February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Pumpkins, Pyramids, & Pixels: Science & Technology | Series Nonfiction

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SMS1511SciTechSTEM offshoots continue to proliferate as authors and publishers find ingenious new angles with which to present well-worked topics and material. As usual, the standards for paper, bindings, quality of reproductions, and legibility of text are consistently high. Topics are at least roughly aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, the language is leveled for intended audiences, and the back matter almost always includes glossaries, indexes, and at least a few leads to more detailed relevant print and web resources. The fashion for bullet point reviews and follow up quizzes seems to be passing, though, and only a few of the series below offer hands-on projects or ideas for other enrichment activities.


Duke, Shirley. Pyramids of Egypt. ISBN 9781634304153; ISBN 9781634305150; ISBN 9781634306065.

––––. Skyscrapers and Towers. ISBN 9781634304160; ISBN 9781634305167; ISBN 9781634306072.

Mattern, Joanne. Bridges. ISBN 9781634304191; ISBN 9781634305198; ISBN 9781634306102.

––––. Tunnels. ISBN 9781634304207; ISBN 9781634305204; ISBN 9781634306119.

Mooney, Carla. Great Wall of China. ISBN 9781634304184; ISBN 9781634305181; ISBN 9781634306096.

––––. Stadiums and Coliseums. ISBN 9781634304177; ISBN 9781634305174; ISBN 9781634306089.

ea vol: 48p. (Engineering Wonders). glossary. index. photos. websites. Rourke. 2015. Tr. $32.79. pap. $9.95. ebk. $24.95.

Gr 4-6– The pictures are a strength of these surveys of large-scale historical and modern construction works. Bridges, for instance, begins with photos of logs across streams and goes on to views of soaring steel structures so long their ends often recede into the hazy horizon. Pyramids offers a select but varied gallery of ancient monuments, some of which are crumbled almost beyond recognition. Similarly, in Great Wall of China, readers can see stretches that have nearly vanished along with well-preserved and newly restored lengths. Tunnels is less visually impressive, as there isn’t that much to see, but period photos and (for older works) imagined scenes here and in other volumes cast light on construction methods. Along with identifying, locating, and explaining salient features of each structure highlighted, the authors delve into distinctive engineering challenges, from calculating precise angles in Pyramids to considerations of torsion, wind shear, compression, and, more recently, sustainability in designing Skyscrapers and Towers. The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge does get coverage in Bridges, but in general the focus is more on successes than disasters. Each volume in the series opens with a page of reading comprehension exercises and ends with both review questions and several links to web resources. VERDICT Strong, attractive options.

Hayes, Amy. Discovering STEM at the Museum. ISBN 9781499409697.

Machajewski, Sarah. Discovering STEM at the Restaurant. ISBN 9781499409710.

Nagelhout, Ryan. Discovering STEM at the Baseball Game. ISBN 9781499409673.

Roby, Cynthia. Discovering STEM at the Airport. ISBN 9781499409581.

––––. Discovering STEM at the Amusement Park. ISBN 9781499409628.

Shea, Therese. Discovering STEM at the Zoo. ISBN 9781499409741.

ea vol: 24p. (STEM in the Real World). glossary. index. websites. PowerKids. 2015. lib. ed. $23.60.

Gr 2-3 –These volumes are inconsistent both in level and quality of detail. Amusement Park, for instance, identifies the physical forces in play for roller coasters and bungee jumping but not for bumper cars or the creation of cotton candy. Similarly, in Restaurant, Machajewski erroneously claims that gas bubbles “pop” to create the holes in bread, and Roby in Airport and Nagelhout in Baseball Game, without offering any further instruction, blithely urge readers to use smart phones to look up STEM facts. Each volume pairs easily digestible narratives with big, bright color photos that are strong on visual appeal. Some highlight one particular branch of science—physics in Amusement Park, paleontology in Museum—but none offer exercises, quizzes, reviews or, except for a couple of exceptions in Amusement Park, math problems. The writing is weak and imprecise. For instance, in the glossaries at the end of every volume, the term engineering is vaguely defined as “the use of science and math to improve our world.” VERDICT Not recommended.

