Cerebrum Article

Brain Books for Budding Scientists—and All Children

One of Cerebrum’s most popular features was the 1999 survey of “Great Brain Books.” But what is out there for kids curious about the most complex, fascinating subject in the known universe? An experienced reviewer of science books for children reports that there is a treasure trove waiting for them. Here are brief reviews of the best-known recent books for young, middle, and older students.

Published: April 1, 2002

How do children learn that they have a brain, and become aware of what it does for them? How do they learn about its complexities?

According to Eric Chudler, Ph.D., creator of the Neuroscience for Kids website, children learn about the five senses early in their education. By kindergarten or first grade, many know that the brain receives the incoming information from the senses. As they become older, they begin to recognize movement, thinking, emotions, language, and memory as functions of their brains—and of all human brains. “From parents, many children learn early on that they should protect their brains.

This includes things like wearing helmets and wearing seatbelts,” says Chudler. “Parents might also tell their kids to eat properly so their brains get enough energy, or to go to sleep to get enough rest. In school, children will learn more specifics about the structure and function of the brain.”

Just as literacy about the brain has spread among adults, it needs to grow among the young. How should parents and educators go about teaching children about the body’s most complicated organ? Whether you are teaching a classroom unit about the brain or sharing your enthusiasm for the subject with a daughter, grandson, or young friend, start with a few good books.

Any library can supply you with children’s books about the brain, but a dull, inaccurate, or outdated book can be worse than none at all. A well-written and illustrated children’s book, though, can help spark the imagination of the next generation of scientists, doctors, and citizens. Children’s books can help both to take the mystery out of science and to instill curiosity about the natural world. They can also remind adults how to simplify and explain complicated subjects for young, inquisitive minds.

Other Cerebrum features have visited the “Great Brain Books” for adults (Spring 1999), and “Madness in Good Company,” compelling portrayals of brain disorders in world literature (Summer 2000). Here we review some of the best-known children’s books about the brain published in the past five years. Special thanks to Wilma Friedman, Ph.D., for scrutinizing the selections for scientific mistakes and oversimplifications.

Books for Children in Preschool and the Primary Grades

To capture the attention of young children, choose a book that is accurate but also fun. Even if your young prodigy has been reading independently for a couple of years, read the book aloud. Your enthusiasm for the subject may be contagious if you pass it on through a shared experience. To let children absorb the ideas and look at the illustrations, read the book slowly, taking time to explain the text or illustrations, to answer questions, and to enjoy the experience. The best book in this category is one that you take pleasure in sharing.

Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup, and Yawn
By Melvin Berger. Illustrated by Paul Meisel. HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. $15.95. 32 pages. Ages 4-8.

One of the most successful series in children’s book publishing, Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science books present well-focused topics that are accessible and inviting to children in preschool and the primary grades. Berger begins with experiences common to children: a child playing hide-and-seek who unexpectedly reveals her location with a sneeze, or a finger touching a hot stove and jerking away. These clear and accurate examples of reflex actions lead into a simple discussion of the mechanisms of the nervous system, illustrated with upbeat line drawings washed with gentle colors. The narrator continues with other familiar reflexes, such as yawns, shivers, and hiccups, discussing how they occur and the way they protect our bodies. The closing pages suggest ideas for further discussion, as well as reflex tests. The illustrations give young listeners many details to observe and discuss as the story progresses, making this an excellent choice for reading aloud. Another good brain-related book in the series is Paul Showers’s Sleep Is for Everyone (1997).

Whether you are teaching a classroom unit about the brain or sharing your enthusiasm for the subject with a daughter, grandson, or young friend, start with a few good books.

The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses
By Joanna Cole. Illustrated by Bruce Degen. Scholastic Press, 1999. $15.95, paper $4.99. 48 pages. Ages 5-8.

