Seeking great subject-matter introductions for a voraciously curious kid
July 1, 2016 7:36 AM   Subscribe

My ten-year old son wants to understand everything. He is a voracious reader and doesn't confine himself to kids books. He loves reading the newspaper (NYTimes, Boston Globe), fiction, and non-fiction books. He's old enough to really learn things by reading. Agatha Christie is fun, but he's ready for more than that. He's full of questions about society, politics, science, economics. I'd like to get him some books that will expand his mind, begin answering his questions, and show him how the world fits together.

All subject matters welcome. In addition to the ones listed above, he'd be game for biography, ecology, history, social science, social justice, technology, physics, agriculture, biology, history of science, and lots of other things.

I realize this is going to be hit and miss. That's okay. We're going to take these books out of the library, so I'm not worried about wasting money. He'll read some of the books and won't read others. No problem. Books written for kids are fine (e.g. Thing Explainer) but so are books written for a mass market adult audience. Collections of essays could be great, too.

So Metafilter, what can my son read to learn more about how the world works?
posted by alms to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by David Macaulay, such as The New Way Things Work.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:43 AM on July 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

I hope someone here (or your local librarian) can suggest a modern equivalent, but I was a similarly curious kid and I'd pick up the encyclopedia at home and browse for hours. If I was interested in diving in on a particular subject we'd take a trip to the library to find more books about it.
posted by paradeofblimps at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2016

Many of John McPhee's books would fit into those categories, and he could browse them and pick out what he's interested in as the subjects are extremely varied.

Billy Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything
posted by barchan at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

A History of the World in 100 Objects - bonus, he can collect and curate his own 100 objects. British Museum has website and videos to make it more encompassing if he likes it.

I used this for a high school history summer school program and the kids loved it; it made history come alive.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:54 AM on July 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

There are a bunch of single subject matter novel-length-books that pull some science, some history, some society, etc.

I've read these three, and they're pretty interesting:
Salt: A World History
Rust: The Longest War
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

Here's a big list.

posted by gregr at 7:54 AM on July 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Steven Johnson's How We Got To Now might fit the bill. And seconding A History of the World in 100 Objects -- it was fascinating.
posted by Janta at 7:54 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

> I hope someone here (or your local librarian) can suggest a modern equivalent, but I was a similarly curious kid and I'd pick up the encyclopedia at home and browse for hours

The 000 section of the library is good for poking around. Maybe it's 010? Anyhoo, it's where the miscellany and trivia books are.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:57 AM on July 1, 2016

Get him the book about him!

Helen DeWitt - The Last Samurai

Also, when I was his age, I just devoured the Life Science Library and Life Nature Library series. Gorgeous books. They'll be somewhat dated now, but that's possibly a good thing: young master alms might well get some value from realizing just how much has changed over the last fifty years.
posted by flabdablet at 8:01 AM on July 1, 2016

I was really really into Edith Hamilton's Mythology around that time. It's not technically about how the world works, I suppose, but Greek & Roman mythology informs so much of our culture, even now.
posted by something something at 8:02 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also: loads and loads and loads of insightful social commentary disguised as gothic fantasy in the Titus Groan books.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 AM on July 1, 2016

Also: Longitude.
posted by flabdablet at 8:10 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions, just what I was looking for. Thank you, and keep 'em coming!
posted by alms at 8:12 AM on July 1, 2016

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich. Completely charming overview of history from the Stone Age to World War II. It's written for kids, but it's not twee or cutesy. Gombrich wrote it as a young man and he went on to become a prominent art historian.
posted by colfax at 8:16 AM on July 1, 2016

I highly recommend Randall Munroe's What If? It takes ridiculous hypothetical questions about science and tries to answer them as best as possible. I love it as a curious adult and would have loved it as a curious kid too.

