April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Inventions: What’s the Big Idea? | Focus On

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

What does it do? That’s usually the first question we ask about an invention. But that’s just a beginning. Additionally, we want to know who made it. Featured inventors in the books below range from an innovative Silicon Valley pioneer to the mischievous son of a comic-book superhero. Where the idea originated also spurs our curiosity. The answer could range from a field of prickly cockleburs to a YMCA gym class. And once concocted, what difference did this discovery make in the world? Did it lead to greater independence for women? Or make gold miners less smelly? Even imaginary devices can lead to logical questions: for example, if mice could use computers, what would they do with them? And if you could create a robot with a cat food brain, does that mean you should?

The titles included here address questions about inventions in a variety of entertaining and informative ways. Many are also excellent choices for Common Core concepts. Stronger Than Steel and Gadgets and Inventions, for example, invite critical thinking and analysis from readers. Weird and Wacky Inventions and Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon are among several works that use visual content to expand concepts in creative ways. And innovative stylistic approaches to informational texts are apparent in Technology: A Byte-Size World! and From the Gold Mountain. Though some of the gadgets in these pages turn out to be disastrous (like a fictional cardboard creature factory and a real, but perilous hat-parachute), each of the books succeeds at what’s most important: engaging and informing young readers.

Artificial Intelligence and Alarm Clock Corks

Inventions Throughout History

ABDUL-JABBAR, Kareem & Raymond Obstfeld. What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors. illus. by Ben Boos & A.G. Ford. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4564-9.

Gr 3-5 –A handyman teaches two kids how unheralded African American inventors played roles in the development of everything from lightbulbs to potato chips. The text shifts smoothly between conversational narrative, fast facts, and biography, while strong page layouts support varied illustration approaches, including portraits and line drawings within paneled borders.

CHALINE , Eric . Fifty Machines That Changed the Course of History. Firefly. 2012. RTE $29.95. ISBN 978-1-77085-090-3.

Gr 6 Up –Starting with the Jacquard Loom in 1801, this engaging title examines notable creations with solid scientific background and interesting biographical data. Choosing specific machines, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera rather than cameras in general, provides unique perspectives and memorable details. Historical photos and clear diagrams enhance the learning potential.

GREEN , Dan . Technology: A Byte-Size World! illus. by Simon Basher. (Basher Science Series). Kingfisher. 2012. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-7534-6819-7; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-7534-6820-3.

Gr 4-8 –Over 50 personified examples of technology introduce themselves in amusing, fact-filled, one-page soliloquies, from the Wheel to Nuclear Power. Numerous puns (“I’m flushed with pride!” says Toilet) and cartoon portraits of each item establish a lighthearted tone, all firmly grounded in solid scientific principles that will stick with young learners.

Ideas That Changed the World. DK. 2010. Tr $24.99. ISBN ISBN 978-0-7566-6531-9; pap. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4654-1423-6; ebk. $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7566-7264-5.

Gr 6 Up –In more than 100 photo-filled spreads, this overview traces the historical development of key inventions, including snippets of biography, cultural impacts, and often striking visuals. Coverage ranges from world-changing breakthroughs to everyday objects, with updates into the 21st century. Insets throughout highlight lesser-known inventors, basic science concepts, and possible future developments.

MACY , Sue . Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). National Geographic. 2011. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-4263-0761-4; lib. ed. $27.90. ISBN 978-1-4263-0762-1.

Gr 5-8 –The bicycle’s soaring popularity in the late 1800s played a surprising role in the women’s rights movement. It also influenced fashion, health, and even notions of morality. Period photos and illustrations paired with lively, informative writing offer an insightful look at how an invention can impact society in unexpected ways. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

MURPHY , Jim . Weird & Wacky Inventions. Sky Pony. 2011. Tr $12.95. ISBN 978-1-61608-475-2.

Gr 4-8 –A portable bathtub, a 60-cork alarm clock, and a hat-parachute for escaping fires are among the creative, but not always successful inventions chronicled in this colorized reissue of Murphy’s 1978 title. The guessing-game format makes a strong hook as readers try to predict the true purpose of each creation from one illustration.

SHEINKIN , Steve . Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Roaring Brook/Flash Point. 2012. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-487-5; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-861-3.

