Career exploration books for students, middle school kids, teens, etc. that paint a more complete picture of what that career entails.
I set out to find the best career exploration books for kids out there.
Not the ones that paint rosy pictures about fantastical careers – like the life of an astronaut, video game tester, or President of the United States – but the books that also include tidbits about the not-so-pretty side of careers as well.
You know, the mistakes, missteps, frustrations, and failures that each of us adults have navigated in our own careers.
:: Dr. Seuss quitting art class because of his teacher wanting him to follow the rules – thank goodness he kept going!
:: Grace Hopper’s eventual boredom with repetitive computer programming work, which led her to create computer codes.
:: Rosie Revere’s Uncle laughing at her “silly” inventions.
:: Leland Melvin’s opening that manages kids’ expectations – just because you’re an astronaut, it doesn’t mean you ever get to go into space (who knew?).
Let me be clear: we’re not dashing dreams here. We are, however, adding an element of reality to them. Which is a good thing to do for career exploration for students.
But before we get into that, let's talk about what career exploration actually is, and why it's important.
What is Career Exploration?
Career exploration is dedicating some time for your child to learn about the types of careers and positions that they are naturally interested in, or where they naturally show talent in. It can include things like reading books from actual professionals in a career field (that's why you're here!), asking adults questions about types of jobs they're interested in, taking career interest assessments to see what jobs they could be good at or could be interested in, shadowing someone in their office, participating in a Take Your Child to Work Day (even if their parents are a small biz owner — here's my free playbook for setting up your own TYCD experience), etc.
Why is Career Exploration Important?
Do you remember wayyyyy back to the days when you thought you would be a fill-in-the-blank?
For me, this was a teacher. Then, it changed to being a writer.
Oddly enough, I'm now both (but I didn't start out that way — which is why I said “oddly” enough!).
These fields didn't just magically pop themselves into my head; they were vocations I was naturally interested + talented in.
For example, I used to play teacher at school, and was asked by many of my teachers over the years to help tutor other kids who were struggling to keep up. Also, from elementary school onwards, I would write little books that I'd staple together (the illustrations were terrible!).
But something happened in between childhood and my 30s, when I actually started working in both of these areas (teaching + writing). When I graduated college at 22, I took a job in marketing + sales. Then I moved to being an environmental investigator.
I'm not saying either of these careers were bad, but they weren't the ones. Imagine if I had done a bit more career exploration in my pre-teens and teens and figured out that, in fact, writing and teaching others about money was really what I was put on this earth to do?
The point I'm trying to make is that career exploration is an extremely important thing to do as a child, pre-teen, and teenager (and, yeah, adults can do it as well!). The earlier you can get your child started looking down the paths of various career fields, the better for them.
Career Exploration for Students and Kids
Now, onto some books that will help with this process.
Note: I’ve personally read each of these books and give my honest reviews/opinions below.
Book #1: Baby’s Big World: Chemistry, Veronica L. Murphy, 1-3 years
Career Path: scientist, chemist
Why not get started this early? In this cutely illustrated book, your youngin’ is introduced to chemistry. Elements are like “crayons in a box”, and the elements table is like a “crayon box.” Your kid might start to see their world as little tiny elements while reading this.
Book #2: The Most Magnificent Thing, Ashley Spires, 3-7 years
Career Path: Inventor, entrepreneur, tinkerer (hey, that’s a job, right?), problem solver
I chose specific career titles for this book; however, you should know that it’s probably a great foundation to read for any career. Why is that? Because even though this little lady is trying to invent something, what happens during her many iterations happens to all of us in life – mistakes, missteps, frustrations, failures.
I love how the author seamlessly weaves in the lesson that out of many failures come lessons and things you learn that will ultimately shape the final product, whatever that product may be.
Book #3: Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote The Cat in the Hat, Judy Sierra, 3-7 years
Career Path: writer, illustrator, book publisher, book agent
I love how this book starts off explaining how The Cat in the Hat came to be by explaining an unmet need: first graders weren’t making the leap from reading just a few words to reading a whole book.
Adults figured out that kids needed fun kid-beginner books to get them interested.
At this point, Dr. Seuss had already published 9 books. So, a man commissioned him to write and illustrate a first-grade reader book using specific words – 236 of them to be exact.
