Toys that purport to teach STEM skills are all the rage, but plopping a box in front of a kid is just as likely to teach them how to lose a bunch of toy pieces as it is to get them building anything. If you really want to encourage a builder’s mindset, start with books, where you control the message. It may not guarantee that they get straight As in physics or finally design hoverboards, but it will ensure that when the subject arises they can say, “I read a book (or 9) about that once.”
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
This moving, cinematic story of a thieving orphan who tends the clocks in a Paris train station and unlocks the mystery his deceased father leaves behind won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, but it sounds familiar to you because it inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2011 film, Hugo. So you can introduce your kid to engineering and prestige filmmaking in one shot, without forcing them to sit through 3-plus hours of Jack Nicholson attempting a Boston accent.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
The Godmother of maker women was World War 2’s Rosie “We Can Do It!” The Riveter, whom the title character of this book is lucky enough to have as a great-great aunt. Rosie (the younger) is too shy to talk about her passion for inventing, but is motivated by a timely visit from Rosie (the elder) to pursue her dreams, attempt to build a flying machine, and start wearing a polka-dotted scarf around her head.
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully
Check that — Rosie has some company in the lesser known Knight, aka “The Lady Edison,” whose story reads like a real-life Rosie Revere. As a child she built her mother a foot warmer. At 12 she designed safer looms that saved textile workers’ lives. After that went uncredited, she continued inventing as an adult and fought to become the first woman ever granted a U.S. patent. The only thing she didn’t do was get herself on an iconic World War 2 marketing campaign.
Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming and Boris Kulikov
No discussion of little-known, hard-to-believe-they’re-real 19th-century inventors is complete without mentioning Lodner Phillips, whose eccentric life inspired this tale of a bumbling inventor who builds his greatest creation thanks to his inquisitive daughter. The real Philips designed early submarines and tested them by taking his family picnicking under Lake Michigan. Most of his inventions were never produced, nor was a Disney movie about his life; only one of those things seems reasonable.
What Do You Do With An Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom
A small child nurtures an egg-shaped idea that, over the course of the story, grows, starts to show small cracks until … yeah, might have a clue where this one’s going. Read this to your kid to remind them that you never know what an idea can grow into unless you pursue it, or keep a copy for yourself to remind you it’s never too late to finish whatever it was you were doing before you had kids.
Hello Ruby: Adventures In Coding by Linda Liukas
Hello Ruby blew past its $10,000 funding goal in 3.5 hours and became the most funded children’s book ever on Kickstarter because you want your kids to speak code the same way your parents wanted you to speak Spanish. The story sees Ruby befriending anthropomorphized programming languages in her quest to find 5 hidden gems and introduces coding basics through storytelling and activities.
If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen
A young boy named Jack details all the fantastical elements of his dream car, and really should be getting a job offer from Google pretty soon because his design blows way past driverless. The writing and illustration is Dr. Seuss-meets-Popular Mechanics-meets The Jetsons, so you’ll either lap up the nostalgia or get really annoyed that we still don’t have flying cars.
Coppernickel, The Invention by Wouter van Reek
This book explores many ideas at once — invention, adventure, art — much like the overactive imagination of the titular protagonist, a bird named Coppernickel. Luckily, his trusty best friend, Tungsten the dog, is there to keep him grounded after a blank page at the end of a book of inventions inspires him to build an overly complex elderberry-picking machine. So in addition to an inventive spirit, your kid will get a head-start on their Monty Python knowledge after they ask you what an elderberry is.
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
A little girl is determined to “make the most magnificent thing,” until she repeatedly tries, fails, and quits. Only after her dog encourages her to take a walk is she able to clear her head, rethink the problem, and succeed. Teaches kids the valuable lessons of perseverance, ingenuity, and walking the dog.