Books with STEM and STEAM concepts at their core continue to be strong performers in the children’s book arena. After seeing a distinct bump during the early days of the pandemic, the demand for these books remains high as teachers and parents aim to address interrupted learning caused by nationwide school closures and other Covid-related disruptions over the past 20 months. We checked in with some editors of STEM/STEAM titles to ask about various developments they are observing in this category.

“I see it absolutely growing,” says Karen Edwards, executive editor at Workman, about this area of publishing. “The more we learn about the world around us, the more we see the relevance of STEM/STEAM. Once we broaden our definition of what it is to learn about STEM and STEAM, the category will open up.”

Samantha Gentry, editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, notes, “This is an evergreen category as there will always be a need for books that spark an early interest in STEM subjects. It’s possible that we might see a downtrend in activity-based STEM books, but titles that encourage curiosity in young readers will always be needed and wanted in the market.”

At DK Knowledge Children’s, publisher Andrew McIntyre says, “STEM publishing is perennially in demand, but the pandemic took it to another level by raising the profile of science and its role in our world and also creating a homeschooling demand.”

Though the characterization of the landscape is rosy, some editors are mindful of potential bubbles. Carol Hinz, associate publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books, says, “It’s generally a stable category, though I do feel like the market is a bit saturated with nonfiction animal picture books, particularly those that list different animals that all have something in common—whether it’s a behavior, an anatomical feature, or habitat. While kids—and adults!—are always going to be interested in books about animals, I’m definitely being very picky about what types of animal books I’m acquiring.”

Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director at Sourcebooks Explore, says, “I have some concerns about the category becoming oversaturated—however, I don’t think we are at that point yet. There are still unique ways to enter the category that haven’t been done yet. And the more we can inspire kids and introduce them to STEAM topics the better, since those are the tools they will need for the rest of their lives.”

Leading the charge

Editors shared their insights on the kinds of STEM/STEAM books that are performing well in the current market. At Nomad Press, senior editor/content marketing manager Andi Diehn believes that books succeeding in the category right now provide more context. “STEM doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she says. “Books for kids are really gaining ‘steam’ in setting science, technology, engineering, art, and math in a context that keeps kids thinking about how every scientific step forward or backward, every new discovery and piece of technology, changes the world around them.”

Diehn cites Nomad’s recent title Engines! With 25 Science Projects for Kids by Donna McKinney as an example. The book “mentions the invention of the cotton gin, arguably a pivotal moment in engineering,” she says. “But we go a step further to set this invention in history—the cotton gin was a major reason the United States continued to enslave people into the 1800s.”

Without a historical context, Diehn argues, “the cotton gin is one point on a timeline of inventions. With that historical context, a bigger conversation emerges about who does inventing, who should have a say in what gets invented, what should happen when an invention hurts people, how should inventors be thinking about the world they are working in. It invites kids to really look hard at the bigger picture.”

Charlie Ilgunas, associate editor at Little Bee Books, points out that in terms of submissions and acquisitions, especially in the picture-book age range, “A lot of the STEM/STEAM topics I’ve seen have moved away from mechanical, physical things that we can touch/see/feel in our lives and in the natural world, and more toward the microscopic and the conceptual. Part of that may be because of Covid being a microscopic virus, and a greater demand to explain to children more about these small things that we cannot see affecting our lives in huge ways.”

But Ilgunas also surmises that prior to the pandemic “there was the fear that less tangible ideas in the sciences might be beyond children’s understanding and go over their heads if they can’t engage with it with any of their five senses.” He adds that in recent years, “I’ve seen some very talented authors able to distill complex topics in simple, understandable language that meets children at their current level of understanding and inspires curiosity in things like DNA and relativity in fascinating ways. I wish I had some of these books when I was growing up!”

At Astra Young Readers, executive editor Susan Dobinick says, “These days I’ve been seeing really unique takes on contemporary topics like climate change and environmentalism—the more specific the pitch, the better. What I love about these projects is that when an author finds a unique approach to a topic and backs it up with really solid research, you can expect a book to backlist for a very long time.”

Gentry at LBYR has noticed that “kids are looking for tangible ways to make a difference in their communities, which I believe is why we’ve seen a surge in books, and submissions, that investigate climate change and environmental issues.” One such book from the LBYR list is Brains On! Presents... Earth Friend Forever by Molly Bloom, Marc Sanchez, and Sanden Totten. “Told in the form of a letter from Earth to the reader,” she says, “this humorous picture book takes an in-depth look at how the actions of humans, particularly their use of plastic, is impacting the planet and how they can make simple changes in their everyday life to help protect the place they call home.”

