Children's books about makers and making 🛠 🧵
Spotlight On: Makers and Making
“All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things.”
Stephanie K. Wolek, chemist
I try to live a life of Yes with my children whenever possible. It’s hard. I don’t always feel like helping them gather materials for projects, I don’t always love keeping trash for said projects, I don’t always love the mess (though I have an easier time than most). But if I want them to value making — using their own hands and therefore their own minds to create something that pleases or delights (or frustrates or enrages) them, I have to support them.
Making doesn’t thrive under No. Making is born — and lives inside — Yes.*
I came at this issue with that in mind, and via the viewpoint through which I frame as many of my children’s activities as possible: as invitations to play. I did not drill down into books specifically about sensory play, process art, time outdoors, STEM, STEAM, crafting, or “activities,” though all of these things show up here in some form or another. Rather, I approached this thinking: what books could I read to my children to inspire them to make, to help them see themselves as makers? So while there are project books here, there are “how-to” titles, more than that there are stories — true ones and made-up ones but all inspiring ones.
“Making is about failing until you figure out what works. Making is dancing with success and failure at the same time. Making is leaping.”
from What to Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin
I believe stories are the heart of what it means to be human — which is, of course, all about wondering and wanting, trying and failing, iterating and trying again. Sometimes if we’re lucky we succeed but I think making is about so much more than that — it’s about playing, it’s about choosing Yes, and Godin’s right, it’s about leaping.
Here’s to leaping ourselves. Here’s to helping our children leap.
May you be inspired.
*Lest I sound like some sort of supermom: there are limits to my making. All kinds of art and handcrafts, even those involving toxic materials or sharp needles? No problem, you name it. You want to build a rocket? Go see your father.
Boxitects by Kim Smith (2019)
Boxitects begins with, well, a boxitect — a breed of dreamer, designer, and builder different from blanketeers, spaghetti-tects, or tin-foilers — named Meg, who meets her match in maker school in the form of another little girl, another (gasp!) boxitect named Simone. Simone is new, is “brilliant and creative,” is “already making things Meg had never dreamed up.” On the last day of school, at the annual Maker Match, a make-off ensues, as Meg and Simone do everything in their power to out-think, out-create, and out-build one another. Eventually, of course, their competition gets out of hand — they spend so much time arguing and criticizing, building both tensions and their creations higher and higher until everything literally comes crashing down. Neither of the girls wins the contest or, frankly, comes even close, and this causes them to realize how ridiculously they’ve acted. Meg and Simone manage to salvage a project they create together but much more importantly, form a friendship based on mutual respect, creativity, and passion.
Smith’s digital illustrations are bright and active, telling as much of the story as her prose. This title has great appeal for kids of all ages — who hasn’t had an enemy who somehow turned into a friend? — and for anyone who has ever had a competition get a little out of hand. It is also a fabulously inspiring read for any child who has access to cardboard boxes — we never finish this book without my children declaring all the new things they are going to construct (the best part is that they actually do). Start off your maker reading with this one — you won’t regret it.
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale (1996)
This rhyming book is less narrative and more poetry, pairing Hale’s mixed media illustrations on the left-hand page with a photo of a famous piece of architecture on the right. What sets this book apart — beyond this intriguing set up — is that one side tells the story of everyday children, playing, creating, doing what kids with any kind of building supply do, and the other shows this same activity on a much larger and grander scale. Hale makes the connection — subtly, never overtly — that these childhood activities can and do lead to the kind of progressive, dynamic art, construction, and engineering shown by architectural greats such as Maya Lin, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and the 11 other architects whose work is featured here.
This is a great book for small readers, but even past the toddler and preschool years it’s a wonderful introduction to architecture around the world (details about each architect and their creations are listed the back page, if you become entranced and want more information). It comes to an abrupt end but the positives of this book outweigh that one minor negative: this is worth checking out.
