STEM education first edged into a brighter spotlight when it was listed among the many priorities of the America COMPETES Act of 2007. With the regular appearance of STEM/STEAM programs and festivals in schools and communities around the country these days, and the observance of National STEM/STEAM Day on November 8, awareness and implementation of STEM/STEAM education has been, well, gathering steam for more than a decade now.

This focus on science, technology, engineering, and math continues at a good pace as STEM education is included in several morphing pieces of federal legislation, and Vice President Kamala Harris recently requested that the U.S. Department of Education establish a STEM office to lead the department’s STEM activities. One such activity under that umbrella would be the department’s You Belong in STEM initiative, launched on October 12 and designed to bring equitable, high-quality STEM education to all students from pre-K to higher education.

The STEM/STEAM category of children’s publishing has seen increased sales and attention in recent years as well, notably at the height of the pandemic, which dictated new virtual, at-home learning strategies for teachers, parents, and students. Circumstances have shifted again for publishers of these books in light of the return of students to classrooms and other postpandemic fluctuations in the market. PW asked editors for their views on the current landscape for STEM/STEAM books.

What’s working

Editors PW spoke with note that nailing the right approach to STEM/STEAM topics is an important ingredient in a successful project. Books by authors who present their subjects in unique, kid-friendly ways are doing well, according to Mallory Loehr, executive v-p and publisher for Random House Books for Young Readers. As an example on the Random House Children’s Books list, she offers the What’s Inside? picture book series by Rachel Ignotofsky, which debuted in February 2021 with What’s Inside a Flower? And Other Questions About Science & Nature. The What’s Inside? books, Loehr says, “aim to grow young scientists by nurturing their curiosity about the natural world.”

Loehr observes that “nonfiction picture and board books that work as both fun readalouds and as teaching tools” are also solid performers. And, “in a world where discoverability is key, it is helpful when parents are familiar with creators or their content,” she adds. “For example, we have a popular series of math books by well-known actor and mathematician Danica McKellar.”

Alyssa Mito Pusey, executive editor at Charlesbridge, calls Pamela S. Turner’s How to Build a Human in Seven Evolutionary Steps “a phenomenal success for us.” Middle grade and YA STEM can be tricky, Pusey says, “but Pam understands and respects her readers and gives them a spot-on combination of top-notch science, riveting storytelling, and deadpan humor.” To date, the April release has received four starred reviews.

According to Karen Edwards, editorial director, educational resources at Workman Publishing, “Educators and learners are looking for ways to incorporate STEM and STEAM concepts into learning through fun, innovative avenues.” She believes Workman’s Learn by Sticker series is doing well because it’s an example of “how a traditional STEM-based subject—like math—can be presented in an exciting, different way.”

Edwards says titles like Learn by Sticker Addition and Subtraction “marry the academic strength of a math workbook with the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment of an art project.” In her view, “The goal is to make kids want to practice what they’ve learned in the classroom and to use it to do unexpected things like solve a riddle, decode a message, or solve a mystery. We want to show kids from the start of their educational journeys that learning is fun. STEM is fun.”

STEM/STEAM titles from Eerdmans reflect the traditional flavor of the company’s children’s list. “Because of our history of publishing books with strong literary and artistic focus, we tend to publish STEM/STEAM books with more narrative structures that offer creative and coherent ways of introducing new topics to readers,” acquisitions and managing editor Kathleen Merz says. “These books have been well received by educators, and we are definitely seeing interest in more books in this category.”

National Geographic Kids senior editor Katharine Moore says that STEM/STEAM topics have always been at the core of her company’s publishing program. “Each season is a new opportunity to bring favorite science subjects to readers in innovative ways,” she adds. “This year we have two strong contenders for favorites in both the classroom and at home, starting with the National Geographic Kids Dinosaur Atlas.” She describes the volume as a blend of “paleontology, mapmaking, and geology that gives kids a fascinating view of where their favorite dinosaurs actually roamed the Earth—compared to modern day—and how the planet has changed since that time.”

Moore and her team also have high hopes for Break Down: Explosions, Implosions, Crashes, Crunches, Cracks and More... a How Things Work Look at How Things Don’t. “We took an evergreen STEM concept and flipped it on its head with this title,” she says. “It’s a fun look at how we can understand the way things work by looking at how they break—it’s backwards-perspective engineering, and grabs kids’ interest by appealing to their
natural desire to take things apart.”

Books tying STEM and STEAM categories to early literacy have great potential, according to Tom Reale, COO and president of Brown Books. “This speaks to the perennial need for reading reinforcement that has been heightened by literacy losses due to the pandemic,” he says. “A title like Ten Little Squirrels by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson, where math and counting practice is combined with early reading practice, is exactly the kind of dual-subject hit that makes a teacher’s, or a parent’s, job just a little easier.”