The book then follows the creative process of, well, writing a book. It’s quite creative!
Book #4: Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science, Diane Stanley, 4-8 years
Career Path: scientist, creator, mathematician
Ada Byron was a super-creative kid who dreamed of steam-powered flying horses. Her over-excitedness and big imagination came from her father, Lord Byron, a famous poet whom she never met. Her mother, on the other hand, was a math and scientist (their marriage apparently lasted 1 year).
Her mother decided to ground her in a strict scientific education, which turned out to be great training paired with her wonderful imagination.
One day Ada’s mother takes her to tour a factory where she finds the mechanical loom. From this machine, she gets her big idea to use punch cards to tell machine to do things. Then several years later she forms a friendship with scientist Charles Babbage.
Follow along this beautiful book on her journey as she writes the first programming code.
Book #5: What Do You Do with a Problem?, Kobi Yamada, 4-8 years
Career Path: business wo(man), entrepreneur, inventor, marketer
All businesses exist because they solve a problem. First, they find a problem, or perhaps stumble into it, and then they see that it is actually an opportunity to make something, offer something, do something, that will make the problem go away.
This book is all about not being scared by problems or worried by them, but facing them dead on and seeing them for the opportunity that they really are.
Book #6: Shark Lady, Jess Keating, 4-8 years
Career Path: Scientist, oceanographer, biologist
Your child can follow oceanographer Eugenie Clark’s career exploration journey as she followed her hunch + passions about studying sharks and the ocean. From trips to the aquarium and free diving in the Atlantic Ocean to Research Missions, she was determined to show others that sharks are not just mindless killing machines.
Book #7: Margaret and the Moon, Dean Robbins, 4-8 years
Career Path: engineer, software/coding, computers, astronaut, scientist
Margaret was a very curious young girl. She asked questions about all sorts of things, and eventually went into computer programming. This led her to become director of software programming for NASA’s Project, Apollo, which included missions Apollo 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 10, and then Apollo 11. And it was her code that helped with a small glitch during the landing as well.
Book #8: Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure, Jennifer Thermes, 5-7 years
Career Path: Explorer, Adventure, Biologist, Scientist, Anthropologist, Archaeologist
I love the way this book approaches scientific hypotheses Charles had to his explorations. It all flows well so that future scientists can see how everything just sort of ties together in life.
Book #9: Iggy Peck, Architect, Andrea Beaty, 5+ years
Career Path: Architect, Engineer, Construction
Iggy Peck just loooovvveeesss to build things. He wants to build with his hands all day long, even after meeting his 2nd grade teacher who is hugely against buildings (as a matter of course).
What I love about this book is that it shows kids their interests and work has real meaning and can make a difference/fill a need in people’s lives. Isn’t that what we all want to do when we “grow up”?
Book #10: Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code, Laurie Wallmark, 5+ years
Career Path: Video game maker, inventor, creator, tech, innovator, computers
While pulling a late-nighter writing code, Grace realizes that not only does she tend to write the same code over and over again into her programs…but she dislikes redoing the same work repeatedly.
I like how this book details some of the non-glamorous sides to tech work (and I would understand these a bit, as my husband works in computers): late nights, repetitive work, broken down machines with lots of pressure to get them back up running (specifically if you’re working for the Navy!), etc.
It’s also great for showing your child how maintaining an imagination throughout childhood and adulthood is beneficial in everything you do.
Book #11: Rosie Revere, Engineer, Andrea Beaty, 5-7 years
Career Path: engineer, entrepreneur, creator, inventor
Rosie loves to build things out of all sorts of ‘throwaways’. But one day her Uncle laughed at one of her inventions – a hat to keep snakes away (he was a zookeeper, after all) – so she became shy about sharing her inventions. It’s her grandmother who eventually teaches her that great flops are necessary on the path to great success.
Book #12: My Journey to the Stars, Scott Kelly,5-8 years
Career Path: astronaut, engineer
Scott and his twin, Mark, both became astronauts with NASA.
What I like about this book is that it starts out with a child (Scott) who didn’t quite know what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Until he found a book (ha! Go figure). Then he knew he wanted to be a test pilot. The book then breaks down, step by step, how he achieved his goal.
