Tag Archive: science books for young readers

Exoplanets, a review by Vicki Spandel

Exoplanets by Seymour Simon. 2018. New York: HarperCollins.
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Levels: Grades 3 and up (Adults will enjoy and learn much from this book)
Features: Incredible photos and illustrations, glossary, index, guide to further reading, and Author’s Note.


Whenever author Seymour Simon comes out with a new book, it’s cause for celebration. I urge you to have a look at Exoplanets, the newest addition to this writer’s impressive collection.  Like Simon’s previous titles (over 300 of them), this book is a gift. It’s highly readable, making even complex and expansive subjects (like galaxies or the universe itself) both understandable and entertaining. In addition, it’s jam packed with ideas curious people love to explore, such as whether we’re alone in the universe.

Not that long ago, landing on the moon was a big deal. Now we are studying—literally identifying and investigating—so-called exoplanets, meaning planets outside our tiny solar system. What could be more exciting? But wait. Did you read that right? Did I say tiny solar system? Well, let’s put it in author Seymour Simon’s own language—and believe me, the guy has a gift for comparisons. If the Milky Way Galaxy were the size of the USA, he tells us, “Our whole solar system would then be the size of a quarter coin placed on the United States. Meanwhile, the sun would be only a microscopic speck of dust on that scale” (6). How small does that make you feel?

Milky Way 5As humans, we’ve likely pondered the possibility of alien life since we first looked up at the stars. Now we might be close to answering the question meaningfully, making this—from a scientific perspective—one of the most exciting times to be alive. Ever.

Tiny can be powerful. For a small book, Exoplanets has a big reach. In just under 40 pages, Seymour Simon investigates a wide range of provocative questions, some answerable and many meant to tease our imaginations:

• What’s a Goldilocks planet?
• How many stars (suns) and exoplanets might exist just within our own Milky Way?
• What’s a galaxy? And how many galaxies might our universe contain?
• How many exoplanets have been confirmed so far?
• How in the world do scientists discover these new planets?
• Are exoplanets like Earth—or like any planets in our solar system?
• What does a planet need to sustain life?
• How do we calculate the odds of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
• Would aliens be like us—or very different?
• Should we look forward to aliens stopping by—or brace ourselves?

If you and your students have ever wondered about these same things, don’t miss this book. The ideas are inherently intriguing and presented with the clarity for which Simon is famous.

Animals Nobody LovesI’m a long-time fan of Seymour Simon’s nonfiction, and have carried his books to countless workshops, sharing them with teachers and students alike—who always madly scribble down titles. Special favorites for me include Big Cats, Animals Nobody Loves, Gorillas, Sharks, Whales, The Brain, The Heart, and Our Solar System, but let me just say that you could read all day and into tomorrow, and still have numerous remarkable Seymour Simon books to explore. As a former teacher, Simon knows how to engage students, how to emphasize important details, how to get conversationally technical without drowning us in hard-to-recall statistics, and above all, how to suggest stimulating questions and issues for us to think about.The Heart

In his striking conclusion, Simon admits there is much we humans still do not know, including whether life beyond our solar system, if it exists at all, might take the form of intelligent beings or simple microbes. “So why are we even looking?” he asks. “We’re looking for answers because that’s what humans do. We are curious about our world and our surroundings” (39). That curiosity, he adds, is like an insatiable thirst.

What a brilliant wrap-up.

Curiosity not only feeds our desire to explore space, but also drives our very desire to learn. Let’s nurture the innate curiosity in our children because it’s what makes our teaching not only effective, but literally possible. One good way to keep curiosity alive is by sharing great nonfiction books like this one.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book aloud. You may find this book appropriate for use with a reading group of students who share an avid interest in space and the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Still, who can say how many of your students will find this topic intriguing, given just a little taste? With this in mind, I recommend reading at least through page 9 aloud to the whole class, then inviting students to finish the book on their own, with follow-up group discussions. As you read through the book yourself, mark those passages you just “have to share.” I’m predicting you’ll find quite a few!

milky way 3Background. How many of your students have wondered about the possibility of life on other planets? Or wondered how many other planets there might be in the universe—or just within our own Milky Way galaxy? For fun, have students write short paragraphs about this, speculating or offering their current beliefs. After sharing selected passages from the book, talk about whether their ideas have changed—or their beliefs have been reinforced. Share your own thoughts, too–with, of course, the caveat that no one knows the answer to this question. Yet.