Jackson, Tom. Aircraft. ISBN 9781781212363.

––––. Car. ISBN 9781781212356.

––––. Digital Technology. ISBN 9781 781212387.

––––. Music Technology. ISBN 9781781212400.

––––. Spacecraft. ISBN 9781781212370.

––––. Telephones and Cellphones. ISBN 9781781212394.

ea vol: 32p. (Technology Timelines). illus. photos. Black Rabbit/Brown Bear. 2015. lib. ed. $31.35.

Gr 4-6 –Though far from comprehensive, these quick skims over the historical development of common gadgets and vehicles do dish up entertaining tidbits while assembling broad general pictures. In each volume a wide time line runs beneath closer looks at significant inventions or incidents. Car, for instance, takes readers from chariots to solar-powered and driverless vehicles, while the chronology begins with the invention of coach suspension in the 1500s and ends with a new speed record for electric cars set in 2013. Along the way, the author notes the appearance of the differential gear, diesel engines, driving tests, windshield wipers, highways, GPS, and related advances along the way. Each volume closes with a superficial glimpse into the future. Comprised of jumbles of small photos or images, labels, captions, inset boxes, and general observations in various type sizes, many of the spreads have an overcrowded look. VERDICT Brief overviews ideal for browsers and sparking further interest.

Kuskowski, Alex. Super Simple Aircraft Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037283; ISBN 9781629696621.

––––. Super Simple Automobile Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037290; ISBN 9781629696638.

––––. Super Simple Camera Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037306; ISBN 9781629696645.

––––. Super Simple Phonograph Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037313; ISBN 9781629696652.

––––. Super Simple Telegraph Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037320; ISBN 9781629696669.

––––. Super Simple Telephone Projects: Inspiring & Educational Science Activities. ISBN 9781624037337; ISBN 9781629696676.

ea vol: 32p. (Amazing Super Simple Inventions). chron. glossary. photos. ABDO. 2015. lib. ed. $27.07. ebk. $27.07.

Gr 2-4 –With more of an eye toward utility than aesthetics, the four to seven projects in each volume of this hands-on series look distinctly homemade but do demonstrate selected physical principles behind notable modern inventions. Each title opens with a boilerplate summation of the scientific method, very brief identifications of important associated inventors—Henry Ford for the automobile, for instance—a time line, and a comprehensive list of materials for the ensuing models. With some exceptions, such as a metal sheet and gel wax in Camera Projects and an LP record in Phonograph Projects, said materials are easily come by. The big, bright illustrations include views of partially and fully assembled models, historical photos of inventors and early devices, and extras (such as semaphore and Morse alphabets in Telegraph Projects). The projects vary in quality, from an ingenious party line string phone in Telephone Projects and a pizza box gramophone in Phonograph Projects to a standard assortment of paper airplanes and rubber band–driven cars. Young tinkerers may be disappointed that the author opts for electromagnetic spinners rather than a battery-driven car in Automobile Projects. More problematically, explanations are sometimes skimpy (For example, why does dipping a vibrating tuning fork in vinegar create a circuit?). Factual errors such as puzzling claims that car motors are like giant batteries slip in. VERDICT Suitable offerings.

Mattern, Joanne. Fire Trucks. ISBN 9780531213735.

Mattern, Joanne & Blair Rainsford. Hot Air Balloons. ISBN 9780531213704.

––––. Lightbulbs. ISBN 9780531213681.

––––. Remote Control Planes. ISBN 9780531213698.

––––. Submarines. ISBN 9780531213742.

––––. Toilets. ISBN 9780531213728.

––––. X-Ray Machines. ISBN 9780531213711.

ea vol: 32p. (Rookie Read-About Science: How Things Work). chron. glossary. photos. websites. Children’s Pr. 2015. lib. ed. $23.

