STEM books for toddlers and preschoolers


It’s never too early to start teaching children about science, technology, engineering, and math. These are some of my favorite STEM books for kids ages 2 to 4. I’m sure they would be enjoyed by older kids as well, and in many cases their recommended age range is much older than 4, but AJ is almost four and these are all books she has enjoyed over the past two years. They would all make great holiday gifts for any toddler or preschooler.

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos. A biography of Carl Sagan, focusing on his curiosity as a young boy, and ending with the Voyager missions. AJ got this book for her 3rd birthday and would beg every night, “Can we read Carl?” She really identified with the young Carl. This is just a great children’s book: informative, lyrical, wonderful illustrations, and great at inspiring curiosity and imagination. As I do with all books that I read to AJ, I change the wording at times to make it easier for her to understand, and I elaborate in some places to offer further explanations. This book makes it really easy to do that.

Making a Friend. This book contains very few words, yet it can teach so much. At first glance, it does not appear to be a science book at all. It’s about seasons, a child who builds a snowman that becomes his friend, and what happens when the snowman melts. The theme of the story is “What you love will always be with you.” But! I found this book to be an excellent way to introduce the water cycle, as well as phases of matter and conservation of mass.

Amazing Machines series. Includes five books: “Amazing Airplanes,” “Roaring Rockets,” “Terrific Trains,” “Flashing Fire Engines,” and “Tremendous Tractors.” These books offer a very educational and factual take on popular children’s subjects. They really explain in detail how each machine works, and in rhyming verse that’s fun to read and listen to. I actually learned some things from these books.

Introductory Calculus for Infants. AJ loves this book right now, and I love hearing her say “Mommy, can you read Introductory Calculus?” To her, it’s an alphabet book– it goes through the letters of the alphabet with a math concept for each letter. The overarching story features a character named ‘x’ who is an outcast among the other letters until ‘f’ shows him that together as f(x), they can do anything. I try to explain the math concepts to AJ, and of course it’s not like she is really learning anything about calculus here. But the story does teach a lesson about friendship as well as reinforcing the alphabet, and she is still getting something out of it. At the very least, when she takes a calculus course in about 13 years, it won’t seem so scary because she’ll have fond memories of reading about calculus with her family as a little girl.

Good Night, Galaxy. This is basically a vocabulary book of astronomy terms with very simple explanations thrown in. It uses no more than a sentence to explain each concept, but it does introduce some good terms like pulsars and black holes, which you could then explain further. I like it because it’s short and easy to read when we don’t have time to read a longer book, so it’s great for bedtime. And it’s a board book, so you can leave it in the hands of a baby or toddler without it getting destroyed.

My Body series. This is a set of four books: “My Brain,” “My Bones,” “My Digestive System,” and “My Heart and Lungs.” These are the best books that I could find about the human body that the youngest children could understand. I still had to do a lot of verbal text editing while reading it to AJ when she was 2, but the text is simple and provides examples that were easy for her to grasp. They include activities you can do with your child to teach them more about each body system. Two-year-old AJ used to love saying at mealtimes, “The food goes doooown the esophagus to the stomach, then the small intestine and large intestine!”

Over and Under the Snow. In this book, a girl goes cross-country skiing with her father and learns about the animals that live in the subnivean zone, the “secret kingdom under the snow.” The illustrations show what’s happening both over and under the snow, and make this such a cozy book to read in winter. AJ requests this one a lot. I think it really encourages children to think about the unseen and unknown in nature, and in general to look beyond the surface of things.

My Very First Space Book. This book is freaking adorable. The illustrations are detailed and factual (and include a cameo of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson), the language is easy for children to understand, and it’s at just the right level to introduce children to astronomy and space exploration. It should definitely be every child’s first space book.

The INTP Book

There are very few novels I like because I find that fictional characters tend to be unbelievable, possessing dissonant traits that are contradictory to Myers-Briggs. Writers who don’t know about Myers-Briggs don’t know that you can’t simply choose any combination of personality traits and put them together in one person. Some authors try to make their characters complex to the point of psychological impossibility.

When_you_reach_meWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (which I’ve blogged about briefly before) is my favorite book, and I don’t say that lightly. This book is different. This book is all about INTPs. Despite the fact that it’s a children’s novel, I have never read a better fictional portrayal of INTPs.

