As a book-loving maker family, we try to find books that will prime our two boys, ages 2 and 4, to have the curiosity, whimsy, creativity, resourcefulness, flexibility of thinking, environmental understanding, and mechanical sense to contribute to the family-wide maker projects we’ve already started to do together. But discovering compelling books that can do this can be challenging. In my early months of motherhood, I spent a long time trying to find a list like this online. I ended up discovering the best books the way parents have done for decades: by browsing our local library.
Here are some of our favorite books on our bookshelf today. What gems would you add to our list? Please add in the comments below.
Let’s begin with Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, a true classic about making the world what you want it to be. It’s hard to believe it was first written in 1955. It hasn’t aged a day! I discovered a whole series of Harold titles with more of his creative adventures, so we own the Treasury as well. More recent, Thacher Hurd’s Art Dog is a cunning canine and graffiti artist who follows in Harold’s tradition, painting items out of necessity: escaping a jail cell or hopping into a getaway car. (Incidentally, if you ever happen to find yourself in the Berkeley Public Library, you can take a seat in Art Dog’s Brushmobile, which would look great in any decent art car parade.)
In the wordless treasure Museum Trip, a boy goes on another imaginative adventure, this time through old labyrinths while lost on a field trip. This book’s creator, Barbara Lehman, is the Rod Serling of the preschool set. We have all of her books (The Red Book, Rainstorm, Trainstop, The Secret Box), and each has a small, delightful surprise that involves travel through a dimension of time or space. I appreciate that she got her start drawing for the MTA in New York. For more wordless mindbenders, take a look at the books of David Wiesner, like Flotsam, Sector 7, and Free Fall.
Arthur Geisert’s inventive pigs would be superstars of the maker world if they existed in real life. Lights Out begins with the only words of the book:
My parents make me turn off the light at eight. They know I’m afraid to go to sleep unless the light is on. They said, “If you can figure something out–go ahead. So I did.
This clever pig constructs a 29-step Rube Goldberg machine that extends up the attic, out the window, over the roof, into the yard, down the basement, and back up to the top of the house to turn off the bedroom light, revealing a pleased, dozing piglet in the last shot. Geisert illustrates each element of the contraption in rich detail over the book’s 32 pages, enough that you might be able to reconstruct the whole thing at home. We also read Pigaroons regularly. It’s about some shenanigans that led to a healthy rivalry at an ice sculpture contest, and it features a band of equally enterprising piglets. I note that we should add Hogwash and The Giant Ball of String to our collection, as we’ve enjoyed both when we’ve borrowed them from the library.
To share another obsessive personality with our kids, we crack open one of the editions of Joan Steiner’s Look-Alikes we own, books in which “common objects wear disguises.” Some are almost too chock-full of detail, so for our boys, the best choice is Look-Alikes Jr., a little simpler than the original. In it, we scan 3D collages assembled from familiar bits and pieces we’d find in our junk drawer: teabags, M&Ms, dimes, dog biscuits, crackers, nail clippers, crayons, and thousands of other objects, all posing in cohesive scenes. It’s a fun game of I Spy, with more surprises because the theme of each scene is so strongly executed, she can keep you from recognizing the items she used to compose it.
Gerald McBoingBoing began as a brilliant animated film about finding your unique calling when you have a peculiar talent. In this case, it’s a boy who “didn’t talk words, he went BOING BOING instead.” We don’t mind creating the sound effects ourselves, so we appreciate that the filmmakers adapted the story into a picture book as well. The story is by Dr. Seuss, and his fans won’t be disappointed by his signature sparkly rhymes and inventive use of language. Seuss didn’t create the images, but instead you get some very sweet illustrations that evoke mid-century advertising, similar to the cartoon but brighter.
Tomie dePaola has written over 200 books for children, and while I haven’t read more than a few, I can heartily recommend The Knight and the Dragon. The stars of the book prepare for their very first battle with each other, building armor from scratch, rehearsing their moves, etc. When they meet, they fail pretty miserably at their stereotypical vocations, but a wise princess who happens to pass by saves them both with [spoiler alert!] a couple of how-to books that help them transform their enmity into a delicious eatery.