The books that are standing out now to Hilary Van Dusen, senior executive editor at Candlewick Press, are “those that take a deep dive into hard science like astrophysics, nanotechnology, microbiology, and other STEM topics such as coding, linguistics, online ethics, and much more, written by experts in their particular field.” Van Dusen, who oversees the MIT Kids Press and MITeen Press imprints in partnership with MIT, notes that at these imprints, “we are bringing STEM topics to kids from the people who study, practice, and discover in a particular field and are as committed to introducing their area of expertise to children as they are to their own practice and study.”

In assessing what arrives on her desk, Karen Wojtyla, v-p and editorial director at Margaret K. McElderry Books, offers, “What we’re seeing in STEM and STEAM is an expansion of subjects into topics that feel relevant to the problems we are facing today.” Among examples from the McElderry list, she mentions The Great Stink by Colleen Paeff (out now), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter—a picture book that chronicles the conception and construction of sewers in 19th-century London that saved tens of thousands of lives by stopping cholera outbreaks.

“I started working on this book before any of us ever heard of Covid-19 and were thinking a lot more about plagues,” Wojtyla says. “But we were thinking about water pollution, an intractable problem in many parts of the world, with an estimated two billion people still drinking water polluted by raw sewage. Our backmatter for this book includes four pages titled ‘Poop Pollution Today,’ with facts for kids about the problems, how they are being addressed in several places in the world, and what kids themselves can do to help locally. This is a kind of past-informs-the-present for hands-on action that I think is an important part of current STEM titles.”

According to Cormac McEvoy, senior product manager for Klutz, “What’s evolving in the category is the fun factor. We’re making sure to engage the kids upfront with exciting content that has deep educational roots. We’re seeing a need for a more playful approach that puts humor and creativity at the forefront.”

Looking specifically at the Klutz list, McEvoy says, “Licensed Lego titles with a focus on STEAM, such as Lego Gear Bots, strongly resonate with parents and kids alike because they are grounded in playful learning. The Lego brand is a powerful launchpad for kids to delve into engineering with a material they already know well.”

Homework help and curriculum-tied books “are as popular as ever as parents look to support their kids at home,” McIntyre at DK says. “This isn’t just workbooks and practice books,” he adds, “but also books that teach, explain, and visualize what children are already learning at school. ‘Soft’ STEM books are also in demand—books that teach STEM subjects ‘by stealth’ by engaging a child’s interest and curiosity.”

Kristine Enderle, editorial director of Magination Press, says, “In the last few years, we have shifted from storybooks and workbooks a bit into publishing more browsable nonfiction like our recently published Big Brain Book: How It Works and All Its Quirks and Psychology for Kids: The Science of Mind and Behavior, and are developing more social and psychological science books in this format.” Citing another recent shift, she says, “We have also jumped into the narrative nonfiction world and will be publishing biographies of pioneering psychologists like Evelyn Hooker, Bernice Sandler, and Mamie Phipps Clark, and will be relaying the stories behind their groundbreaking social science research and advocacy efforts.” (See our article Psychology and SEL Enhance STEM Learning for more developments in this space.)

At Millbrook and Carol-rhoda, Hinz says books that are doing well “tend to have an engaging format or a gripping narrative.” How to Build an Insect by Roberta Gibson, illustrated by Anne Lambelet, published earlier this year, “puts a fresh spin on insect anatomy by following the process of ‘building’ an imaginary insect,” she notes. “In Kate Messner’s Tracking Tortoises, which features photos by her son, Jake Messner, readers get an up-close look at Galápagos giant tortoises through the eyes of Kate, Jake, and the scientists the Messners shadowed while researching the book.”

In some of her imprints’ science titles, including Tracking Tortoises, Hinz says the company has been experimenting with embedding QR codes to help readers connect with additional content. “Planet Ocean by Patricia Newman, with photos by Annie Crawley, has QR codes that lead to incredible videos with music and voiceover narration by Annie Crawley, who has extensive experience as a videographer,” she adds. “It’s one more tool to help kids feel connected to the book’s subject matter in a more immersive way than still photos alone can offer.”

