Books about Simple Machines

img_20151013_163855105This post focuses on book recommendations. To see lesson plans for hands-on activities and demonstrations for each individual machine, click here: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Wedges, Levers, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Here’s an Overview of Simple Machines.

Overviews. There are several books that give an overview of all the simple machines.

  • How Do You Lift a Lion? by Wells is my favorite book. It poses fun questions with silly illustrations, then does a nice job of describing the basic concepts of how the machines work. Covers levers (for lifting lions), wheels and axles (for pulling pandas on pallets) and pulleys (to deliver a big basket of bananas to a baboon birthday). You could read it all at once, or divide it up into three parts and read at different times as you cover each machine. Good circle time read. The vocabulary is a little high level, but the pictures are clear illustrations, so our 5 – 7 year olds were able to follow the science of it. Our 3 – 4 year olds didn’t get the science, but they liked the book anyway.
  • The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects & Activities that Make Science Fun! by Doudna. This volume combines all the content you’d find in six kids’ non-fiction books about each of the machines with 30 hands on projects kids can make using everyday items. Best suited for 9 – 12 year olds to read alone, or 4 – 8 with adult support. Read more about this book here.
  • Move It! Work It! from the Science Songs series, sets a song about simple machines to the tune of Kookaburra. (Hear it: There are also additional facts about each machine on each page. The song is not a great work of art, but if you wanted to include a song in the unit, it does a decent job of capturing the ideas about simple machines.
  • How Machines Work: Zoo Break! by Macaulay. A really fun story line about a zoo escape overlaps with really great educational content on simple machines. Fabulous for age 8 – 10. Has some pop-up book features – click on the link to see the Amazon listing which has lots of photos of these features, which would appeal to younger kids – maybe ages 5 and up (younger kids would like them, but young kids are really hard on pop-up books – even if they mean to be gentle, they’ll just fold things in the wrong direction…
  • Simple Machines by Allan Fowler is a good overview, with nice basic descriptions and examples, and it’s an appropriate length for circle time. Not as fun as Lion…
  • Simple Machines: Wheels, Levers and Pulleys by Adler is for ages 5 – 7. Nice illustrations, good examples of simple machines in everyday life, and good explanations. But too high level for our class.
  • Lever, Screw, and Inclined Plane by Thompson. Good descriptions, great pictures from National Geographic. But… it’s for ages 6 – 9, and too high level/too long for us to read in class. It could be helpful for an adult to skim through before class – I find it’s helpful if you have fresh in your head information that’s just a little more advanced / detailed than you might cover with your students – it helps you answer questions that may come up.
  • Smash!: Wile E. Coyote Experiments with Simple Machines is NOT a circle time read. It’s aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds, and would be over the head of most 3 to 7-year-olds in my class. On the other hand, the Wile E. Coyote character is appealing enough that my almost-5-year-old (who is a strong reader and has read LOTS of books on simple machines) really enjoys this book even if he doesn’t fully grasp it and enjoys then watching Roadrunner cartoons and talking about the science in them.
  • Simple Machines by Deborah Hodge. Photos and descriptions of lots of easy activities related to simple machines. Nice little descriptions of the science behind each one. Good source of ideas for teachers/parents, but not something I’d read in class, or put on the shelf, just because I find that if I put out books of activity ideas, the kids want to try them all right now.

Series Books about Simple Machines

There are several series which include 6 books each, one for each machine. I will summarize my impressions of the series, based on the books I read (I have read one or more from each series, but not all 6 of any series.) Here are the four criteria I ranked them on:

  • Pictures: Are they good photos (current, focused, visually appealing) of things that are interesting to kids?
  • Words: Would this be a good read-aloud book for a group of 3 – 6 year olds? Easy to understand and interesting to listen to?
  • Big Idea: Does it get, and adequately convey the key concepts about this simple machine and how it works? (For my summary of what I think those key concepts are, see my posts on each of the types of Simple Machines – linked at top of post.)
  • Examples: Are there several good examples of the machine that would be interesting to children? (But I don’t want examples of every single way this simple machine can be applied, because too many diverse examples could make it hard for a young child to remember the big picture.)

I honestly haven’t found any one series that I think is the absolute best, so I get some books from each of the series to share with my class. If I didn’t have access to a fabulous library system and had to buy just one series of books, I might choose the How Toys Work by Smith or the “Vs.” series by Schuh for my class of 3 – 6 year olds. This list is in approximate order of age appropriateness, so if you’re teaching elementary school, start at the bottom.