Christina Katerina and the Box by Patricia Lee Gauch, illustrated by Doris Burn (1971)
The day Christina Katerina’s mother gets a new refrigerator, Christina Katerina gets that greatest of all childhood playthings: the new refrigerator’s box. Thus begins a week of make-believe and creation for Christina Katerina, who — despite her mother’s wish for a neat and tidy yard — begins by making the box into a castle, where she spends two days playing peacefully until her “sometimes-friend” Fats Watson returns from vacation and joins her. Christina Katerina’s mother keeps trying to haul the box away, to no avail, so together Christina Katerina and Fats make a clubhouse, then a race car, and the floor of a summer mansion — Fats contributes to these iterations by modifying (read: ruining) each one, forcing CK to come up with new ideas until the box is literally mashed into the ground. Christina Katerina’s mother is relieved to finally have her nice yard back until…Fats’ mother gets a new washer and dryer, and Fats brings “two ships” over to sail them around the yard.
Gauch’s story is 50 years old in 2021 and yet it could have been written about any child in any of the years between then and now, so realistically and warmly does it depict the special relationship children have with boxes — especially the wonderfully big ones. Burns’ black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations (the only color at all is the brown of the cardboard) add great charm here, and readers will enjoy seeing what together Christina Katerina and Fats create and then re-create. This is an entertaining, enjoyable read — a love song to boxes and their singular magic — that will inspire children and make adults remember their own fun, once upon a time.
The Best of Making Things: A Hand Book of Creative Discovery by Ann Sayre Wiseman (first published in 1967; reissued in 2005)
Who would have ever thought that out of all the project books out there (I have included a list of them, aptly named “Project books,” below), the one that is the least fancy, with zero photography and only hand-drawn directions, dedicated — without irony — “to the opposable thumb,” would be my absolute favorite?
Maybe the explanation lies a bit in knowing more about the author: Ann Sayre Wiseman, a therapist, teacher, mother and grandmother, and artist herself who authored more than a dozen titles — including ones about cuts of cloth and bread sculpture, making music and “pudding prints” — developed this one while Program Director of the Boston Children’s Museum Visitor’s Center. This varied wealth of experience has clearly informed her original book, published in 1967, as well as a companion volume that accompanied it in 1975, and the both combined together in two editions since.
It truly is “a hand book of creative discovery” — it begins with two notes, “Dear Beginners and Late Starters” and “Permissions,” both of which should be required reading for makers of all kinds, and goes on to spill a veritable cornucopia of content, “a collection of discoveries and resources… a careful selection of simple and important concepts that have shaped the cultures of the world.” One can find everything in here one needs to make for years to come: projects that involve paper, cardboard, cloth, clay, wire hangers, rope, salt, sand, wax; techniques ranging from sculpture to printing to weaving to kite-building; competencies that cover math, engineering, and all kinds of art. You want to make a salt pendulum? Stained glass? A braid wig? A xylophone? A soap mitten or a donut blouse or a plaster scrimshaw? A mouse pouch? (What’s a mouse pouch?) A zoetrope? Energy toys? A box costume? (I want to make a paper marionette.) This is your book.
There is so much to love and admire about this title I struggle to convey or properly explain the gold that lies within: it’s a humble book, made entirely of black-and-white line drawings rather than splashy styled photos, with projects kids — and adults! — will actually enjoy making (as opposed to throwing across the room in a rage, not that that has ever happened at my house on more than one making occasion). Most importantly, though, this is a book full of projects that will inspire whomever picks it up to be a maker, to connect things with ideas and make those ideas come alive.
At the end of the book Wiseman writes:
In the question lies the answer.
The how is in the doing.
I don’t know if she meant it as poetry but it reads like poetry and it sums it all up perfectly. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson (2021)
As Milo slips aboard the subway with his sister for a monthly trek — both “a shook-up soda,” full of “excitement stacked on top of worry on top of confusion on top of love” — he notices all the people around him, and in his sketchbook, imagines their lives once they step off the train. A whiskered man with a crossword, a boy in a suit, a bride, a group of break dancers are all blank canvases onto which Milo conjures scenes from their world, which Robinson cleverly shows as Milo’s own illustrations — the wonderful, lively, blocky stick-figure drawings children make. Near the end, when the reader learns that Milo’s final destination is the prison where his mother is incarcerated, he realizes he may have it all wrong and he “tries to reimagine all the pictures he made on the train,” finally offering his best one, “the right one” — a picture of his mother, his sister, and him on a building stoop — to his mother.
Out of all the books in this issue this is by far the heaviest, but its message that art can save us, that making can be both an escape and a means of connection is, I think, crucial to helping kids learn the ways we can make it through the heaviness in life. de la Peña and Robinson have won the Newberry and the Caldecott Medals, respectively (I never tire of Robinson’s acrylic, collage, and digital illustration); this is their second collaboration and it shows — they are both spectacular at what they do, and together they’ve on another level. I highly recommend this necessary, important book.
