Kids’ Books about the Ocean

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One of our themes was “Under the Sea” – submarines, fish, and coral reef. Here are some recommended books for preschool and elementary age kids about the ocean.

Coral Reefs, Fish and More

Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef by Berkes and Canyon. This is an absolutely delightful book – perhaps one of my favorite kids’ non-fiction books ever. It’s so good that I wrote a whole post all about it and other books by the same author. There’s text set to a familiar tune you can sing, amazing illustrations, nice collection of facts, fun counting book. Highly recommended! Age 3 – 7.

Fish, Swish! Splash, Dash!: Counting Round and Round by Suse MacDonald. A terribly clever design for a counting book. As you read forward in the book, it counts up from one to ten. Then when you reach the end, you flip it over and count down from ten to one. Nice illustration style, with cool see-thru die cuts that are intriguing in both directions. Age 3 – 7.

Ten Little Fish by Wood and Wood. Age 2 – 5. A counting book with cute illustrations, simple text. Nice rhythm and rhyme to text (it’s a classic counting game rhythm that goes as far back as Ten Little Injuns from 1868): “Ten little fish, swimming in a line. One dives down and now there are… ” and as you read it, the children will, of course, shout “nine!”  It counts down to one, then there’s an interesting twist at the end. “One little fish. What will he do? Along comes another fish, and that makes… two little fish in love with one another. Soon one is a father, and the other is a mother! But mother and father don’t count. Just ten little fish – swimming in a line.”

Coral Reefs by Chin. Ages 6 – 9. Non-fiction book with a touch of fantasy. In the illustrations, we see a girl reading in a library while the text tells us about coral and reef structure. As we move through the pages, learning more facts about coral, the illustrations show coral appearing in the library, then water rushes in, and the girl and her book are carried away into the ocean, where she swims around a reef and with the sea creatures as we continue to learn more about fish, eels, sea turtles, and more. At the end of the book, we see her on the steps of the library (NYPL) sharing the book with friends. The text is too high level for my class of 3 – 6 year olds, but for older kids, it’s an engaging presentation of lots of factual information. (The illustration at the top of this post is from this book.)

Swim Fish!: Explore the Coral Reef by Neuman, a National Geographic reader. Age 2  -5. Very simple pre-reader non-fiction with gorgeous photography. Worth getting from the library just for the pictures.

Coral Reefs by Gibbons. Age 6 – 9. Gibbons has written over 50 non-fiction books. They’re all full of great information, well organized, with colorful illustrations. It’s a reference book for the shelf more than it is something you’d sit and read in one sitting.

Coral Reef by Parker, from the Smart Kids series. Ages 5 – 8. Some people love the bright, dynamic graphic design. I personally find it visually overwhelming. It’s a little difficult to read when it highlights words in bright colors… sometimes they’re the most important words or vocabulary words – sometimes they seem chosen at random for highlighting. I might have it on the shelf to look at, but I’m not likely to read it to anyone.

Sponges and Puffer Fish by Rake. Sea Turtles by Lindeen. All part of the “Under the Sea” series. 3 – 6 years. Basic introduction to the facts about sponges (or puffer fish or sea turtles) with more great photos. I like having books about some of the other creatures that make up an ocean environment, to get kids thinking about all the things animals can look like / be like. Each include a glossary and recommended books / websites for more info.

Old Shell, New Shell by Ward. Ages 5 – 7. A story of a hermit crab who lives in a coral reef. He has outgrown his shell, and goes looking for a new one. Along the way, we see beautiful illustrations of coral reef life and he speaks with puffer fish, angelfish. clownfish, spiny lobsters, etc. Engaging story – I don’t love it, but it’s fine as a read-aloud. At the back of the book, in adult-level language, there are indexes to each and every page, where it shows a thumbnail of the illustration, with numbers on each fish, and below, there’s a description of each fish. “Coral rabbitfish (siganus corallinus). Despite their pretty colors, these fish have venomous spines within their fins that can inflict a nasty wound. They like to live among rocks in warm shallow waters.”