Wildly popular with children even before television brought Ms. Frizzle and her class into their homes, the Magic School Bus series succeeds in achieving an often-stated, but surprisingly elusive goal: These books make learning fun. In each one, Ms. Frizzle, a zany teacher characterized by her crazy outfits and improbable, science-related adventures, takes her class on yet another field trip. On this particular excursion, the bus is miniaturized and enters a police officer’s eye, a little boy’s ear, and a dog’s nose, each time making its way to the brain. The unflappable students observe the parts of each sense organ and relate it to the nervous system. The pages are crowded with the text of the main story, miniature sheets of notebook paper with information on specific topics, speech balloons revealing the characters’ thoughts and comments, and labels naming or explaining specifics—the parts of the eye, for example. Degen’s cartoonlike illustrations brighten the pages with color and with humorous details that children delight in discovering. The layers of text and the humor make the book delightful and also accessible to a wide range of ages, from young children interested only in a story to older children ready to absorb every bit of information. Whether or not they are familiar with the series, children will find this an amusing and instructive introduction to the senses.

Look Inside Your Brain
By Heather Alexander. Based on the Italian text by Paola Panizon. Illustrated by Nicoletta Costa. Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin Putnam Young Reader, 1998. $9.99. 14 pages. Ages 5-8.

The most distinctive feature of this volume from the Poke & Look Learning Book series is the central cavity formed by cutout pages. The thick cardboard pages open into two-page spreads that show a girl’s head on the right-hand side, with a cavity where her brain would be. Each page has a tab representing part of the brain, strewn with tiny words and pictures representing functions such as sight, memory, and balance. Usually the purpose of such thick, stiff pages is to prevent toddlers from tearing or devouring a book, but here the intended audience is a little older, and the format gives the presentation a playful look. Lively, colorful illustrations on every page include small cartoon drawings of active kids and clearly labeled diagrams indicating, for example, the location of the brain and nerves in the body or the taste areas on the tongue. The book discusses simplified anatomy and function of the brain, as well as the senses, memory, learning, and creative expression. The text, although a good introduction to many concepts, has a few oversimplifications. To describe the cortex as a curled-up rope is not a good analogy, and to say that the cortex spread out “would cover a whole room” is an exaggeration. Alexander also inaccurately refers to the spinal cord as part of the brain. On the whole, though, Alexander’s book remains one of the few to offer basic information in a format accessible to young children.

Why Do I Laugh or Cry? And Other Questions About the Nervous System
By Sharon Cromwell. Photographs by Richard Smolinski, Jr. Rigby Interactive Library/Reed Educational & Professional Publishing, 1998. $19.92. 24 pages. Ages 7-9.

This book from the Body Wise series poses nine questions, answering each one on a two-page spread. Like many books using questions as an organizing principle, this one presents ideas that children might actually wonder about, such as “Why do I dream?” Others, such as “How do my nerves help me?” sound a bit forced, unlike what a child would say. Some of the full-color photographs of children silhouetted against white backgrounds are very effective, such as the picture showing a child from the back, with the major parts of the nervous system superimposed as green lines and a pink brain. Other photos, though, such as one of a boy reacting in horror to a spider (glands and brain superimposed), look posed and overacted. Viewers may react negatively and miss the information the pictures are designed to convey. Despite this, the well-focused, specific topics, the good design, and the clear writing make this book worthwhile. The closing pages offer suggested activities, an index, a short bibliography, and a very short (three word) glossary.

A well-written and illustrated children’s book can help spark the imagination of the next generation of scientists, doctors, and citizens.

Books for Children in the Middle Grades

Bright with color, books for middle-grade children have never looked more attractive. The best books in this category use graphics as a means of showing what is difficult to explain in words, not solely as a decorative element. As students look for books that will both satisfy their curiosity and serve as resources for school reports, the ability of the writer to organize information logically and to explain complex brain functions lucidly becomes increasingly important.

The Brain
By Suzanne LeVert. Illustrated. Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 2002. $22.79. 48 pages. Ages 8-10

Clarity and simplicity are the hallmarks of the Kaleidoscope Human Body series. Though this book is relatively small, it is a good starting place for middle-grade students who want to understand the structure and function of the nervous system and, specifically, the brain. The book contains clear, brief discussions and colorful illustrations, without excess information or cluttered design, backed up by a glossary of terms that may be new to young readers. After explaining the normal functions of the central and peripheral nervous systems, the book closes with short sections on brain malfunctions: head and spine injuries, headaches, epilepsy, and strokes. Most two-page spreads feature one or two paragraphs of text on one side, and, on the other, a well-chosen, clearly reproduced photo, drawing, or digital illustration that offers, for example, a look at the protective membranes inside a skull or the cross-section of a brain.

Brain and Nerves
By Steve Parker. Illustrated by Ian Thompson. Copper Beech, 1998. $22.90. 32 pages. Ages 8-11.

Typical of many British nonfiction books republished for American children, this slender, large-format book from the Look at Your Body series divides its subject into small topics and presents each on a two-page spread with many illustrations. As in many similar imports, multiple pictures crowd the pages so that they sometimes detract from the text, rather than expand on it. In fact, captions provide more information than the larger-print text introducing each topic. The drawn or painted diagrams illustrating parts of the body are attractive, well labeled, and easy to understand. Similarly to several other authors in this review, Parker confuses the cerebral cortex with the cerebrum. He refers to the spinal cord as “the body’s main nerve,” which is an oversimplification, and he states incorrectly that severed nerves cannot repair themselves. Peripheral nerves do regenerate. A glossary is also included. When considering this book, keep in mind that the vocabulary indicates an older audience than the appearance of the book suggests.

The Brain: Our Nervous System
By Seymour Simon. Illustrated. Morrow, 1997. $16.95, paper $6.95. 32 pages. Ages 8-12.

In this visually dynamic book from Simon’s series on the human body, down-to-earth writing is enhanced by many vivid images. The cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem are pointed out and labeled on an enlarged photo of a brain, rather than a drawing or painting. A highly magnified and colorized micrograph, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows neurons and glial cells at 20,000 times their actual size. The often intense colors are heightened by the use of black backgrounds in many of the illustrations. Simon’s succinct, well-written text is generally sound, though he states that an electrical signal triggered in the dendrites will continue through the cell body to the end of the axon, which is not always true. Early in the book, he incorrectly portrays a reflex as being mediated through the medulla in the brainstem, instead of exclusively through the spinal cord. Later, though, he provides a more accurate account of a reflex, stating that a hand touching a hot pot jerks back at the same time that “messages reach the higher parts of your brain.” Simon’s book also confuses the cerebrum with the cortex, and incorrectly states that outgoing motor signals from the brain travel through the thalamus. If mindful of its inaccuracies, teachers will find the book an excellent source of pictures that are large enough to share with a classroom full of students and dramatic enough to hold their attention.

As students look for books that will both satisfy their curiosity and serve as resources for school reports, the ability of the writer to organize information logically and to explain complex brain functions lucidly becomes increasingly important.

The Big Book of the Brain: All About the Body’s Control Center
By John Farndon. Illustrated by Peter Bedrick Books, 2000. $17.95. 46 pages. Ages 8-12.

Each two-page spread in this thin, large-format book discusses a particular topic such as neurotransmitters, reflex action, left and right brain function, hearing, memory, and dreams. The book’s spread-by-spread format can make the overall presentation seem disjointed, but there is more text here than in most British imports for children, and Farndon makes it count. His unusually vivid descriptions enable readers to visualize processes that are difficult to observe or illustrate, such as the transmission of a nerve signal from one neuron to another. However, he identifies the brain as having 15 billion neurons, instead of the estimated 100 billion, and he too confuses the cerebrum with the cortex. Axons do not branch into dendrites, which Farndon mentions twice in the text, and potassium ions are positively, not negatively, charged. Farndon compares an axon with a tail, but he also equates it incorrectly with a neuron. Also, Parkinson’s disease results from cell death—leading to dopamine deficiency—not the deficiency itself. Full-color illustrations on a single page might include four or five different pictures: at least one clear diagram, several photographs of people, and perhaps a brain scan or enlarged microscopic images. Although the presentation is appealing, students looking for basic information on the brain should consult a more accurate book.

Big Head! A Book About Your Brain and Head
By Peter Rowan. Illustrated by John Temperton. Knopf/Random House, 1998. $20. 44 pages. Ages 9-13.

Written by a family doctor, this British import features a well-written, authoritative text and illustrations that enhance it. Each spread includes several paragraphs explaining the main topic, small drawings and captions exploring related ideas, and a large illustration clearly showing specific features, such as a single brain cell greatly magnified, the brain stem with its three parts labeled, or the cranial nerves. The large illustrations are excellent, enabling readers to focus on the specific anatomy of the head and envision the shape, relative size, and physical relationship of the particular part to the head as a whole. Two clear acetate pages offer inside/outside views of the same structure, such as the skin, then the muscles, and finally the bones of the face. The upbeat text and attractive layout make this an approachable and informative introduction to the brain and the head.

Hmmm? The Most Interesting Book You’ll Ever Read About Memory
By Diane Swanson. Illustrated by Rose Cowles. Kids Can Press, 2001. $14.95, paper $6.95. 40 pages. Ages 10-14.

Look past the overly optimistic claim made in the subtitle, because this lively volume from the Mysterious You series will appeal strongly to children, particularly those curious about memory. Swanson’s breezy, conversational style incorporates stories from history and anecdotes from psychology and biology into a second-person text that draws in readers. Typically, each topic is presented in a few paragraphs with a bold heading and an amusing illustration. Swanson does make several mistakes in the text. For example, it is incorrect to say that bits of protein “clog the gaps” between neurons, causing memory problems with aging, and is an oversimplification to say that “too little glucose threatens levels of acetylcholine in the brain.” All metabolic function of neurons require glucose, not specifically acetylcholine. Swanson also curiously characterizes Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases—usually classified as movement disorders—as disorders affecting memory.

While the information is plentiful and interesting, Swanson’s scattershot approach has its drawbacks. An intriguing sidebar about Doogie, the research lab mouse who “learns faster and remembers longer than the average mouse because scientists have tinkered with his brain,” doesn’t explain how “they boosted the ability of its neurons to form memories.” Cowles’s artwork, apparently paintings with digitally incorporated photo elements, creates a dynamic look that suits the writing style. While not the best presentation of the subject, this book could be a stimulating springboard into the study of memory.

Occasionally, a very original, well-written book, such as John Fleischman’s Phineas Gage, will engage their interest in a particular story, which can lead to a lifelong interest in the broader subject or even to choosing the field as a career.

The Physical Brain
By Faith Hickman Brynie. Illustrated. Blackbirch, 2001. $29.94. 64 pages. Ages 11-14.

The Amazing Brain series also includes books on addiction, perception, and neurological disorders. In this volume, Brynie introduces the basics of brain anatomy and function in a presentation that is clearly written, well organized, and interesting, but with little depth. Brynie offers a good explanation of glial (supporting) cells, but the book focuses only on the brain and spinal cord, ignoring the peripheral nervous system, essential for linking brain function and behavior.

Full-page sidebars highlight topics such as Einstein’s brain, MRI and PET technology, and brain chemistry associated with feeling “in love.” Although published for middle-school students, this book is fairly short and the text fills barely half of the book’s space, leaving room for diagrams and colorful photographs. Some of the photos are well chosen to illustrate or emphasize ideas, while others do little to enhance the presentation beyond brightening the pages. Some of the diagrams outline major areas, such as the frontal lobe, but also include unnecessary specific areas, such as the nucleus accumbens. This book also confuses the cerebrum with the cortex. (See Brynie’s 101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked About Itself but Couldn’t Answer… Until Now, in the next section, for a longer, more thorough discussion of the brain.)

Books for Older Children and Young Teenagers

Older children read books on the brain mainly as resources for homework. Occasionally, a very original, well-written book, such as John Fleischman’s Phineas Gage (reviewed below), will engage their interest in a particular story, which can lead to a lifelong interest in the broader subject or even to choosing the field as a career. Concern for a family member or friend affected by a brain disorder or disease can encourage an older student to seek understanding through books. As students move into high school, the colorful graphics that engaged them a few years before can actually be distracting. Source notes become important as an assurance of solid research, a way to follow up on points of interest, and a model for documentation in their own papers.