Edwards at Workman says, “Books that treat STEAM as an exploration of the world seem to really resonate. These books integrate—and reflect—interdisciplinary and creative thinking processes and ap-

proaches.” Other successful types of books are those “that connect the STEM disciplines, showing how they build on each other, reinforcing concepts and broadening understanding.” In addition, Edwards notes, “Books that highlight a pioneer’s joy of learning and discovery or that underscore that ‘failure’ is a crucial part of the process are very relatable to children. Hands-on explorations and nontraditional approaches like graphic novels are also particularly compelling.”

Gina Gagliano, publishing director of Random House Graphic, observes, “General trade book publishers are creating more graphic novels in the kids’ nonfiction space, including STEM titles.” She notes that over the past several years, “with the work of great authors like Jim Ottaviani, Maris Wicks, and Abby Howard, STEM comics are becoming more and more visible. Most of the growth is in middle grade, but there are several new YA titles as well—and the most popular categories across the board are science, health and sex ed, like Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan’s Let’s Talk About It, and food and food science like Yummy: A History of Desserts by Victoria Grace Elliott.”

Abrams has seen its biggest STEM/STEAM success with the Questioneers series, “starring Iggy Peck, Ada Twist, Rosie Revere, Sofia Valdez, and now Aaron Slater, Illustrator—another A added to our STEAM lineup!” says editorial director Maggie Lehrman. “These started as fiction picture books with a STEM bent, but now we’ve expanded into chapter books, activity books, a tie-in program with the new Netflix Ada Twist show, and more,” she adds. “Each of the Questioneers books explores a different STEAM topic, but they’re also focused on engaging characters that kids are familiar with. And as a person whose first love is fiction, I think the way that readers bond to fictional characters can be very powerful and can be used as an avenue to expand kids’ interest.”

According to Lehrman, format has drawn readers to other titles on the Abrams list, including the Big Ideas That Change the World series by Don Brown. “These books use comics to engage young readers in the stories behind scientific discoveries,” she notes. “The most recent Big Ideas book was A Shot in the Arm, about the history of vaccinations, which was planned long before Covid-19, but has turned out to be very relevant—we managed to add information about the Covid vaccine before it printed.”

Sourcebooks Explore has experienced great success with its board books for toddlers and preschoolers. “Whereas STEM books were once thought of as reference-style nonfiction for older kids, we’re seeing a real demand for these subjects for young learners,” Barrales-Saylor says. “Books like Quantum Physics for Babies and ABCs of Science, both by Chris Ferrie, have proven that introducing young minds to complex subjects early will benefit the child as they encounter these topics in school.”

More voices

“It’s vital that all kids can see themselves reflected in STEM and STEAM books in both fiction and nonfiction, and we absolutely need to see a broader range of experiences represented in this category,” says Gentry at LBYR, echoing the unanimous assessment of the editors we spoke with. “I hope the next generation of aspiring scientists and educators will be inspired by profiles of incredible figures from traditionally marginalized groups who have risen to the top of their fields, showcased in books including Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders, Little Dreamers, and Little Legends; Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World; Roseanne Montillo’s Atomic Women; Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code books; Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures books, and more.”

Additionally, Gentry notes, “There is also a growing body of literature revealing how false science has been used as a tool of marginalization, and how inequality pervades STEM fields. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi explains how false science has been used to promote racist ideas, and the forthcoming [May 2022] Unequal: A Story of America by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Marc Favreau explores environmental racism and health-care inequality in memorable chapters highlighting Black men and women fighting for justice in those areas.”

Random House Graphic’s Gagliano says, “With a lot of kids’ science publishing centering on biography, there’s historically been a focus on the achievements of the straight white men who had the power and the privilege to be recognized as the leaders in the field. Publishing today is actively challenging that narrative—with books from Random House Children’s Books like Noisemakers, a graphic biography collection about the women who’ve been doing these things all along.”

Gagliano notes that in the graphic novel space, “Books about health and sex ed have been a growing trend for the past several years, and those featuring queer identities, like A Quick and Easy Guide series from Oni Press, have been leading the way in that space.” She points out that this isn’t a surprise, because queer graphic novels are one of the bestselling categories in YA comics. And like many of her counterparts, she emphasizes, “There’s still much more work for all of us in publishing to do in this space to make it truly inclusive of BIPOC, queer, neurodiverse, and disabled authors—and a positive space for readers of those identities.”

