Books written by a single author with expertise and enthusiasm for a subject;
Books well written in an engaging style such that they are an enjoyment to read;
Books with high quality information, both in morality and depth.
Browse your local library collection for the older age group and here is what you are likely to find:
- Experiment books galore. Most of them do a poor job of putting experiments in context, or explaining the "informing ideas" as Miss Mason would say. These are but reference books for us.
- Biographies. Many of these are living books and are a must on our list; most, however, contain little actual science.
- Textbooks and other similar compilations. These are antitheses of living books.
- Nature books.
- Books about the human body, a lot of them, and rarely with any experiments.
The industry is clearly more excited about glossy photography and eye-popping illustrations than it is about content and writing. What concerns me most about content is that the middle school literature contains little more depth than the elementary literature, and is thus far behind high school textbooks.
You can search the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks (standards) by grade and subject. I compared the grades 6 through 8 standards with those for high school. Is it my imagination or does there seem to be a huge gulf between them? Perhaps I should start eyeing those high school standards more often and searching for books that will bridge that gulf.
A good way to get living books is to be quite specific about a topic. While a search for "ocean" is apt to get you a whole lot of twaddle, looking specifically for "tides" or "currents" will more likely turn up something more in depth and engaging. Don't be afraid of "feeding" your children these advanced concepts. Just like literature, children "hunger" for interesting learning. Don't settle for the Great Illustrated Classics version of science!