Sea Bones by Barner. Each page has a line of big text that’s written for 4 – 5 year olds, and also has a paragraph of information written at an upper elementary to grown-up level.. I don’t love the kids’ text as a read-aloud…. it’s fine, but not great… “…there are animals without bones that drift with the waves. Some creatures cling to plants, rocks, or caves, A skeleton helps a speedy shark swim, fish shine down deep where the light is dim. Skeletons or not, there is much life to see. They all live together in the salty sea.” I do like the illustrations, particularly the ones that show “x-rays” of the creature’s skeleton, and I do like the chart in the back (common to many of Barner’s books) where there are 8 columns (for jelly, rays, clown fish and more) and 4 rows of facts: is it a fish, does it have a backbone, what kind of skeleton, and what does it eat.

Diving Under the Sea / Deep Sea Life

The Berenstain Bears Under the Sea by Berenstain. Ages 5 – 8. Like all …Bears books, it’s pretty wordy for this age group, but the characters / illustrations are fun and engaging, so they keep kids’ interests for that longer read. (But too long for a group circle, I find.) The family goes to the aquarium, then out to sea. Their host first shows them the birds that fly above the water (illustrations include seagulls, osprey, terns, and cormorants) and flying fish. Then the submarine dives, and we first see shallow water creatures (sharks, marlins, sea mammals) and coral reef inhabitants. They dive to deeper waters: sperm whale and giant squid, deeper to angler fish and gulper eels, then down to bottom dwellers: tube worms, and more. Good, accessible book.

Mysteries of the Sea: How Divers Explore the Ocean Depths by Morrison. A National geographic chapter book, for ages 6 – 9. Great photos. A nice overview of the history of deep sea exploration covering diving helmets, aqualungs, bathyspheres and submersibles, with an engaging dramatic story to go with each. Note: the copyright is 2006, but the most recent invention / mission described was in 1986.

Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea by Jenkins. The concept is very cool – we start above the surface of the water with a bird, then “out of the water” where sharks, dolphins and flying fish appear, then the sunlit zone (73 degrees, 10 feet down) with mackerel and krill, sea turtles and rays. Then deeper, and deeper… to the dark zone 3300 feet below the surface, with deep sea jellies and angler fish. Then as far as the Marianas Trench, over 35,000 feet below the surface and the creatures that live there. Both the text and the concept though are way over the head of my students. The product details on Amazon say it’s for kids 4 – 7… I would say 6 to 9. Maybe with an adult reading one-on-one it would appeal to a younger child with an interest in ocean life.

You can also find my recommendations for books about the beach, and books to go with a Sink-Float theme and a Submarines / Scuba theme.

Over in the Ocean book

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I was working on a post about “Kids’ Books about the Ocean” and my review of this one book became so long that I’m making this its own post!

Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef by Berkes and Canyon is an absolutely delightful book – perhaps one of my favorite kids’ non-fiction books ever. What’s to love about it?

  • The text – great rhyme and rhythm you can sing – it’s based on the song “Over in the Meadow.” (In the back of the book, there’s sheet music and all verses on one page.)
  • The pictures are stunning. Beautiful at first glance, even better when you pay attention to all the fine details. The illustrator uses polymer clay (e.g. Sculpey or Fimo) to create these incredible illustrations. (see detailed illustrations below) There’s even a page in the back that describes how they were made. (I’m debating for next year’s class about putting out some play-dough and some close-ups like this one of the clown fish to encourage kids to try rolling snakes of play-dough and balls of play-dough to create something a little like the background of this picture.)