Gr 5 Up –The creation of the first atomic bomb wasn’t limited to the work of scientists; savvy politicians, Norwegian commandos, and Soviet spies all played surprising parts. Riveting nonfiction storytelling and meticulous research, supported by period photographs, reveal just how exciting history and science can be. Audio version available from Listening Library.

Baseball Mud and Mechanical Fish

Inventor Biographies

BARRETTA , Gene . Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives. illus. by author. Holt/Christy Ottaviano. 2012. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-805-09108-3.

Gr 3-5 –This cleverly designed informational picture book introduces 13 discoveries from Edison’s “Invention Factory”; a turn of the page reveals the impact of each innovation on today’s world. Cartoonish watercolors create a playful tone while clearly delineating the key components of each new discovery. An excellent introduction to Edison that also illuminates how technology evolves over time. DVD and audio versions available from Spoken Arts Media.

BLUMENTHAL , Karen . Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different. Feiwel & Friends. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-250-01557-0; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-250-01445-0.

Gr 7 Up –As cofounder of Apple and the driving force behind several game-changing technological advances, Jobs is a high-interest choice for biography assignments. Engaging, accessible prose and strong use of firsthand accounts provide insights into Jobs’s complex personality along with fascinating details about his numerous ideas and innovations.

COY , John . Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball. illus. by Joe Morse. Carolrhoda. 2013. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-6617-1; ebk. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-8723-7.

K-Gr 3 –Realizing his energetic students “needed a totally new game,” James Naismith found the solution with a soccer ball, two peach baskets, and a sport he called “basketball.” Concise text and engaging illustrations evoke the historical period and capture the action of the sport.

FLEMING , Candace . Papa’s Mechanical Fish. illus. by Boris Kulikov. Farrar/Margaret Ferguson. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-39908-5.

K-Gr 3 –A girl describes her father’s attempt to build a working submarine in this picture book based on true events. Papa’s failures are more humorous than amazing, but he eventually succeeds with help from his patient family. Expressive, humorous drawings include broad characterizations, impressive lake creatures, and a skeptical dog.

JOHNSTON , Tony . Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants. illus. by Stacy Innerst. Houghton Harcourt. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-15-206145-6.

K-Gr 3 –The invention of blue jeans gets a rollicking tall-tale treatment as Strauss slices up his tent to save the day for gold miners dressed only in wooden barrels. Acrylic paintings (done on blue denim) make it clear that it’s all in fun, while an author’s note provides historical context.

KELLY , David A. Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball. illus. by Oliver Dominguez. Millbrook. 2013. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-8092-4; ebk. $12.95. ISBN 978-1-4677-1052-7.

K-Gr 3 –Neither Blackburne nor his invention is well known, but the background story is fascinating. The journeyman baseball player eventually perfected the “baseball mud” that has been used in every major league game for three quarters of a century. This picture-book sports biography is an appealing tribute to ingenuity and persistence.

KULLING , Monica . Going Up!: Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top. illus. by David Parkins. (Great Ideas Series). Tundra. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-77049-240-0.

K-Gr 3 –Otis’s fascination with machines started with a faulty hay hoist and culminated in the invention of the passenger elevator. Lively storytelling, including imagined dialogue, reveals how the man’s energy and showmanship led to his 1854 World’s Fair triumph, while lively line drawings effectively depict the time and characters.

RUMFORD , James . From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World. illus. by author. Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Neal Porter. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-542-1.

Gr 2-5 –This creative picture book starts with a riddle then reveals how “rags and bones, soot and seeds” came together with Gutenberg’s printing press to make “a printed book…” that “would change the world forever.” Insightful, poetic text is supported by elegant artwork inspired by illuminated texts of the inventor’s era.

RUSCH , Elizabeth . Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. illus. by Oliver Dominguez. Candlewick. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5855-7.

Gr 3-5 –Tesla’s quest to “harness the power of alternating current,” along with the challenges he faced from rival Thomas Edison, come to life in this picture-book biography. Full-page illustrations accentuate key scenes of drama, while back matter provides more details about science, the Edison rivalry, and Tesla’s other inventions.

Sharkskin Swimsuits and Spider-web Sutures

Where Inventions Come From and How They’re Used

CECERI , Kathy . Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects. illus. by Sam Carbaugh. (Build It Yourself Series). Nomad. 2012. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-1-936749-76-8; pap. $15.95. ISBN 978-1-936749-75-1.