In Hinz’s view, “There’s a lot of room for improvement in representation within this category—both in terms of scientists featured within books and in terms of who is writing these books.” She offers some strategies for making positive strides toward more inclusion: “Some of this is going to come down to authors diversifying their networks of sources and making a concerted effort to connect with BIPOC scientists and highlight their work,” she says. “To diversify the author pool in this category, I don’t think we can rely on agented submissions alone.”

Hinz shared her experience following a conference last year in which attendees could submit projects to her directly. “I acquired two books by Korean American author Jane Park—the first one, Hidden Animal Colors, comes out in spring 2022,” she says. “Editors, art directors, and designers also need to take care that we are looking at a diverse range of illustrators for our STEM/STEAM picture books. Improving representation benefits all involved—from those making the books to authors and illustrators to the most important group of all, the kids reading these books who may just grow up to be our future scientists.”

McEvoy concurs, noting that diversity and inclusion should always be top of mind with any children’s book project. “STEM/STEAM books enrich a child’s understanding of their everyday environment, regardless of their gender, race, or income, and inspire the next generation of innovators,” he says. “At Klutz, we always make sure to include a diverse group of people in the creation of every product, from the kids testing the initial concept to sensitivity readers to review content. If we don’t work to approach every product with the highest level of equity and inclusivity, we are doing our future a disservice.”

Edwards at Workman offers some additional strategies for increasing representation. “We need to expand the list of people we traditionally present as STEM pioneers,” she says. “They’re not just the mathematicians, inventors, or scientists. They’re also the artists, composers, and makers. We need to talk more about underrepresented groups in the STEM field and do a better job of pointing out where and how new technology was built on the inventions of ancient civilizations and Indigenous people. Representation matters regarding who we contract to write and illustrate these books, as well as the vendors we use to produce them.”

As editors consider STEM/STEAM projects in the context of current events, one issue in the mix is an anti-science stance that flourished during the pandemic. “I have been deeply disheartened by the conversations surrounding anti-science,” Gentry says. “It is an especially important time to publish STEM/STEAM books for children that are well researched and thoroughly fact-checked, giving them the tools to develop informed opinions that are rooted in facts. Knowledge can be a calming reassurance to many kids, especially in today’s scary and ever-changing climate.”

McEvoy says, “You can’t be a STEAM kit [publisher] and not stand behind the science. The pandemic and subsequent spread of misinformation made it even more imperative for Klutz to develop products that tackle serious science without losing sight of the fact that kids will physically engage with products that are fun, tactile, and downright gross. In fall 2022, we will be launching a title that relates to the pandemic and questions that kids have about germs and other microbes.”

At McElderry, Wojtyla offers, “Any time we see anti-science sentiment growing, it puts us all on alert that we want to be sure that these books play a role in educating children, giving them facts, and telling stories in such an engaging way that they want to explore the world and can see how exciting these fields are.”

Like her fellow editors, Hinz finds the rise of anti-science sentiment troubling. “I see STEM/STEAM books for kids as an opportunity to increase science literacy in the next generation,” she says. “In editing new books, I’m thinking about how we’re conveying information about what makes science trustworthy, and in books about scientists, I’m looking at ways to help readers feel connected to them. I’m also looking for ways to continue collaborating with working scientists as expert readers because I think if we’re going to emphasize that science is trustworthy, we need to ensure that our books are likewise accurate and trustworthy.”

Hinz believes an awareness of anti-science bias is especially crucial when publishing books with environmental themes. “We need to offer kids new ways of thinking about climate change and offer them tips that go well beyond turning off the water when you brush your teeth,” she says. “One spring 2022 STEAM-themed book I’m excited about is Washed Ashore by author and photographer Kelly Crull, which features photos of 14 sculptures created from ocean plastic. The book talks about animals and ocean plastic together in a way I haven’t seen before. Plus, it has a seek-and-find element on each spread that gives kids another way to engage with the content.”

For Edwards at Workman, recent anti-science sentiment “proved the importance of teaching STEM and how it works in our lives,” she says. “It’s easier to believe propaganda when we’re insecure or intimidated by science and scientific concepts, and the only way to combat that is by introducing STEM to kids early and exposing it to them often.”

From her position considering projects for Magination, Enderle says, “Now more than ever, it’s crucial to publish evidence-based science and facts to counter stereotypes and stigmas around mental health and push back against the rise in anti-science rhetoric and disinformation.”