Because the book is so clearly written, students do not need a great deal of background information to understand it. However, a grasp of certain concepts will certainly enhance their enjoyment of this topic. In particular, it’s helpful if students are familiar with or knowledgeable about—

• The story of Goldilocks, so they can readily grasp how the “Goldilocks” concept applies in other contexts (It’s easy to assume children are acquainted with these fairy tales with which a lot of us grew up, but many are not, so ask!)
• The basics of our solar system, such as the number of planets, and a sense of which ones are closest to the sun (Think about sharing Seymour Simon’s book Our Solar System as a way of setting the stage for Exoplanets.)
• The terms solar system, Milky Way galaxy, and universe—and distinctions among them
• The concept of a light year, the distance light travels in a year, or 5.88 trillion miles (Make sure students have some idea of what a trillion even is—this can be difficult for young readers, or anyone, to picture!)

Our Solar SystemYou might also wish to ask students how many have seen films or read books that explore the idea of alien life. What forms does that fictional life usually take? Do they feel these portrayals are realistic—or mostly a product of writers’ and film makers’ imaginations?

Questions for Writing or Discussion

Question 1: What does it take to make a planet habitable? This is a good question to research, though your students likely have many ideas about this already. Exoplanets offers numerous clues. See the early discussion of “Goldilocks” planets on page 5, the reference to water vapor on page 13, and the discussion of atmosphere, ocean water, and temperature on page 19. See if you can, with your students, come up with their own personal definition of the “habitable zone.” Note the comment on page 20 that “Each star has a different habitable zone.” Why would this be? What’s the habitable zone for our own star, the sun? What if Earth had been a little closer to the sun—or just a bit farther away?

Cosmos2Note: In his famous book Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote this:

The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a one followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious. (1980, 5)

Those beautiful lines haunt me still. Worlds are indeed precious. But as we now know, precious does not necessarily mean unique. The idea that intelligent life could exist somewhere in that “everlasting night of intergalactic space” is infinitely captivating.

Question 2: How many exoplanets exist? While we cannot come up with a specific number, we can—as Seymour Simon’s book suggests—make an intelligent guess. What’s important here is understanding how scientists make such estimates.

We need to begin with the notion of how many exoplanets might exist in that tiny bit of galactic real estate known to us, the Milky Way. According to Simon, scientists estimate that there could be one Goldilocks planet circling each red dwarf star in the galaxy—and more such planets circling other stars similar to our sun. Based on the numbers of such stars in the galaxy, the Milky Way itself might contain billions of habitable planets (See page 9 for a thorough discussion). Remember, though: The Milky Way is only one galaxy, so we have to ask . . .

How many galaxies are in the universe? See page 32 for an estimate. Then, as the saying goes, prepare to do the math. You should come up with a pretty dazzling number. If there truly are this many Goldilocks planets scattered throughout the universe, what are the odds that life in some form exists out there somewhere, however distant from us?

Billions and Billions


Note: For an utterly delightful discussion of how to use and multiply cosmic numbers, see Carl Sagan’s book Billions and Billions, pages 3-12. That title is a joke, by the way. Sagan, by his own account, never uttered the expression “billions and billions.” It was made famous by talk show host Johnny Carson, who loved impersonating Sagan.






Question 3: Suppose there were intelligent beings on other planets. If we could reach out to them, what would we want them to know about us? Before students write or talk about this, share the story of Frank Drake’s Arecibo Message, a broadcast sent from Puerto Rico in 1974 (See page 31). Discuss the things Drake included in this message.

Then ask students to think about sending a similar message today. What things would you come up with, as a class, to include—and why? What would best represent life on our planet in the Twenty-First Century?

You may also wish to share Simon’s discussion of Breakthrough Listen, a sophisticated search initiated by physicist Stephen Hawking (see page 32). What is innovative about Breakthrough Listen, and how does it change the exploration game for scientists?

Question 4: Is it likely—or even possible—that alien beings have already visited us on Earth? Many people think so, though evidence is anything but conclusive or even, for that matter, convincing to most scientists. But it’s fun to imagine, which may help explain why so many people feel they’ve been visited by aliens. What do your students think? Research this topic and discuss whether the evidence thus far has credibility. What barriers or conditions minimize the odds of beings traveling through space to visit us here on Earth?

