Playful and Artful Projects | Arts & Activities Series Nonfiction

A great activity book series will not only satisfy the maker urge, but will incorporate practice with additional skills as well. Problem-solving, critical thinking, creative decision-making, numeracy skills, and more can be part and parcel of any project or activity.


A good activity book for kids is easy to spot—it will feature interesting projects made from materials that won’t break the bank, the instructions will track, and its example projects will not look like unattainable Insta-ready masterpieces. We hope you have lots of good activity books on your shelves. A great activity book series will not only satisfy the maker urge, but will incorporate practice with additional skills as well. Problem-solving, critical thinking, creative decision-making, numeracy skills, and more can be part and parcel of any project or activity. The best books in this section are finely tuned to ring those bells without feeling like work.



Askew, Mike. Let’s Add and Subtract. ISBN 9781725331570.
––––. Let’s Have Fun with Shapes. ISBN 9781725331617.
––––. Let’s Measure It. ISBN 9781725331655.
––––. Let’s Multiply and Divide. ISBN 9781725331693.
ea vol: 32p. (You Can Master Math!). Rosen/PowerKids. Aug. 2021. Tr. $26.25.
Gr 2-4 –The trick with math activities is to not make them seem like homework. This brightly colored series offers 18 to 21 games and challenges involving dice, cards, household objects, and other manipulables that always feel like fun and not work. Solo challenges are interspersed with two-person games, and most activities are accompanied by a “next step” suggestion. A huge variety of numeracy topics are covered, including time, capacity, and ­other relatively abstract concepts. ­Especially ­welcome are stock photos of diverse children engaged in math play. Clear graphics provide guidance while dimensional googly-eyed number characters cheerlead and offer tips. There is some overlap between Let’s Add and Subtract and Let’s Multiply and Divide. The instructions are very occasionally complicated enough to require more than one reading. VERDICT Games that are tailor-made for practicing specific math concepts and skills.

Borgert-Spaniol, Megan. Make & Play Grocery Store. ISBN 9781532195860.
––––. Make & Play Restaurant. ISBN 9781532195907.
Felix, Rebecca. Make & Play Arcade. ISBN 9781532195853.
––––. Make & Play Hardware Store. ISBN 9781532195877.
––––. Make & Play Pet Supply Store. ISBN 9781532195884.
––––. Make & Play Post Office. ISBN 9781532195891.
ea vol: 24p. (Makerspace Play). Abdo/Super Sandcastle. Aug. 2021. Tr. $28.50.
Gr 1-4 –Imaginative play is double the fun when you make your own toys, structures, and costumes. These books are packed full of great ideas to pick and choose from. Readers are encouraged to think analytically about the requirements of their chosen play space, and to get creative on their own terms. Every step of the process—imagine, brainstorm, collect materials, make, and evaluate—is adorned with photos of inspiring but attainable completed projects. Many examples take advantage of recycled materials, adapted or decorated using a variety of techniques, including painting, printing, weaving, and sculpture. Costumes and consumables are perennial crafting favorites, and these books include plenty of homemade hats and fake food. VERDICT This series gives kid readers ideas and tools to stock their own custom play spaces and keep adding new homemade enhancements.

Dahl, Michael. Silly Jokes About Animals. ISBN 9781977131584.
––––. Silly Jokes About Bugs. ISBN 9781977131591.
––––. Silly Jokes About Food. ISBN 9781977131607.
––––. Silly Jokes About Monsters. ISBN 9781977131614.
––––. Silly Jokes About School. ISBN 9781977131621.
––––. Silly Knock-Knock Jokes. ISBN 9781977131638.
ea vol: 24p. (Silly Joke Books). Capstone/Pebble. Aug. 2021. Tr. $27.99.
Gr 2-4 –New, clean jokes can be hard to find sometimes. Many joke books rely on old chestnuts that can make little sense to 21st-century kids. The author of these books does a great job crafting dozens of knock-knock jokes, riddles, and classic two-line jokes that avoid outdated phrases (like “old chestnut”) and culturally specific idioms, making this a great choice for readers learning figurative language and exploring homonyms and double meanings, not to mention English language learners. One activity per book turns jokes into action—with no pranks! Funny photo illustrations keep the pages attractive and lively. Just a few (one to three) jokes per page mean that pages will turn almost by themselves. VERDICT A nice update to your stock of inoffensive joke books.

