traces of ancient astronomical observations in many different cultures

If the nights are getting longer (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere), a curious kid might as might as well put them to good use!


The Book of Where, or How to Be Naturally Geographic by Neill Bell, illustrated by Richard Wilson.

Back when I was in elementary school, geography seemed to have been reduced to rote memorization of the names and capitals of states (or countries) in a map. You might also have to memorize the primary exports. It was not very inspiring. This book is much cooler than that. It starts close to home -- literally, helping kids examine their own environs to notice patterns in street names and house numbers and guiding them in mapping their neighborhoods. Today your home town, by the end of the book the world! On the way:

  • strategies (like finding "zeroes" ) to orient yourself in strange cities
  • using legends to figure out all that stuff represented on maps
  • a tour through the geography (and geology) of the United States
  • a consideration of the challenges of representing a grapefruit-shaped world with a flat map (including a discussion of longitude and latitude)
  • plate tectonics, faultlines, and volcanoes
  • lots of stories, puzzles, and quizzes

Since the world is home, this gives kids an intriguing look around the place.


This Book Is About Time by Marilyn Burns, illustrated by Martha Weston

I wouldn't be surprised if this book was on the shelf at Coturnix's house. This book gives kids a chance to step back from their schedules (whether busy or not) and reflect upon the rhythms of our lives and how we measure them. Highlights include:

  • a look at the history of time zones and daylight savings in the U.S.
  • instructions for building a sun-dial, a sand clock, and not one but two kinds of water clock
  • a tour through the development of calendars, including offerings from the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Mayas, and Romans
  • the astronomical phenomena involved in those various calendars
  • an exploration of biological rhythms in plants, animals, and humans

It's not full-on philosophical inquiry about the nature of time, but you probably wouldn't want to saddle an eleven-year-old with that anyway. (Trust me.)

There are several other books in the Brown Paper School series, including some with which I don't have first-hand experience. But I'm inclined to say they're probably a good bet as far as getting kids interested and keeping them reading.

Links to earlier recommendations endorsed by the Free-Ride offspring:

You should also check out:

World's Fair Children's Book Round-up

Pharyngula book list for evolutionists (which starts with books for kids, but continues on with some recommendations for grownups)

Next up on the Giftables list: games! Stay tuned.

More like this

Fantastic. Thank you.

What, no Asimov? I've said it before, I'll say it again -- when I was in what are now known as the "tween" years and beyond, Asimov's collections of F&SF science essays were literally turning points in my life -- the love of knowledge, science, and learning I gained from those books in particular were top-notch. While they were written with adults in mind, very few are beyond the kin of reasonably intelligent children, and while some of the scientific content is dated, much of the overall quality of the books is in explaining very old concepts or the history of science to the audience. Asimov on Science (unfortunately out of print, but used copies sell for cheap) is an excellent place to start.

For the 9-12 year old range, any of the DK Eyewitness books are great.

Well, the book is not on my bookshelf, but it is now on my amazon wishlist....

Didn't we all write about favourite science kids books a couple of months ago?

Didn't we all write about favourite science kids books a couple of months ago?

Yes; that's the "World's Fair Children's Book Round-Up" link nearly at the bottom of the post.

For slightly older kids, there's also George Gamow's classic, Mathematics and The Imagination. Flatland and Sphereland are still worthwhile; in the same vein but newer are Ian Sterwart's Flatterland and (more complex) Dewdney's Planiverse.

For fiction, I'd include Heinlein's "juveniles", which were notable for scientific grounding.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 22 Nov 2006 #permalink

The I Hate Mathematics Book! Yes! This was my absolute favorite book for the last two or three years of elementary school. I would check it out from the school library, keep it as long as I could, then check it out again as soon as it reappeared on the shelf.

At the bottom of one page there was a geometry puzzle. You had to find the radius of a circle. There was a rectangle whose diagonal was a radius, but they gave you the *other* diagonal. It sounds obvious when I describe it, but it wasn't at all obvious on the page to my fourth-grade self. The moment I finally figured it out is the first time I remember being amazed by the beauty of mathematics.

I went back to visit the school a couple years ago and stopped by the library--they still had it. I'd forgotten about it since then. Thanks for reminding me. This book'll be at the top of my gift list if I ever get to know any school-age kids.

ah, The I Hate Mathematics Book! -- fond memories.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record with this recommendation, but for budding astronomers, I am a big proponent of Find the Constellations by H A Rey (yes, that H A Rey). I've never seen better constellation outlines or descriptions, and the excellent sky charts and even quizzes are a great way to practice. This is the book that turned me into an astronomer, a calling I followed for a couple decades. Having the stars fall into familiar, friendly patterns every time you look up (well, at night, anyway) is a real joy.

A book I enjoyed reading to my kids is Cosmic View: The Universe In Forty Jumps, by Kees Boeke. A wonderful way to inculcate a sense of scale, both astronomical and microscopic.

I'm late to this one, but I adored the Bet You Can't (and its companion Bet You Can). Bet You Can't challenged you to do things that sounded easy but were physically impossible (e.g. folding a piece of paper 12 times, and then ripping it). Great introduction to some unintuitive properties of the world.

This was recommended to us for our son when he was in 3rd grade and he practically memorized it. His teacher, who went on to teach education students at the local university, told us years later that she was recommending it to all of her college students as an example of great ways to introduce mathematical concepts.

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure