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Picture Books: High School Math and Science

The following is an annotated bibliography I did for my course, Teaching with Illustrated Materials K-12, in July 2013.  I chose picture books and graphic novels to support high school Math and Science.  For this assignment we were asked to concentrate on the illustrations and include how we would use the book in the classroom.

Scieszka, J. (2004). Science Verse. (L. Smith, Illustrator). New York, NY: Viking Press.

“You know, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the poetry of science in everything.”  The student in Science Verse feels his teacher has “zapped” him with a “curse of science verse”.  With the text and creation of this character at the beginning of the book, the author and illustrator create a narrative for this series of science poems.  The narrative concludes when the student realizes he has been asleep in Science class, and upon awakening, his curse is broken (until he goes to art class).

The illustrations are bold and colourful and complement the text nicely.  In the poem ‘Twas the Night Santa sneezes out planets, animals, and objects in a spiral, signifying the Big Bang. For Twink, a poem about black holes, the page is completely black with the text fading with the lines “Now we’re trapped/ in the black hole.”  Though the poems can be read on their own, the illustrations are imaginative, adding to the poems’ whimsical nature.  They are fun to look at as the reader follows the student, as the cohesive element, as he lives out his curse of science verse.

The poems cover a variety of topics, and in a high school science class specific poems could be read aloud as an introduction/hook relating to the subject being studied.


Science – Biography

*Possible use of the following books in the classroom is described at the end of the section


Baradoe, C. (2006). Gregor Mendel: The friar who grew peas. (J. A. Smith, Illustrator). New York, NY: Abrams Books.

This illustrated book describes the life of Gregor Mendel who is now regarded as the world’s first geneticist.  It details his early life growing up in poverty, and how he was able to overcome this and devote his life to answering the question “How do (parents) pass down traits to their children?”  Though Mendel’s work was not appreciated in his own lifetime, the book describes the importance of Mendel’s work to scientists today.

The illustrations complement the text.  Most of the paintings depict scenes of Gregor Mendel’s life and work, which closely follow the descriptions in the text.  There are instructional diagrams with captions included as well; plant parts are labeled, the crossing of two different flowers to produce a hybrid is illustrated and paintings of how Mendel crossed his pea plants is detailed.  Using the same colour palette, these diagrams visually show the science described in the text and do not take anything away from the narrative.  Though I didn’t notice any salient elements, besides the colour palette, which is pretty consistent throughout, the importance of peas to Mendel’s discoveries is evident on the end pages, which are beautifully illustrated with the plants.


Berne, J. (2013). On a beam of light: A story of Albert Einstein. (V. Radinsky, Illustrator). San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

On a Beam of Light “invites the reader to travel along with Einstein” as he lets his imagination and curiosity lead him to a greater understanding of the world around him.

The goache, pen, and ink illustrations allow the reader to glimpse into the mind of this great man: the isolation of being different from other students at school, constantly wondering about and questioning the world around him, plus how he used music, ice cream cones and comfortable baggy clothes to help him think.  The colour palette is mainly browns, greens, and yellows, with a salient bit of red on many of the pages, including the text, highlighting Einstein’s thoughts and ideas.  The text and child-like drawings make the complex understanding of Einstein’s theories accessible to children and contribute to the theme that with imagination, curiosity and questions, children, like Albert Einstein, can “(dream) up ideas never dreamt before.”


Lasky, K. (1994). The librarian who measured the Earth.  (K. Hawkes, Illustrator). Toronto, ON: Little, Brown and Company.  

This illustrated book tells the story of Eratosthenes, the scholar with a passion for geography, who, 2000 years ago, measured the circumference of the Earth to within 200 miles.  It is a powerful story of how curiosity and questioning can lead to great discoveries.

The acrylic illustrations depict the life and times of Eratosthenes.  The full-bleed, double-spread paintings help describe a boy full of wonder and questions about the world around him.  While other students in the pictures seem bored and frustrated with what they are learning it is clear that Eratosthenes is not.  Even as a man, his curiosity still shows through in Hawkes’ paintings: he continues to teach, ask questions and learn throughout his life.  This adds cohesiveness to the book.  Even though Eratosthenes grows and changes as the story proceeds, his curiosity is evident in each illustration.


Pettenati, J. K. (2006). Galileo’s journal: 1609-1610. (P. Rui, Illustrator). Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing.

Galileo’s Journal is a fictionalized account of Galileo’s life at the time he built his spyglass, turned it to the night sky, and forever changed the way humans looked at themselves and their place in the Universe.

Though the journal entries can be read on their own in this illustrated book, the illustrations do help describe everyday life in the early 17th Century, and help the reader understand the significance of Galileo’s discoveries.  Though Galileo is featured in most of the illustrations, I feel the salient element in this book is the journal entries.  The illustrations themselves do not supply a coherent narrative.  Without the text the reader will not understand why a couple is dancing under a sky filled with fireworks, or Galileo is pushing his dog, Luna, on a swing.  Though I was unable to discover the typeset of the text, it is reminiscent of hand printing which emphasizes the idea that this story is being told through Galileo’s journal.


Sis, P. (1996). Starry Messenger. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Starry Messenger tells the story of astronomer, scientist, and mathematician Galileo Galilei who “turned the world upside down” by collecting evidence that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.

The full page illustrations in this picture book are formally framed and the style and colour of the watercolour pen and ink drawings are reminiscent of old maps and charts filled with pictures and symbols of how people viewed the world so long ago.  A handwritten font is used to add snippets of information about Galileo’s life and quotes from his own writing 350 years ago.

The illustrations help tell the story of Galileo, a man who thought differently from those around him.  There is a picture full of newborn babies with symbols of their future occupations on their blankets (labourer, farmer, weaver, musician) whereas Galileo’s blue blanket stands out from the rest and is covered in stars.  There is also an illustration of children playing various games while Galileo is drawing stars in the sand.  The text in the last few pages tells the reader about Galileo’s arrest and imprisonment.  The colours here become darker; more blues, grays and browns compared with the lighter, more colourful pages proceeding.  The second-to-last illustration, which depicts Galileo’s imprisonment, shows the bright moon overhead (which was so important to Galileo’s earliest discoveries) shining down, providing light for the oasis in which Galileo is imprisoned while the rest of the world remains dark.

These picture books and illustrated books could be used in a Grade 9 class as an introduction to science and scientists.  Galileo’s Journal could be used as an example for a research project.  Students could research their own famous scientist and present their findings in a journal format. The Author’s Note at the back of the book contains information on what is fact and what is fiction in Galileo’s journal.  This will assist students, as they create their own.

Another idea is for students to research a scientist of their choice and create their own picture books to teach younger children about their chosen scientist.


Science – Environment

*Possible use of the following books in the classroom is described at the end of the section


Allison, R. H. (2012). I’m not a plastic bag. Los Angeles, CA: Archaia Entertainment LLC.

I’m Not a Plastic Bag is a wordless graphic novel depicting the accumulation of human garbage in the Pacific Ocean caused by the currents of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The illustrations attest to the fact that “our garbage has a life of its own” (back cover).  They begin with a plastic bag caught and then blown off a tree.  This is quickly followed using a series of small squares of other items: an umbrella blown away in a storm, a book fallen out of a bag, a tire bounced off a barge of junk, a variety of plastic bags and bottles and even a live fish in a plastic bag a child has forgotten on a bench.  It all ends up in the ocean where the cyclical winds and currents concentrate it all into a giant mass that grows bigger and bigger as the book proceeds.  The salient element in this story is the garbage itself.  Allison’s watercolour illustrations depict the mass of garbage as a lonely creature (it even has eyes – the tire and umbrella) floating in the water.  It often looks like a crab, seal, fish or jellyfish, constantly trying to encourage other passing marine creatures (even an airplane) to come and “play”.  The dark palette of blues and browns add to this feeling of loneliness.

Painting our garbage as a creature mimics the fact that animals do think of our garbage as creatures: plants and animals that can be eaten.  This is especially evident when a seagull lands on the garbage and takes away the original plastic bag, only to be found later, dead, with that same plastic bag visible within its decomposing body.  However, even more dangerous is the fact that unlike the physical entity the garbage represents in this story, the true Garbage Patches are mostly submerged and made up of such tiny particles of plastic that the patches are difficult to see.  The last few pages of the book provide this information as well as how people can reduce the amount of waste they create.


Drummond, A. (2011).  Energy island: How one community harnessed the wind and changed their world. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Energy Island is the story of a community’s struggle to become energy independent. It describes one teacher’s mission to encourage his community to harness the wealth of renewable energy sources available to them on their windy island in the middle of Denmark.

This story uses comic book conventions in the form of paneling, using both horizontal, vertical and individual framing, as well as speech bubbles on the occasional page.  The text is broken up into snippets of information between which are simple, cartoon-like watercolour drawings.  Besides the end pages and title page, there are only two other pages with one double-spread full bleed illustration. The first depicts the time a storm cuts power to the island.  The dark gray of the painting is broken only by the yellow headlights from a car, plus the door and windows of the one house whose owner elected to put up a windmill for power.  In contrast, the second shows a bird’s eye view between rotating windmill blades, of the bright green and blue landscape on which sit numerous windmills.  One marks the turning point of the story where suddenly everyone is on board to try alternative power.  The other is near the end signifying the culmination of everyone working together to reimagine their community.

The salient element throughout the entire book is the wind and this is evident from the illustrations: the blowing hair, hats, scarves and leaves, the bent trees and Drummond even makes the air look windy.  Yellow pinwheels are also a salient feature, as they are dispersed throughout the illustrations.

The story is told from the perspective of a girl living on the island (we see her, with a yellow pinwheel, on the beginning end pages) and the text and pictures reflect that.  However, more in-depth information on the subject of renewable and non-renewable energy is given in vertical, green panels along the edges of some pages, allowing older readers to gain further information on this subject.


Nivola, C. A. (2008). Planting the trees of Kenya: The story of Wangari Maathai.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

When Wangari Maathai returns to her homeland from studying in America she sees the changes following Kenya’s independence (1963): more poverty, hunger and unemployment.  Farmers abandoned traditional methods of farming to start farming commercially, clearing more land for crops and cutting the remaining trees for household use.  This picture book details how Wangari organized villages to plant trees to help restore the countryside to what it once was.

Claire Nivola’s beautiful watercolour illustrations help tell the story.  The palette of the paintings is green and brown with splashes of colour to add brightness.  This colour palette as well as the framing provides salience.  The dominance of green and then brown, emphasize the changes in the landscape that occur while Wangari is away.  Each painting is framed as a single or one and a half page spread with text on the facing page, or a two-page spread, with text along the bottom.  Other colours such as yellow, red, purple and blue are interspersed among the green and brown through the clothing worn by the villagers, the sky, and the fruit on the trees.


Roth, S. & Trumbore, C. (2011). The mangrove tree. (S. Roth, Illustrator). New York, NY: Lee & Low Books Inc.

This picture book documents the work of Dr. Gordon Sato to reduce hunger and poverty in a village along the coast of Eritrea, Africa.  The Mangrove Tree uses poetry, prose and multi-media collages to describe Dr. Sato’s idea of planting mangrove trees by the sea to create healthier communities.

The collages created by Susan Roth dominate each double page spread.  They consist of a variety of paper and fabric depicting each step of the process the villagers went through and the benefits derived from planting mangrove trees.  A poem is embedded in the illustrations and describes each scene.  This can be read separately from the more detailed prose that is framed on the textured paper to the right of each double page spread.  Interestingly, though the lines of the poem describe the illustration on the page, except for the first page, the prose on one page describes the illustration on the next page.  As the poem doesn’t start until the second page, this allows the reader to read the prose and then turn the page to read the lines of poetry and view the scene previously described by the prose.  This adds coherence to the book allowing the narrative to include the poetry, prose and visual images.

The picture book ends with photographs of the villagers planting the trees and reaping the benefits.  Susan Roth says she “wanted to illustrate this book the minute (she) saw photographs of the project.”  The collages of paper and fabric give the illustrations vibrancy and depth, which does justice to the photographs of the colourful pots, rows of mangrove trees and colourful clothing worn by the women who planted them.  Having photographs of the project adds impact for the reader reminding him/her that this is a real story about real people who have greatly benefitted from one man’s vision.


Strauss, R. (2007). One well: The story of water on earth. (R. Woods, Illustrator). Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press.

As the title states, One Well tells the story of Earth’s water: it’s history, distribution, importance, and uses.  Interspersed with this information are facts, figures and anecdotes about water around the globe.

One well is illustrated by Rosemary Woods and as is expected in a book about water, the salient colour is blue, from the end-pages to the background colour for the text.  Besides the colour, a salient feature is the Well, which appears on every page (except the one of the Earth seen from space).  Though blue may be dominant, each illustration is full of colour, signifying the diversity of life from plants, animals and people which all depend on the Earth’s water.  Each detailed painting clearly indicates what will be discussed on that page whether it’s plants, animals, watery habitats or pollution.  Facts about water are embedded within the illustrations, framed with background colours of the overall palette so they blend in with the pictures.


Yezerski, T. (2011). Meadowlands: A wetlands survival story.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book describes the life of 20 000 acres of wetlands in New Jersey from the time of Native settlement through 400 years of European contact.  It went from a place that provided food, water, and shelter for the plants, animals and humans who lived there to a wasteland.  It then goes through the journey back to wetlands providing ecological services to the community.  It attests to the fact that if contamination is stopped, the Earth has great capacity to heal itself.

The text paints a rosy picture of what can happen when humans begin to care about the nature around them, but the pen-and-ink watercolour paintings in this picture book give us glimmers of reality.  Within the pictures of a healing ecosystem, Yezerski intersperses bits of garbage among the returning fish, a crushed can on the mudflats with fiddler crabs, as well as power lines, bridges and trains in the background where birds are feeding and nesting.  This emphasizes that though ecosystems have the capacity to heal themselves they can never be restored to what they once were.

The framing in Meadowlands provides salience.  Each double page picture is formally framed with the text running along the bottom.  The whole is then framed with hypertext and pictures relating to the overall illustration on the two pages.

I see using these books when studying environmental issues at any grade level.  Students could form small groups, each reading one of the books and sharing with the class what they learned from it.  This could be a prelude to their own research about an environmental topic of their choice.  Some examples could be alternative energy, waste management, other past or current local or global environmental projects, or, as none of these books are Canadian, students could compare Canada’s role in environmental issues compared to other countries.




Neuschwander, C. (1997). Sir Cumference and the first round table: A math adventure. (W. Geehan, Illustrator). Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing.

Sir Cumference is actually a series of books to do with math.   The stories are set in the context of King Arthur.  Each story has a problem that can be solved using math.  Sir Cumference and the First Round Table is about geometry and in it, Sir Cumference finds the perfect shape for a table for King Arthur and his knights.

The colourful illustrations are paintings of the scenes described by the text.  Paintings are appropriate for the context of the story as this would be the way to illustrate people and places in the time of King Arthur.  The paintings cover either a one or two page spread and are formally framed and do not bleed off the paper.  The framing of the text provides its cohesive structure.  The text on each page is framed with a beige background which looks like torn parchment paper.  Though the paintings are colourful, red and yellow appear to be the salient colours; they appear in every page including the diagrams of the shapes used for the tables, in the King’s robe and crown and especially in the jester’s hat and clothes.  The jester adds cohesion as the only time it doesn’t appear on at least one page in a pair of facing pages, the shape and colour of the fire in the background of that illustration are reminiscent of the jester’s hat.

I would use this book along with the others in the series as a fun introduction to Math in Grade 9 (the first year of high school in my district).  The books are full of Math terms in the names of people and places and students may have fun seeing if they can find all the math references.  Students could be divided into groups, each with a different Sir Cumference book, and complete activities relating the book to what they will be studying in the upcoming year/semester.


Smith, D.J. and (Illus.) (2002). If the world were a village: A book about the world’s people. (S. Armstrong, Illustrator). Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press.

If the World Were a Village, reduces our “Global Village” to a village of 100 people.  Readers then learn about the people in our village: our religions, languages, economic status, schooling etc.  The information in this book was updated in July 2007.

The colourful acrylic paintings look to be painted on a black background.  The black showing through helps add texture to the illustrations of this village and the people who live there.  The full one and a half to two page spreads bleed right to the edges.  The text is formally framed in horizontal panels to the right or left of either facing page, or embedded within the illustration itself.  This framing along with the colour and style of the paintings provide salience and cohesiveness to the book, no matter what topic is being presented.

Though If the World Were a Village would be an excellent resource for a social studies class, I think it would also be excellent to teach math skills as well.  Ratios, percent, graphing, data sets, and probability are a few topics that could be covered using this book.  There is 2nd Edition from 2011, but if this older edition is being used, students could complete a class project to update If the World Were a Village for 2013.  Sources for the statistics are available in the back of the book, and students could research and collect their own data to see what has changed in the village since 2007.


Scieszka, J., & Smith, L. (1995). Math Curse. New York, NY: Viking Press.

“You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.”

This observation by a math teacher starts what one student claims is a Math curse.  The student starts thinking of everything in terms of math problems.

Math Curse is colourful and chaotic, mimicking the thoughts of the student as she deals with the fact that suddenly everything seems related to math. The typography comes in different sizes, colours, and spacing.  This, along with the framing of the text, emphasizes and separates the different math problems described on the pages.  The illustrations add to the feeling of frustration as the student moves through her day unable to get away from thinking about math.

I would use Math Curse as a fun read-aloud to a Grade 9 Math class at the beginning of the year/semester.  A follow-up discussion could include students brainstorming all the ways they use math in daily life.  As well is could spark a research project to find out what careers/jobs require math knowledge.


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