Gr 1-3 –These introductions to techno-wonders that most children are likely to encounter (submarines perhaps excepted) illustrate simple but not simplistic explanations of major functions and components with bright color photos and easy-to-comprehend labeled cutaway views. Lightbulbs, for example, not only illuminates the inner workings of the incandescent bulb (and some of its predecessors) but LEDs and CFLs, too. Each volume closes with a time line and a project ranging in challenge level from a soda bottle “submarine” to a basic paper airplane. Each also broadens its central topic with looks at special use variants, such as, in Toilets, a space toilet. VERDICT Newly independent readers will find any of these selections good first steps toward understanding the inner workings of their technological world.

Nagelhout, Ryan. Problem with Early Cameras. ISBN 9781482427585.

––––. Problem with Early Cars. ISBN 9781482427622.

––––. Problem with Early Clocks. ISBN 9781482427707.

––––. Problem with Early Computers. ISBN 9781482427745.

––––. Problem with Early Flying Machines. ISBN 9781482427660.

––––. Problem with Early Navigation Tools. ISBN 9781482427783.

ea vol: 24p. (Bloopers of Invention). index. Gareth Stevens. 2015. lib. ed. $22.60.

Gr 2-4 –Though he embeds some humorous missteps—each headed with an eye-catching “OOPS!”—into this set of reasonably coherent highlight reel–style accounts of how selected technological developments got their starts, Nagelhout makes more than a few problematic choices. Characterizing Otto Lilienthal’s fatal crash and the Hindenburg disaster in Early Flying Machines as “bloopers” seems fatuous, for instance. Other entries seem shoehorned in, such as the abacus (accompanied by text describing the practice of counting on fingers as an “OOPS!”). Moreover, the author phones in a history of photography in Early Cameras, commenting that the first Kodak film was made from “something called cellulose” and quaintly warning that “if you lose a memory card or your computer breaks, you could lose all your digital photos.” VERDICT Though readers hoping for disaster-centric edutainment will be disappointed, these histories do offer good overviews of their subjects, with a well-chosen mix of period photos and labeled diagrams to illustrate each high (or low) point.

Parker, Steve. Looking Beyond. ISBN 9781625880765.

––––. Probes to the Planets. ISBN 9781 625880772.

––––. Race to the Moon. ISBN 9781 625880789.

––––. Satellites. ISBN 9781625880796.

––––. Space Pioneers. ISBN 9781625880802.

––––. Space Stations. ISBN 9781625880819.

ea vol: illus. by David West. 32p. (Story of Space). glossary. index. photos. Smart Apple Media. 2015. lib. ed. $31.35.

Gr 4-6 –These overviews will provide middle grade readers with sketchy but coherent pictures of space exploration’s rapidly receding past as well as glimpses of its potential futures. Looking Beyond is a general history of the universe since the Big Bang, with a discussion of how we study exoplanets, speculations about interstellar expeditions, and information on permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars. Closer to home, Parker points out that Soyuz spacecrafts, originally designed for Moon flights in the 1960s, are still flying to the International Space Station. In Parker’s view, the Soviet space program never really recovered from its “Moon Fiasco.” Consequently, he focuses here largely on NASA programs and particularly its triumphs—from Mercury to the space shuttle in Space Pioneers and Race to the Moon and on the Explorer I to the New Horizons craft in Probes. Not that he’s uncritical; though disasters such as the Apollo I fire or the Challenger explosion rate but bare acknowledgements, he notes the astronomical cost of each space shuttle launch ($1.3 billion) and ends Satellites with a chart that includes an average unit cost for each type of satellite (hint: they’re not cheap). Small photographs, photorealistic renderings, and cutaway views of high-tech spacecraft illustrate the white-on-black mix of captions and short bursts of narrative text. Each volume ends with a summary chart—of space “firsts” in Space Pioneers, for instance, and an annotated list of manned and unmanned lunar missions in Race to the Moon—though none suggest leads to further resources. VERDICT Solid options to round out materials on space.

Pettiford, Rebecca. Bridges. ISBN 9781 620312117.

––––. Dams. ISBN 9781620312131.

––––. Roller Coasters. ISBN 9781620312155.

––––. Skyscrapers. ISBN 9781620312100.

