Many educators, librarians, and even some parents anticipate the publication of the Outstanding Science Trade Books (OSTB) for grades K–12 each year. Have you ever wondered how the mountain of trade books out there gets evaluated or how books are chosen as “outstanding”? This list doesn’t just magically appear but is the result of a careful evaluation process by the NSTA/Children’s Book Council Joint Book Review Panel, a long name for a small committee of nine science educators from across the country, tasked with the enormous job of selecting the books for this annual list. Reviewers are appointed to the panel for three-year terms by the NSTA president, and panel members take their job seriously.
In 1972, NSTA teamed up with the Children’s Book Council (CBC), a nonprofit trade association of U.S. publishers and packagers of trade books for children and young adults. Their goals were to produce a list of outstanding science trade books published that year and create a special session for the 1973 NSTA National Convention that explains how to use these books in the science classroom. What was conceived as a one-time event has evolved into a fruitful collaboration that supports both organizations’ missions while helping educators pick the books that best serve their students. For more resources on using trade books in the classroom, see the box at the bottom of page 62.
This year, the members of the Joint Book Review Panel chose 40 outstanding science trade books from a pool of nearly 250 reviewed books. Here’s a look at how these books made their way onto the list.
The Evaluation Process
Books evaluated for the OSTB list are ranked on a 5-point rating scale (0 being the lowest score and 4 being the best rating a reviewer can give a book). Each book is ranked based on its adherence to criteria established in four categories:
- Format/layout and Design
The Illustrations and Format guidelines are fairly straightforward, such as showing objects to scale in illustrations or using clear typeface. Genre-specific guidelines for biographies, for example, would require that “a full sense of the person’s character be conveyed.” When the NSTA/CBC review panel looks at these particular guidelines, they are evaluated in conjunction with content.
Reviewers spend the majority of their time dealing with the content of the books. The content guidelines (Figure 1) outline what a reviewer must consider while evaluating the content of each book. Members of the review panel begin receiving books mid-summer and must finish reading and reviewing each book by the first week of November. Then, in mid-November, the panel meets in New York City at the CBC offices to deliberate and choose the top books for that year. Once the books are selected, the panel members divide up the books and write an annotation for each selection. These annotations are published in the list.
Figure 1. Content review guidelines (Nov. 2004 revision).
- The content in the book is factually correct.
- Information in book is not contrary to current scientific thought.
- Book is devoid of significant content errors and does not lead to misconceptions.
- Facts are not oversimplified so that information becomes misleading.
- Generalizations are supported by current research and recent findings are not omitted.
- Any activities, investigations, or experiments suggested for children lead to an understanding of basic principles and support inquiry.
- Suggested activities are safe, feasible, and appropriate for the intended age level.
- Where conflicting scientific theories exist, as many views as possible are represented.
- Presentation is logical, and sequence of ideas is clear.
- The information is free of gender, ethnic, or socio-economic bias, whenever possible.
- The material suits the intended age level.
- The depth of content is appropriate for the intended audience and when appropriate advances the Nature of Science, scientific thinking, and has general compatibility with book content and the National Science Education Standards.
- Science books for children (particularly picture books with minimal text) should be without significant personification, teleology, animism, or anthropomorphism. If depicted, it should be done in such a way that does not influence or create misconceptions or detract from the science content of the book.
The annotations for each selected book provide the title; author; publisher; current price; recommended reading levels, including Primary (K–2), Elementary (3–5), Intermediate (6–8), and Advanced (9–12); a brief description of the book; the reviewer’s initials; and connect the books to the National Science Education Standards’ major content strands.
For simplicity of presentation and ease of use, the OSTB list is arranged in 10 topical categories—Archaeology, Anthropology, and Paleontology; Biography; Earth and Space Science; Environment and Ecology; Life Science; Physical Science; Integrated Science; Science-Related Careers; Technology and Engineering; and Fiction Books. The books appear alphabetically by title within each category; however, some of the categories are not represented each year.
Accuracy Is Paramount
One of the review panel’s primary considerations is determining accuracy in each trade book. As part of the deliberation, many books that seem good at the onset get rejected due to depiction of misconceptions or inaccurate content.
For example, this year, a classic illustration depicting Earth’s orbit around the Sun can be found in children’s books dealing with the planets or the solar system, such as The Inner Planets (Bell 2004) and Solar System (Goldsmith 2004). Although the illustration is actually an artist’s depiction of a side view of the orbit, this is not explained in the texts and, therefore, the orbit is perceived by the reader as an exaggerated elliptical path instead of being almost circular. This drawing has contributed to students believing our seasons are the result of Earth being further away from the Sun in the winter and closer in the summer (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics 1988).
Another important aspect of a book’s selection to the list is its relevance to the National Science Education Standards. As part of the annotation, each reviewer is asked to list the three National Science Education Standards content strands most closely related to the content in the book. For example, finding the relevant standards for Decoding Life: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Genome (Fridell 2004) was relatively easy: the Human Genome is life science—the book covers the development of the technology that enabled the Human Genome Project, and the pros and cons of possessing such knowledge are discussed (Science in Personal and Social Perspectives).
A Real Tribute
With only 40 books selected from a pool of nearly 250 (and the number of submitted books is growing each year), it’s apparent that many books cannot meet the high standards of our criteria. For those books selected for the list, it’s a significant tribute to the authors and publishers of these works. They’ve done an outstanding job, and their books have great potential use in the science classroom, which we are proud to highlight.
David T. Crowther (Crowther@unr.edu) is an associate professor of science education at the University of Nevada-Reno in Reno, Nevada, and current chair of the NSTA/CBC Joint Book Review Panel. Colleen Venable (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the programs associate at Children’s Book Council in New York. Charles Barman (email@example.com) is a professor of science education at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a member of the NSTA/CBC Joint Book Review Panel.
Looking for more information?
Check out this list of additional resources on selecting and using trade books.
Abd-El-Khalick, F. 2002. Images of nature of science in middle grade science trade books. New Advocate 15(2): 121–127.
Akerson, V. 2001. Teaching science when your principal says “Teach Language Arts.” Science and Children 39(7): 42–47.
Butzow, C., and J. Butzow. 2000. Science through children’s literature: An integrated approach. 2nd ed. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas.
Donovan, C., and L. Smolkin. 2002. Considering genre, content and visual features in the selection of trade books for science instruction. The Reading Teacher 55(6): 502–520.
Rice, D., A. Dudley, and C. Williams. 2001. How do you choose science trade books? Science and Children 39(6): 18–22.
Rice, D. 2002. Using trade books in teaching elementary science: Facts and fallacies. The Reading Teacher 55(6): 552–565.
Rop, C., and S. Rop. 2001. Selecting trade books for elementary science units. Science Activities 38(1): 19–23. Spring.
Tolman, M., G. Hardy, and R. Sudweeks. 1998. Current science textbook use in the United States. Science and Children 35(8): 22–25, 44.
Bell, T. 2004. The inner planets. North Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media.
Fridell, R. 2004. Decoding life: Unraveling the mysteries of the genome. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner.
Goldsmith, M. 2004. Solar system. Boston, MA: Kingfisher.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/Matthew H. Schneps. 1988. A private universe. Videotape. Santa Monica, CA: Pyramid Media.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.