Scientific Literacy in Children: Building the Basics

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book)Fever 1793Some amount of scientific literacy is crucial to being a citizen in a democracy.  Part of my mission is to nourish this. What better place to start developing it than with babies and their parents.  There is an increasing amount of youth fiction and nonfiction portraying infectious disease.  Books such as Jim Murphy’s An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and Laurie Halse Anderson’s historical fiction  Fever 1793, are great for the young to middle reader [more in later posts], but what about babies?

Babies love pictures—start with human body books and talk about pictures; you don’t have to go over everything.  You are not preparing them for college tomorrow and they’ll just cry and rip your book if overloaded.  Do pick one page, and get them used to hearing words like white blood cell, microbiology, microscope, or esophagus.  If you feel these are too long then try flea, chicken pox, lice or sick.  

Children’s brand-new knowledge becomes prior knowledge.  It's easier to build onto prior knowledge stepwise than to feed them lots of it in middle school.  All children [and adults] need to be exposed to language, literature, art, science, math, social situations, and life in general in order to learn and build up prior knowledge. 

Science is near and dear to my heart, and I’m a firm believer that you can have fun with this.  Here are some titles to share with your children, nieces, grandchildren, students and neighborhood kids in order to expose them to science and health-based literature.  The following are chosen because of great pictures.  Babies and older children can be read to.  Older children should be encouraged to browse and read them as well.

For Science Words and Fabulous Illustrations:

DK Eyewitness Books:  Epidemic by Brian Ward
Eyewitness DK: Epidemic
With babies, you can play the “What’s this?” game.  It is loaded with pictures and short descriptions [paraphrase for babies]. You can tell them that germs, bacteria and virus are teeny-tiny—we can’t see them with our eyes.  They will eventually catch on.  When they are four, this vocabulary will culminate into questions like “I’m not going to get polio because I got the vaccine, right?  I don’t want to be in a wheelchair”.  It’s a long and involved process, raising children.  Give them all the information they can handle, but in a fun way.

The Way We Work:  Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body, by David Macaulay with Richard Walker
The Way We WorkTalk about fun!  It’s  ribald, smart, well-illustrated, and adults can learn A LOT from it.  Starting with atoms and DNA it builds to all the systems and beyond.  I love all the systems he discusses [respiratory, circulatory, digestive, legal..?] on page 54 and 55.  It appears that the illustrations are done in colored pencil and they’re spectacular.  It has detailed immunology too!  “Battle Stations” is the title of Chapter 5 which includes the following topics:  wear and tear; blood, sweat, and hairs; uneasy peace; only a scratch; know your enemy; foreign food; drain and defend; clean and clone; antibody attack; flu alert; population explosion; killer cells; chemical warfare; weakened defenses; harmful rays; enemy within; overreaction; and a little backup.  Whew!

The Coolest Cross-sections Ever! By Stephen Biesty.
The Coolest Cross-Sections Ever!
I love to look at things in different ways.  I don’t have a lot of early learning experience with cross-section, but my kids can.  Among other things, the human body is drawn with infinite detail, with humor thrown in.  Think “Where’s Waldo” from an anatomist’s viewpoint.

Human Body Revealed, a DK book, by Dr. Sue Davidson and Ben Morgan
Human Body (DK Revealed)This book is illustrated in layers; pages add layers to the body.  It’s easy on the eyes and pretty easy to read, divided into sections of “Your Body”, “In Your Head”, “In Your Chest”, and so forth.  Again, like most DK books, short descriptions make if very readable for you and your children.

Hidden Worlds: Looking Through a Scientist's Microscope (Scientists in the Field Series), by Stephen Kramer and Dennis Kunke
Dennis Kunke is a scientist that takes amazing photographs through different types of  microscopes—dissecting, compound, scanning electron, and transmission electron. Children and adults need to see that not only is the world a large place, but smaller than the eye can see.  It describes projects that he has worked on.  There are photographs of him studying the algae on Mount St. Helens post-eruption!  It’s an outstanding book.

For later readers, a nonfiction and historical fiction book to start with:

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book), by Jim Murphy
Jim Murphy has written many excellent books, but this is a first read in my mind.  It gives an excellent view of what happened in Philadelphia in 1793.  Follow up this book with…

Fever 1793, byLaurie Halse Anderson
A historical fiction work depicting the horrifying conditions of Philadephia and around Mattie’s family coffee house.  Not too terrifying for the younger, good reader, but gives a lot of detail about death, death carts, symptoms, bleeding [the treatment at the time], and vile smells.

Picture books if you prefer:

Ed & Fred Flea, by Pamela Duncan Edwards
Fred, the bad flea fakes having the flu.  His brother Ed and a tick jump for their lives [and not because of Fred].  

One Cow Coughs:  a Counting Book for the Sick and Miserable, by Christine Loomis
Cows do cough, and by using collage, Ms. Loomis shows you the animals and how sick they are and what they do to get better.  Me thinks that Frank McCourt wrote the title [not really, but it sounds like his Irish humor].

Who's Sick today? By Lynne Cherry
Rhymes about beavers with fevers and chicken with pox [even the eggs have pox].  Okay, it’s not truly accurate portrayal, but it’s fun.

In a fun way, it shows that fever and illness can spread…even to Daddy.   

Scritch, Scratch, by Miriam Moss and Illustrated by Delphine Duran
Scritch ScratchThe science is very inaccurate in this book, but the art of the book won me over!  Ms. Calyspo is cute, even if the lunch and hair washing with the principal is a tad creepy.  You don’t have to point out the modern-day implications of this to your kids.

Germs Make Me Sick! By Melvin Berger
The artwork is okay, but in a simple way it explains contagion and good hand washing.

Enjoy reading to your children and have fun learning along with them.  I'll be on the look-out for some more interesting titles for later posts. There are many that I didn't cover here, more picture, resource, and chapter books.  Please let me know what you have found to be good for you and/or your children.


  1. so true, I know my lifelong interest in science started with the books I read as a child...

  2. My dad had all sorts of anatomy texts, including Grey's Anatomy....I loved those books! Thanks for reading.


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