Top Ten Books to Inspire Inventors, Engineers, Tinkerers, and Those of Us Who Wish We Were! by Kristin Schweitzer

You know that kid, the one who doesn’t understand why he can’t record Lego instructions on his reading log?  Or the one who disassembles her mechanical pencils, just to see how they work?  As a teacher, I have not always recognized this child.  You see, my teaching life was shaped by my reading life.  As a child, I lost myself in the Big Woods, Terabithia, and Narnia. As a teacher, I loved to share these classics, and all of my latest reads with my students (Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Ramie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, Land of the Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly—to name a few). However, I have always been puzzled by this child, the one who would rather make paper airplanes, than read a story about them!

Everything changed when my son was born.  It wasn’t until I became the mother of this child that I realized how differently tinkerers see the world.  His imagination was not any less developed than other children’s, but instead of devouring Dr. Seuss, he spent hours poring over Ranger Rick and National Geographic Kids magazines.  He wanted to learn everything he could about the world and how it worked. Then he would experiment to see if he could bring his ideas to life.  He could do more with Legos at age four than my husband and I combined.  We think in words; he thinks in pictures.  We will never have to build another piece of Ikea furniture—at age 8, those wordless instructions make perfect sense to him!

Now that I know this child, the tinkerer, so well, I recognize him in my students.  Anna admits to hating books, but will spend hours reading how to construct a new Minecraft building.  This reading experience may not look the same as the “quiet, in my spot” reading atmosphere that I have worked so hard to build in my Reader’s Workshop classroom.  Instead, it invites collaboration, movement, experimentation… tinkering. My challenge, as a teacher and a mother, is to engage children like my son in diverse reading experiences. I want to help him connect his extraordinary imagination, which he uses to build machines that actually work, with the world of stories.  I also want to help my narrative story-loving students invent, tinker, and envision new possibilities for their worlds as well.

The following Top 10 List pairs imaginative stories with nonfiction titles sure to get your tinkerers reading… and your readers tinkering!


The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick tells the story of Hugo, a young orphan who lives in a train station in Paris. Hugo must wind the station’s clocks each day in order to keep his hiding place from being discovered. Hugo has another mission, to discover the secret behind a book of sketches left to him by his father. The lifelike drawings will captivate young inventors, who will want to know more about clockworks, automatons, and the mechanics of early film projection.


The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay will provide answers to all of the questions generated by Hugo Cabret.  Through detailed illustrations and clear prose, young inventors can learn how pendulums and gears kept Hugo’s clocks ticking and about the principles of electricity and automation that brought Georges Melies’ films to life.


My young engineer recently told me that he is too big for stories about mice—after all, talking mice aren’t real.  Then, attracted by the stunning illustrations, he fell in love with Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon by Torben Kuhlmann.  This beautifully illustrated chapter book chronicles the adventure of a mouse who dreams of proving the moon is made of rock, rather than cheese. The reader accompanies Armstrong as he tries to win the support of his fellow mice and witnesses Armstrong’s trials, errors, and victories as he attempts to design a rocket capable of space flight.


Moonshot by Brian Floca is a perfect companion to Armstrong, especially as the reader will be sure to notice the similarities between the mouse’s rocket and that used by NASA for the Apollo missions.  Floca’s attention to detail—in both his words and pictures—will make the reader feel the anticipation and wonder experienced by the astronauts as their helmets click shut, the countdown begins, and they embark on a journey that will yield their first glimpse looking down on Earth.  Floca will also answer young explorers’ most pressing technical questions—like how astronauts use the bathroom.  There are numerous, nonfiction books about spaceflight for young readers, but none captures the awe of this achievement in the same way as Moonshot.


The Wild Robot by Peter Brown is not just a story about a robot.  It is a survival tale, a story of relationships and family, and a science fiction look at the impact of humans and technology on our world.  Roz, the robotic, main character and her animal acquaintances will make young tinkerers think about scientific discovery and technological advances in new ways.


After meeting Roz, kids will want to consult National Geographic Kids Everything Robotics by Jennifer Swanson and Shah Selbe to learn more about what is possible in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence and to find out how new technologies might help robots evolve in the future.


The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires celebrates design thinking and creativity.  A young inventor, with the support of her canine assistant, strives to bring her magnificent idea to life.  She plans, sketches, and builds, but she experiences failure again and again.  This book takes an important look at the failure, frustration, and perseverance that go hand in hand with scientific invention and discovery.


WHOOSH! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream Of Inventions written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate tells the true story of Lonnie Johnson, an inventor determined to bring his magnificent idea, the super-soaker water gun, to life.  As a child, Johnson was told that he would not make a good engineer and grappled with failure when he could not make his robot work.  As an adult, his inventions were rejected time and time again.  But, like the little girl in The Most Magnificent Thing, Johnson’s perseverance made all of the difference.


Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, a nonfiction picture book, by Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick connects art, science, and design as it tells the story of Waterhouse Hawkins, a 19th century artist who first brought the world’s dinosaurs to life.  This book will help young scientists imagine the world before dinosaurs were discovered and will help them dream about what is still unknown.


Bones by Steve Jenkins explores how bones fit together, almost like Legos, to support animals and allow them to move.  This book will help readers to imagine how Waterhouse Hawkins used bone fragments to envision how the entire dinosaur might have appeared and will inspire young paleontologists and orthopedists to take a closer look at skeletons and bones.

Bonus: This list would not be complete without a book of instructions to keep your tinkerers inventing, making, and bringing their imaginations to life. Make: Easy 1+2+3 Projects by the editors of Make will do just that. In 3 steps, using materials found around the house, kids will learn to create everything from vibrating robots and paper cup speakers to electric circuits made from conductive playdough. The instructions are clear, well-written, and easy-to-follow.


Kristin Schweitzer is middle school Reading Specialist who is learning to build, tinker, program, and engineer alongside her children and students.  She lives in Williamsburg, VA with her husband, daughter, son, and an assortment of robots and paper airplanes. She can be found on Twitter at @KristinSchweitz.