A good book can take readers on a journey through time, transporting them to the past to learn about the hidden histories of everyday objects like light bulbs or clocks. It can also introduce readers to unforgettable characters, like an endlessly curious scientist who continued his fight to protect the planet despite dissenting voices denouncing his research.
The winners of the 2021 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, announced Jan. 26 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Subaru of America Inc., offer these immersive experiences to young readers. For 16 years, the prizes have recognized outstanding science writing and illustration for children of all ages with the aim of encouraging the creation of even more quality books to foster children’s understanding and appreciation of science.
The winners of the 2021 prizes, awarded across four categories, are:
- Children’s Science Picture Book: Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet, written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Teresa Martínez.
- Middle Grades Science Book: Can You Hear the Trees Talking?: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest, by Peter Wohlleben.
- Hands-On Science Book: This is a Book to Read with a Worm, by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen.
- Young Adult Science Book: The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, by Ainissa Ramirez.
“Kids are natural scientists. We celebrate books that help them expand their understanding of the world and introduce them to the people behind the discoveries,” said Sarah Ingraffea, awards manager of the prize at AAAS. “These books foster a love of science and learning through fascinating stories and inspiring people.”
AAAS and Subaru of America first teamed up in 2005 to honor five authors and one illustrator for bodies of work that contributed meaningful works to the field of children’s science books. Since 2006, the prizes have been awarded annually to authors and illustrators for specific, recently published works.
Two judging panels composed of librarians, educators and scientists evaluate books based on detailed criteria for each award:
- The winning picture book, for instance, must be appropriate for children in grades K-4, should depict children of all backgrounds participating in science and should help develop positive attitudes toward science in young readers.
- The middle grades book should be appropriate for children in grades 5-8 and should encourage those readers to ask questions about the science, while the hands-on science book should feature activities that help readers develop problem-solving and research skills.
- The young adult prize, open to books written specifically for young adults and books aimed at adults, should encourage high schoolers “to view science and technology thoughtfully, being neither categorically antagonistic nor uncritically positive,” according to the criteria, which are informed by the work of AAAS’ Project 2061, which focuses improving science education and scientific literacy.
All winning books, regardless of category, must explain science content accurately without significant errors or omissions.
An Ongoing Partnership Between AAAS and Subaru
The partnership between AAAS and Subaru goes beyond honoring the best science books for children. They have also collaborated to bring books directly to children, to foster connections between authors, readers and educators, and to cultivate joy in learning about science – a partnership spearheaded by Abana Jacobs, a Subaru marketing executive who died in late 2020.
Together, AAAS and Subaru have brought educators to the AAAS Annual Meeting for professional development and networking opportunities with prize-winning authors. Subaru has also taken part in AAAS Family Science Days, where they have hosted a reading lounge, author meet-and-greets and hands-on experiments.
The Subaru Loves Learning initiative was launched in 2015, led by Jacobs, with Subaru retailers donating prize-winning books to schools around the country, with AAAS contributing educational resources to incorporate the books into curricula. Since 2015, the program as donated over 277,600 science books to schools.
In 2020, when many students are learning at home, the education team at AAAS is reaching educators and families in new ways, said Ingraffea. AAAS has created more than 40 hands-on resources and blog posts, including at-home activities, career interviews with STEM professionals and profiles of prize-winning authors – some of which they have begun translating into Spanish, Ingraffea added.
Children’s Science Picture Book Winner
Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet, written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Teresa Martínez. Charlesbridge, 2019.
Mario and the Hole in the Sky shares the story of chemist Mario Molina, introducing him as a curious boy in Mexico City in the 1940s and 1950s, his interest in science sparked by a microscope he receives as a present. Molina grows up to pursue scientific research in the United States, learning that the molecules called chlorofluorocarbons – found in products like refrigerators and spray cans – were breaking up the earth’s ozone layer, which protects people from harmful radiation. Molina knows this is a serious problem, but it takes many years for the countries of the world to band together to stop creating and using CFCs, which helps the ozone layer repair itself. His true story serves as a call to action for another invisible threat to the planet: climate change. “We saved our planet once. We can do it again,” he says.
Middle Grades Science Book Winner
Can You Hear the Trees Talking?: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest, by Peter Wohlleben. Greystone Books, 2019.
A child-friendly follow-up to The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben’s 2015 book written for adults, Can You Hear the Trees Talking? invites young readers to learn more about the natural world that surrounds them. Each section poses and answers number of questions about all aspects of trees, no matter how offbeat: from “How Do Trees Breathe?” and “Do Trees Have Grandparents?” to “Why Are Trees Important in the City?” Wohlleben stokes curiosity further with quick quizzes, colorful photographs and hands-on activities that children can try on their own or with the help of parents.
Hands-On Science Book Winner
This is a Book to Read with a Worm, by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen. Charlesbridge, 2020.
This is a Book to Read with a Worm shows children that they can be scientists in their own backyards or local parks. Budding biologists can flex their observational skills and follow along as the book’s characters learn how to find a worm, discover how to keep their worm comfortable and investigate how it moves, eats and lives. Don’t forget to return the worm to where it was found once the observation session is over. “Treat me gently and don’t do anything to hurt me,” says the foreword from a worm.
Young Adult Science Book Winner
The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, by Ainissa Ramirez. MIT Press, 2020.
Materials scientist and science communicator Ainissa Ramirez seeks to spark the same curiosity in the material world that she felt as a young girl – and felt extinguished in some science courses she took. In The Alchemy of Us, she tells the hidden stories beyond eight inventions: clocks, steel rails, copper telegraph wires, photographic film, carbon filaments in light bulbs, hard disks, scientific glassware and silicon chips. Focusing on how these materials and their creation have influenced our culture.