Felix, Rebecca. Crayola® Colorful STEAM Activities. ISBN 9781728403182.
––––. Crayola® Nature STEAM Activities. ISBN 9781728403175.
––––. Crayola® Rainy-Day STEAM Activities. ISBN 9781728403199.
––––. Crayola® Super Simple STEAM Activities. ISBN 9781728403205.
ea vol: 32p. (Crayola® Makers). Lerner. Aug. 2021. Tr. $29.32.
Gr 2-4 –Nine projects per book illustrate STEAM concepts and offer practice with observation, prediction, and testing. Great process photos are clearly numbered to correspond to concise written instructions—although projects that are more complex are sometimes lacking in guidance. The “Simple Machine Board Game” project in Crayola ® Rainy-Day STEAM Activities asks readers to, “Design a board game using as many simple machines as you can.” Sidebar “takeaways” help explain the concepts demonstrated. Emphasis on recycled and on-hand materials makes these projects easy to try. Although these branded books are clearly meant to show crafters what they can do with Crayola products, the projects work just as well with supplies from other manufacturers. There are many options for making each project one’s own, and a “Maker Remix!” that builds on a project in the book, offering next steps, variations, or new uses of the materials created. VERDICT Lots of projects, with instructions that might require some adult interpretation.


Upper Elementary to Middle School

Dufresne, Emilie. Contemporary Art. ISBN 9781978524057.
––––. Cubism. ISBN 9781978524095.
––––. Impressionism. ISBN 9781978524132.
––––. Pop Art. ISBN 9781978524170.
––––. Post-Impressionism. ISBN 9781978524217.
––––. Surrealism. ISBN 9781978524255.
ea vol: 24p. (In My Gallery). Enslow. Aug. 2021. Tr. $22.60.
Gr 3-6 –These introductions to art movements attempt an immersive approach, combining historical context, brief biographies, and four projects to give readers multiple access points to the material. Good explanations, definitions, and descriptions of art are somewhat undermined by digital illustration copies of the works, instead of actual reproductions. Art projects are exercises in creating art within guidelines and utilize a variety of techniques (collage, painting, photography, assembly). Each activity incorporates a planning or sketch phase. Design is bold and busy, but nonetheless readable. Of the 24 artists profiled, four are of ­non-Western descent and six are female-identified. The strongest is Impressionism; the weakest is Pop Art for making generalizations that are ­tenuous at best. VERDICT A lively take on art history; pair with information about accessing images of art in books or online.

Thompson, Heidi E. & Marcy Morin. Create with Cardboard. ISBN 9781496695901.
––––. Recycled Paper Projects. ISBN 9781496695925.
––––. Upcycle Cast-Off Clothing. ISBN 9781496695918.
––––. Upcycled Plastic Projects. ISBN 9781496695932.
ea vol: 32p. (Eco Crafts). Capstone. Aug. 2021. Tr. $31.99.
Gr 2-6 –A lot of craft books focus on recycling/upcycling used materials. What sets this series apart is its exceptional design and each book’s ridiculously fun “narrator”—a cup, T-shirt, water bottle, and paper wad whose enthusiastic expressions and gestures egg the reader on. Most of the 10 to 11 projects in each book are not new, but they distinguish themselves with foolproof step-by-step instructions. Each step is accompanied by a photo, and the instructions are good enough to print and include in craft kits where in-person activities are not an option. A nice mix of useful and decorative items ensures there is something for everyone. VERDICT Appealing projects made with recycled or on-hand ­materials, extremely helpful instructions, and a great design make this series a winner.

