12 May 2011

Childhood bookshelves: Geology reading for kids

Posted by Jessica Ball

Visiting my folks is always an opportunity for me to look through all my old stuff (mostly with the aim of cleaning it out of the attic so the ceilings don’t collapse). But books tend to be exempt from the cleaning sprees, and I usually come across something that I loved as a child and would still like to keep on my bookshelves. Often, these are geology- or volcano-related; since I’m taking a few days off from research, I thought I’d point out some great leisure reading titles for kids (and adults). And I don’t just mean the slimmed-down generic “Geology” or “Volcanoes” subject guides that come in series, but some unique books that I remember piquing my interest in Earth science. (I’ve already mentioned a few of these in my “Reading Rainbow” post, but they’re definitely worth mentioning again!)

Hill of Fire by Thomas P. Lewis: This is one of the Reading Rainbow books that I mentioned in a previous post, but it’s definitely worth repeating. After all, the very concept that a volcano could suddenly appear in the middle of a cornfield (the story of the eruption of Paricutin in Mexico in 1943) was boggling to me as a young child, but also exciting. Could that happen in my backyard? Who got to keep the volcano when it stopped erupting? Why would a volcano just start forming? It took me a long time to start to answer these questions for myself (heck, I’m still working on some of them), but this book definitely piqued my interest in volcanology in a big way.


Eyewitness Books: These are, in my opinion, some of the best-researched and best-illustrated subject guides to topics in geology. The photographs are artfully composed and use some of the best examples of their subjects from museums and collections around the world, and the books are really informative without being boring (probably because of all the pictures). I can remember more than a few times that I visited natural history museums and encountered some of the very specimens I’d seen pictured in these books. The Eyewitness series has been published for years and has quite a few books on a number of science- and non-science related topics, and I think it’s an excellent addition to any child’s library.

The Magic School Bus books by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen: Hey, who doesn’t love Ms. Frizzle? When I read these books growing up, the magical teacher and her adventurous kids went on such great adventures that I’m sure it resulted in me spending a lot more time at the natural history museum. I certainly still want coveralls like Ms. Frizzle’s, and I always fantasized about taking the school bus down into a cave or volcano to see what it was really like inside. These books (at least the ones I’ve read) are really entertaining, but they manage to sneak in a fair bit of science along the way – The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth teaches you all about the different layers of the earth, what the three types of rocks are, the difference between rocks and minerals, and The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs will help you sort out the different geologic periods and tricky dinosaur names. (These would make really good intro lab manuals, come to think of it…) The illustrations are also quite fun, and there are a lot of cute detail hidden throughout.

Everybody Needs a Rock by Bird Baylor and Peter Parnall: I came upon this book later in life, actually – not until college, which is too bad, because it’s beautifully illustrated and poetic. The steps of choosing a rock (which the authors outline in a delightfully quirky way throughout the book) are clever and have hints of a geologist’s mind about them. Choosing rocks to bring home is a serious business, and I know I’ve employed many of the methods the book suggests. (Don’t pick rocks that are too big or too small, always be sure to smell them, and don’t be worried when you’re looking for a rock!) The way that the book communicates the fascination that geologists have with the Earth – and rocks – is quite charming, and a good way to introduce budding rockhounds to geology.

Planet Earth by Jonathan Weiner: Does anyone remember watching the original Planet Earth TV series, the one narrated by Richard Kiley? My parents taped this and let me watch it (instead of Saturday morning cartoons) when I was little, and I absolutely loved it. (This is probably one of the main reasons that I got interested in geology in the first place – thanks, Mom and Dad!) The companion book is just as great – perhaps a tad dense for kids to read, but filled with photos and figures from the TV series, which was very well illustrated indeed. (I still envision schematic models of plate tectonics as I saw them in that show, and I’m always vaguely disappointed when Richard Kiley doesn’t show up to narrate them to me.)


I’m sure there are a lot of other favorites that you all have from your childhood (or from your children), and I’d like to know what they are! (My childhood collection is sadly lacking in planetary geology or hydrology, for example.) What did you like to read as a child, or what would you want your children to read to learn about geology? Let me know in the comments.

Other book-related posts:

Essential reading for volcanologists

Blast from the past (Reading Rainbow Books)

Volcanoes in fiction