He might also like Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Tudor. She walks you through all the different aspects of what life would have been like during Tudor times so it would be good for someone interested in history. I would imagine a kid might want to jump around a fair bit (the part on all the different fabrics used for clothing would probably be less interesting to him, but the chapter on what it would have been like to be a child during this period would probably be pretty cool). She also has a book on Victorian times, although I haven't read that one.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:22 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Would any of Mary Roach's pop-sci books be a good reading level for him? The ones I've read (Stiff, Packing for Mars, Gulp) have all been very accessible and interesting. Some of them include discussions of sex if that's a concern for you.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:26 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

You say Agatha Christie is fun, but. I remember reading several nonfiction books on the history of forensics as a prolongation of Christie and Sayers, when I was a teenager. Gruesome stuff, packaged in scientific bundles, thus very satisfying (No actual book recommendation here, grew up in Germany and all that...)
posted by Namlit at 8:26 AM on July 1, 2016

Oh, also! I bet your son would LOVE Material World and Hungry Planet. Both books feature photos of families from around the world, the former surrounded by all of their possessions and the latter surrounded by their food purchases for one week. They are really fascinating and I have literally spent hours looking at them.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:33 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the joys of working in children's publishing is doing mock award committees, and when my coworkers and I did one for nonfiction last year one book that l really loved was Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, which is a history of the Vietnam War told as a biography of the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and is written at a YA level. Several of my coworkers agreed that it really helped us gain an understanding of the events as adults (albeit ones born long after the era in question), and a couple commented that it gave them a new perspective on Edward Snowden.

The other standout book for me was The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, but perhaps oddly for a book about the Danish Resistance, that one felt like pure fun. It's about a group of schoolboys who sabotaged the Germans by stealing weapons and destroying vehicles and equipment - great stuff.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:35 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I grew up reading an 18 volume encyclopaedia that my parents had bought. It expanded my horizons no end, and it took the whole of my teen years to read all the entries.
posted by Kwadeng at 8:39 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's an old (1967) German book titled "The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology" by C. van Amerongen that is just cut-away diagrams of physical objects. They're B&W plus red ink, and very simple drawings. (This isn't the same as the David Macauley book, nor a few other little kid's books of the same name. Check it out on LibraryThing.)

As a kid, what grabbed me is the fact that they don't explain much, just drop in the names of processes or principles -- and so you have to go off on your own and look up more stuff, until you've tricked yourself into learning something. There's no e-book, unfortunately, but if this sort of baited hook sounds like it would work, you might want to track these down.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:59 AM on July 1, 2016

Simon Winchester's books cover a lot of ground around a given topic, and Stephen Jay Gould's books were just collections of shorter essays about science.

And that book about the London cholera outbreak being solved by a decent map, called "The Ghost Map," might be good, though the descriptions of death and disease get a little heavy after a while.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:02 AM on July 1, 2016

He may not be quite old enough for the People's History of the United States, but he will be soon.
posted by praemunire at 9:10 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think I was probably about 10 when I got my first Uncle John's Bathroom Reader book. Stupid title, fun books. They have short, medium, and long articles about everything with tons of little facts and tidbits interspersed throughout. They're great fodder for kids who want to know as much as they can about as much as they can. (Especially now that there's endless internet to go track down an interesting thing you want to know more about than what's contained in one of their articles.)
posted by phunniemee at 9:28 AM on July 1, 2016

He may not be quite old enough for the People's History of the United States, but he will be soon.

A Young People’s History of the United States.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:43 AM on July 1, 2016

I unschooled my kid, and I think 10 with good reading skills is a great age for Joy Hakim's middle school aged series of history books. They highlight the contributions of diverse people, including teenagers, to US history. (If you aren't in the US, then skip it.) I think a background in history makes politics make more sense.

TED talks are also an interesting jumping off point for discussion.
posted by puddledork at 9:45 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm another encyclopedia reader. Even into adulthood, I would read the encyclopedia and keep a notebook nearby to notate subjects I'd like to read more about.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:52 AM on July 1, 2016

Guns, Germs, and Steel just might blow his mind.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:07 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Any interest in ideas? Sophie's World is an accessible introduction to philosophy. IIRC it's not as dark as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and just generally easier to read.
posted by tuesdayschild at 11:09 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also am going to recommend some single subject histories:
Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig by Mark Essig
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky (Salt is also excellent, but trying not to overlap)
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
I don't know if disease and death stuff is ok yet, if it is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and The Fever by Sonia Shah are truly fantastic.
The Demon Under the Microscope (about the development of Sulfa drugs and their use as the first widespread antibiotic) and The Alchemy of Air (about the invention of the process to fix nitrogen, and it's use to feed the world and prolong both World Wards) both by Thomas Hager are some of the best, but maybe a bit technical and dark (both of them end up talking about how the Nazis used these inventions to kill) for a 10 year old.

