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Keeping Curious Kids Engaged in STEM

Young children are naturally curious. They spend their days exploring the world, and they’re constantly asking, “Why?” But sadly, many primary-grade students who are enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and math get turned off to these subjects by the time they reach high school. What’s going on? And more importantly, how can we keep these children engaged?

I’m not going to pretend that these questions are easy to answer or that there’s a single solution. But I do have some ideas that I think are worth considering.

For the last 20 years, I’ve worked as a children’s book author who writes about science. I consider myself a scientist first and a writer second. I’m an analytical thinker, and in my personal life, I’m surrounded by other analytical thinkers—family and friends who work as scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and statisticians.

But in my professional life, I’m surrounded by children’s librarians, reading specialists, and literacy educators who think in a whole different way. I call them “narrative thinkers.” These people chose their careers because they connect strongly with stories and storytelling. And their natural affinity for narratives influences the kinds of children’s books they buy for classroom and library collections. Simply put, narrative thinkers tend to choose fiction and, to a lesser extent, narrative nonfiction because it feels comfortable and familiar. Their purchases affect not only what titles end up in a child’s hands but also what books will be published in the future.

I’m concerned that young analytical thinkers don’t have access to the kinds of children’s books that appeal to them most. Studies clearly show that as many as 42 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction—text that explains, describes, and informs—over fiction and narrative nonfiction. Unlike narrative nonfiction, which tells a true story or conveys an experience, expository nonfiction focuses on facts and figures, ideas and information—things that young analytical thinkers value because they’re goal-oriented readers. They want to understand everything in the wide world and how it works.

While some young analytical thinkers develop as readers despite a dearth of expository books, others don’t. Instead, they receive the unfortunate label “reluctant reader.” A growing body of research shows that these children will only thrive as readers if they have access to a rich, diverse array of expository nonfiction. In other words, for them, expository text is the gateway to literacy.

How can we begin to address this problem? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Purchase a mix of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and expository nonfiction for the children in your life, and share all three kinds of books as read alouds.
  2. If children in your life show a preference for expository nonfiction, respect and encourage their choices. Don’t try to steer them toward fiction. Once they become confident readers, they will begin to explore a broad range of books on their own.
  3. Purchase expository nonfiction and donate it to schools and public libraries. This can benefit dozens of children over many years.
  4. Spread the word. If more people become aware of the importance of giving children access to a diverse assortment of expository as well as narrative nonfiction, change can happen more quickly.

If we want the United States to remain a global innovation leader, we must foster all the potential STEM talent our country has to offer. We need to fuel the curiosity of young analytical thinkers, and one way to do that is by nurturing and nourishing their minds with books they love.

Here are 10 finely-crafted, STEM-themed expository nonfiction picture books that I think should be in every elementary book collection:

  • Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
  • Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014)
  • An Egg is Quiet written by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2014)
  • Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones by Sarah Levine and T.S. Spookytooth (Millbrook, 2018)
  • A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg (Greenwillow, 2017)
  • Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, 2013)
  • Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (Candlewick, 2018)
  • Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell (Boyds Mills Press, 2014)
  • Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating and David deGrand (Knopf, 2016)
  • The Street Beneath My Feet by Guillain and Yuval Zommer (words & pictures, 2017)

Edited by Bill Sullivan, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.


Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.

Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts, 2000, p. 485-495.

Mohr, Kathleen A. J. “Children’s Choices for Recreational Reading: A Three-Part Investigation of Selection Preferences, Rationales, and Processes.” Journal of Literacy Research, 2006, p. 81-104.

Repanskey, Lisa L., Jeanne Schumm, and Jacqueline Johnson. “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology, 2017, p. 1-40

About the Author
  • Melissa Stewart

    Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including "Seashells: More than a Home", "Can an Aardvark Bark?", and "No Monkeys, No Chocolate". She holds a degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. Melissa maintains the highly regarded blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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