The best books for kids about mythology, dinosaurs, animals, space and vehicles

By Karen MacPherson
Sunday, March 21, 2010

They come bounding into the library, a gleam in their eyes and a goal in their hearts: to find books about their latest passion, be it dinosaurs or vehicles or planets. These young readers are eager explorers of information books, as fascinated by nonfiction as other kids are by the latest fantasy novel.

Certain subjects are perennially popular, and there are a few basic sources to check immediately. For example, children ages 5-8 might enjoy the work of Gail Gibbons and Seymour Simon, whose books about a wide array of subjects -- bats, deserts, farming and service stations, to name a few -- give readers lots of information presented in a simple way. DK Publishing's Eyewitness books, focusing on everything from spies to trees to electricity, and offering their trademark design of photos/illustrations and short bursts of text on each page, work well with children ages 8-12.

Look also for books that have won the Sibert Medal, awarded annually since 2001 by the American Library Association to the best information books for children.


With the popularity of the Percy Jackson fantasy series by Rick Riordan, mythology has become a hot topic among many readers. Start with books by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire: D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths (Delacorte; paperback, $19.95) and D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths (New York Review of Books; $24.95; ages 8 and up). Both are loaded with information and action-filled illustrations. The McElderry Book of Greek Myths (Simon & Schuster, $21.99; ages 6-10), retold by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Pep Montserrat, provides a well-written overview complemented with colorful illustrations. For interactive fun, try Mythology (Candlewick Press, $19.99; ages 8-12), part of the popular "Ology" series.


Young dinosaur fans have a famously insatiable appetite for facts and will devour a highly illustrated encyclopedia like Dinosaurs (Random House, $34.99; ages 8 and up), by Thomas Holtz Jr. Other great resources include author Don Lessem's Meet the Dinosaurs series (Lerner Publications; paperback, $6.95 each; ages 6-10). Series titles include The Smartest Dinosaurs and The Deadliest Dinosaurs.

For the youngest dino lovers, try Dinosaur Bones (Chronicle, $16.99; ages 2-6) featuring an entertaining text and lively illustrations by author-illustrator Bob Barner. More fun can be found in Did Dinosaurs Eat Pizza? Mysteries Science Hasn't Solved (Henry Holt, $15.95; ages 5-8), written by Lenny Hort and illustrated by John O'Brien.


Author-illustrator Steve Jenkins, sometimes working with his artist wife, Robin Page, creates beautifully illustrated animal books for kids ages 4-8. Jenkins's books include: Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World (Houghton Mifflin, $16); Biggest, Strongest, Fastest (Sandpiper; paperback, $6.95); What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? (Sandpiper; paperback, $6.99); and Actual Size (Houghton Mifflin, $16).

For ages 9 and up, check out the books of Sy Montgomery, who often works with photographer Nic Bishop. Montgomery's books include: Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia (Houghton Mifflin, $18); The Tarantula Scientist (Sandpiper; paperback, $7.95); and The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo (Sandpiper; paperback, $8.99).

Dick King-Smith, best-known for his novel Babe: The Gallant Pig, also has written memorable nonfiction books like All Pigs Are Beautiful (Candlewick, $8.99) and I Love Guinea Pigs (Candlewick, $6.99), both paperbacks illustrated by Anita Jeram and aimed at ages 4-8.


For star lovers, try the updated versions of H.A. Rey's Find the Constellations ($9.99) and The Stars (paperback, $11.99), both published by HMH Books and aimed at readers 9-12. In The Mysterious Universe (Houghton Mifflin, $18; ages 10 and up), author Ellen Jackson and photographer Nic Bishop introduce readers to scientists studying dark energy and black holes. Meanwhile, younger readers, ages 5-8, might enjoy Once Upon a Starry Night ($8.95) and Zoo in the Sky ($7.95), both paperbacks written by Jacqueline Mitton, illustrated by Christina Balit and published by National Geographic.

Young astronaut wannabes will swoon over Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum, $17.99), a 2010 Sibert Honor book written and illustrated by Brian Floca. Older readers will love the 2010 Sibert Medal winner, Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick Press, $17.99; ages 10 and up) by Tanya Lee Stone. Other good choices are Team Moon (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95; ages 10 and up), by Catherine Thimmesh, and Mission Control, This is Apollo (Viking, $23.99; ages 10 and up), by Andrew Chaikin, and featuring illustrations by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean.


For the youngest readers, start with the oversized books on vehicles published by DK for ages 2-6. These include The Big Book of Things That Go, The Big Book of Trains and The Big Book of Airplanes ($14.99 each). Older readers will enjoy Car Science (DK, $17.99; ages 9-12) by Richard Hammond, as well as the Motor Mania series by Jeffrey Zuehlke. Books in that series include Classic Cars and Drag Racers (Lerner, $26.60 each; ages 8-12).

Young military vehicle enthusiasts should check out Zuehlke's Pull Ahead Books series, which includes Tanks, Fighter Planes and Aircraft Carriers (Lerner, $22.60 each; ages 5-8). For those interested in exploring weapons, the best beginning resource is Arms & Armor (DK, $15.99, ages 8-12), by Michele Byam.

Karen MacPherson, the children's and teen librarian at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, also writes a weekly column on children's books for Scripps Howard News Service.

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