––––. Stadiums. ISBN 9781620312148.

––––. Tunnels. ISBN 9781620312124.

ea vol: 24p. (Amazing Structures). ebook available. glossary. index. photos. websites. Jump! 2015. lib. ed. $25.65.

Gr 1-3 –Imparting just a few tantalizing morsels of information about various kinds of large-scale infrastructure, these primary-level introductions combine particularly vivid photos with comments that are simply phrased but not entirely generalized. In Bridges, for instance, Pettiford identifies and points out distinctive features of common kinds: beam, arch, and suspension. Also worth noting are photographic depictions of woman engineers and designers at work in Bridges, Dams, Skyscrapers, and Roller Coasters. Less laudable are the single hands-on projects that close each volume, which are perfunctory instructions for such nonstarters as a dam made from rocks and sticks in a flat pan full of sand. VERDICT Possible additions to STEM collections.

Schuh, Mari. Going Ice Fishing: Lever vs. Screw. ISBN 9781467780292.

––––. Hauling a Pumpkin: Wheels and Axles vs. Lever. ISBN 9781467780261.

––––. Holding a Door Open: Wedge vs. Wheels and Axles. ISBN 9781467780254.

––––. Making a Salad: Wedge vs. Inclined Plane. ISBN 9781467780285.

––––. Playing a Game: Inclined Plane vs. Lever. ISBN 9781467780278.

––––. Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane. ISBN 9781467780247.

ea vol: 24p. (First Step Nonfiction: Simple Machines to the Rescue). glossary. index. photos. Lerner. Nov. 2015. lib. ed. $23.99.

K-Gr 2 –In these simple episodes, big, glossy color photos depicting a diverse crew of children and adults demonstrate how various kinds of simple machines can be helpful, or not, in performing common tasks. Noah, for instance, has a big pumpkin to move, and though his mother shows how a shovel’s lever action can lift it, a small wagon actually allows him to wheel it away. Similarly, Liz (with a priceless expression on her face) stops her father from trying to move sliced tomatoes into a salad bowl with a sharp knife and instead tips the cutting board to accomplish the task more safely. Though the writing is occasionally unclear and explanations throughout of how the simple machines work are skimpy or, in some cases, missing altogether, newly emergent readers will come away with both a grasp of how simple machines differ from one another, as well as with some exposure to special terms like fulcrum and force. Each volume closes with an open-ended question (“How can you use a wedge?” for instance), and a perfunctory glossary and index. VERDICT Suitable STEM selections for the youngest scientists.

Spilsbury, Louise & Richard Spilsbury. Robots in Industry. ISBN 9781482430028.

––––. Robots in Law Enforcement. ISBN 9781482430066.

––––. Robots in Medicine. ISBN 9781 482430103.

––––. Robots in Space. ISBN 9781482430141.

––––. Robots in the Military. ISBN 9781 482430189.

––––. Robots Underwater. ISBN 9781 482430226.

ea vol: 48p. (Amazing Robots). further reading. glossary. index. photos. Gareth Stevens. 2015. lib. ed. $31.95.

Gr 3-5 –Though the authors resort to repetition and subject overlap to fill out these surveys, the topic is high in interest and likely to become higher as robotic devices become more widespread. The Spilsburys open each volume with a summary of the multiple ways robots are faster, safer, more reliable alternatives to human effort in a chosen technological or industrial field, then go on to make the same points in slightly greater detail. The term robot—translated correctly but without comment in Industry as “forced labor”—is interpreted broadly enough to include radar guns and “smart highways,” in Law Enforcement, and powered exoskeletons or prosthetics both there and in Medicine and Military. In each volume, several specific devices or systems get closer looks, as do upcoming developments in sidebars unequivocally titled “Robots Are the Future.” The authors do at least bring up issues, such as whether industrial robots take jobs or create them, but rarely for more than urging readers to think them over. Aside from brief resource lists and indexes, there is no back matter, and the illustrations generally offer external views rather than glimpses of internal workings. The pictures aren’t consistently well chosen, either. VERDICT Serviceable offerings, though with flaws.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Building Bridges. ISBN 9781502605986.

