March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Humans, Machines, and In-betweens | Focus On

SLJ1504-FO_Robot_openerIf you grew up watching The Jetsons on Saturday mornings, you may have assumed that by the time we reached the early 21st century, we would all have housekeepers like Rosie the Robot. We’re not there yet, but robots have come a long way, and this technology is reflected in recent children’s books. Current nonfiction titles reveal the many roles robots play in today’s society and provide insights into how and why they were developed, from troubleshooting the Mars rovers to the ways bat wings and gecko toes impact current research. And while scientists and engineers pursue the cutting edge, kids who love making stuff can create their own robots of varying complexity—younger kids can invent imaginary but logically constructed robots made of cardboard, while older readers can set their sights on motorized machines or formal robotics competitions. In the world of fiction, the possibilities are nearly limitless and often highly amusing; robots do everything from tackling mad scientists and messy rooms to identifying foul odors or wearing goofy pj’s. There’s another side to robot fiction as well, as authors explore the concept of almost-human robots in ways that raise thought-provoking questions about technology, ethics, and humanity. Can destructive machines be converted to peaceful purposes? Could a mechanical bird, if pretty enough, be preferable to the real thing? What are the qualities that separate humans from lifelike mechanical creations? The titles below represent just some of the excellent robot literature from the last few years.


BECKER, Helaine. Zoobots: Wild Robots Inspired by Real Animals. illus. by Alex Ries. Kids Can. 2014. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781554539710.
Gr 4-7 –From an “octobot” with tentacled cables to a batlike surveillance vehicle, 12 cool robots demonstrate how the natural world inspires current and future technology. Eye-catching illustrations set against a black background depict the machines and their animal counterparts, supported by key facts and specifications for each fascinating contraption.

RUSCH, Elizabeth. The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity. (Scientists in the Field series). Houghton Harcourt. 2012. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547478814.
Gr 5-8 –An up-close look at the planning, construction, and performance of the Mars rovers, from the viewpoints of the scientists who created them. Along with fascinating details about how the team developed the machines, readers learn how persistence, creative problem-solving, and plain good luck were crucial to the mission’s success.

SHULMAN, Mark & James Buckley Jr. Robots. (Time for Kids Explorers). Time for Kids. 2014. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781618933737.
Gr 4-7 –This introduction to modern robotics features dozens of examples of how the machines are shaping today’s world. Dynamic layouts and excellent photographs provide strong appeal for browsers, while topically organized chapters feature captions and text boxes with just enough information to fascinate readers without overwhelming them.

STEWART, Melissa. Robots. (National Geographic Readers). National Geographic Kids. 2014. lib. ed. $13.90. ISBN 9781426313455; pap. $3.99. ISBN 978 1426313448; ebk. $5.99. ISBN 978 1426313950.
Gr 2-4 –Engaging text, effective visuals, and well-chosen examples that capture the sheer coolness of robots make this a strong introduction for young readers. Conversational writing covers key concepts lucidly, ably supported by a rich variety of photographs, “weird but true” facts, clear definitions, and even robot jokes.

Making Bots

CECERI, Kathy. Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects. illus. by Sam Carbaugh. (Build It Yourself). Nomad. 2012. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781936749768; pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781936749751; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781936749799.
Gr 4-7 –Robot types and features from the past, present, and near future are introduced in this wide-ranging overview. Twenty hands-on activities relate directly to the concepts introduced in the narrative. A “WobbleBot” project, for example, demonstrates robot movements in a simple, doable form. Cartoon illustrations support the narrative and the clear instructions.

FOREST, Christopher. Robot Competitions. (Edge Books: Robot). Capstone. 2013. Tr $27.32. ISBN 9781429699204; pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781620657829.
Gr 3-5 –This overview of competitive robotics highlights competitions from BattleBots to the RoboCup soccer tournament. Color photos depict the machines in action, while the text provides general details of the rules each team must follow and outlines the qualities of the most successful robot competitors.