  • First Step Non-Fiction: Simple Machines to the Rescue by Schuh. (OK, it’s really confusing that this series is titled Simple Machines to the Rescue, just like the series by Dahl. I call this the “Vs.” series.) Titles include Making a Salad: Wedge vs. Inclined Plane and Hauling a Pumpkin: Wheels and Axles vs. Lever, Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane and three others. For ages 4 – 7. They present a challenge kids can relate to that could be solved with a simple machine. Two people who are working together suggest two different machines. We learn about each, and they try using each. Sometimes one is better than the other, but often we see the benefits of using both. They do a good basic job of describing each machine and giving examples beyond what is covered in the story. What I like: engaging photos, engaging story line of finding a problem and working together using tools to solve it. Because we are a parent-child class, I especially like that some of the books are about parents and kids working together, and that often the kid has a great idea the parent hadn’t thought of. Although I love this concept of comparing and contrasting two machines, I think it would be helpful for kids to also read books that focus on just a single machine in detail. Note: this book series has a companion teaching guide, which is aligned with Next Generation Science and Common Core state standards, and offers a lesson plan and hands-on activities for each of the simple machines. You can download the teaching guide at
  • How Toys Work by Smith. 4 – 6 years. Titles: Ramps and Wedges, Pulleys, Levers, Screws, Nuts and Bolts, Wheels and Axles. Nice series – shows photos of toys, talks about the “tool” that is the theme of the book – how it works, what it does, and gives more examples of toys that use it. Very age appropriate non-fiction with a playful / colorful look. In some books (Pulley and Screws) the big idea is explained well. But others (Ramps, Wheels) will not give a solid understanding of the concept of the simple machine. I would use these books to engage my younger students, but also share some of the other series with my older students to better explain the concepts.
  • Blastoff Readers: Simple Machines. Author: Manolis. Books: Ramps; Levers; Pulleys; Screws; Wedges; Wheels and Axles. These would be my top choice if I had only 5 – 7 year olds, but they’re a little long and too sophisticated for my little ones. Bright colors and engaging pictures. Good diagrams and descriptions of key concepts – very clear. Nice examples.
  • Useful Machines by Oxlade.  Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Screws*; Wheels.  Review: Good pictures, engaging and easy to understand for 5 – 7 year olds. I have only read the screw book, but I like it a lot. However, I would not use it as the intro to screws. Once kids had a solid grasp of the basics of screws, it does a nice job of giving examples of all the different applications
  • Simple Machines by Bodden. Age 5 – 7. Books: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Explains the machine, talks about how it makes work easier, shows a little history and modern examples of its use. It’s OK for this age group… a little dry and the graphic design is kind of stodgy looking. (Really lovely from an adult perspective… just not very kid appealing.) In general concepts are very clear and easy to understand and examples clearly illustrate the ideas. But, I thought the screw book was unclear and jumbled examples together that it wasn’t clear how they related. We used several of these books in our circle times in class, but tried to balance with How Toys Work, which are brighter and more fun.
  • Simple Machines by Tieck. Age 6 – 9. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Perfectly fine information, good illustrations. Multiple examples of each machine. No activity ideas. Probably the best descriptions of the big idea, but presented in a dry, bland non-fiction style. I didn’t read them in circle, but did have them on the bookshelf for kids who wanted to learn more.
  • Simple Machines by Armentrout  Age 7 – 9. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels. Each book talks about simple machines in general and then one machine specifically. Uses photographs of kids using simple machines, which helps it be more accessible / engaging to kids. Photos with labels help to clearly illustrate the tool and the principle. Fine series. In a few books there were so many examples, the big picture could get lost.
  • Amazing Science: Simple Machines by Dahl and Shea. Books: Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise: A Book About Levers; Roll, Slope, and Slide (Inclined Planes); Scoop, Pull, Lift, and Lower (Pulleys); Cut, Chop, and Stop (Wedge); Tires, Spokes, and Sprockets. Book description says they are for 5 – 10 year olds. For 5 – 6 year olds, the illustrations are great and the examples are clear, but I would not read the word as written – I would just paraphrase. I think they’re best for 7 – 8 year olds, as the 9-10 year olds might find the illustrations a little “young.”  The pulley book and inclined book don’t do the best job of explaining key ideas.
  • Early Reader Science: Simple Machines by Dahl.  Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Wheels and Axles.  Review: Pictures OK, but not especially appealing to young ones. Length-wise, it would be OK for circle, but vocabulary a little high level. The Wheels book gives examples of so many different kinds of wheels and axles (steering wheels, gears, sprockets, cranks, cams, etc.) that the basic concept is lost. Does not mention friction. [not available on Amazon, but you may find at library]
  • Simple Machines to the Rescue by Thales. 6 – 9. Inclined Planes to the Rescue, Levers ttR, Pulleys ttR, Screws ttR, Wedges ttR, Wheels and Axles ttR. Focuses on how we use simple machines to solve problems: “it’s snack time and two people want to share one apple. How can they split it into two equal piece? Wedge to the rescue!” Good descriptions, nice examples. Each book ends with a little sample project kids can do. I’m not a fan of the photos and illustrations, and don’t think kids will find them as engaging as pictures in other series. I just find that they do the weakest job of explaining simple machines concepts. For example, in the screw book, their first example is a lid on a soda bottle, then a spiral staircase, then Archimedes screw, then an olive oil press, and then it talks about things that are held together by screws. Nowhere in there does it really describe what a screw is and what type of work each of these tools has in common.
  • My World of Science by Randolph. Books: Inclined Planes in my World; Levers in…; Pulleys in…; Wedges in… ; Wheels and Axles in… [there doesn’t appear to be a Screws book] Pictures are fine; words are appropriate level and the book is a good length for circle time, big idea is explained well, and there are lots of examples, but they all tie together in a clear logical way to the same big idea. It ends with asking “can you think of [wedges] you see around you?” Then offers a picture glossary of key words. This is a reliable, useable, but not exciting series. Note: this series is bilingual English / Spanish. So Wedges in My World is also Cunas en mi mundo. Each page has the text in English first, then Spanish. Book descriptions say age 7 – 10


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