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Building Inclusive STEM Collections: Books by BIPOC Authors (October 2022): Children’s Books

By Hilary Dorsch Wong, Katherine A. Hicks, and David Kornreich

Children’s Books

Our project scope includes children’s books because many institutions with education schools—our own included—have robust children’s collections, also committed to books with diverse authorship. The books identified all share the goal of inspiring future scientists, whether through role models, exhortations to dream big, or introduction to a particular science. Some identified books focus on great BIPOC scientists. In Reaching for the Moon, Katherine Johnson—the NASA scientist featured in the film Hidden Figures (2016)—provides her autobiography. Intended for children in grades 4–6, Johnson seeks to “inspire the next generation of young people to always do their very best.” She explains how numbers were always her father’s strength, and thus how she made them her own. As a college student, Johnson was tutored by some of the brightest stars in mathematics of the time, but as an African American and a woman, she faced challenges at every step. Through perseverance, Johnson joined NASA in 1960, eventually calculating the trajectories of Alan Shepherd’s first space flight and the Apollo mission to the moon. Johnson is also represented in Black Women in Science, by Kimberly Pellum and Rosetta Conner. This inspiring book chronicles the lives of fifteen Black woman scientists, written for young people in middle school. For example, when Mamie Clark discovered that there were no jobs for the first African American PhD psychologist in 1940s New York, Clark turned her scientific skills to fighting for justice, independently studying children’s awareness of race from a young age and testifying that Black children learned just as quickly as white children in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case. Other books in scope for this essay depict children from historically marginalized groups learning about science or dreaming about their futures. In Science Is Everywhere, Science Is for Everyone, Jeanette Davis and Philbert Washington offer a short pictorial book illustrating kids from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds having fun while discovering the sciences. Daddy’s Little Girl, a twenty-page children’s book by Karissa Culbreath and Mike Motz, depicts a father’s conversation with his daughter as he relates all the jobs she can do when she grows up. Accompanying realistic illustrations present an African American girl sitting on her father’s lap as he matches each of her positive qualities to a job she might be suited for. The end of the book has spaces for readers to write in their own stories as well as their answers to conversation-starting questions.

Some children’s books focus on the science itself. The “A Day in the Life” series follows individuals of a specific animal group over the course of a day.9 The insects of Jessica Ware’s Bugs attempt to eat (often each other), avoid predators, and mate. Big Cats, by Tyus Williams, features pumas, panthers, lions, tigers, and leopards, occupying habitats from the Himalayas to American swamps, and from Kenya to South America. The various felids mark their territory, hunt, fight with rivals (and rival species) for food, and bond with family. Williams also notes the effect of humans on these species, many of which are endangered. A third book in this series (Sharks, by Carlee Jackson) was published after submission of this essay and promises a similar reading engagement. In Chasing Bats and Tracking Rats, Black urban ecologist Cylita Guy has created a colorful book for middle-schoolers, engaging readers in a flurry of scientific observation. The reader is first asked to think of their own surroundings as a “true urban jungle”— not just a place built by and for humans, but an ecosystem filled with plants and animals (not all of whom might be welcome). Each chapter concentrates on one species of animal living in cities: bees, rats, birds, bears, and more. The young reader learns how those animals live in the urban environment, where they fit in the food web, about their diversity and habitats, how scientists study them, and how they themselves fit into the interdependence of life in this urban biosphere. Within each chapter is an active scientific challenge for the reader to complete themself, asking guided questions such as: “Is ‘problem’ wildlife really the problem? Or is it the human tendency to move in where animals already have lived for ages?” Finally, some books teach science while portraying kids of diverse ethnicities doing science themselves. A series by Black neuroscientist Theanne Griffith, “The Magnificent Makers” is aimed at a somewhat older audience. These books depict fictional characters engaged in school science projects, such as crafting a realistic brain from clay, when, for example, a magic portal opens to a fantasy laboratory full of robots, anti-gravity chambers, brains, sharks, musical instruments, and everything one would need to explore a scientific question. Each book includes activities that readers can do at home as they follow along with the “makers” in the book. Thus, readers become participants in the action as they are guided through science experiments on their own journey of discovery. Griffith has authored five books in this series: Brain Trouble; How to Test a Friendship; Race Through Space; Riding Sound Waves; and The Great Germ Hunt.

9. We learned of the Macmillan children’s imprints only shortly before submission of this essay and were unable to verify how all authors listed on the publisher’s website self-identify, though we were able to verify the self-identification of the three authors mentioned here. According to the publisher, these books are recommended for six- to eight-year-olds. If a child is reading to themselves, however, the books are more appropriate for eight- to ten-year-olds.