deereUntil recently I’ve always lived in big cities or their suburbs. A few years ago, though, our family moved to the country. We don’t live on a farm, but I quickly learned that farm machinery, farm tools, and farm concerns (is the rain going to let up long enough for the wheat harvest?) loom large when you’re living surrounded by farms. I started noticing that very few picture books these days speak to country kids. So I was delighted to see John Deere, That’s Who! 

This picture book biography tells the story of the inventor and blacksmith who invented and produced a better plow and whose name is on many farm vehicles today. Country kids will, I suspect, love learning about the man whose name they see on machinery about them. But the book speaks to city kids as well, with its themes of overcoming adversity and trying different strategies to solve problems.

The title of the book is also a refrain in this easy-to-read text. Maurer keeps the word count low so it’s a quick read.

The art by Tim Zeltner has a two dimensional feel to it, as if it were painted on wood by a self-taught frontier artist. And it actually was painted on plywood! You can see the telltale cracks in the paint in the art.

This is a great read aloud for lazy summer days, with the smell of new-cut hay drifting by.

John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by Tim Zeltner. Henry Holt: 2017

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I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

A Slinky "walking down" a staircase

(My review of a nonfiction middle grade title, Super Gear, was on Nerdy Book Club earlier this week. You can see it here.)

Chance. Serendipity. Accident. The Marvelous Thing that Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of theToy that Swept the Nation shows that the process of creating something new may start with an accident, but requires lots of diligent hard work after that start. Gilbert Ford tells the story of the invention of the toy phenomenon, the Slinky, starting with a naval engineer’s observation of how a torsion spring moved as it fell from a shelf.

But Richard James’ observation that day also required marketing, packaging, and promotion, to say nothing of production. The book shows how James and his wife, Betty, hustled to make a simple spring into a popular toy. The conclusion of the story summarizes:

It took the teamwork of a dreamer and a planner to turn an ordiinary spring…into a truly marvelous thing!

The writing in the book is clear and accessible, and the art is wonderful. Ford made digital illustrations, printed them out, and then used them with found objects to create dioramas, which were then photographed. I found myself lingering on page after page trying to figure out all the layers of the illustration process.

The back  matter tells about ways Slinky has been used in the real world and briefly mentions that Betty eventually took over production of the Slinky (and left me suspecting that there’s more to the story of the James family than is told in this book).

The themes of the book would fit beautifully with a school unit on invention. Books like Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson and the Super-Soaker, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, or Earmuffs for Everyone would be fun to read in company with The Marvelous Thing that Came From a Spring. The book would also pair nicely with Philip Stead’s Ideas are All Around.

The Marvelous Thing that Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of theToy that Swept the Nation by Gilbert Ford, photography by Greg Endires. Atheneum: 2016

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I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of Whoosh! shows African American inventor with a super-soaker

[Quick note before today’s book: There is a giveaway of my book, Mountain Chef, today at “From the Mixed-Up Files.” Come on over and enter!]

In Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-soaking Stream of Inventions, Chris Barton paints a portrait of the temperament of an inventor. We watch Lonnie Johnson from his childhood on up facing the problems of creating something new: testing, trouble-shooting, revising, and just plain keeping track of loads of gear.

In addition to telling the story of how Johnson came up with the super soaker, the book tells about his contributions to the US space program and NASA’s Galileo probe. It can be tricky to condense an entire life to 32 pages, but Barton’s retelling stays focused on his theme–what Johnson had to do to invent–and is lively throughout.

I was surprised that the book didn’t talk at all about the scientific principles behind the super soaker. The back matter sends the curious reader to the internet to unravel that mystery.

I loved the back matter’s call to action: “…if you want to better understand how Lonnie Johnson himself works, then you’ll put this book down, step away from the computer screen, and get permission to take something apart.”

The back matter also talks about Barton’s experience interviewing Johnson and the widow of one of his co-workers.

Don Tate’s cartoon-style illustrations are appealing. Just keep the pages away from those super-soakers!

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate. Charlesbridge: 2016.

