Goodnight, Maker: Books for Pre-Readers

Goodnight, Maker: Books for Pre-Readers

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.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

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.)

Museum Trip

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.

Lights Out
Lights Out

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.

Look-Alikes Jr.
Look-Alikes Jr.

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
Gerald McBoingBoing

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.

Wonderful Houses Around the World
Wonderful Houses Around the World

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.

Astro Bunnies
Astro Bunnies

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:

Astro bunnies
Work together
Measure comets
Chart the weather

Gather moondust
From a crater
Scientists can
Study later

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!

The Wing on a Flea (1961)
The Wing on a Flea (1961)

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.

22 thoughts on “Goodnight, Maker: Books for Pre-Readers

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great suggestions, I am certainly going to take a look at some of these for story time.  Thanks for sharing!

  2. Guy H-B says:

    I know he’s not necessarily about making, but for creativity and a wonderful do it yourself mentality Robert Munsch still rules the book shelves.  And who can forget the paper bag princess?

  3. Anonymous says:

    This story I wrote for my nieces and nephews might tickle some other kids’ fancy. It’s the story of a maker mom and how she handles the construction crane that a company left in her back yard.  Animated and narrated on YouTube at   Available in text form at

  4. pamadams says:

    Great post! Love your book choices.  Here are my top 5 picture books for entertaining both the Maker and Mini Maker that I’m giving this year:1. Press Here by Herve Tullet – a must have for any Mini Maker as it is interactive in the most creative way.2. I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen – best book introducing inference and funny to boot.  3. Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? by Susan Shea – great illustrations and pairings to explore animate vs. inanimate objects.  Totally satisfying in the Bill Martin/Eric Carle milieu.  4. What the Sun Sees/What the Moon Sees by Nancy Tafuri – the same world is pictured during the day and then at night.  There is no back cover as the day is front cover for 1/2 the book and then the other cover flips right-side up to become the front of the night.  I’m doing a poor job explaining this concept, but believe me it is cool and engaging.5. In the Town All Year ‘Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner – think Richard Scary done by a European without Lowly the Worm.  It is LOVELY.  Totally engrosses children as the town is depicted in the different seasons.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My boy loved looking through How Things Work and Building Big with his Dad he before he could read it or absorb it on his own. He also loved the series of three books beginning with My Father’s Little Dragon. He gobbled up all the DK Eyewitness books, and learned to read with Calvin and Hobbes. He also loved the survival books like My Side of the Mountain. And now he’s a passionate maker at age 15! 

  6. Rachel Garber says:

    Great post!  We love:  Stuart’s Cape (chapter book)  The Dot and Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Elmer the Elephant!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Graeme Base’s books are great, with lots of hidden pictures and puzzles. My 3yo loves the illustrations, but I’m sure the content will keep him entertained in the future too. 

    I Spy books are good fun as well. In a similar non-verbal vein, The Yellow Balloon is great. Each page is a different detailed scene, (jungle, ocean, desert, city) but there are a few consistent elements which travel from page to page. Cameos by various fairy tale characters and lots of action allow for a lot of kid-directed story making.

    They’re not explicitly geeky, but Jon J Muth’s books are favorites here too. Same goes for David Hyde Costello’s books.

  8. Sherry Hsi says:

    These are wonderful suggestions! An old worn copy that we picked up at a book fair is Richard Scary’s “What do People Do All Day” which shows the story of a seed and where paper comes from, the workings of a house under construction, how the postal system works, and other stories. My 5 old loves this, but also good for pre-readers given the colorful illustrations. There are different editions floating around.

  9. Kiki Jewell says:

    Great list! Just had to add the Tinker Bell movie series, believe it or not. She’s a *Tinker* who’s natural talent is to invent and fix things. (A single, maker guy friend of mine got caught up in the story too!)

    (Spoilers) Tinkers aren’t as glamorous as Nature Fairies and don’t get to go to the Mainland with them either, so Tink tries to forsake her talents, but can’t find a Nature talent she has talent for! While sulking alone on the beach, she reassembles a music box from scattered broken bits. Her friends find her, saying, “but don’t you *love* doing this?” When disaster strikes, cancelling Spring, Tink must save the day — through her inventions!

    The message to little girls is awesome: following your talents is more important than being glamorous.

    The second film isn’t quite as good, but still involves finding your own, surprising solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.



  10. Kiki Jewell says:

    Ok, a couple more recommendations!

    The Borrowers series is a lot of fun for Makers to read — because it makes you think about how to repurpose everyday objects for other uses. (Also, the Studio Ghibli film will be released in the US in February!) Charlotte was 5 when we started reading them — though I admit they’re a tad slow for little kids, plus they’re chapter books. Still, she really enjoyed them! We stopped after two books, for a change of pace.

    Stewart Little is another good one for the same reasons — repurposing everyday objects. (Charlotte recently requested checking it out a second time.)

    Little House on the Prairie series is also good for Makers in that you hear a lot about how things are made by hand, and also how the families enjoy hard work. Farmer Boy, in particular, had more real hard farm work. One thing I wondered about was whether Charlotte had enough *context* to compare to life today. On the other hand, we have a bit of an urban farm at our house, so more things may be familiar to her than usual. We read Little House in the Big Woods, and Farmer Boy, and stopped too.

    We’ve read a number of stories in Arabian Nights — and after Charlotte and I saw the Tech Museum’s display of Islamic science, I now understand why the Arabian Nights were so filled with mechanical wonders! One story in Arabian Nights has a mechanical horse that flew into the air! The poor prince who found himself trapped on it, guessed that there must be a knob to make the horse land. Sure enough, he found the knob under the horse’s mane. Older versions have more lovely writing, but are also more gruesome, so try to scan on your own before reading.

    All of these books are chapter books with few pictures. A friend had started reading chapter books aloud to her 4yo, so we tried it, and she loves it! YMMV.

    (We tend towards the “fairytale” section of our library, because the stories are so good, and because we find newer books to be a mixed bag and a lot of work to find good ones.)

  11. Ruth Costantini says:

    Iggy Peck Architect and Roberto the Insect Architect are both super fun picture books for protomakers.

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