––––. Building Dams. ISBN 9781502605955.

––––. Building Dikes and Levees. ISBN 9781502606105.

––––. Building Roads. ISBN 9781502606044.

––––. Building Skyscrapers. ISBN 9781502606075.

––––. Building Tunnels. ISBN 9781502606013.

ea vol: 32p. (Great Engineering). further reading. glossary. index. Cavendish Square. 2015. lib. ed. $28.50.

Gr 2-4 –These examinations of large-scale infrastructure elements focus particularly on the role of civil engineers in planning and construction. Each volume opens with a lucid explanation of the chosen structure’s function—“People and beavers are alike in one way,” the author begins one, going on to explain why and how both build dams—and proceeding to present a historical overview, describing construction methods, and highlighting significant examples. The level of specific detail varies considerably; Stefoff differentiates between caissons and cofferdams, in Building Bridges, for instance, but only mentions three types of bridges. But along with mentioning significant design challenges, she considers relevant environmental issues in several volumes and even the value of dam removals. Pictures, mostly photos, take second place to the narrative throughout; in Building Roads, for example, Stefoff mentions several renowned ones but supplies illustrations for only a few (and no maps at all). VERDICT Though these titles have a few flaws, as case studies in engineering at work, they offer clear and cogent pictures.

Middle to High School

Allen, John. How Gene Therapy Is Changing Society. ISBN 9781601528988; ISBN 9781601528995.

Green, Robert. How Renewable Energy Is Changing Society. ISBN 9781601529046; ISBN 9781601529053.

Henderson, Harry. How Mobile Devices Are Changing Society. ISBN 9781601529022; ISBN 9781601529039.

Mooney, Carla. How the Internet Is Changing Society. ISBN 9781601529008; ISBN 9781601529015.

Nardo, Don. How Robotics Is Changing Society. ISBN 9781601529060; ISBN 9781601529077.

ea vol: 80p. (Science, Technology, and Society). bibliog. chron. index. photos. websites. ReferencePoint. 2015. lib. ed. $28.95. ebk. $28.95.

Gr 8 Up –Without historical perspective to draw on but also seldom daring to go out on speculative limbs, the authors of these studies of potentially world-changing technological innovations limit themselves largely to current but conventional overviews of their subjects and catalogs of known hazards and ethical issues. Allen, for instance, lays out the value of gene modification not only for the treatment of disease, but for obesity and even depression—but aside from noting that it could also artificially enhance athletic performance makes only a few vague cautionary statements about the possibilities for designer babies. Along with arguing that industrial robots are actually creating jobs (but saying nothing about the often low quality and insecure nature of said jobs), Nardo expresses skepticism about whether true artificial intelligence is possible. Still, the information in each volume is up to date, and each is well furnished with statistical data, study questions, and leads to further resources. VERDICT Solid additions. Where topics overlap, these may serve as complementary updates to the publisher’s pro-and-con “Thinking Critically” series (2013).

Anniss, Matthew. The Impact of Technology in Music. ISBN 9781484626382.

––––. The Impact of Technology in Sports. ISBN 9781484626368.

Woolf, Alex. The Impact of Technology in Art. ISBN 9781484626351.

––––. The Impact of Technology in History and Archaeology. ISBN 9781484626375.

ea vol: 56p. (The Impact of Technology). chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Heinemann-Raintree. 2015. lib. ed. $33.50.

Gr 7-10 –Broad of scope and well stocked with concrete examples, these surveys offer young readers detailed pictures of the role of technology in several fields. Though the authors focus on technology’s present state and future possibilities, there are glances back—to, for instance, Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders in Music and cave painting in Art—that establish adequate contexts for explanations of significant new developments. In Art, as an example, to descriptions of traditional materials and media Woolf adds photography and filmmaking, digital sculpting, Internet art, and video games. Also, along with newer ways of creating art and music, the authors look at copyright and uniqueness issues, as well as crowdsourcing, social media, and other means of financing and dissemination. Sports covers areas such as exercise science, sports nutrition, and instant replay, and Archaeology looks at electron microscopy, aerial mapping, and digital modeling. Each volume includes sidebar profiles of select inventors or performers. Each ends with glimpses of the future and a handful of projects or activities. VERDICT Strong options to round out STEM collections.