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  • The factual information about sea life and how it’s offered. In some books, they have the main text for little ones on the page, then a box or sidebar with more detailed info for older kids on the same page. I find this visually distracting, and it’s odd when reading aloud to skip over these boxes, but if you read them, they interrupt the rhyme and rhtyhm of the story. This book has a better solution. The main page has the basic info: “squirt” says the mother octopus, “grind” says the parrotfish, and “stir” says the stingray. Then in the back, there’s a paragraph of info about octopi, that explains how they squirt dark ink, and a paragraph about parrotfish whose teeth are fused into a beak that grinds coral, and info about how rays use their fins to stir the sandy ocean floor to find mussels and small crustaceans. There is also a section on “how many babies do they really have” (the book says “a mother octopus and her octopus one” but really an octopus may lay thousands of eggs at a time) and on the coral reef community. So, a parent or older child can find lots more info, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the main picture book.
  • The fact that it’s a great counting book. For example, on the five page, not only are their five pufferfish in the picture, there’s also five pieces of coral, and five starfish with the text. And after we’ve reached ten, the final page says “over in the ocean where the sea creatures play while their parents all were resting, they up and swam away. ‘Find us’ said the children, ‘From ten to one!’ When you find all the creatures, then this rhyme is done.” It then shows a small picture of 10 seahorses, 9 grunts, 8 needlefish and so on next to an illustration of a coral reef where you can find all the creatures on the list who you have seen throughout the book, now all swimming together.
  • In the back, there’s tips from the author on how to use in circle time, suggesting the kids could make sea creature puppets to go with the book, and offering fingerplay gestures for each verse.
  • Finally, there is an app for IPad based on this book, a counting and musical app that has won multiple awards. The image at the top of this post is from the app. (I haven’t played it because we don’t own any Apple devices…)

The author has written several other books. So far, I’ve checked out:

Over in a River: Flowing Out to the Sea. It’s also to the tune of Over in a Meadow: “Over in a river, in the warm sunshine lived a mother tree frog and her froglets nine. Hop said the mother…”. Also a counting book. Each page includes a basic map of the United States, and shows the location of the river where the animals on that page could be found, and on the last page of the story, you find/count the creatures on a map that shows all the rivers. In the back of the book, there’s info about the rivers, the animals, suggested class activities, and recommended books. Also an excellent book. The illustrations made with cut paper, pastels and colored pencils are truly lovely, but not as unique.

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Going Around the Sun: Some Planetary Fun. Same tune. Not really a counting book, though it does refer to the number of each planet in order out from the sun: “Up in outer space, many moons in its heaven, is the planet Uranus. This is planet number seven.” It also includes facts about each planet in the back, and ideas for classroom activities. So, a lot of strengths, but truthfully I don’t like it as much as the others. To fit the musical structure, she had to include commands that Mother Sun gives to the planets (my co-teacher hates anthropomorphized stars and planets…) and the commands are stretching things: She tells Neptune “‘Move’ said the Mother. ‘I move,’ said Eight. So it moved – oh, so slowly and the Sun had to wait.” The note on the page explains that “Neptune takes 165 Earth-years to go around the Sun – it needs to move!” For Mars: “‘Turn’ said the Mother. ‘I turn’ said Four. So it turned and we learned there was iron in its core.” It works, but it’s not great. However, the illustrations by Mason are beautiful. They’re done with melted crayon for the background – she covers a griddle with foil and heats it, then lays paper on it and draws with crayon, which melts as you draw. (We used this simple technique in our Chemistry Reactions week.) Then she uses acrylic paint, color pencils and computers to create the planets.

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What’s in the Garden, which I review in the Seeds and Plants theme.

All these books are published by Dawn Publications, which is “dedicated to inspiring in children a deeper understanding and appreciation for all life on Earth.” At their website www.dawnpub.com, they have a blog about their books, which includes class activities for each that meet Common Core standards. And, they have a huge collection of downloadable activities to connect kids and nature: https://dawnpub.com/activity/. I’ve only just begun to look at this, but it looks great!! It’s on my to-do list to explore this summer!

Kids’ Books about the Beach

Our Sink-Float week was also an opportunity to bring in a beach theme, with our décor and imaginary play materials. We checked out from the library several books about the beach. Sadly, I didn’t love any of them.

Many of them (starred below) are part of a series of books about a particular character and they feel like the authors / publishers said “it’s time to write our next book about this character… what should the theme be?” “Hey, I know, let’s have them go to the beach!” So, they’re all OK books, but nothing special. (Unless your child happens to love that particular stock character.)

Beach books

Here they are in order from the ones I liked the best / would most recommend to the ones I liked the least. To see the Amazon page for any item, just click on the picture of the book cover (Amazon affiliate link).

