Years ago, I read a bit of advice in The Whole Earth Catalog, which said a great way to get up to speed on a subject you are interested in is to read a children's book about it. It's excellent advice, and I've made use of it many times over the years. My second grade daughter recently wrote a report on Frederick Douglass. I knew very little about Douglass, but she had a Scholastic book about him, so I read it in 20 minutes. I now feel like I know almost everything I will ever need to know about him, and I have a great deal of admiration for this American hero. If I had purchased an adult-level biography of Frederick Douglass, I don't know if I would have ever opened the book.
The best children's books are the ones that were published before 1970. After that, the illustrations started to get crappy, and the writing took a nosedive, too. There are exceptions, but I found it to be the rule.
Here's a winner from 1964: Why Satellites Stay in Orbit, by Sune Engelbrekston and illustrated by Lee Ames. It's a very short book that does a terrific job of explaining precisely one thing: why satellites stay in orbit. This is the kind of book my eight-year-old daughter can read and appreciate. It's also the kind of book I wish I'd read when I took physics in high school. Why couldn't my teachers explain how satellites stayed in orbit as clearly as this book did? Maybe they did, and I was just too busy reading Mad while the teacher was going over the subject.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.