Do you know Five Books?  This excellent site showcases writers, thinkers, academics and others, who present the best five books on just about any topic under the sun. Google is fine and good as a virtual encyclopaedia at your finger tips. But what if you want more than just the facts? What if you want interpretation? Or the point of view of someone truly knowledgeable, instead of the common denominator view from Wikipedia? Five Books is the answer. And just to illustrate, here are five of the best science books for children to get you started! Children learn in many different ways, says science writer Alice Bell. The best science books for young people reflect that. Her suggested reading takes in robots used to explain sex and a picture book about dinosaurs… Enjoy!

Alice Bell’s interview :

What first got you interested in science?

When I was little, my mum was very keen on taking me to the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum in London. We would go to Kensington Gardens and play in the playground, and then walk down to Exhibition Road where she’d drag me round the dinosaurs and the spaceships. I found them a bit boring, but if I hung out with her at the spaceships and the dinosaurs then I would get to go and play in the Launchpad gallery, and have a go with some physics, which I enjoyed.

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum are a big favourite with most children, but you found them dull?

Yes, I wanted to play with things not just stare at them. I really liked the Natural History Museum’s human body gallery that Richard Gregory helped produce in the 1970s, and the Science Museum had Launchpad or the old children’s galleries in the basement. Those were interactive exhibits, not just big iconic things you were meant to stare at.

This book has been in print for a long time, so there are a few generations of children that have read it. For me, it’s fascinating to talk to people who are now in their twenties and thirties about how they remember it. People often mention the illustrations. The book plays with metaphors to explain things but does so in a visual way. They had white knights as white blood cells, a scab which the knights are protecting, and the battlements of a castle. When I talk to adults about this today, they will say, “I remember that!” Another bit that people often remember are the robots that explained reproduction. The book clearly tried to make it not very obviously human – a way of distancing it from reality while also being able to explain it.

Are there two robots grappling with each other?

They are doing a running jump at each other!

Isn’t that a bit oblique as a metaphor for sex?

I think it has confused generations of children. There is an, er, energy to it though. There are hearts and cartoon movement lines as they run at each other. Clearly the illustrator has really thought about the reproductive system and how to communicate that in the weird abstracted form of rather box-like robots, because if you know what you are looking for you can see how it is meant to link to parts of the reproductive system. It is actually quite explanatory in many ways. But if you had been the sort of child whose parents were quite open, and you had seen examples of where babies come from and how the body works in a slightly less euphemistic way, it might just have seemed a bit odd.

For you, are the illustrations still the key to the book?

Yes, and it is something that you see a lot in children’s books, especially the Horrible Science books which I did my PhD on. They use visual metaphors and visual analogies. You play out almost fantastical things in often quite a jokey way, like that idea of white blood cells as white knights. There is another beautiful visual metaphor in one Horrible Science book where they are talking about amplitude and sound waves, and they have a character dubbed “an ample scientist” who is quite fat. The roundness of the scientist, as well as the way he is really messy about eating his food – with bits flying off him – becomes part of a scientific diagram with the shape of the sound waves coming off him. It is really clever at explaining something while making a visual pun.

To continue reading the interview from the Five Books Website, click here.

Feature image – boy with a book, painting by artist David Bromley