Aiming younger

Among the trends that editors are seeing in the STEM/STEAM category right now is the tendency to publish more titles for a younger readership. “Board books continue to sell well as parents prioritize giving their children early starts in learning,” says Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director for Sourcebooks Explore.

Sarah Trenholme, editor at Kane Miller, concurs. “We’ve published more STEAM picture books aimed at younger readers,” she says. The First Steps in Coding series by Kaitlyn Siu and Marcelo Badari introduces key coding concepts through lively robot adventures, Martha Maps It Out by Leigh Hodgkinson is an early introduction to mapmaking and geography, and Everything Under the Sun by Molly Oldfield includes 366 answers to real questions submitted by children ages four and up.”

Edwards observes, “More recently companies have seen success with STEM concept board books targeting babies and toddlers.” As a result, she is enthusiastic about the board book My First Brain Quest Science Around Us. “It taps into the curiosity of the youngest learners by explaining how science is always at work around them,” she says. “By showing science and technology concepts found in daily activities and familiar environments, we demystify them and make them accessible and fun for kids. This sets a great foundation for more formalized study later in their education.”

Brooke Jorden, editorial director at Familius, says her company is also experiencing an uptick in this area. “There is growing demand from enthusiastic parents to introduce their kids to their own interests from an early age—start them young, so to speak,” she says. “For example, we recently published an ABC primer, S Is for Space, for ages up to three, covering words like orbit, flare, and constellation, to great success.”

Pandemic ups and downs

Books under the STEM/STEAM umbrella were among the categories most affected by disruptions in education precipitated by the pandemic. Editors offered some insights on how their business has fared throughout the past year as schools, educators, and students have been working to get back on track.

“STEM publishing is perennially in demand anyway,” says Andrew Macintyre, publisher of DK Knowledge Children’s. “But over the course of the pandemic, it reached another level by raising the profile of science and its role in our world and also creating a homeschooling demand. Homework-help, curriculum-tied books are as popular as ever as parents look to support their kids outside of the classroom.” He emphasizes that the rally isn’t just for workbooks and practice books, “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 ‘by stealth’ by engaging a child’s interest and curiosity.”

Trenholme notes, “We’ve seen a definitive rise in interest surrounding health and wellness books because of the pandemic. Getting Sick and Feeling Better by Carron Brown and Wesley Robins received great buzz given its timely topic on germs and staying healthy.”

At Sourcebooks, “Picture book sales are picking up steam once again as schools and libraries are getting back to a new normal,” Barrales-Saylor says. “Regarding subject matter, some of the more niche STEM topics that were booming during the pandemic waned as kids went back to school. But we have seen strong interest in nature-based subjects like Listen to the Language of the Trees by Tera Kelley, illustrated by Marie Hermansson, a story of how forests communicate underground, as children are heading back outside to explore the world together.”

Interactive, hands-on activity and experiment books were among the hottest items during the pandemic-era rise in STEM/STEAM sales, and that trend continues. At Quarto, “we’ve found that there has been a strong interest in our titles that take an especially fun and easy approach to hands-on science at home—something that appeals to adults who might not feel like confident scientists themselves but want to expose their kids to STEM learning,” says senior acquiring editor Jonathan Simcosky. He notes that titles from scientist Liz Lee Heinecke, also known as the Kitchen Pantry Scientist, fit this bill. Heinecke’s Kitchen Pantry Scientist series pairs illustrated biographies of STEM leaders with activities that explain the science. Heinecke served as editor for the latest entry, The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Math for Kids (out now), by mother/daughter mathematician team Rebecca Rapoport and Allanna Chung.

According to Macintyre, DK’s Maker Lab series has been a strong performer. “We mix STEM learning with practical application in creative projects,” he says. “Supporting STEAM education initiatives and the maker movement, the books include various kid-safe projects and crafts that will get young inventors’ wheels turning and make science pure fun.”

Edwards at Workman offers, “I’m particularly impressed by kits that encourage a hands-on exploration of STEM and STEAM. There are science, engineering, and art kits available for children of all ages that help to make these subjects real.” She points out some of the qualities that make such titles stand out: “These kits tap into kids’ creativity and curiosity in a way that many books can’t, allowing them to actually become scientists, engineers, makers, and artists. There’s nothing like building a project using a science, coding, or engineering principle to really understand what it means and how it works.”