Morrison, Heather. Inventors of Communications Technology. ISBN 9781502606563.

––––. Inventors of Computer Technology. ISBN 9781502606549.

––––. Inventors of Everyday Technology. ISBN 9781502606600.

––––. Inventors of Food and Agriculture Technology. ISBN 9781502606648.

––––. Inventors of Health and Medical Technology. ISBN 9781502606587.

––––. Inventors of Industrial Technology. ISBN 9781502606662.

––––. Inventors of Transportation Technology. ISBN 9781502606624.

ea vol: 144p. (Designing Engineering Solutions). further reading. photos. Cavendish Square. 2015. lib. ed. $42.79.

Gr 6-8 –Overall, these collective biographies offer satisfyingly detailed pictures of significant and little-known inventors’ lives and gadgetry, as well as the widespread effects of said gadgetry. Each volume profiles over a dozen people (including collaborations). Despite opening historical overviews, plus an entry for Archimedes in Industrial Technology, the focus of this set is on figures from the past few centuries: everyone from Johannes Gutenberg to Skype cofounders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström in Communications Technology, for instance, and in Everyday Technology, from Ben Franklin to Earl Tupper (inventor of Tupperware) and Lonnie Johnson (who created the Super Soaker). Women and minority inventors are well represented in Health and Medical Technology but are thin on the ground elsewhere—particularly in Computer Technology, which contains a sidebar survey of “Women and Computers” but provides a full entry for only Grace Hopper. The profiles are arranged in alphabetical order, and each includes one or two small photos and a time line. VERDICT Strong additions to the 600s.

Rooney, Anne. Agricultural Engineering and Feeding the Future. ISBN 9780778775041; ISBN 9780778775256; ISBN 9781427199928.

Sjonger, Rebecca. Biomedical Engineering and Human Body Systems. ISBN 9780778775058; ISBN 9780778775263; ISBN 9781427199935.

––––. Geotechnical Engineering and Earth’s Materials and Processes. ISBN 9780778775065; ISBN 9780778775348; ISBN 9781427199942.

Snedden, Robert. Materials Engineering and Exploring Properties. ISBN 9780778775140; ISBN 9780778775355; ISBN 9781427199959.

ea vol: 32p. (Engineering in Action). further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Crabtree. 2015. lib. ed. $20.70. pap. $9.95. ebk. $31.05.

Gr 5-7 –The third quartet in this continuing series of introductions to engineering looks at past and present methods of sustainable agriculture and medical devices as well as how to assess surface stability and natural hazards for large structures and how materials, from ceramics to superadhesives, are studied and improved. Each volume presents a template for systematic research: defining a problem, designing and testing prototypes, and reporting on solutions (or failures). Along with quick looks at historical highlights, each author describes the training and skills required to work in associated fields, offers case studies—ongoing efforts to mechanize artichoke harvests in Sicily, for instance—and takes readers step by step through a sample design challenge. Though somewhat overdesigned, with canted or off-center photos and yellow side notes “attached” with images of push pins or even butterfly clips for that scrapbook look, overall the presentations are orderly, methodical, and (like engineering science itself) focused on practical results. VERDICT Solid STEM choices.

For younger readers, Cavendish Square’s “Great Engineering” and the latest batch of entries in Children’s Press’s reliable “Rookie Read-About Science” series are standouts. Middle graders will marvel at Rourke’s “Engineering Wonders” and gain valuable perspective from Smart Apple Media’s “The Story of Space.” Junior high and high school students will find plenty of food for thought both in Cavendish Square’s “Designing Engineering Solutions” and Heinemann-Raintree’s “The Impact of Technology.” Except as noted, the volumes in the other series are acceptable choices for replacing or supplementing older titles.

John Peters, Children’s Literature Consultant, New York City

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