While he and his brother never actually flew in space together, they both flew on several missions. And probably their most important help with NASA? Since they’re twins with the same biologic makeup, they can test how their body changes in both space and on earth at the same time. One twin (Scott) spent an entire year in space while the other stayed on earth so that they could test the effects on the body and eventually get astronauts out into space for longer missions (like to Mars).
Book #13: The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Be Dr. Seuss, Kathleen Krull, 5-9 years
Career Path: Writer, cartoonist
Your child can read along as Ted Geisel becomes Dr. Seuss. Through being fascinated by zoo tales his father talks about at the dinner tables, and the comic strips he gets from his father’s newspapers, and quitting art class because the teacher expected him to follow rules (ha! What Dr. Seuss book ever follows “rules”?).
His mother was even totally cool with him drawing on his walls.
Book #14: One Giant Leap, Robert Burleigh, 6-8 years
Career Path: astronaut, scientist
I love the art in this book, which helps tell the story of the first lunar landing. While they start off with the historic, magical event in those moments when mankind first stood on the moon in front of millions of viewers at home, this book then takes a (small) twist to show the behind-the-scenes troubles these two astronauts faced. In other words, the not-so-glamorous side to astronaut-ing!
Book #15: Radiant Child, Javaka Steptoe, 6-9 years
Career Path: artist, writer
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s as an artist. This book discusses not only his strong pull towards art as a child, but how he listens and answers that pull by drawing morning, noon, and night.
At museums his mother takes him to, they not only look at the works of art, but they read about how the artist made the piece so that Jean-Michel leans how to actually become an artist.
I love how this story takes Jean-Michel as a child with a passion, then follows that through to how he actually made a career from it. From his home to NYC, from spray painting art on walls, to museum galleries.
And his mother? Encouraged him greatly not only with her style/stylish home and taking him to museums, but by sitting on the flood next to him and drawing on his father’s old work papers.
By the way, the artwork in this book? It’s beautiful.
Book #16: The Quest for Z, Greg Pizzoli, 7-10 years
Career Path: Explorer, Adventure, Biologist, Scientist, Anthropologist, Archaeologist
British Explorer Percy Fawcett came from a family with adventure in their blood. His father was a member of the Royal Geographical Society, and Percy followed suit in his 20s. Calling a “blank spot” on a map in the jungles of Brazil the Lost City of Z, he was determined to find out what was there.
Which took him over 21 years to find!
The book follows his career path, sewn together by expeditions he goes on, what he packs for it, encounters and troubles he comes across, as well as briefly touching on finding funding for his quest.
P.S. I love the art in this book!
Book #17: Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, Chris Barton, 7-10 years
Career Path: Inventor, creator, toy-maker
The author does a great job of taking your kid through the ups and downs of an inventor’s career through an invention they’ll be highly interested in: the Super Soaker.
Lonnie Johnson actually stumbled into the invention by accident while working on some plumbing. But he had been an inventor and creator his whole life. His parents were very lenient on allowing him to mess with things as a kid, even though they had hardly any space with a boatload of kids in their mobile home.
I like that this book goes through the troubles Lonnie, and other inventors, can face. For Lonnie, he actually took a test telling him that he wasn’t going to be a good engineer. Boy was that proven wrong! At one point, Lonnie even quits his job, though it doesn’t pan out for a while. Of course, once he found a toy company to latch onto his idea, he was good to go.
Book #18: When I Grow Up I’ll Be a Veterinarian, Connie Colwell Miller, 8-12 years
Career Path: (you guessed it) Veterinarian
The little girl in this book plays Dr. Thomas with her friend, Julia. What I like about the play is that it includes cool-sounding Veterinarian things – playing with animals, helping owners understand how to care for their pets – and the not so cool-sounding things such as giving vaccines and being on-call after leaving the office in case there is an emergency.
Book #19: Gifted Hands, Gregg Lewis, 8-12 years
Career Path: Doctor, medicine, nurse, surgeon, missionary
Ben Carson is a remarkable man. And his mother? Is quite remarkable herself. She went through great adversity during his childhood, starting with marrying out of the foster care system at the age of 13, then having the strength to raise her boys on her own after finding out her husband had another family.