Gr 4-7 –Supported by cartoon illustrations and clear descriptions, this overview of robotics covers history, current developments, and future possibilities. It also includes instructions for 20 robo-related activities, such as a simplified version of a “robotic gripper” and a “vibrobot,” which uses a motor mounted on markers to create random art designs.

ENZ , Tammy . Build It: Invent New Structures and Contraptions. Capstone. 2012. lib. ed. $25.99. ISBN 978-1-4296-7635-9; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-4296-7981-7.

Gr 4-6 –This how-to title features eight household contraptions, including door pulleys, trash grabbers, and pet waterers. Color photos show each step clearly, with troubleshooting tips and ideas for further exploration. The use of common household supplies and clear objectives for each creation make this an especially accessible project book.

HEOS , Bridget . Stronger Than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures, and Parachute Rope. photos by Andy Comins. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Harcourt. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-0-547-68126-9.

Gr 5 Up –Using goats, alfalfa, and silkworms, transgenic researchers explore possible ways to harness the amazing powers of spider silk to improve parachutes, surgery, and other human creations. Lucid writing and well-chosen photographs provide a firsthand, up-to-the-minute look at how research, testing, and ethics play critical roles in modern technological advances.

LEE , Dora . Biomimicry: Inventions Inspired by Nature. illus. by Margot Thompson. Kids Can. 2011. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-55453-467-8.

Gr 4-8 –From Velcro prompted by cockleburs to “sharkskin-inspired swimsuits,” human inventions have been influenced by the natural world in surprising ways. Along with historical examples, new possibilities for nature-technology links are introduced; for example, can scientists replicate the superstrength of an abalone shell? Large illustrations and useful insets support this intriguing perspective on scientific progress.

MITCHELL , Susan K. Spy Gizmos and Gadgets. (The Secret World of Spies Series). Enslow. 2011. lib. ed. $23.93. ISBN 978-0-7660-3710-6; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-59845-354-6.

Gr 4-6 –Invisible ink, eavesdropping bugs, and other tricky gadgets have helped spies do their jobs throughout history. Descriptions of several devices, including a lethal umbrella and a coat-button camera, along with true tales of how they were used, make this an engaging entry into the clandestine world, supported by photos and an appealingly light narrative style.

MORRIS , Neil . Gadgets and Inventions. (From Fail to Win! Learning from Bad Ideas Series). Raintree. 2011. lib. ed. $33.99. ISBN 978-1-4109-3909-8.

Gr 4-8 –Concrete furniture and paper clothes are among the unsuccessful inventions described in words and in pictures. But failures often led to future triumphs; videodiscs, for example, were succeeded by DVD’s. The examination of what was learned from each misstep provides intriguing insight into the importance of timing, technology, and trial and error.

“Thumbtop” Computers and Cuckoo-Clock CoffeeMakers

Imaginary Inventions

BARNETT , Mac . Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). illus. by Dan Santat. Hyperion/Disney. 2010. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-2312-5.

PreS-Gr 3 –When a girl’s science fair robot begins tearing the city apart, she tries to stop the rampage by creating an equally powerful giant toad, who defeats the robot but then causes a different kind of trouble. Large, action-packed spreads and comic panels capture the chaotic humor of inventions gone wrong.

BEATY , Andrea . Rosie Revere, Engineer. illus. by David Roberts. Abrams. 2013. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-1-4197-0845-9.

K-Gr 3 –Lively rhyming text introduces a young engineer who is too shy to reveal the “gadgets and gizmos” she constructs, until she learns that “the only true failure can come when you quit.” Deftly rendered watercolors and a nod to Rosie the Riveter add to this clever celebration of ingenuity.

BREITROSE , Prudence . Mousenet. illus. by Stephanie Yue. Hyperion/Disney. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-2489-4; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-2761-1.

Gr 3-5 –When Megan’s uncle invents the world’s smallest computer, the “thumbtop” catches on with tech-savvy mice who need to improve their already impressive (but secret) networks. The well-developed mouse-human friendship, pleasant illustrations, and richly imagined world of wired mice make this an appealing and original chapter-book choice.

ELIOPOULIS , Chris & Marc Sumerak. Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius Ultimate Collection. Bk 1. illus. by Chris Eliopoulis. Marvel. 2010. pap. $19.99. ISBN 978-0-7851-4924-8.