At Kane Miller, “we’ve been particularly successful with interactive STEM/STEAM titles,” Trenholme says. “Having that extra element helps draw in young readers. For example, Sophy Henn’s illustrations in Lifesize, Lifesize Dinosaurs, and Lifesize Baby Animals allow children to compare body parts with those of animals and dinosaurs to see how they measure up. In our Shine-a-Light series—inter-active picture books where readers can use a flashlight to discover hidden images on every page—Dinosaurs by Sara Hurst and Lucy Cripps and The Human Body by Carron Brown and Rachael Saunders are bestsellers, and the full series has sold more than three million copies.”

Surefire subjects

Publishers consistently see solid appeal for titles on evergreen topics like dinosaurs. “We’ve found that dinosaurs, space, ocean life, and animals never go out of style,” Trenholme says.

Pusey observes that “heartwarming stories about animal friendships and animal-human friendships continue to be popular. They bring young readers joy in this difficult time and spark conversations about empathy and connection.” Charlesbridge’s The Penguin of Ilha Grande: From Animal Rescue to Extraordinary Friendship by Shannon Earle is one example.

Outer space is another consistently attractive topic, and many editors cite recent developments in space travel and exploration as a driver. “Books about space and planets have had continued success for us as well as for others,” Barrales-Saylor says. She notes that 8 Little Planets by Chris Ferrie, published in 2018, has sold 245,000 copies to date and that “sales continue to grow: up 35% year to date,” adding, “Children and adults are always looking for more information on the wildly unknown. Of course, dinosaurs are perennial favorites as well.”

Jorden is seeing more titles about the final frontier, too. “With the successful launch of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope, the rise of private space travel, and the push toward another moon landing, books about space are trending,” she says.

That’s a take echoed by James Mitchem, acquisitions editor at DK. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in our space books, which I think has been at least partially sparked by the excitement around the SpaceX launches and NASA’s Artemis program,” he says.

Books on the changing climate

The demand for titles on climate change and earth science is on the rise. Loehr says, “Books addressing environmental issues with an emphasis on activism, largely inspired by Greta Thunberg” are popular in the STEM/STEAM category right now. “Stand Up! Speak Up! by Andrew Joyner is a picture book example from Random House, as is Rocket Says, Clean Up!, an installment of Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola’s Rocket Says... series in which science lover Rocket inspires her community to clean up their shorelines. This one is fiction with STEAM themes.”

Pusey makes a similar assessment. “Readers are looking for books about climate change in an effort to understand it and take action against it,” she says. “Some of these books explore the big, global picture of climate change, but many focus on local, concrete effects such as wildfires and extreme weather.” She cites No World Too Big: Young People Fighting Global Climate Change by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley as an example from Charlesbridge’s list.

At Familius, Jorden notes, “with the obvious effects of climate change and mounting climate anxiety, we’re seeing more demand for books about sustainability and alternative energy sources. These can be complex subjects for children, but our approach has been to include another level of learning beyond the words and illustrations. In our book Energy Animated, we use interactive pull tabs, wheels, and flaps to engage young learners in a new way, giving them another avenue of understanding why ramping up renewable energy is so important.”

Environmental themes are at the heart of one of Lerner’s strongest performers this fall. “A River’s Gifts: The Mighty Elwha River Reborn by Patricia Newman, illustrated by Natasha Donovan, came out in September and is off to a very strong start,” says Carol Hinz, associate publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books. “At first glance, the story of the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington State may sound like it wouldn’t reach people outside of that region, but in the hands of Newman and Donovan, it’s much more than that. The poetic narrative describes the river’s formation millions of years ago and emphasizes the mutually beneficial relationship between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, known as the Strong People, and the river long before white settlers arrived and constructed the dams. This is a picture book that offers an honest reckoning with our past while also offering hope for the possibility of environmental restoration.”

The boom in biographies

STEM/STEAM biographies remain a force in both picture books and books for older readers. “I think biographies continue to be strong in the category because they really get to the human stories behind scientific discoveries and concepts and can incorporate many different societal themes in the story beyond whatever STEM topic is being addressed,” says Charlie Ilgunas, editor at Little Bee Books.

In particular, Hinz notes that picture book biographies of women in STEM fields are still going strong. “We’ve seen this with Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan,” she says. “Coming up in spring 2023, we’re releasing Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines by Debbie Dadey, illustrated by Juliana Oakley, which describes Dr. Karikó’s decades-long quest to create mRNA vaccines despite being demoted and told by other scientists it was impossible.”

But there have also been rumblings in the past couple of years that the STEM/STEAM biographies category has reached a saturation point. “I keep hearing that the market for picture book biographies is glutted, and that the trend will cool down,” Pusey says. “Despite this, I think picture book biographies of women and people of color in STEM will continue to do well. There’s still a very real desire and need for these types of books.”