There are several INTPs in the book, including a mysterious time traveler. The main character though, 12-year-old Miranda, is probably an INFP. I think of INFPs as “INTP Whisperers”. They make great friends for INTPs. They can understand INTPs well, and act as a translator between INTPs and others. They can be selfless champions of an INTP’s ideas, and can often identify an INTP’s emotional and relational needs better than INTPs themselves. They can also tolerate a lot of INTP eccentricities that deter other friendships, such as their lack of emotional preamble and tendency towards self-absorption. (The author has stated that Miranda is heavily modeled after herself. If Rebecca Stead is an INFP as I suspect, it’s very apt that a book about INTPs would be written by an INFP.)

Miranda becomes friends with an INTP boy named Marcus, and she does all of these things for him. At first she thinks he’s weird because he talks about advanced concepts in math and physics rather than typical 12-year-old stuff, and he doesn’t make small talk or seem to have any other friends. But then she comes to understand him. While she begins to protect Marcus in ways that he’s completely oblivious to, he teaches her how to solve the mystery of the time traveler.

Miranda spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of reality, using the metaphor of a veil. Everyone is born with an invisible veil separating them from the rest of the world, she says:

We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.

But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. Some people learn to lift the veil themselves. Then they don’t have to depend on the wind anymore.

I’ve thought a lot about those veils. I wonder if, every once in awhile, someone is born without one. Someone who sees the big stuff all the time. Like maybe you [the time traveler].

I re-read this book whenever I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed; I’ve read it over a dozen times. It reminds me of who I am. I am not a stay-at-home mom, a person who does laundry and kisses boo-boos. I am not a homeowner or a wife. I am an INTP, a person without a veil. Most people have to work hard to lift their veil, but I have to work hard to create it.

Is this book about anything?

In the past several years it seems like nonfiction books have been steadily rising in numbers and popularity while dropping in the amount of actual information they contain.  Every time I go to the library or bookstore, there are cutesy new nonfiction books that favor breadth over depth, and contain little more than a smattering of facts and anecdotes arranged around a loose theme. I don’t know if there’s a name for this genre, but I call it “pop nonfiction”. Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Malcolm Gladwell are some of the authors that come to mind. Continue reading “Is this book about anything?”

Sluices of infinity

9780316187374_custom-a6979da2f8157e8aabbe3508f472c61072bcab8c-s6-c30I have many favorite books, but there are a very few books that echo my mind exactly—in its way of organization, if not in the content it possesses. I’ve found one such book in Thinking in Numbers, a collection of essays about math, by the savant and synesthete Daniel Tammet. If books have personalities, this book is definitely an INTP, which is why it is so kindred to me. Reading these essays helps me reorient my mind to itself and embrace my INTP-ness. Perhaps such kindred books help me remember what I am, as they are an echo of what I could be.

If reading a good book is usually like walking through a gallery of ideas and being introduced to them by the author, reading this book is a boat ride along a river of thought, completely effortless. Each essay carries me along a stream of ideas, carving the same path through the pages as it would in my mind—but with hidden dimensions, illuminated by a mind much more brilliant than mine. Each stream of ideas meanders smoothly, sometimes detouring into a whirlpool that causes a thought to spin around and around in my mind until it makes sense of me. And of course, because this book is an INTP, sometimes there is a jarring leap of ideas in an attempt at smooth transition that makes me wince with awkwardness. But even the awkwardness is of the same kind that I produce.

Each essay explicates a mathematical concept such as fractions or prime numbers, weaving it into a non-mathematical narrative so that they illuminate each other. My favorite essay so far is “The Admirable Number Pi,” which reveals the staggering beauty that I never knew was held in this infinite number.

Circles, perfect circles, thus enumerated, consist of every possible run of digits. Somewhere in pi, perhaps trillions and trillions of digits deep, a hundred successive fives rub shoulders; elsewhere occur a thousand alternating zeroes and ones. Inconceivably far inside the random-looking morass of digits, having computed them for a time far longer than that which separates us from the big bang, the sequence 123456789… repeats 123,456,789 times in a row. If only we could venture far enough along, we would find the number’s opening hundred, thousand, million, billion digits immaculately repeated, as though at any instant the whole vast array were to begin all over again. And yet, it never does. There is only one number pi, unrepeatable, indivisible.

In 2004 the author broke the record for memorizing the most digits of pi. Using his synesthetic ability to see order and meaning within the numbers, he recited pi to 22,514 decimal places.

In my mind, it is I, not the number, who grows small. I diminish myself as much as possible before the mystery of pi. Emptying myself, I perceive every digit up close. I do not wish to fragment the number; I am not interested in breaking it up. I am interested in the dialogue between its digits; in the unity and continuity that underlie them all.

A bell cannot tell time, but it can be moved in just such a way as to say twelve o’clock—similarly, a man cannot calculate infinite numbers, but he can be moved in just such a way as to say pi.