Gr 2-6 –This collection features the son of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Young Franklin’s curiosity, cleverness, and bad judgment lead him into funny high-tech predicaments with narrow escapes. Each mini-adventure features clever jokes, expressive cartoons, and action-filled plots just right for fans of comics and humor.

GALL , Chris . Awesome Dawson. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-21330-1.

K-Gr 2 –Dawson believes that “EVERYTHING can be used again,” and proves it by creating cool toys out of trash. When he constructs a robot with a cat food brain, however, the “vacu-maniac” gets out of control. Ink on clay engravings combine with comic panels to create a grandly imaginative visual setting.

KRAUSE , J. R. & Maria Chua. Poco Loco. illus. by authors. Amazon. 2013. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-1-4778-1649-3; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4778-6649-8.

PreS-Gr 1 –Poco Loco is an unusual mouse who “invents wacky things,” from a “Shower-Bed” to a “Cuckoo-Clock-Coffeemaker.” When bad weather endangers his friends, Poco cleverly creates a helicopter-umbrella (helicoptero-paraguas) to save the day. Spanish words are made clear in context and are supported by the appropriately manic digital illustrations.

MORRIS , Chad . The Inventor’s Secret. Bk. 1. illus. by Brandon Dorman. (Cragbridge Hall Series). Shadow Mountain. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-60907-326-8.

Gr 4-6 –At their new school, where their grandfather’s brilliant creations are learning tools, twins Abby and Derick study history firsthand and learn biology by inhabiting a monkey avatar. When the inventor is kidnapped, however, the kids must use teamwork and cleverness, along with technology, to try to save him.

TENNAPEL , Doug . Cardboard. illus. by author. Graphix/Scholastic. 2012. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-545-41872-0; pap. $12.99. ISBN 978-0-545-41873-7.

Gr 4-8 –Cam uses his magical cardboard box as a “maker,” creating an unlimited number of cardboard beings. When a jealous neighbor kid steals the cardboard to use as a “creature factory,” things get way out of hand. Dramatic cartoon panels capture the rising drama and chaos of creations gone wild.

Steven Engelfried is the Youth Services Librarian at Wilsonville Public Library (OR).

Digital picks


Algodoo. www.algodoo.com. Algoryx. (Accessed 10/20/13)
Gr 5 Up –Download the virtual physics lab for Windows or Mac for free. See description of Algodoo in apps below.

Engineer Girl. engineergirl.org. National Academy of Engineering. (Accessed 10/20/13).
Gr 3-8
–Created to inspire and inform girls about the world of engineering, this site features interviews with engineers, biographies of pioneering females, and recent developments in the field. Links to scholarships, career paths, and an “Ask an Engineer” page provide opportunities for girls to explore the field.

HowStuffWorks: Innovation. science.howstuffworks.com/innovation. HowStuffWorks/Discovery Communications. (Accessed 10/20/13)
Gr 5 Up
–With accessible text, links to source material, and a countdown list format, this site has strong appeal for browsers intrigued by “10 Weird Inventions That Made Millions” or “10 Inventions That Changed the World.”


Algodoo. Algoryx Simulation AB. 2013. Version 2.1.1. iOS, requires 5.0 or later. $4.99
Gr 5 Up
–This virtual physics lab lets users create objects and see how they interact. Choose properties, such as materials and speed. Add springs, thrusters, and other forces. A simulation reveals the results. Countless variations provide rich opportunities for creativity and learning.

Pettson’s Inventions Deluxe. Filmundus AB. 2013. Version 1.1.1. iOS, requires 4.3 or later. $3.99 Android, requires 2.3 and up. Version 2.04. $3.36
K-Gr 5
–A mouse, two cogs, a rubber band, and a hooked rope work together to rock granny’s chair in one of over 60 Goldberg-type inventions. Users must place objects in the right spots to successfully complete each sequence, resulting in a fun variety of logistic challenges.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Great list! You might also want to consider my own What’s The Big Idea? Inventions that Changed Life on Earth Forever from Owlkids. http://www.helainebecker.com/aboutWhatstheBigIdea.html Since you titled the article after it ;)

  2. Yes, a great list. And a great topic for young learners. Kids embrace invention with enthusiasm and excitement. That’s what inspired me to also write books on invention. You might want to consider
    Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors (Jossey-Bass/Wiley) and Women Invent: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World (Chicago Review Press). Both books are friendly, inspirational and full of information.