Seashells by the Seashore by Berkes and Noreika. A counting book, where Sue walks along the shore picking up seashells. Each time she picks one up, a picture of it is added to the left sidebar of the page, so you can keep an eye on all the shells she has collected. At the end, she and her brother Ben bring the shells to their grandmother. I like the concept a lot. The art is OK. The text is OK – “So many seashells that we can mix. If we find a Whelk Shell there will be six… The tide is rolling in and it’s getting pretty late. This shell looks like a slipper! Now we have eight.” I like that at the end, there’s a description of each of the shells. You could put the book out open to these pages with a shell observation station to help kids identify shells.

Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee by Van Dusen. Not quite a beach book, but I like it better than the beach books… Fun art style, nice writing: “Mr. Magee and his little dog, Dee loved spending time in their boat on the sea. So early one morning at 6:32, they made a decision: that’s just what they’d do.” They motor out to sea, then a mischievous whale blows water out of its blowhole till their boat is blown 50 feet high and lands in a tree. Other whales come to their rescue.

Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach* by Watt. Age 5 – 8. S.S. would rather vacation at home than risk a trip to the beach. So he builds his own beach with a crayon drawing of the water, a flashlight sun, an inflatable pool and kitty litter sand. He misses the sound of the ocean though, and mounts an expedition to the real beach to find a shell. He gathers all his protective gear and safety equipment then makes an elaborate plan for his journey. He ends up having a fabulous time at the beach. Some fun and wacky humor with some spy-style hijinks. One of 8 Scaredy Squirrel books.

Ladybug Girl at the Beach* by Soman and Davis. Age 4 – 6. Lulu is looking forward to the beach till they arrive and she discovers how big and noisy it is. Anxious, she stays on the beach, building sand castles, flying a kite, eating ice cream and more. She finally tests the water, but then a wave comes in and almost knocks her over. She retreats to the land. They play on shore until her bucket gets swept away by the tide. She rescues it then decides she’s not afraid of the waves after all, and spends the rest of the day splashing around. Nice illustrations, relatable and likeable lead character. One of 20 or so Ladybug Girl books.

Duck and Goose at the Beach* by Hills. Age 4 – 6. Goose loves the meadow and says he never wants to leave. Duck immediately decides to go on an adventure – a trip to the beach! Goose reluctantly follows. But then when they arrive at the beach, Goose loves it, but Duck feels worried. They return home to their meadow. #10 in the Duck & Goose series.

Curious George Goes to the Beach*. by Rey. Age 5 – 7, too long for a circle time. George goes to the beach with the man with the yellow swimsuit. They run into a friend (Betsy) who is scared to swim. George plays ball, digs in the sand and plays. The seagulls steal his food. He and Betsy feed the gulls. The picnic basket is swept out to sea and George rescues it, then he and Betsy swim. One of countless Curious George books.

Spot goes to the Beach* by Hill. Age 3 – 4. A lift the flap book. Spot goes to the beach. His dad buys him lots of toys. He plays with a ball, builds sand castles, goes fishing and finds a friend. Little kids like hte lift the flaps, but this book is nothing special. One of countless Spot books.

Paddington at the Beach* by Bond and Alley. Age 4 – 6. Paddington goes to the beach. Seagulls watch him and make random observations: “He’s made a sand castle. Look how pleased he is.” “Now he’s lost his bucket.” Then they notice he has a bun in his pocket, wait till there’s a few more birds gathered, then they steal his bun. Not a great story. Sort of a counting book, in that there’s seagull number 1 and so on, and your kid could count the number of seagulls on each page. But there’s many better counting books out there. One of many Paddington books.

Sea Rex by Idle. Age 3 – 5. The third in a dinosaur inspired series. I LOVE the illustrations. But the text… there’s just not much to the story, The words are things like “station yourself near a lifeguard will keep an eye on you. Use plenty of sunscreen. Everyone loves a picnic. Bring plenty to share.” The fact that there are dinosaurs in each of the drawings I think is supposed to make it silly and wacky, but somehow it’s just a nice little book about dinos and kids at the beach.