Hey–is anybody listening? As Simon tells us in Exoplanets, we are continually sending signals into space through our radio and television broadcasting. More recently, we’ve begun deliberately attempting to contact anyone who might be listening. So far, we’ve heard nothing back. Why? On page 28, Simon offers several possible reasons. Share these reasons with students and ask what they think. Could someone be listening out there? Do they hope so?

Question 5: Are alien beings friendly? Among the many enticing questions Seymour Simon raises in this book, this one is for me the most tantalizing of all. No matter how curious we might be, we have to face the possibility, as explorers have through time, that we could encounter hostile beings who do not wish us well. Should we keep going anyway? Is it worth the risk? What do your students think?

Ask if they imagine that alien life is more likely to be friendly or unfriendly—and why. Suppose we were to encounter a civilization with intelligent beings far older, wiser, and more technologically sophisticated than any beings here on Earth. Would this be a good thing? What influence might such a discovery have on us, and how could our lives change as a result?

Before you go . . .

Take time to read the Author’s Note at the front of the book. This isn’t a quickly dashed off comment. It’s a message from the heart by an author who loves writing and enjoys telling us about his approach and vision.

Want to know more about exoplanets?

They’re a hot topic on the internet these days. Just type “exoplanets” in your search engine and prepare for a barrage of articles and thrilling photos. In addition, Seymour Simon lists several key websites to explore. See page 40.Milky Way 3

About the Author

The New York Times has called Seymour Simon “the dean of the [children’s science] field.” He has written more than 300 books for young readers, 75 of which have been named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). In 2012, Simon founded StarWalk Kids Media, a streaming eBook platform that makes outstanding literature from today’s top authors available to schools and libraries.

Simon’s website (www.seymoursimon.com) is a Webby Honoree, and was named one of twelve “2012 Great Websites for Kids,” offering children, families, and educators a wide array of free downloadable resources designed to enrich their reading experience. Throughout his incredible career, Simon has won multiple awards for his work, including the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Lifetime Achievement Award for his lasting contribution to science education. A visionary and committed educator (He taught for twenty-five years before becoming a full-time writer), Simon never loses sight of his primary goal. “I’m more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than I am in teaching the facts,” he says. “The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

Visit Simon at http://www.seymoursimon.com where you can read more about his interests, learn about other publications, follow his daily nature walks in upstate New York, and even post on his blog.

Teaching Nonfiction RevisionAre your students writing their own nonfiction? Let us help!

Teaching Nonfiction Revision (by Sneed B. Collard and Vicki Spandel) will guide you and your students seamlessly through the whole revision process. You’ll find out, step by step, how one of our finest professional writers—Sneed Collard—readies his own drafts  for publication. As Sneed shares his trade secrets, I work alongside him, translating Sneed’s professional strategies into classroom writing activities students will love and learn from, suggesting ways to confer during revision, and sharing writing secrets that demystify revision even for writers who struggle. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like an expert at teaching this vital part of writing process. Don’t miss our list of recommended nonfiction books—for both adults and students (And if you’re wondering, of course Seymour Simon made the list, even though, unfortunately, we didn’t have space to include all 300 titles).

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is available at Amazon or at our publisher’s website, http://www.heinemann.com


Fire Birds

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests by Sneed B. Collard III. 2015. Bucking Horse Books.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book.

Ages: For readers 8 to 14.

Review by Vicki Spandel



Most of us have been taught that wildfires are a bad thing—and that’s true when they threaten homes or lives. In the wilderness, however, wildfires can be an essential part of the natural life cycle. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way.

In this book, readers discover that natural wildfires are anything but a contemporary phenomenon; they have been with us throughout time. And while they can be intensely frightening and destructive, the news is not all bad. Wildfires actually generate life, especially when allowed to follow their natural course. Intervention by humans can create a situation where fire fuels grow and expand so profusely that fire cannot be stopped or contained. Good intentions do not always lead us down the best path.

This book does not endorse allowing any fire to go unchecked if it threatens homes or human lives. But it does help us recognize the benefits that natural occurring fires bring—not only habitat for many types of wild birds, but also fertile soil for regeneration of countless trees and shrubs that create natural, multi-species forests. Naturally occurring fires also clear the forest of underbrush which, if allowed to grow unchecked, presents an unthinkable danger to plants, animals, and any humans happening to reside nearby. It is time, as the author tells us, to update Smokey Bear’s message.

scarlet tanager

Inside Your Classroom

1. Background. Is wildfire common in your area? Perhaps some of your students (or you) have witnessed a wildfire, watched media coverage, or even been evacuated. Take time to discuss the frequency and severity of fires in your area, particularly in recent years, inviting students to share experiences of their own. How do your students feel about wildfires prior to experiencing this book? (Note: This can be a sensitive topic for students who have suffered loss as a result of fire, so we recognize your need to pursue this discussion with awareness and caution.)

