Saturday, December 29, 2012

What are your favorite books for engineering?

Merry Christmas!  Happy Holidays!  Happy New Year!  This is proving to be a delightful holiday for me, without extensive travel.  I am spending sweet time with family and friends, and also have much-needed hours to myself.

I've been doing a little planning, thinking about ways to enhance my teaching, and indulging in book, article, and blog searches on the internet - lots of fun.  I love the internet - so much to learn, so many great ideas being shared.

Yes, this blogpost is for teachers...

What do you read to children to encourage building, engineering, inventing in your classroom?

In the spirit of all those "top ten" and "countdown" new year lists, I thought I'd share my favorite books for this, in hopes that others will comment with their favorites....

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to do engineering with preschoolers.  We build, invent, and test ideas using recyclables, found objects, and tape.  Through the years, I continue to find more and more great books, and the engineering fun just grows and grows.  Here are ten books I am loving right now:

1. Regards to the Man in the Moon by Ezra Jack Keats.

This is often the very first picture book that I share with children, to get them excited about building and creating. This sweet story tells of a child who is being teased by others because his family owns a junkyard. His family scoffs at the idea of this being ridiculed, noting that all one needs is a little imagination. With imagination in tow, the child creates a spaceship that takes him to the moon; soon, all the children are joining in on this inventive play, creating machines from junk. This is a great book to invite children to look at things differently - to see the possibility of found materials such as recyclables and other "junk."

I love the story of the Three Little Pigs because it really is a classic engineering story - how to build a house that is structurally sound and can stand up to the mighty breaths of a wolf? The children thoroughly enjoy having their homes subjected to the engineering test of a blow dryer wolf.  It seems my preschoolers are always acquainted with this classic tale, so I enjoy spicing up the storytelling by sharing Susan Lowell's clever version, featuring javelinas from the southwest and a very hungry coyote. Preschoolers love having a real villain in the story - and seeing him outwitted. This story provides a very playful way for children to experience failure, to share ideas with one another about how to make a house stronger, and to try, try, try again.  

3.  Hannah's Collection by Marthe Jocelyn.

This book is new to me just this year, suggested by my colleague Hannah Lott (who swears the book is not about her).  This book is great for introducing the creative mindset that an engineer or inventor needs - seeing multiple uses for things.  Here, Hannah loves and collects all sorts of small, disposable things - paperclips, popsticle sticks, buttons. Her teacher invites everyone to bring in a special collection and Hannah is unable to decide which particular collection she likes best.  In the end, she invents a sculpture created from all her items, and decides to start building a new collection of these fun sculptures.  Adorable!

4. Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince.

This picture book shares the true story of P.T. Barnum testing the soundness of the Brooklyn Bridge by allowing his elephants to parade across. This is an excellent book for underscoring the significance of engineering tests - engineers are not simply making things, but ensuring that they are sound, viable, successful.  (Another opportunity to emphasize those fabulous mindset skills we are trying to cultivate - working hard, not giving up, editing and modifying our work as necessary.) It is exciting to have this engineering feat told at a child's level, with captivating illustrations.  My preschoolers cringe at the idea of using elephants to test the bridge and openly protest it being done; several have asked me not to continue reading the book, for fear that the bridge will topple with the elephants.  I love the empathy in these little ones! When I hear the children's protests, midway through the book, I share with them the footnote from the back of the book which notes that P.T. Barnum loved his elephants and knew them to be extraordinarily intelligent - elephants sense the strength of things with the tips of their feet; they would not have walked across the bridge if they did not instinctively know that the bridge was stable.

5. Henry Builds a Cabin by D. B. Johnson.
This is one in a series of playful books that tell vignettes about a bear modeled after Henry David Thoreau.  As such, the books are written on two levels - for both children and adults, with children enjoying the basic story and the adults appreciating the clever references to Thoreau's philosophy. In this book, Henry builds a very simple cabin for himself, after seeking ideas from his friends.  I work with children who are very "Thoreau" in their approach to engineering - you think they are asking for advice, but they have wrapped their mind around their singular, focused and simple way of creating and they are quite at peace with that.  I am reminded of a class years back where the children were creating machines "to get Curious George out of the water" - one dear preschooler took a piece of string and insisted he would throw George a rope to get out of the water. A true minimalist.

6. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg.

This clever pop-up book "sets the mood" for engineering and inventing and it is a quick read that I can pull out over and over again when the need is there. It provides a straightforward and succinct way for me to introduce an essential ingredient in children's engineering - to learn from failure and dare to try again.  This book cleverly illustrates the value of the "oops" - the opportunity to improve something, to consider a new way, and the importance of persistence, of keeping at something.   There is something fun to check out and investigate on every page.   The only downside to this book - it is not one of those books that I let the children hold without adult supervision, since I want to have it around for years to come.  (But, should this book's current state one day be changed by a child's hands, I'm inspired and ready to be create my own "beautiful oops.")

7. If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen.

In this book, a boy imagines all the different features and details his dream vehicle would have. I love the imagination of this narrator, and how he stretches his ideas to outlandish extremes. I appreciate that he begins his thinking with a blueprint drawing, which is something that I encourage my preschoolers to do, too. Whenever I read this story aloud, I always find an exponential increase in creativity and whimsy of my student's engineering projects and their narratives.  Certainly, there is also some blatant "copycatting"...what preschooler can resist adding a pool to their newly-invented car once you see that this guy has?  Because this book is specifically about a child's invention, I think it gives children permission to let their imaginations flow, too.

8. The Glorious Flight by Alice and Martin Provenson

This book tells the true story of Louis Bleriot's 1909 invention of an airplane that flies across the English Channel. I usually ham it up when I read this by talking in a French accent.  I love Louis Bleriot's preoccupation and fixation with creating this plane, and the images of his family supporting him in this pursuit.  It is another great story for emphasizing the value of persistence, and the pictures of the disastrous flight trials and broken planes always capture children's attention.

9. Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson and James E. Ransome. 

This book is new to me this holiday season (I always treat myself to new books!!).  The book provides beautiful illustrations of the creation of the Empire State Building, describing the process and hard work involved in this engineering feat.  The story is told from the perspective of a young boy who watches the building grow.  I hope to get the children thinking about buildings that we see being created in our own neighborhood, and how the construction changes over time.

10. Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book by Steven Caney.

This is not a picture book, but a fabulous reference and study book - a science corner book -  for both adults and children to peruse.  The book defines and explains structures and forms in an easy, accessible way.  There are innumerable building project ideas, for children of all ages, providing fun ways to stretch children's play and thinking.   Let me quote directly from Steven Caney's introduction:
 "I never minded bulding my own playthings. In fact, I rather enjoyed planning and executing a building project and then playing with my contraption and trying to make it work."  He speaks fondly of his grandfather's basement workshop, full of "The kind of broken stuff that gets saved just in case you need to replace a missing part someday.  But to me, this was magical stuff and the inspiration for inventions."  
Isn't this attitude precisely what we want to inspire in children when we encourage engineering and inventing?

Well, those are my current favorites.  I know that you have some great engineering book ideas, too.  Please share them!

Happy New Year!!


  1. This is a wonderful list, which I'll pass on, Maureen. I have one suggestion, which I think is usable for you & I've used it for my middle schoolers to take a challenge of building 'rube goldberg type' machines. I've given them a certain challenge, like build something that will teach soothing, or a homework machine that produces 'real' work, or that will cook something, pretty challenging, but this book will show other ideas too. You'll see if you find it. Here's the Amazon link: Hope you get others! And Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, Linda! Love this book suggestion of yours - just looked it up on the link you provided. I knew you'd have great ideas! Happy New Year!