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Check out the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of the book, showing a sea captain inside a giant doughnut.The origins of some everyday objects are lost. But in The Hole Story of the Doughnut, Pat Miller goes back to a 1916 newspaper article to unearth the story of the doughnut’s beginning. It’s actually a humble tale. A sixteen year old ship’s cook experimented with a way to get rid of the undercooked center of a fried breakfast cake. And it worked!

Miller describes the much more exotic origin stories that popped up around the doughnut–that a cake was speared on a ship’s wheel during a gale, or that it was designed to look like the lifesaving ring that had snatched a sailor from certain drowning death. The back matter even tells about a dastardly plot to seize credit for the doughnut. But eventually Hanson Gregory’s rightful claim to be the inventor of the doughnut was restored.

The book is appealing since it’s about a food we all love, but it’s also an important look at innovation. Kids–and all of us–may imagine that inventions and innovations require extraordinary circumstances. But this book is a gentle reminder that more often innovation happens in everyday ways as people notice and try to solve problems. The book would pair beautifully with Earmuffs for Everyone! by Meghan McCarthy or Miracle Mud by David A. Kelly, both about how the process of invention works to solve everyday problems.

Spread shows text in a circle box on one side and facing page shows the art in a circular box, as if it has been cut out of the facing page.The design of the book and the illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch are delightful. Every spread mimics a doughnut, with one page having the text in a white circular text box clipped out of the illustration, while the facing page presents the circular illustration that has been cut out to make room for the text.

You can listen to an interview with the author here.

The Hole Story of the Doughnut by Pat Miller, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin: 2016.

I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge every Wednesday at Kid Lit Frenzy. Come join us!

Children around a globe.


Every carnival has one now, but the first Ferris Wheel was an engineering marvel. Barbara Lowell tells the story of its invention in a straightforward way:

George Ferris was an engineer who had big ideas. he turned his big ideas into bridges made of steel. Bridges that crossed high over rivers. Bridges that were strong and safe. George made sure of that.

I was especially impressed that she managed to keep the story engaging and fun to read without inventing any dialogue. Instead she uses interesting details to keep us reading. We don’t hear planners talking about the World’s Fair but we learn:

There would be lots to see and do. Including balloon rides. An ostrich farm. And Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

When the Ferris Wheel is finally finished, we don’t hear any celebratory dialogue but we learn:

George and Mrs. Ferris hopped into one car. A forty-piece marching band squeezed into another, and up, up, up they went. The band played “America.”

It’s a fun story and fun to read.

George Ferris: What a Wheel, by Barbara Lowell, illustrated by Jerry Hoare and with photos. Penguin (Core Concepts): 2014.


The story of Nikola Tesla’s life told here is pretty engrossing and the illustrations are good, but the back matter is fantastic! There’s an essay showing ways Tesla was ahead of his time, a bit about the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, and “Scientific Notes” giving scientific explanations for concepts mentioned in the book. All that besides the normal stuff–primary sources used, films about Tesla, what to read if you’re looking for more.

My advice: read the book, enjoy the pictures, and then dive into the back matter!

Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World, by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez. Candlewick:2013.

Ben Franklin  This book is based on a passage in a letter (helpfully included in the book’s back matter) where Franklin describes his youthful invention of a swimming aid: swim fins and flippers! Using that single paragraph as her starting point, Barb Rosenstock imagines the process young Ben Franklin–or anyone–would follow to invent something new.

The book is a buoyant read. Every page is filled with “s” alliteration in lists of verbs telling what Franklin did to develop his invention:

speculated…stared…sprinted away

sketched…snapped up…shaped…sanded…strung on…strapped on

sprinted…stood…stripped off…strapped…stuck…spread…stomped…splashed in…sunk

And this is just the beginning of the “s” lists! Many of the verbs are helpfully highlighted, which would make this book a dream to teach in a lesson on alliteration.

Ben’s invention doesn’t really work that well. In fact, you could say it was a belly flop. But Rosenstock’s text leaves us with a shiver of giddiness rather than a feeling of defeat.

It’s a fun story about the process of invention, the scientific method, and one of America’s founding father. What’s not to like?

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek: 2014