MERCER, Bobby. The Robot Book: Build and Control 20 Electric Gizmos, Moving Machines, and Hacked Toys. (Science in Motion). Chicago Review Press. 2014. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781556524073; ebk. $11.99. ISBN 9781556524370.
Gr 4 Up –Using electric toothbrushes, repurposed computer fans, and other attainable items, this creative title provides step-by-step instructions for constructing simple robots without kits, supported by black-and-white photos and solid scientific background. The projects actually “move, shake, and walk,” and serve as excellent entry points into real hands-on robotics.

SCHWARZ, Viviane. Welcome to Your Awesome Robot. illus. by author. Flying Eye. 2013. pap. $13.95. ISBN 9781909263000.
K-Gr 3 –Cartoon panels and funny dialogue tell a story about a mother and daughter making a cardboard robot, while accompanying blueprint-like sheets help readers assemble one of their own using easy-to-find supplies to create attachments, labels, and other cool robotic stuff. A clever combination of comic storytelling and how-to instruction.

SLJ1504-FO_Robot_Strip2IMAGINARY BOTS The Light Side

ARNOLD, Tedd. Fix This Mess. illus. by author. (I Like to Read). Holiday House. 2014. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9780823429424; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780823433018.
PreS-Gr 2 –Jake orders his beetlelike robot to clean up his home. “Robug” complies but gets more irritated at each new chore until the mechanical servant turns the tables with a clever twist. Comical illustrations feature expressive characterizations and funny details, while the repetitive text is perfect for new readers.

BELL, Cece. Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2012. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780763654757; pap. $3.99. ISBN 9780763668754.
K-Gr 2 –Rabbit’s activity list for his sleepover with Robot goes off track with amusing results, thanks to a nuts-and-bolts pizza, a dead battery, and some silly pajamas. Themes of friendship and fun emerge strongly through the easy-to-read narrative, solid plotlines, clever wordplay, and comical digital illustrations.

OLANDER, Johan. My Robots: The Robotic Genius of Lady Regina Bonquers III. Amazon. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780761461739.
Gr 3-6 –The long-lost notes of a fictional robotics mastermind reveal her fabulous but flawed creations, from a stink-detector (Odoro-1) to music-playing battle-bots. The many imperfections of the imaginative machines add to the wry humor, while detailed sketches, funny notes, and promotional advertisements provide further amusement.

PILKEY, Dav. Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot. rev. ed. illus. by Dan Santat. Scholastic. 2014. lib. ed. $16. ISBN 9780606357999; pap. $5.99. ISBN 9780545630092; ebk. $5.99. ISBN 9780545631075.
Gr 1-4 –Action-packed, full-color illustrations add new life to the first adventure of the little mouse from Squeakyville and his giant mechanized friend. Mighty Robot helps with housework and scares bullies, but the real fun starts when he battles a giant lizard controlled by the comically evil Dr. Stinky.

SCIESZKA, Jon. Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor. illus. by Brian Biggs. (Frank Einstein). Abrams/Amulet. 2014. Tr $13.95. ISBN 9781419712180; ebk. $13.95. ISBN 9781613126950.
Gr 3-6 –Frank and Watson have the best science fair entries ever: two self-assembled intelligent robots. One even cracks jokes and craves junk food. But a rival kid with a “dronebug” spy hopes to steal their glory. Goofy fun is laced with intriguing science facts, supported by cartoon drawings and accurate diagrams. Audio version available from Listening Library.

WATKINS, Adam. R Is for Robot: A Noisy Alphabet. illus. by author. Penguin/Price Stern Sloan. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780843172379; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698169791.
PreS-Gr 2 –An energetic crew of robots assembles letters from A to Z, accompanied by letter-specific sounds, from a karate robot’s “Kapow” to the “Tick-Tock” of a robo-clock. Expressive illustrations convey individual personalities whose amusing body parts include a water tank torso, a helicopter head piece, and other cool mechanical details.

SLJ1504-FO_Robot_Strip3Imaginary Bots The Dark Side

DAHLQUIST, Gordon. The Different Girl. Dutton. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780525425977; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780142423653; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781101592540.
Gr 6-9 –Four girls, identical in almost every way, find their orderly lives disrupted when a stranger appears on their island. The new girl’s differentness inspires one of the quartet to question her own nature: is she herself human…or something else? Suspenseful, thought-provoking fiction told with a distinct and compelling first-person narration.