Lehrman at Abrams adds, “As anti-science sentiment has built, there’s been a reaction to find books that tell the truth to kids. We have a responsibility to our readers, who may be encountering these topics for the first time, to give them the truth without giving in to ideological pressure to bend the science to fit a predetermined world view.”

STEM/STEAM wish lists

As the STEM/STEAM category flourishes, so too does the search for compelling book projects to bring into the space. Editors offered some insight into what they are looking for. “I’d like to see more books that deal with climate change and the environment on a practical level,” McEvoy says. “These are subjects that the younger generations will need to understand and deal with as they grow. We owe it to them to provide the tools for that future. Klutz’s Ultrasonic Misting Volcano deftly delves into serious, sometimes alarming topics around extreme weather, but also empowers kids with knowledge they are curious about.”

Van Dusen at Candlewick says her dream projects include “picture books that bring the actual science forward in the book instead of telling a story and then explaining the science in the back matter. The same goes for biographies, in particular picture book biographies. I am working on making the story as much about the STEM topic as it is about the person.” She adds, “There are never enough books on math topics that are engaging for any age.”

Gentry would welcome “more heavily illustrated and designed nonfiction books that are presenting a curriculum topic like biology or earth science, in a fun and innovative way.” She notes that many such books, including Brains On! Presents... Road Trip Earth by Bloom, Sanchez, and Totten, use humor as a device to introduce kids to these subjects, an approach she believes “is both effective and engaging.”

At Astra, Dobinick says, “Right now I’m especially looking for books that clarify the scientific process and make it inviting—whether that’s through the types of picture books you can imagine teachers using in preschool and kindergarten classrooms to explain complex concepts in simple terms, or if it’s middle grade or young adult that uses science as a call to action for socially conscious readers.”

For Wojtyla, ideal projects at the moment are “stories with broad appeal that can be told in exciting ways.” She says she looks for subjects that intrigue her, that are “about people I haven’t met yet, or tell a story from a different perspective that opens my eyes, and I hope will open the eyes of young readers. We are all explorers, really, discovering, through books like these, a past that helps illuminate the present and will hopefully affect the future, or traveling to different places to learn valuable lessons that not only broaden what we know, but also inform our values and help us to grow and change.”

Gagliano sees “a lot of opportunity in STEM comics for younger kids ages four-to-eight; science graphic novels for kids that are a next step up from all the great picture book biographies in the marketplace.” In this space she names Random House Graphic’s forthcoming Expedition Backyard, a book “about exploring the nature around your house,” from Rosemary Mosco and Binglin Hu, as an example. “I also think there’s potential for science graphic novels on general subjects that highlight the humor and weirdness nonfiction can depict alongside serious subjects,” she adds. “Several of our upcoming books address that need, like Hidden Systems by debut author Dan Nott, which gives an activist perspective on the history of water, electricity, and the internet; or How to Pack for Certain Death by Emi Gennis, which tells the stories of failed explorations throughout history.”

Innovation is a big draw for Hinz, too. “I’d especially love to see writers tackling physics, chemistry, or engineering concepts for elementary-age readers,” she says. “This fall’s Robo-Motion by Linda Zajac, for example, pairs something kids know and love—animals—with something cool and high-tech—robots. I also love when an author can bring together poetry and science—the forthcoming Rumble and Roar by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Khoa Le [Millbrook, Mar. 2022], is a great example of that.” Books that “highlight the work of BIPOC scientists and challenge conventional notions of who a scientist is” are also high on Hinz’s list of desirable projects. She says that Classified by Traci Sorell (Millbrook, Mar.), illustrated by Natasha Donovan, and Who Is a Scientist? by Laura Gehl (Millbrook, Oct.) both fit into that category.

Barrales-Saylor at Sourcebooks Explore says she’s hoping to see more attention “for the A in STEAM: art! Visual creativity is such a huge part of successful STEM. For example, technology that isn’t also aesthetically designed is not usually successful. Remember how quickly everyone raced to copy the iPhone? The design was just as important as the technology. Creative intelligence is often overlooked as a key component of success, but it’s so important and doesn’t always get the love it should.”

Like several editors we spoke with, Lehrman believes there is still room for the category to grow, and she is enthusiastic about the possibilities the expansion may bring. “To me, what’s most exciting about STEM books is the combination of the artistry and creativity of bookmakers with the scientists who are using their tools to describe the world,” she says. “And science never really stops—there are new discoveries being made all the time, historical figures whose contributions are being brought to light, and new ways to think about the world around us.”