Pete the Cat at the Beach* by Dean. Ages 3 – 6. Pete goes to the beach. His brother Bob goes surfing, but Pete says “maybe later.” Pete builds a sand castle, finds seashells and a crab, eats lunch, and plays ball, all the while watching Bob with envy, Finally he goes in the water, then ends up having a great time surfing. One of many Pete the Cats. I have to say I think Pete the Cat’s I Love My White Shoes is fabulous and a quality I consider “classic”. Pete’s Groovy Buttons is pretty good. But all the early reader Pete books are just typical early reader fare and don’t compare to Shoes.

For something a little different, there’s Waiting for High Tide by McClure. It’s not at the bottom of my list because it’s my least favorite, but just because it’s so different from the others that it’s hard to compare….

Waiting for High Tide is beautiful in a way that’s unusual for kids’ books. Cut paper illustrations are just gorgeous. It tells of a family building a raft of logs and a boy playing on the beach during low tide, waiting impatiently for high tide to come in so they can take the raft out. He studies the barnacles. finds clamshells, crab parts and seaweed, watches the gulls crack clam shells open on the rock, and herons try to catch sculpin. This book isn’t a good fit for my Saturday STEM class. However, if I was planning a beach trip to the San Juan islands or anywhere else on the Salish Sea, I would ABSOLUTELY bring this along to read to my child before and after our days on the beach. Ages 5 – 8, too long for a circle time read-aloud.

My recommendation for a book about the beach / ocean

So, after reading all these library books, I’d say nothing comes close to a book I already own. The Big Big Sea by Martin Waddell. This is a truly gorgeous book that honors the beauty of nature, and the magic of parents sharing nature at night with their children.

A mother takes a child out after dark. They see the moon, they run into the sea, they walk on the beach… “We just stayed for a while by the sea. And mama said to me, ‘remember this time. It’s the way life should be.'” It ends with “We sat by the fire, Mama and me, and ate hot buttered toast and I went to sleep on her knee. I’ll always remember just Mama and me and the night that we walked by the big big sea.” Ages 3 – 5. Wonderful bedtime book. To see the illustration style, do a google image search for “big big sea waddell“.

Kids’ Books about Inventors and Makers

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On this site, you’ll find LOTS of recommended children’s books for kids age 3 – 7 (preschool to second grade). In each weekly blog post, I cover one particular STEM topic and all the activities we did to teach it, including books specific to that theme. So, be sure to check those out. On this page, I’ve collected some of my favorite books about people who dream, invent and build. Our Inventors class strives to inspire kids to explore and to “make things”, and the stories we tell are definitely an important part of that.

Most Highly Recommended Stories (Fiction)

ifhouseIf I Built a House by Van Dusen. A boy designs a house (we see his drawing, and the model he’s built with Legos, Tinker Toys and cardboard). Then we get to tour the inside of  the house he imagines. The Kitchen-o-Mat cooks and cleans, there’s trampolines and ball pits in the living room, and more. Groovy retro art, fun text for reading aloud, great flights of imagination, and great modeling of a kid with maker dreams. This is probably my favorite book for my kids’ inventors class! We read it on Build a House week. (Also  check out If I Built a Car by Van Dusen. The boy imagines then builds a fabulous car, with a swimming pool, fireplace, and instant snack bar. We read it in Build a Car week, along with Galimoto, another great maker book about a boy in Malawi who collects scraps of wire to build a toy car.)

rosierevereRosie Revere, Engineer by Beaty. Rosie dreams of being an engineer, and builds cool stuff out of trash, but then her uncle laughs at her and she stops inventing till Aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter in her later years) comes to visit. They build a heli-o-cheese-copter. It only flies for a moment and Rosie is discouraged, till Aunt Rose says “it’s the perfect first try! This great flop is over, it’s time for the next”. They keep building together. (Great read for any of our Engineering classes or for Flight week, although there’s lots of other great flight books to choose from, like Violet the Pilot.) You might also enjoy two other books by Beaty:  Iggy Peck, Architect – we read it in Bridges week and Ada Twist, Scientist.

going-places-9781442466081_hrGoing Places by Reynolds. A class is challenged to a “Going Places” contest, then all given identical go kart kits. Rafael is very excited about the project, and assembles the kit PERFECTLY, according to the directions. Then he discovers his neighbor Maya is dreamily watching birds and not building her kit. She builds a fabulous contraption, but it’s not a go-kart. She and Rafael team up to build an amazing and unique go-kart… that FLIES! At the end, they get an even wilder idea for what to build next! This is a very engaging story, not just about building but also about inventing. Bonus points for ethnically diverse characters and gender balance. Age 4 – 7. A good option for Build a Car theme, or Contraptions or Flight.

papaPapa’s Mechanical Fish by Fleming and Kulikoff. A really well-written and enjoyable book that shares the adventures of a family where the father is an tinkerer. His inventions are never quite successful – they “almost work”. He is inspired to make a mechanical fish, and after several failed attempts makes a submarine the whole family can ride in. We read it when studying Sink or Float or Submarines.