Diversifying STEAM

As in other areas of publishing, the push to increase the number of diverse titles and book creators in the STEM/STEAM category is top of mind. “We’re seeing the urgency to teach children about contributions in STEAM fields by women, nonbinary individuals, and other marginalized groups,” Jorden says. “In the next year, Familius will release two picture books, She Spoke Too [a sequel to She Spoke] and A Steminist Force, and a board book, Women in Science Who Changed the World, about women from around the world and their contributions to STEAM fields throughout history.”

Jorden has seen positive shifts in the marketplace of late. “It’s amazing and encouraging because today’s consumers, specifically parents, are far more socially conscious than they were even five or 10 years ago, so intersectionality is key—from both a marketing and a moral perspective,” she says. “To be truly inclusive, books must include women of all races, orientations, and abilities, and gender-nonconforming individuals as well, because when it comes to STEAM careers, all of those groups have historically been excluded, their accomplishments largely unrecognized.”

Edwards says, “There’s room for improvement in reflecting the true diversity of key figures in science. Typically, women, BIPOC, queer, disabled, and neurodiverse scientists are relegated to mentions of being the first, when they have existed in every facet of STEM from the beginning, advancing the field alongside their white male counterparts.”

Hinz says, “I’m always looking for STEM/STEAM books from BIOPC authors and authors from other marginalized groups as well as books featuring scientists from these groups. I recently finished reading Queer Ducks (and Other Animals) by Eliot Schrefer and think it’s absolutely brilliant.”

In the same vein, Pusey adds, “Like many editors, I’m seeking STEM/STEAM books by authors and illustrators from underrepresented groups. I’m especially interested in books by BIPOC creators, because it’s critical that children of color see science and math as fields that belong to them, too.”

The future of STEM/STEAM

After several years of solid growth, where does the STEM/STEAM category stand, and where is it headed next? Loehr believes STEM/STEAM is “holding steady. Bookstore bookshelves are full of nonfiction,” she says. “What’s cool is that parents, educators, and kids seem to be more in agreement on what is interesting these days than ever before.”

Mitchem also touts the broad range of available titles. “What really stands out is that we’re seeing quality STEAM offerings across all formats and age ranges,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s limited to workbooks, middle grade, or reference. You see it in picture books, activity books, and even YA, which I think is really encouraging.”

According to Edwards, “Growth potential still exists in the STEM/STEAM category. We need to carve out new directions and fresh approaches. I’d love to see more books tackle environmental issues or explore ideas about future technologies. I’d also love to see more innovative books that present math as an exciting, beautiful subject to explore for kids at every level.”

In contemplating the current market temperature, Barrales-Saylor offers, “As is true of most children’s book categories, it’s evolving. Trends come and go; however, the core content—STEM/STEAM—remains. We are always adapting and learning about what might appeal to book lovers at any given time. I would love to see more lighthearted and humorous approaches to STEM/STEAM and fewer straightforward nonfiction submissions. One forthcoming book we are excited about on the Sourcebooks Explore list is Butt or Face? by Kari Lavelle, a hilarious picture book that uses a guessing game format to teach kids fascinating facts about animals in a playful, engaging way.”

Hinz notes, “From my perspective, this is a stable category. That being said, I don’t think people want to keep buying the exact same kind of STEM/STEAM books, so I am always looking for innovative approaches to familiar topics along with topics that haven’t been covered before in children’s books.” She’s keeping an eye out for “fresh presentations of scientific concepts combined with poetry or otherwise vivid writing.”

The latest example of that on her list is Ice Cycle: Poems About the Life of Ice by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Jieting Chen (out now). “Maria’s poems provide fascinating information about ice in all its many forms, and the book can be used in a multitude of ways—for lessons about winter, the water cycle, forms of matter, and poetry,” Hinz says.

Little Bee’s Ilgunas says, “In general, I love it when authors are able to find the poetry in STEM topics, I’d love to see more submissions like that, where authors are able to relay the beauty of some discovery in lyrical language.” Looking forward, he notes, “I think parents more than ever want their kids to be scientifically literate, so I don’t see the category waning in the coming years.”

In sharing her wish list of topics, Pusey at Charlesbridge says, “I’d love to see more books that tackle the T and E of STEM. Most children’s book editors, like myself, aren’t trained in technology and engineering, but lots of kids, mine included, are fascinated by these fields. We gatekeepers should embrace hard science, not shy away from it, because it helps feed young people’s curiosity about how the world works.”

Moore at National Geographic Kids says, “Based on the interest we’ve seen from readers, STEM absolutely continues to grow as a category. It can be trickier for publishers in this space than it used to be, as more focus on these topics has increased competition around the most well-trodden areas. I think whatever the topic, kids respond well to perspectives and formats that bring a sense of creativity and discovery to the subject, and they appreciate authors who really know their stuff and love what they’re writing about.”

For more titles and initiatives that editors are excited about, click here.