DRIZA, Debra. Mila 2.0. (Mila 2.0). HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062090362; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062090379; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062090386.
Gr 7 Up –Mila thinks that she’s a 15-year-old girl with memory loss; she’s actually a sophisticated android imbued with simulated emotions and formidable physical attributes. Her discovery of the truth triggers a gripping mystery involving covert military agents and high-tech criminals, along with absorbing questions about the differences between machines and humans.

LEPP, Royden. Rust: Visitor in the Field. illus. by author. (Rust). Archaia. 2011. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781936393275.
Gr 6 Up –In this alternate-history graphic novel in which humanoid war machines are converted to farm equipment, a boy with a jetpack and a military robot mysteriously appear on a Depression-era farm. Atmospheric sepia-toned illustrations and subtly paced visual storytelling make this a strong introduction to a highly original series.

MEYER, Marissa . Cinder. (The Lunar Chronicles). Feiwel & Friends. 2012. lib. ed. $20.85. ISBN 9780606286336; Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780312641894; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781250007209; ebk. $2.99. ISBN 9781466800113.
Gr 7-10 –Cinder, a cyborg mechanic, loses her prosthetic leg instead of a slipper on the night she dances with the prince in this inventive mixture of traditional lore, science fiction, and romance. There’s light humor in the fairy-tale elements but also a multilayered, character-driven plot set within an intriguing futuristic society. Audio version available from Macmillan Audio.

SAMWORTH, Kate. Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual: Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031. illus. by author. Clarion. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547978994; ebk. $17.99. ISBN 9780547979137.
Gr 4 Up –A uniquely conceived and darkly ironic catalog from the future invites customers to order man-made robotic birds, since the real kind are now extinct. Mix-and-match options, assembly instructions, and troubleshooting guides feature colorful illustrations with high visual appeal and tongue-in-cheek descriptions that present a grim vision of a birdless future.

SCALETTA, Kurtis. Winter of the Robots. Knopf. 2013. lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780375971105; Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780307931863; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780307975621.
Gr 6-9 –When four friends discover that a group of rogue dino-bots are secretly vandalizing the neighborhood, adults dismiss the threat as childish fantasy. So the kids take matters into their own hands, building a giant battle-bot to face the enemy in this deft mixture of suspense, science, and strong characterizations.

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

Digital Picks


Kids Ahead: Robotics.  Kids Ahead. (Accessed 2/21/15).
Gr 4-8 –Sponsored by the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education at the Southern Methodist University, this overview of robots for kids includes current articles on new developments in the field, from a “cheetah robot” to bionic arms. The site also features links to child-level robot activities at home and video interviews with current robot scientists.

The Robotics Alliance Project. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (Accessed 2/21/15).
Gr 6 Up –NASA’s robotics site features current news and developments related to the organization’s projects, along with links to robotics competitions and archived webcasts of tournaments. Teacher resources include lesson plans by grade with links to national standards.


My Robot Friend. LeapFrog Enterprises. 2013. Version 1.0.0. iOS, requires 4.3 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPad touch. $3.99. (Accessed 2/21/15).
K-Gr 3 –Kids guide a robot through an increasingly difficult maze, using command cards that implement math skills, logic, and sequencing in a simple programming environment. Rewards for successful progress include coins, costume changes, and a dance party.

Robots for iPad. Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers, Inc. 2015. Version 1.6. requires iOS 8.1 or later. Compatible with iPad. Free. (Accessed 2/21/15).
Gr 5 Up –Users interact with more than two dozen state-of-the-art modern robots, ranging from household helpers to eerily lifelike androids. Photos, videos, and interactive features abound, supported by descriptions and specifications. Current news articles and robot overviews using text and visuals round out an impressive digital learning environment.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Anna Staniszewski also has a new picture book entitled, Power Down, Little Robot, illustrated by Tim Zeltner (Holt/2015)