Most-Magnificent-Thing-coverThe Most Magnificent Thing  by Spires. A little girl wants to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing. She draws it out, and knows exactly how it will work. But when she tries to make it she fails again and again and gets very discouraged. But then she looks at all the things she made, finds the best thing about each, tries again and succeeds. People love all her “failed” experiments and take them home to use. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 7. I appreciate that it really shows her emotions and how she deals with them, and lets kids know it’s OK to make mistakes. (This could be a good read for Contraptions week, which also included some other great books, like Mechanimals.)

moatWhat Floats in a Moat? by Berry & Cordell. Very silly and entertaining, great read-aloud that tells about Archie the Goat (named for Archimedes) and teaches about the science of Sink and Float. “Archie the Goat stopped short at a moat. He measured and mapped. He doodled and drew. He sketched and scribbled and scrawled. ‘Aha. To cross the moat,’ announced the goat, “we build a contraption to float!” When Skinny Hen suggests they could take the drawbridge, Archie says “Bah… This is no time for a drawbridge. This is a time for science!” He proceeds through 3 attempts (“he hammered and nailed, clanged and banged”) till he successfully gets across the moat on a half full barrel of buttermilk.

fraidyzooFraidyzoo by Heder. Little T is feeling afraid of going to the zoo, but she can’t remember which animal she is afraid of. Her family says they won’t go to the zoo till they figure it out. They then spend THE REST of the day going through the alphabet, asking “does it start with an A (miming an alligator) or B (holding a red scarf for a bull) or C (using a blanket and three people to form a two humped camel). It gets more and more complex, as they build animals from bubble wrap, cardboard, oven mitts, mops, umbrellas, empty water bottles and more. By the end of it all, little T is excited to plan a zoo trip for the next day. But then at the zoo, her big sister is frightened away by the ticket sales lady. So, they go home and role play that out too! Nice book about a family playing together, building together and empathizing with each other’s fears. Age 3 – 7. May be a good read for Adaptations week, when we’ll be talking about various animals. Could be fun to try to build some animal costumes from our recycled materials supplies!

Also, check out the books from Robots week, like Awesome Dawson and Clink.

Other Good Stories That Didn’t Quite Make “Highest Recommendation”

Inventor McGregor by Pelley and Chesworth. A story of a man who lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with a cheery wife, five children, and a hen called Hattie.
They call him Mend-It McGregor because he fixes everything that breaks in his village. He also invents new things to fix his neighbor’s challenges. He is a very happy man. But then he’s recruited by the Royal Society of Inventors and taken to work in a lovely, quiet, well-furnished lab. Away from the chaos of his community’s life, he is lonely and sad, and also can’t come up with any ideas for what to invent, and returns to his village. Ages 4 – 8, but too long for circle in a group setting.

Anything Is Possible by Belloni and Trevisan. Age 4 – 6. A sheep watches birds flying. She runs to her friend wolf who is a scientist / inventor and asks him to build a flying machine. After initial reluctance, he gets out his triangle and protractor and they starts to sketch (cool DaVinci style sketches of gears, screws, wheels….) They gather materials and build. They launch and fail, rebuild, launch and fail, rebuild, launch… and fly! It’s a fun read, great illustrations (though I find adults like them better than kids do), and good modelling of trying again. Not much explanation of any science of how the thing is supposed to actually fly…. kids won’t care, but some adults prefer more practical books.