Two titles by another well-known favorite, Leo Lionni: In Cornelius, a clever crocodile learns how to do new things and inspires others to do the same. In Inch by Inch a teeny worm explores measuring different surfaces until he is faced with a challenge to do so with something intangible (and he comes up with a clever solution!) We have a hard time getting the tape measure away from the kids, so they love seeing this little worm make his way in the world.
One thing to learn about the world when you are a maker-to-be is where things come from, and Laura Vaccaro Seeger First the Egg takes a spin around that old cliché with some fun die-cut paintings that run through the cycles of several staples of childhood. For example: “First the SEED, then [a seedling, which is pictured but not labeled, then] the FLOWER” or “First the WORD then the STORY.” Of course, it all comes back to that chicken again! Our toddler loves pulling the pages over by the unusually shaped peepholes.
Yoshio Komatsu’s Wonderful Houses Around the World takes a close look at how ten different families live in very different homes, and how those are built. There’s a companion coffeetable book by the same photographer, but this kids’ version includes luscious cross-section diagrams by Akira Nishiyama. For more great diagrams, pick up some books by Stephen Biesty, such as Incredible Everything. We don’t read all the words to our little guys–even without the narration they get so absorbed in the detailed illustrations (reminiscent of Where’s Waldo?)–but we do consult the notes as they ask questions. Of course, sometimes we get, “What’s a compact disc?” as the book was created in 1997.
In Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson, two enterprising bears travel to a town 25 miles from their 19th-century Boston suburb. One labors hard all day to raise money for train fare, while the other, Henry (named after Mr. Thoreau), takes a leisurely walk, stopping on his way to carve a walking stick, press flowers, make a raft, take a swim, and generally have a lovely day. It makes you wonder whether we could all be working less and relishing life more.
What’s a list of maker-friendly books without rockets? In Astro Bunnies by Christine Loomis, with unusual collage illustrations by Ota Eitan, ambitious little cottontails do all you’d expect of spacefarers in a catchy rhyme that I sometimes find myself humming even when I am away from my kids (oh, I’ve come up with a tune for it.) One sample:
Chart the weather
From a crater
We want our kids to have their heads in the stars but their feet on the ground. So like many families, we have lots of nature books. The ones that are most maker-y come from Zoe Hall and Shari Halpern, who pair up for two fall favorites. Two brothers make cookies and leaf collages in Fall Leaves Fall, and two sisters learn how to grow a pie in The Apple Pie Tree. For our older son, Gail Gibbons goes into greater detail into the virtues of Malus domestica in The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree. Over the course of a year, Arnold makes a swing, wreaths, a bouquet, a tree house, cider, pies, and more. Our other Gibbons title, Country Fair, reminds us of our favorite family destination, Maker Faire. There’s even a page that shows you how to put a fair together!
Finally, I end with the man who taught me and millions of others to draw, Ed Emberley. Although his thumbprint and step-by-step illustration books are what I remember best from my childhood, the ones that our boys love now help them understand how to put shapes together to make images. In Go Away, Big Green Monster, the narrator builds up and then destroys the titular character one facial feature at a time. I like the paper artistry magic of the die-cuts in this book (although they are so vulnerable to enthusiastic young fingers. His poor nose!) We love the 1961 version of The Wing on a Flea, as it has the color blocks and line drawings of those beloved drawing books I remember seeking out so often as a kid. (The 2001 edition looks pretty good as well, we just haven’t read it yet.) We like the way The Wing on a Flea takes three shapes–a triangle, a circle, and a rectangle–and shows how you can make them into just about anything.
Books make great presents for kids. To my sons, they are a promise that I will read them again and again with them snuggled up in my lap. If you have time to get these at your local bookstore, please do go support your neighborhood businesses. But I’ve linked to each Amazon page for the books I mentioned above.
Feel free to add books you read with your budding makers in the comments. I’d like to focus on the 4-and-under crowd myself, but if you want to add books for older kids, please be sure to note the age you think your recommendation is best for in your note.