2. The title: Inference and prediction. A title like Fire Birds could well apply to a sci fi adventure! This is a science book, of course. So where did this title probably come from? What hints does it provide about the likely theme or central message of the book?

3. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing it with students. At just under 50 pages, it is a quick read for an adult, and the combination of fascinating information, enticing illustrations, and strong sense of drama make it an inviting text for young readers who favor nonfiction or have an interest in nature. This book is highly recommended for use with a study group. If you decide to share it with the whole class, a document projector is all but essential since the illustrations are an integral element of the book’s message.

4. Introduction. As the Common Core standards for writing remind us, a good introduction sets the stage for what follows. Share the introduction titled “Inferno!” aloud with students, using a document projector to share the accompanying illustration of a wildfire as you do so. Ask students to listen for words or phrases that catch their attention (notably verbs), and make a class list. You may wish to read the passage more than once to facilitate this. What impression is the author creating with this passage? Is it effective in setting the stage for the discussion to come? Does it capture our attention? How? In particular, notice the final line, a three-word question. Why is this question particularly important? Ask how many of your students have used a question as part of their writing strategy in crafting an introduction.

5. Organizational structure. Check out the Table of Contents. It’s very colorful! Do your students like the format? Notice that although this is not a long book (about 50 heavily illustrated pages, including appended material), it’s broken into an introduction plus five chapters. Does breaking a text up in this way help readers? How? Notice that the chapters are not only numbered, but also have titles. See if your students can use these titles to orally trace the writer’s thinking, point to point, even prior to reading the book. Are their expectations borne out as they read the text?

6. Main idea. What is this author’s main idea or message? Pose this question after sharing Chapter 1—and ask students to summarize the main idea in their own words. Then, revisit the question after getting deeper into the book. Students may not change their minds, but their ability to elaborate on the main idea will likely grow. You might also ask them to listen for a sentence or paragraph they feel sums up the author’s primary message. (Note: Check out the final paragraph on page 30 for one good possibility. Also notice the quotation attributed to Dick Hutto on page 8.)

7. Details. Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more. See how many of these various forms your writers can identify in Fire Birds. Ask how many they use in their own writing. You may want to point out that varied detail enriches writing. No one wants to read text that is all facts, for example. The mind craves variety, and learns more easily when given multiple paths to information. What kinds of details do your students respond to as readers?

8. Format. In addition to chapter titles, author Sneed Collard also makes extensive use of subheads throughout the book. How do these contribute to the organization of the book—and also the sharing of information? To put it another way, do they make the book easier to follow? How? Also notice the boxed information embedded in many of the illustrations. Do these little boxes have something in common? Talk about why the author chose to use this approach rather than simply incorporating this additional information into the regular flow of the text. Is this format effective? Why? Talk about how/when students might use a similar strategy in their own writing.

9. Illustrations. Book designers often say that illustrations and words should complement, not replicate, each other. That is, each should provide information that the other does not. Read the information on page 15 and the first paragraph of page 16 aloud as your students study the photos on page 14. What do we learn from each (illustrations and words) that we do not learn from the other?

10. Research. Many books, including novels, rely on research for authenticity. But nowhere is research more important than in an informational text like this one. Discuss why this matters so much. If the book were based strictly on Collard’s opinion or observations made in his back yard, would it be as convincing? Discuss how and where this author searched for his information. On a scale of 1 to 10, how credible is this research, in your students’ view? (Note that much of the book is based on the work of ornithologist Dick Hutto, described on pages 17 through 19. Students should also be aware that Collard spent extensive time in the field himself, interviewed additional specialists, and also took the photos that illustrate the book. Also point out the extensive additional sources listed in “Digging Deeper,” page 46. Your students may wish to explore some of these resources.)