Hands by Lois Ehlert (1997)
This book is perfect for the littlest of hands, but don’t let that stop you from sharing it with your older kids as well — my 7yo loves this one for no discernible reason other than, I believe, the fact that she sees herself in it (and really, does flipping flaps and otherwise physically interacting with a book ever get old?) Anyone who works with their hands — as Ehlert demonstrates here, that might mean working with wood like her father, working with fabric like her mother, working with paper and pen and other art supplies like she did as a girl — will experience the same, as this is, purely, a book about the act of making. In her characteristic style, the illustrations are a combination of paper, textiles, and found objects through which she tells the story of the makers in her home — what they have and do, and what they make.
It’s a simple little book that lovingly exemplifies — truly, honors — many different ways of making and, as the jacket blurb states, “celebrates the importance of nurturing the creative spirit within us all.” Indeed.
Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and The Future of Innovation by AnnMarie Thomas (2014)
I don’t normally include books for you in either my special editions or Spotlight On issues, but a round-up of recommendations for books about makers and making without one would fall short: there are many excellent books on this topic for adults, some of which I have already covered in this newsletter (see my list “Books for grownups” below), some of which are still forthcoming.
It’s not that this one stands out from the crowd necessarily — though I do recommend it, especially if you are inspired by stories of adults whose childhoods spent making and creating (and frequently almost blowing themselves up) made them into remarkably inventive people working on some of the world’s most innovative ideas today. I enjoyed these stories — I definitely was inspired, in various ways, especially when it comes to letting my kids follow their own wild passions, make bigger messes, and take more risks than they already do — but what was most valuable for me was the attributes of makers around which Thomas decided to structure her book. She writes (and expands upon each in an entire chapter):
Makers are curious. They are explorers. They pursue projects that they personally find interesting.
Makers are playful. They often work on projects that show a sense of whimsy.
Makers are willing to take on risk. They aren’t afraid to try things that haven’t been done before.
Makers take on responsibility. They enjoy taking on projects that can help others.
Makers are persistent. They don’t give up easily.
Makers are resourceful. They look for materials and inspiration in unlikely places.
Makers share — their knowledge, their tools, and their support.
Makers are optimistic. They believe that they can make a difference in the world.
As I read this book I realized more deeply than ever before how lucky I was to have grown up with makers, and to have married one. Both my grandparents and my mother were makers of all sorts and not only served as tremendous role models for me in terms of all of the attributes on this list but taught me what they know, included me in their projects, and encouraged and supported me as I discovered my own (arguably, though this is not a tangible or physical thing, you are reading the results of this family effort — without the curiosity and persistence to figure out blogging in 2003, the willingness to take on the risk of at least five online public writing projects since then, and the drive to share, this newsletter would not exist). I am also lucky to have married a maker — my husband’s brain is diametrically opposed to mine, for better or worse, which means that not only do we have a continuously interesting marriage (and pretty much anything and everything gets fixed around the house), but there is a lot of junk in my basement and garage that gets made into useful things. These are blessings.
And this book convicted me, in the sense that I believe in the power of making — the passion behind having an idea and bringing it to life — and I want to pass that ethos on to our children. If you are interested in this too, this book is worth looking into.
With My Hands: Poems About Making Things by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson (2018)
I’ve done a lot of research and I’m pretty sure this is the only poetry book about making out there (if you know of another, please reply and prove me wrong!) — but that might be okay, because this is such a good one. In this title Ludwig VanDerwater has created nothing less than a paean to imagination, inventiveness, artistry, and individuality. In a stanza from the first poem in the book, “Maker,” she explains it:
A maker starts with
(I love that simple “and stuff.”)
With titles like, “Birdhouse,” “Knot,” “Piñata,” and “Origami,” she creates word pictures — accompanied by Fancher and Johnson’s actual acrylic, crayon, ink, colored pencil, and collage pictures that bring each topic vividly to life — that pay homage to taking an idea and turning it into something real. Reading this book aloud to my children, I always hope they see themselves in the pages, because it always reminds me what I am capable of, what I wish for them: that feeling Ludwig Vanderwater captures beautifully in the last poem of the book, titled “With My Hands:”
When I make something new
I am never the same.