11exp11 Experiments That Failed by Offill and Carpenter. Here is a sample experiment: “Experiments with Perfume. Question: Will seedlings grow if given Eau La La instead of water? Hypothesis: Seedlings will like Eau La La better than water. What you need: pots, dirt, seedlings, water, fancy perfume. What to Do: Place dirt in pots. Plant seedlings in dirt. Water one pot with water. Water other pot with perfume. Watch. What happened: Mom cried. Seedlings died.” This is fun and silly and would be my recommended book to read on a week when you discuss the scientific method. We read it when talking about Chemical Reactions.

Henry’s Amazing Machine by Dodds and Brooker. About a boy who invents from the day he is born till his house is filled beyond overflowing with an “amazing machine” with “dripping things, dropping things, pushing, pulling, stopping things… you sure know ho to build things. But Henry, what does it do?” Henry hasn’t a clue until the local carnival announces it is closing down and he moves his machine there. This is a fun read that kids will engage in. Age 4 – 8. Could read for Contraptions week.

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles by Wasson. A child is full of big ideas and invents crazy stuff. He takes it to show and tell and kids laugh at him. But then his Uncle Roswell has invented the “What If Machine” that can make any idea into reality, but Uncle can’t come up with any big ideas. So Buster shares plenty of his. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 6.

The Dumpster Diver by Wong and Roberts. Tells the story of Steve the Electrician the dumpster diver, and his assistants: Hose Handler, Hose Handler 2 and Fauceteer. After he dives, they help hose him off. Then they build: they first draw, then measure, drill, and saw and build fabulous things. They turn a blender into a lamp, an old lamp into a table and so on. Pros of this book: encourages building and inventiveness, encourages re-use of used materials instead of sending to landfill. Possible concerns for some children / families: When Steve dives in a dumpster, LOTS of beetles, roaches, and spiders splash out. There may be some people who are troubled by this illustration. In the end, Steve gets cut up by broken glass and rusted metal in a dumpster. One Amazon reviewer liked that this was a cautionary tale that told kids that it wasn’t maybe such a good idea to dumpster dive. Another Amazon reviewer said her children found it very frightening. My 5 year old loved it – no worries for him. Would be a good addition to Contraptions week.

Ziggy’s Big Idea by Long and Joni. About a boy on a shtetl who loves to invent things – though they don’t always work, His father sells rolls for the baker, and Ziggy comes up with the idea of putting a hole in the middle of the boiled and baked rolls to help them cook evenly – inventing the bagel. It’s a fine story which highlights Jewish culture.

Marveltown by McCall. I LOVE how this book starts out: “In Marveltown… we were born to brainstorm: in a city created by inventors, we saw man-made wonders wherever we looked… from rocket-jumping by moonlight to fishing from a mile-high tower, Marveltown kids thought fun without a challenge was no fun at all.” Then it tells of the cool things it invents. So far – fabulous… but then it becomes another story about rampaging robots and how the kids defeat them with their inventions. If I read this in class, I might just read the first half, as there’s only so many rampaging robots stories you want to read in a year.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Pett and Rubinstein. This tells of Beatrice Bottomwell who is famed far and wide for never making mistakes. One day she slips and almost makes a mistake, but in the end catches four falling eggs before they hit the ground. She worries all that day about her “Almost Mistake.” She watches friends ice skating but is afraid to join them because she doesn’t want to risk falling. Then at the talent show: “for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, Beatrice made a mistake. And it was a big one!” She ends up laughing about it, then after that starts taking more risks, and trying things like ice skating – where yes, she falls down a lot, but she also has lots of fun. Great read-aloud for age 5 – 8. Good for a day when I discuss Willingness to Fail or the Growth Based Mindset in parent education. (The only reason this one is not in my top category of “highest recommendation” is that it’s not about an inventor / maker.)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Yaccarino. I love this book! The illustrations are fabulous, there are quotes from Cousteau mixed in that capture the magic of his work (“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”), it starts with Jacques as a young boy who likes to tinker and then moves us through the history of all of his inventions and research in a way that engages us in his dreams and his motivation to keep pushing science forward in pursuit of his dreams. Best for age 4 – 7.