On preview: if he reads Sophie's World, have him read The Solitaire Mystery. In my opinion, it's even better and Gaarder said that he wrote Sophie's World for Hans Thomas, the protagonist in The Solitaire Mystery.
posted by Hactar at 11:24 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Connections, a late 70s documentary series by James Burke, was really mind blowing for me at that age. A couple years later I picked up the associated book at a used bookstore and I've kept it through dozens of book cullings for nearly twenty years. If your library doesn't have the films to borrow you can find most of it on youtube. James Burke did a lot of other things all in the same vein of connecting innovation and history and discovery, which might really interest your kid because it is all about breadth of knowledge and different perspectives.
posted by Mizu at 11:28 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Feynmans fun to imagine chats
posted by smugly rowan at 12:15 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Infrastructure: A Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes. Like a bird book except for transformer boxes (and 1,000 other things you see every day without understanding).
posted by ChrisHartley at 1:49 PM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

This may be a bit outside the box, but when my youngest was 9 or 10 she devoured the SAS Survival Handbook. It covers a broad array of really interesting skills, and learning about them seemed to feel empowering to her. (Some have actually even proved useful, such as learning about the recovery position.)
posted by sively at 2:40 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a wonderful book called "Moving Heavy Things" by Jan Adkins that uses very clear text and wonderful illustrations to explain leverage, force, friction, and so many other ideas. It's really worth looking for.

He also wrote a book called "Line: Tying it up, Tying to Down" that's about knots and why they work and why some fail. Actually, if you've got a curious kid, getting them into knot-tying is both practical and also the entree to some really challenging math.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:42 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My field's loveliest picture book (but with lots of text) of tiny, tiny things: David Goodsell's The Machinery of Life.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:40 PM on July 1, 2016

Seconding "Guns, Germs & Steel" plus James Burkes' "Connections".

My suggestion would be anything to do with logic and fallacies, cognitive bias, statistical misuse, appeals to emotion, ad hominem argumentation and even optical illusions.

Regrettably I don't have any specific books to recommend for a child, but I think it should be very interesting for him to see how it can be easy to be fooled...interesting and an important lesson for life.
posted by forthright at 7:30 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

This isn't a book, but the Brains On podcast is great -- it's like Radiolab for kids!

Thirding Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Maybe Lies Across America as well -- it's all about what historical sites get wrong.

I was also into the Roadside America book around that age, as well. If they still publish it, he might find that interesting. Or any equivalent "Off the Beaten Path" book about your state.
posted by Ostara at 8:28 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recommend .The Invisible Fire. It is the story of the WHO campaign to eradicate smallpox. It deals with social and cultural issues, as well as the scientific issues and solutions.
posted by Altomentis at 3:27 PM on July 2, 2016

Guinness Book of World Records! Not necessarily a great book to sit down and read front to back, but great to leaf through when you have a few moments to spare (or in the bathroom, etc.).
posted by sarahsynonymous at 8:10 PM on July 4, 2016

Response by poster: These are great. One more specific request, in case anyone is still reading along. How about a good introductory book on Special Relativity? Meanwhile I've requested about a dozen books from the library and will be picking them up soon.
posted by alms at 8:08 AM on July 5, 2016

Hard to go past the man himself.
posted by flabdablet at 7:07 AM on July 6, 2016

Einstein for Beginners may be of interest.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:12 AM on July 6, 2016

Something like the NYT Guide to Essential Knowledge might let him dip his toes into to areas and see what he wants to explore more.

Also, go to the local library and explore around Dewey call number 031 (general encyclopedic works in English). That's where the trivia and multi-disciplinary works will be.

Also, if he's interested in all kinds of topics, he might enjoy some kind of long-form article magazine like Smithsonian Magazine. That one doesn't really cover politics, but it does hit science, history, anthropology, arts, travel and probably a few more areas.
posted by timepiece at 9:29 AM on July 7, 2016

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