What is most striking about her is her faith in God, hard work ethic, and ability to see that turning off the television (despite other people telling her she was crazy) and making her children lifetime lovers of reading.
Books, tempering his anger, his steadfast faith in God, and a mother who told him, “if you ask the Lord for something and believe he will do it, it will happen…” are all the reasons why Carson became a top neurosurgeon.
This book details some of the parts of being a neurosurgeon (or surgeon, for that matter) that are both glamorous and not, such as hugely complicated and long-lasting surgeries without much sleep, lots of schooling, tons of hard work, and life satisfaction.
Book #20: Chasing Space, Leland Melvin, 8-12 years
Career Path: Astronaut, Engineer
I love how within the first three paragraphs of this book, it clarifies something for a child looking to become an astronaut, “just because you’re an astronaut doesn’t mean you ever get to go into space. To go into space, you need to get assigned to a flight. It’s the last step in a journey that can take a lifetime. And not all astronauts walk in space. Some command or pilot the spacecraft. Others are mission specialists who do scientific experiments or work the shuttle’s robotic arm.” And of course he outlines all of the other jobs you can have at NASA without actually being an astronaut, such as computer technicians, lawyers, and nutritionists.
This book also touches on the application process to becoming an actual astronaut, with Melvin’s own 1998 class of 25 astronauts being chosen from 2,500 applications. They test your eye sight, your character, claustrophobia, psychological tests, etc. It’s quite rigorous. Then once you’re in your astronaut class? All kinds of training you have to go through like land survivalist and water survivalist training, and becoming a pilot of NASA’s T-38 jet.
Melvin also had to “trace the path” of his candidacy. In other words, tell them when he first knew he wanted to be an astronaut. What’s interesting is that he also had briefly played in the NFL, dreamed of being a tennis player as a child, and thought he’d work for DuPont or other chemical company. So, the path was not necessarily a straight one, which is so often the case for our careers (right?!).
This book also talks about Melvin’s struggles with racism growing up in the 1970s, and how this helped shape his aspirations.
Finally, in the back of the book are several really neat, STEM-inspired experiments for your budding engineer to do at home. The same kinds Melvin did when he was a kid!
Book #21: Steve Jobs: Thinking Differently, Patricia Lakin, 8-12 years
Career Path: Inventor, creator, tech, innovator, computers
Is your kiddo interested in inventors, creative thinkers, and/or technology buffs? Steve Jobs embodies each of these, plus more. Honestly, he’s a very quirky guy who has made some questionable choices, some of which are discussed in the book and others are not.
But what is great about this book from a career exploration viewpoint is showing the emerging of a brand-new industry and how one man tagged onto it, then led it.
Being an entrepreneur and pioneer is not all rainbows and unicorns. This book does not put a happy face on everything, and points out the struggles along the way as well. Such as working on dining room tables and in garages, making decisions that take entire decades to actually pay off, and creating a company that eventually kicks you out of it.
The talk about creating the first Apple computer and subsequent iterations I even found fascinating, and I’m not a tech-gal.
What I also loved about this book is how true Steve Jobs stayed to himself, and how curious he was. It weaves together his different interests – such as a calligraphy class taught by a former monk, and India – quite nicely into a fabric of influence that helped Apple emerge as the company + collection of products we know today.
Heads up: Jobs was a college dropout. He found it boring.
Book #22: The Finest Hours, Michael J. Tougias & Casey Sherman, 13+ years
Career Path: firefighter, policeman, coast guard, military, captain, rescue worker
I was entranced by this book. It’s an account of an actual situation in which two oil tankers near Cape Cod broke into two during a Nor’easter.
I mean…can you imagine? I get a chill just thinking about how bitterly cold this expedition was!
The book chronicles the nothing-short-of-heroic efforts of four coast guardsmen as they figure out how to get out to these sailors and save their lives.
As far as career exploration, I like how the author outlines a few of the coast guards’ individual pathways to actually getting into the guard. For example, Bernie who joined the WWII efforts in the U.S. Maritime Service and served on a merchant ship in the South Pacific. Then he enlisted in the Coast Guard. All this was after he was somewhat forced into ministry schooling but decided it was completely not for him.