The Brain and Spinal Cord: Learning How We Think, Feel, and Move
By Chris Hayhurst. Illustrated. Rosen Publishing Group, 2002. $26.50. 48 pages. Ages 12-15.

While some writers take a more diffuse approach, Hayhurst maintains a steady focus on the anatomy of the brain and nervous system as the basis for understanding thought and emotion, as well as more basic functions. However, he makes some mistakes. The pituitary is underneath and the hypothalamus deep within the brain, not on the lateral surface. The diencephalon (the thalamus and hypothalamus) is not part of the brainstem. The hypothalamus, not the hippocampus, influences the release of hormones from the adrenal gland. Although the accompanying picture is complete, one caption states that the right side of the brain interprets images from the left eye, rather than the left visual field. The book does not discuss dendrites, and refers to the cell body, or soma, as the “nerve body.”

Despite these mistakes, the clarity of organization and presentation in this book will be useful to students looking for information on particular aspects of the nervous system. Each aspect is well delineated in the pictures and discussed separately in the text. The distinctive illustrations—computer images developed from scans of human bodies—feature a three-dimensional, rather plasticized look, good labels, and anatomies clearly differentiated by color. Though the book is relatively short, younger children would be challenged by the vocabulary; Hayhurst cannot be accused of talking down to his audience. Appended are a glossary, a bibliography, and lists of organizations and Web sites related to anatomy, health, and neuroscience. From the 3-D Library of the Human Body series, this book will be helpful to students in visualizing the parts of the brain and nervous system, but the errors in the text undermine the book’s authority.

Concern for a family member or friend affected by a brain disorder or disease can encourage an older student to seek understanding through books.

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science
By John Fleischman. Illustrated. Houghton Mifflin, 2002. $16. 86 pages. Ages 11-16.

From the damaged skull leering at readers from the cover to the last page of its riveting story, this book promises something special and delivers. Fleischman tells the story of Phineas Gage, a 19th-century railway worker who accidentally set off a blast when he was packing explosives into a hole with his iron tamping rod. The three-and-a-half-foot rod was driven at high speed through his skull, destroying most of his left frontal lobe. The injury he sustained and the personality changes that ensued are legendary, and mark the beginning of a fuller scientific understanding of the brain in an age when phrenology was still a matter of debate in the medical community. Readers new to Gage’s tale will come away intrigued by the story, knowledgeable about the brain, and (even better) curious to find out more. Fleischman’s only inaccuracies are in referring to the brain as having 10 billion neurons instead of the estimated 100 billion, and in calling an axon “the long body of the cell.” A glossary and annotated list of recommended print and Internet resources are appended. Fleischman, thoroughly engaged by his subject, combines sensational events with solid historical and scientific information in a way that could foster a lifelong interest in the brain. Combining lively writing, apt illustration, and excellent design, Phineas Gage is, hands down, the best children’s book published on the brain in the last five years.

101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked About Itself But Couldn’t Answer… Until Now
By Faith Hickman Brynie. Illustrated by Sharon Lane Holme. Millbrook Press, 1998. $25.90. 176 pages. Ages 12-16.

In addition to her shorter book The Physical Brain (see previous section), Brynie has published this more inclusive and insightful volume as part of her 101 Questions series. Students’ questions about the brain, paired with Brynie’s answers, appear in seven chapters covering basic information, neurons, learning and memory, chemicals and drugs in the brain, damage and illness, left- and right-brain functions, and speech and the senses. Each chapter includes a related feature article on a topic such as brain imaging, or Shakespeare and the brain. Brynie’s conversational tone makes this book readable, as well as informative. Appropriate for students at this age, the black-and-white line drawings and photographs that illustrate the text do not appear on every page or even every double-page spread. The book ends with detailed chapter notes, a bibliography, and an unusually complete glossary. This is the most thorough general book on the brain published for young people in recent years.