Tremaine, Jon. Checkers for Beginners. ISBN 9781538270073.
––––. Chess for Beginners. ISBN 9781538270110.
––––. Dice Games for Beginners. ISBN 9781538270158.
––––. Dominoes for Beginners. ISBN 9781538270196.
ea vol: 32p. (Game On!). Rosen/Windmill. Aug. 2021. Tr. $27.25.
Gr 3-6 –2-6 Knowledgeable players will learn a new variation or strategy from the precise instructions and clear graphics in these books. Dice Games for Beginners and Dominoes for Beginners cover 14 and 10 games respectively, some of which have rules that seem complicated at first, but once mastered prove to be lively and fast-paced. By contrast, the rules and notation of checkers and chess are easy to learn, leaving lots of room for discussions of opening moves, traps, blocks, and other gambits. Sample turns demonstrate gameplay and animated game pieces provide comic relief. All games offer practice with numeracy skills such as addition, number comparison, multiplication, and even arrays. VERDICT Solid and thorough additions to the games section.


Upper Middle School to High School

Dinmont, Kerry. Animation. ISBN 9781678201180.
Gale, Ryan. Comic Art. ISBN 9781678201203.
––––. Tattoo Art. ISBN 9781678201241.
Ha, Christine. Anime and Manga. ISBN 9781678201166.
Moon, Walt K. Graffiti Art. ISBN 9781678201227.
ea vol: 80p. (Exploring Art). ReferencePoint/BrightPoint. Oct. 2021. Tr. $31.95.
Gr 6 Up –If your art section ends with Warhol, you might need some high-interest books on art forms that overlap with illustration, style, and evolving public opinion. Is graffiti art? Is tattooing? Readers get to make up their own minds while exploring the history and context of these forms. Tips on techniques and tools introduce vocabulary, and Tattoo includes a useful section on how tattooing actually works. Many of these genres are suffused with slang, acronyms, and in the case of manga and anime, Japanese words. These books embrace this specialized language—readers already familiar with the genre will feel like they’re in the right place, while newcomers will get a leg-up on the lingo. Examples stick to the mainstream, however—kids who follow their favorite graffiti, comics, and tattoo artists on Instagram will not find much. Introductory pages of bullet points will be enticing for students looking for a shortcut to a report, and large photos inserted into short chapters may draw them further into the book. VERDICT Great nonfiction choices for pop culture fans.

Furgang, Adam. Coding Activities for Building Websites with HTML. ISBN 9781725341142.
––––. Coding Activities for Making Animation and Art in Scratch. ISBN 9781725340930.
Hillman, Emilee. Coding Activities for Coding Robots with LEGO Mindstorms. ISBN 9781725341081.
Mullin, Sarah. Coding Activities for Building Databases with SQL. ISBN 9781725340992.
Rauf, Don. Coding Activities for Writing Stories in Twine. ISBN 9781725341111.
Romphf, Josh. Coding Activities for Developing Games in Unity. ISBN 9781725341029.
Small, Cathleen. Coding Activities for Building Apps with Python. ISBN 9781725340961.
––––. Coding Activities for Developing Music with Sonic Pi. ISBN 9781725341050.
ea vol: 64p. (Code Creator). Rosen. Aug. 2021. Tr. $34.45.
Gr 7 Up –Coding and using coding tools have become essential elements of middle school and high school curriculum, just as learning to read is part of elementary school. And just as we create materials for what we used to call “reluctant readers,” we ought to have materials for “reluctant coders.” This series is just that—text-based tutorials, written in a conversational tone and full of examples and analogies, that walk these learners through easily achievable activities to a successful working result. The choice of programs and languages is good—Python, SQL, and HTML open doors to learning more advanced programming languages; Sonic Pi is a good introduction to Ruby; Unity gets kids started with C++; and Twine, Scratch, and Mindstorms are great for kids interested in gaming, animation, or robotics. VERDICT Coding is for everyone with these conversational guides.

It’s still impossible to predict what afterschool activities and classroom learning will look like going forward. Adaptations to distance learning, like the dice, dominoes, and other games in “Game On!” (Rosen/Windmill) offer a lot of flexibility, while “You Can Master Math!” (Rosen/PowerKids), gives teachers a fun alternative to yet one more worksheet. Many of the craft projects in “Eco Crafts” (Capstone) are solo activities that work just as well as Take and Makes as they do in person. And “Makerspace Play” (Abdo/Super Sandcastle) shows kids how to make their own toys and play spaces, giving them something new to do even if they’re stuck in the house.

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