August 17, 2017


Let’s Investigate with Nate #1: The Water Cycle. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Wes Hargis. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $6.99 (paperback).

Let’s Investigate with Nate #2: The Solar System. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Wes Hargis. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $6.99 (paperback).

     Lest anyone wonder whether the new Let’s Investigate with Nate series is a tribute to the long-running multimedia phenomenon The Magic School Bus, consider this: the very first Magic School Bus book (published in 1986) was At the Waterworks, and the very first Let’s Investigate with Nate book is The Water Cycle. The second Let’s Investigate with Nate book, The Solar System, also recalls a Magic School Bus volume (from 1990) called Lost in the Solar System. Of course, it makes sense to cover both the water cycle and astronomy in any science-book series for kids (Let’s Investigate with Nate is intended for ages 4-8), but it is worth remembering that the material presented by Nate Ball and illustrated by Wes Hargis has been offered to young readers in entertaining-and-informative form before.

     Actually, Let’s Investigate with Nate is more serious than The Magic School Bus, although the new series specifically opens by noting that “something magical happens” when four suitably diverse kids (Braden, Felix, Rosa and Wendy) show up at the Science Museum before the official 10:00 a.m. opening time so they can have hour-long adventures under the supervision of “daredevil scientist Nate Ball.” Nate gives the kids tickets containing questions they need to answer by investigating phenomena, since “science is all about exploration.” Several pages of each book give the time, between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., not very usefully but apparently so readers know how the kids’ in-book adventure is proceeding. The first book includes talking molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and water, with definitions and other explanations contained in “Braden’s journal” (Braden is more or less the group’s nerd and chronicler). In addition to the straightforward science, there is some very mild verbal byplay, as when the kids and Nate are floating in the sky with their bug-eyed molecular companions: “How come we aren’t all falling down to the earth?” “We’re super-small right now – as small as a water molecule. The air underneath us is acting like a cushion!” Some of the material here seems directed at the very youngest kids in the books’ target age range: “When rain falls from the sky to the earth, it often forms puddles.” Other facts seem written for slightly older readers: “An estuary is the area where a river flows into the ocean. …[W]hen the tide comes in, the estuary flows backward!” And some of the explanations are clever but a trifle far-fetched: “When [molecules] freeze, they don’t wiggle so much. That’s how they’re able to hold hands.” (Not much later, in a section on water soaking into the earth, one molecule says, “It’s time to get our hands dirty!” And another says, “But we don’t have hands!”) But despite some shortcomings in expression, the basic science here is sound and well-presented. And each book ends with an easy-to-do experiment. The Water Cycle concludes with “Make Your Own Cloud,” starting by explaining the scientific method and then showing how to use it to make observations and then form hypotheses based on them. The experiment itself is easy to do and clever designed, starting with a note that kids who do it need, first of all, “an adult (important!)” – since boiling or near-boiling water and a book of matches are among the other requirements. “What other things do you wonder about the world?” asks Nate at the book’s end. That will be the watchword as the series continues.

     The second Let’s Investigate with Nate book follows the same approach as the first. Here the kids expect to be “magically flying across the solar system,” and are initially disappointed to find themselves in “the regular old Hall of Space.” But soon (at 9:08 a.m., to be specific) they are heading out for an encounter with Pluto, learning on the way (again largely through Braden’s journal) about gravity, mass, satellites, orbits, the Milky Way and more. A helpful satellite discusses astronomical measurement as Nate explains that even though weightlessness feels like floating, “you’re falling” because “orbiting is just a special way of falling.” It is in their discussion with the planet Mars that the kids learn about the aspect of defining “planet” that has led to the demotion of Pluto from that designation: “An object has to CLEAR ITS NEIGHBORHOOD of other objects in order to be a planet.” There are some fairly complex terms defined here, such as “hydrostatic equilibrium” (having enough mass to assume a nearly round shape), during the trip by the kids and Nate to Pluto – which they realize is not a planet under a definition that was revised in 2006: “Facts never change, but definitions do. …In 2006, something changed, but it wasn’t the facts, and it wasn’t Pluto. It was just the definition of what it means to share your orbit with other objects.” The Solar System is a somewhat more technical book than The Water Cycle, and has lots of numbers as well as a plethora of facts; but kids who decide they like the characters in the first book will enjoy the second as well. They will also enjoy the space-oriented experiment at the end of The Solar System, which involves making a small-scale gravity slingshot (whose principle is the same as the one used to get spacecraft going fast enough to travel huge distances). However, in both these books, Nate is no Miss Frizzle: unlike the driver of The Magic School Bus, Nate is rather colorless and lacks any endearing quirks. This is presumably not true of the real Nate Ball, who has been host of two PBS educational programs; but neither Nate-as-writer nor Nate-as-character comes across as much more than a generic genial host in the first two Let’s Investigate with Nate books. Still, the mixture of solid science and some attractive visualizations will make these books enjoyable for families with kids in the target age range – and likely also for classrooms from kindergarten through second grade.

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