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Sweet. A Caldecott Honor winner. Great story that starts with a child who “loved to figure out how to make things move….” As an adult, he becomes a marionette and makes his way to New York City, where he then makes window displays for Macy’s, and eventually invents the giant helium balloons that first appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1928. Engaging story-telling, nice illustrations and graphic design, and a celebration of both imagination and hard work. Plus, some American cultural history. Best for ages 6 – 8.

The Great Idea Series, includes books such as In the Bag!: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up and All Aboard!: Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Kulling. Very nice biographies, that start with the inventor as a child, which helps students to relate to them, focus on one early invention, and then briefly address the inventor’s longer career. They’re pretty wordy. Best for 6 – 8 year olds. With my class of 3 – 7 year olds, I write my own abridged version of the story that’s only about 30 – 40% as long as the original, I print it up, and I tape it to the back of the book so I can hold up the book to show the pictures, but read a much shorter and simpler language story. Bonus: includes female and African-American inventors.

Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Barretta. (And his other books, Neo Leo: the ageless ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison changed our lives.) These books are well written, with nice illustrations and an engaging style. They’re best for ages 6 – 9, and a bit long, so I don’t use them as read-alouds in my class for 3 – 7 year olds.  Now and Ben has a fun approach where the left page in each spread talks about “Now” – something we do or use now, and the right page talks about “Ben” – what Ben had to do with the invention or implementation of that idea.

Great Imagination Books

These are great books! They’re more about imagination than they are about actually building and inventing real physical objects, so they don’t make my cut of books for inventors and makers, but are well worth the read.

Not a Box and Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis. These two books have an unseen adult asking questions like “What are you doing on top of that box?” “Are you still standing around in that box?” “Hey be careful with that stick.” “Look where you’re going with that stick.” And our protagonist (bunny in Box, piglet in Stick) repeatedly responds “It’s not a box / stick.” And we then get to see what they are imagining it is. (A pirate ship, hot air balloon basket, drum major’s baton, caveman’s spear). Very fun books about imagination, and about the idea that a simple toy can inspire all sorts of imaginative play.  If you like these books, read 5 Best Toys of All Time.

Roxaboxen by McLerran and Cooney. A story of a place that to adults might appear to be a rocky hill in the desert with some trash in it. But to the children, it’s a magical village. “A town of Roxaboxen began to grow, traced in lines of stone… the old wooden boxes could be shelves or tables or anything you wanted…. Frances built herself a new house outlined in desert glass… Later on, there was a town hall. Marian was mayor, of course, that was just the way she was. Nobody minded.” A celebration of imagination and children’s creations when left to unsupervised play. Ages 4 – 8.

The Tin Forest by Ward and Anderson. The books on this list tend to be energetic and rollicking adventure stories. The Tin Forest is something very different. It’s a quiet, gentle parable of an isolated man who lives alone by a junkyard who dreams of forests, then builds a forest from junk, then the real animals and plants come to live there. Lovely. Ages 4 – 8. Great read-aloud. Could perhaps read in Plants and Seeds week?

Another classic is Harold and the Purple Crayon (Purple Crayon Books)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors

 

Inventor / Maker Books I’m Not a Fan Of:

    • The Greatest Inventor of All Time: Flint Lockwood is based on The Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie, and just isn’t that great a book.
    • The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty. I want to love this book. But it’s just too metaphorical, and although kids are fine with reading the book, I just don’t think they grasp the meaning it or really engage with the story.
    • Sydney’s Star by Reynolds. Another one I want to love. It starts so delightfully: “Sydney loved to build things. She made brilliant birdhouses, charming cheesecakes, and all sorts of wonderful inventions. Sydney was inspired by the world around her.” Sydney invents a great mechanical star that floats and blinks and spins. She takes it to the science fair. Great book up to here. But then somehow, the star hears a distress call out at sea, flies out, communicates with the captain using Morse code and leads him safely to shore. There’s absolutely no reason for us to think the star she invented could do any of these things, so the lack of logic means the book doesn’t work for me.
    • What You Do With An Idea. Some people love it. It feels to me like a book that’s trying to inspire discouraged youth / adults to follow their dreams, not something that resonates with small kids.

Note: I’ve included Amazon Affiliate links for all the books I recommend, so you can learn more about them, and either purchase them (I get a small referral fee) or check them out from your local library.