11. Transitions. Transitions, the CCSS remind us, are vital ways to link ideas in all forms of writing: narrative, argument, and information. In introducing this discussion, see if your students can list 20 transitional words or phrases (however, next, for example, on the other hand, because, nevertheless, and so on). Sneed Collard is an author noted for the strong transitions that make his work so easy to read and follow. Share one or both of the following passages with students and ask them to identify as many transitions as they can—and to discuss how each links ideas: “Home, Sweet Blackened Home,” beginning of Chapter 3, page 21; and “Beetle Bonanza,” page 24. Keep in mind that good transitions are often more than a word long and may occur mid-sentence. Also, there may be more than one transitional phrase within a given sentence. (Note: Permission is granted to print and distribute these pages to your students. They can talk with partners, and identify transitions orally or use highlighters to mark up the text.)

12. Transitional endings. One of the delightful things about a chapter book is that it provides multiple opportunities to consider beginnings and endings. Chapter endings are particularly important because when a reader comes to the end of a chapter, it’s always tempting to find something else to do! No author wants readers to do that! Notice for example the ending to Chapter 2, bottom of page 19: “What he found astonished him.” What is the likely impact of these words on the reader? How does this line provide a transition into Chapter 3?

13. Word choice. Words always matter. In informational writing, though, they can be particularly important because, as we’re reminded in the CCSS, an author must use “domain-specific vocabulary”—what we might call the language of the territory—in order to help us understand a particular topic: in this case, wildfire and its effect on birds’ habitats. This particular book has a special feature—a glossary—to help with word definitions. As you go through the text (and without peeking at the glossary), have students list words they think should be defined. Check your final list against the glossary at the end of the book. Also note how well some terms are defined in context—by how they are used, that is. See, for example, “salvage logging” on page 32.

14. Voice and tone. The Common Core suggests that an informational piece should have an “objective, formal tone,” which some might describe as respectful of the topic or free of personal bias. Does the author achieve that? Identify three or more passages that are good examples of the voice or tone you hear in this book. Brainstorm all the words you can think of that describe these passages: e.g., serious, engaging, thoughtful, humorous, energetic, dramatic, exciting, passionate, reflective. (Note: Reading aloud makes it easier for most students to describe a given text.)

15. Reading graphics. In addition to numerous illustrations, author Sneed Collard includes an important graphic titled “’Hottest’ Fire Birds” on page 25. Ask students to summarize, in a few short lines, the message of this graphic. How does it support the author’s main message?

16. Genre. The author makes a strong case for encouraging us to see wildfires (those that do not threaten human lives or residences) in a positive way. So—should this book be classified as an argument? Or an informational text? Have students write a response, taking a position on this and defending it with examples from the book. (Note: You may wish to access the CCSS definitions to help students make a decision on this.)

17. Crafting an argument. At the close of Chapter 3, page 26, Collard makes a particularly strong statement based on Dick Hutto’s research: “Perhaps humans should stop looking at naturally caused fires as our enemy and start looking at them as an essential part of nature.” Do your students agree? Have them take a position and make an argument for or against the “essential part of nature” position, using information not only from this book, but other sources as well.

18. Impact of the book. Good informational writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding of a topic. What do your students learn from this book? Make a list of new ideas, surprises, or discoveries. Take a moment to re-examine the reactions to wildfires students expressed prior to reading the book. Have their opinions or feelings changed in any way?

19. Conclusion. In a sense, all of Chapter 5 is a conclusion. But the author also offers an expanded concluding statement in the section titled “Still Work to Do,” page 42 and following. How strong is this conclusion? What thoughts or beliefs do your students think the author wants us to take away from this reading experience?

20. Personal research. Ask students to extend their learning by visiting a burn site, interviewing local firefighters, researching the impact of fires in their home state or elsewhere, following up with resources listed under “Digging Deeper,” page 46, or even observing and photographing wild birds in a new burn habitat if there is one close by. Invite them to share their findings.

Sneed filming

Sneed's son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

Sneed’s son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

About the author . . .

Author Sneed B. Collard III graduated with honors in biology from the University of California at Berkeley and earned his masters in scientific instrumentation from U. C. Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 65 books for younger readers, including Animal Dads, Teeth, The Prairie Builders, Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, and Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. To learn more about Sneed or schedule a school or conference visit, please go to his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com or the website of his publishing house, Bucking Horse Books, www.buckinghorsebooks.com

Sneed portrait

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be sharing reviews of some of the best literature to enter his life of late—but he doesn’t want to share titles just yet! They’re a surprise. Jeff always chooses the most readable, memorable books, though, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for those reviews. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.