I can never go back
to the person I was.
For the thing that I made
is a part of me now.
I changed it.
It changed me.
I am different
I brought a new something
to life with my hands.
If you are a maker
then you understand.
Also highly recommended
Two Problems for Sophia by Jim Averbeck
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty (this is our favorite Beaty book but we love Rosie Revere Engineer and Iggy Peck Architect too)
Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus (I reviewed this in my Spotlight On: Counting Books)
Rainbow Weaver / Tejedora de Arcoiris by Linda Elovitz Marshall (I reviewed this in issue No. 30)
Eddy’s Toolbox and How to Make and Mend Things by Sarah Garland
The Goat in the Rug by Geraldine, as told to Charles L. Blood and Martin Link
Be a Maker by Katey Howes
Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones (I reviewed this in issue No. 30) as well as its follow-up, Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention
The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier (I reviewed this in issue No. 10)
The Fort by Laura Perdew
Where’s Your Creativity? by Aaron Rosen and Riley Watts
Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood
Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects by Jack Challoner (as well as the next three books in Challoner’s Maker Lab series)
Recycle and Remake: Creative Projects for Eco Kids by DK
Mudworks: Creative Clay, Dough, and Modeling Experiences by MaryAnn F. Kohl (or any of her other art and making books)
Sticks and Stones: A Kid's Guide to Building and Exploring in the Great Outdoors by Melissa Lenning (I am vehemently against directing children’s play/creation/exploration outside, but if you’ve got one who has no idea what to do when they hit fresh air, this is a good one to hand them for inspiration)
Cardboard Box Creations by Lonely Planet Kids
Collage Workshop for Kids: Rip, Snip, Cut, and Create with Inspiration from The Eric Carle Museum by Shannon Merenstein
Art Workshop for Children: How to Foster Original Thinking with more than 25 Process Art Experiences by Barbara Rucci
Big Book of Building: Duct Tape, Paper, Cardboard, and Recycled Projects to Blast Away Boredom by Marne Ventura
Out of the Box: 25 Cardboard Engineering Projects for Makers by Jemma Westing (I reviewed this in issue No. 22)
This is an enormous category and could take up an entire Spotlight On issue itself so I’ve narrowed my recommendations down to titles we have enjoyed the most.
Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines by Sarah Aronson
How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville (I reviewed this in issue No. 20)
Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (look for the picture book edition — this is an adult nonfiction book that was made into a young reader’s edition as well as a picture book)
The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan (the thing I love most about this book is that is shows Matisse’s mother was a maker, which directly resulted in Matisse becoming one too)
Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock
Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art by J.H. Shapiro
Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jean Walker Harvey
Henri’s Scissors by Jeannette Winter
The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeannette Winter
Books for grownups
These are not titles to encourage you to be a maker (though that may be a welcome side effect) but rather titles to help your support the children in your lives in their own making (and learning).
Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky (as well as the rest of the books in the “Loose Parts” series — there are four)
Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors by Doorley (I reviewed this in issue No. 25)
The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation edited by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman
Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff by Curt Gabrielson
Inside My Imagination by Marta Arteaga
Let’s Build by Sue Fliess
Baseball Bats for Christmas by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak
Fraidy Zoo by Thyra Heder (I reviewed this in issue No. 35)
Lily Brown's Paintings by Angela Johnson (I reviewed this in issue No. 33)
Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
Doll-E 1.0 by Shanda McCloskey
A Box Can Be Many Things by Dana Meachen Rau
Jack the Builder by Stuart J. Murphy (a living math book)
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
This is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter
The All-Together Quilt by Lizzy Rockwell (I reviewed this in issue No. 34)
Fort Builders Inc.: The Birthday Castle by Dee Romito (early chapter book; the first of a two-book series)
Made by Maxine by Ruth Spiro
Fort-Building Time by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams
What to Do With a Box by Jane Yolen
Thanks for reading! I hope you feel inspired to choose Yes with the children in your life, to leap, and to make.
P.S. They did see their father about a rocket (the cat was not pleased):
This rocket was made with the help of Make: Rockets: Down-to-Earth Rocket Science by Mike Westerfield. It’s 521 pages of “very dangerous information,” says my husband, if you’re so inclined (and obviously we are).