Head and Brain Injuries
By Elaine Landau. Illustrated. Enslow Publishers, 2002. $20.95. 112 pages. Ages 12-16.

In this volume from the Diseases and People series, Landau surveys the most common forms of traumatic brain injuries, their causes and treatments, and how they change lives. In addition, she offers a brief historical survey of brain science and medical treatment, including trepanning, phrenology, the case of Phineas Gage, and computer-assisted technology. One section offers general advice on helping a person who is hurt. Noting that traumatic brain injuries “are most common among young people between fifteen and twenty years old,” Landau discusses many individual cases of young athletes and others with concussions, how their treatments progressed, and how their lives were affected. She also notes the difference between actual recovery from a coma and a Hollywood version of the event. The book ends with a historical timeline, a glossary, lists of recommended books and Web sites, source notes for references and quotations, and organizations to contact for further information. Illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of photographs and diagrams, the visual presentation is lackluster, but the subject and the anecdotal approach will keep readers involved.

When the Brain Dies First
By Margaret O. Hyde and John F. Setaro. Illustrated. Franklin Watts, 2000. $25. 144 pages. Ages 13-16.

Respected children’s writer Hyde and coauthor Setaro begin with a brief introduction to the healthy brain, then zero in on the many things that can go wrong. They discuss injuries to the head; infections of the brain such as meningitis, encephalitis, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; dementia caused by Alzheimer’s; degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease; as well as brain damage caused by chemicals, drugs, and nutritional deficiencies. After considering the issues that arise when the brain effectively dies but the body lives on, Hyde and Setaro describe court cases that have brought right-to-die issues to public attention. On a more positive note, the last chapter deals with the prevention of problems and the search for cures. Mistakes include identifying the brain as the initiator of reflex motor responses, dendrites as having myelination, and the statement that each of the brain’s billions of neurons is connected directly or indirectly to every other neuron. Well-chosen black-and-white photographs and diagrams illustrate the text. Besides providing mostly solid information, this book includes stories of people, often young people, whose lives have been touched by injuries, diseases, and disorders of the brain.


How Can Children Sense the Scientist’s Passion?

Despite the recent increase in adult nonfiction books about the brain, growth has not been comparable in children’s books. True, there are more books for the younger age group, and, with the changing technology and economics of four-color printing, they are brighter and more visually appealing than they used to be. What we lack is a good, solid discussion of the brain for older students.

Brynie’s 101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked About Itself but Couldn’t  Answer… Until Now is the closest, but its question-andanswer approach is more appropriate for younger children. Some older, out-of-print books—many still available from libraries— may be a better alternative for older children. These books include Tabitha Powledge’sYour Brain (Scribner, 1994) and Jim Barmeier’s The Brain (Lucent, 1996). Unfortunately, the almost universal use of pictures and sidebars to break up the text has consequences, particularly for older children, who may find the jump from writing middle school reports to high school research papers quite a challenge. There is little transition today for students moving from highly visual books and Web sites to adult books with longer, continuous text and few illustrations. Some students make the leap with relative ease, but many struggle.

Many excellent adult books on brain science exist. Why not convert some of these books into editions written and designed for young people? In another field, for example, in The Code Book: How to Make It, Break It, Hack It, Crack It (Delacorte, 2002), Simon Singh provides teenagers with a simpler, more accessible edition of his The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Quantum Cryptography (Doubleday, 1999).

This could also help address issues of accuracy. Some writers of children’s science books, particularly in a series, have no education in the sciences, much less in the specific field in which they are writing. Unless the author or editor insists that a subject specialist fact-check the manuscript, it is easy to understand how inaccuracies appear in print and, consequently, in other books as well as students’ reports.

Beyond mere accuracy, how can children sense the scientist’s passion or the science writer’s excitement about a subject such as the brain, when the author does not communicate it and perhaps cannot even sense it? Will that child’s fascination be sparked? Not likely. Let us hope that more good books on the brain will be written by knowledgeable people inspired to convey their enthusiasm to young people.