Something incredibly wonderful happens when you combine children's literature with tinkering activities. On this page, we've collected some of our favorite books to pair with hands-on projects. Combining tinkering activities with books invites playful engagement with STEAM concepts and processes while also reinforcing language development, collaboration, communication, and literacy skills. Our book selections are made with a lens toward playful learning, inclusion, and creating space for a variety of author, illustrator, and protagonist voices across a set of themes:
Select books are available from our Story Time + Tinkering collection at the Exploratorium Store. If you enjoyed this resource page, please consider purchasing books from our store when possible.
“I try to be very intentional about the books that I share. Are they representative, do the kids see themselves in those books? And also in fields like science — do they see themselves in such fields?"
— Peter Limata, 2nd Grade Teacher and
founder of Story Time with Mr. Limata
All children deserve to see themselves in the pages of books and as agents of change in their world. These are some of our favorite books about sense-making — developing understanding through first hand experiences with phenomena — and self-making — building identity as lifelong learners. The characters in these stories discover that mistakes are part of the learning process, that it's okay not to know something, and that working through frustration often leads to insight, to progress, and even to pride. Read these books as inspiration for the young tinkerers in your life and for the Tinkering Studio projects you're hoping to try out next!
Katey Howes (author) and Elizabet Vukovic (illustrator)
What does it mean to be a maker? We love that this book features a young female builder of color and a collaboration between friends. This story also includes beautiful illustrations of different projects, like teetering towers of toys, boxes, and other everyday objects. A favorite spread prompts: “Make a tower, make it tall. Make it balance, wobble, fall.” Try using it as inspiration for building tinkering towers.
Samantha Berger (author) and Mike Curato (illustrator)
Dedicated to “everyone who is compelled to create, no matter what,” this book pushes us to be creative with whatever materials we happen to have around us. On one of our favorite pages, the main character uses her hands and a light source to invent stories with shadows!
Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie
"Izzy Gizmo, a girl who loved to invent, carried her tool bag wherever she went in case she discovered a thing to be mended, or a gadget to tweak to make it more splendid." She uses real tools and materials in creative ways, and when things don’t work the way she wants them to, her grandpa points out that you sometimes have to try again and again to succeed.
We love this STEAM-rich story about building with cardboard boxes because it centers two female builders of color, is filled with inspiring illustrations of cardboard constructions, emphasizes the power of collaboration, and showcases all different kinds of making — from blanketeers and spaghetti-tects to tin-foilers and egg-cartoneers.
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LIGHT, COLOR, AND SHADOW
“Duck! Rabbit! isn't about light and shadow at all! It's about having different points of view. We use the book as inspiration for Shadow Remixes because it's an activity in which you use your imagination, appreciate having different perspectives on the same shadow, and share what YOU see with others by adding drawings."
— Ryoko Matsumoto, Learning Designer
at the Tinkering Studio
Explore light and shadow using everyday objects and a light source (like a flashlight or the sun). Make your own shadow skyline alongside any of the books listed below. Use your imagination to remix shadows into something new alongside the book Duck! Rabbit! or Flashlight.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld
Is this a duck or a rabbit? What if you add more context, like a sandwich in front of the duck’s bill or a carrot in front of the rabbit? This story playfully explores differences in perspective. Try reading it as inspiration for our shadow remix activity.
This enchanting and visually striking story is told entirely through images. Use the nighttime adventures of a child and their flashlight to kick off your own explorations of and discoveries about light and shadow. What other light sources can you explore?
Follow Moonbear as he tries to outwit his troublesome shadow! We love this book for its compelling story and illustrations of shadows in the world. Consider reading it and then making your own Moonbear-shaped shadow makers out of cardboard and other materials.
Where do shadows go at night? Find out in this lyrical and visually striking book, which also supports a conceptual understanding of light and shadow with lines like: "'cause in the night there is no light and shadows disappear from sight." It's a perfect pairing with building shadow skylines.
Jack's Amazing Shadow
Meet Jack and his magical, amazing, and mischievous shadow. Try using this playful book to start your own conversations about and explorations of light and shadow.
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“Tinkering with stories opens up a world of exploration for children to engage with characters and themes through their hands, heart, and mind.”
— Ryan Kurada, TK/Kindergarten Teacher at University Elementary School in Rohnert Park
What do we look for in books about balance? Our picks below feature compelling stories, active illustrations, and great sparks for exploring balance and stability. Stack the Cats and Building Books focus on stacking and can kick off explorations of tinkering towers, especially for younger learners. Try reading Balance the Birds, Just a Little Bit, and Balancing Act to lead into more complex and precarious explorations of surprising seesaws and balancing sculptures.
Stack the Cats
One cat sleeps. Two cats play. Three cats? Stack! This book explores numeracy, introduces useful balancing vocabulary like “stack” and “teeter,” and emphasizes trying out different things to see what happens.
Megan Wagner Lloyd (author) and Brianne Farley (illustrator)
Katie loves to build but hates reading, and her brother loves to read but hates to build. Use this book to launch stacking explorations with everyday objects.
Balance the Birds
A flock of birds perch on a tree, which sways under their weight. This book playfully explores counting, balance, and stability.
"I love using the image of a BIG bird balanced out by lots of small birds to support building sculptures that aren’t symmetrical." —Steph from the Tinkering Studio Team
Just A Little Bit
Ann Tompert (author) and Lynn Munsinger (illustrator)
An elephant and a mouse want to play together on a seesaw. The story escalates quickly as more and more animals climb onto the seesaw to help them play. The book is a great launching point for balance explorations because it memorably demonstrates how just a little bit of weight can make all the difference.
Ellen Stoll Walsh
Two mice build their own teeter-totter. They're balancing just fine, but then along comes a frog. The textured collages in this story depict different animals as they encounter the teeter-totter. We like using this book to launch building moving balancing sculptures with objects of equal or unequal weight.
STRUCTURES AND CONSTRUCTION
How can everyday objects and recyclables be repurposed as construction materials? Get inspired by the work of our friends at Artencurs and their take on creative, functional, and beautiful component parts.
These are some of our favorite books to inspire building! Look at cardboard boxes through fresh eyes by transforming them into dancing boxes. Or create a series of component parts and then mix and match to construct your own creatures. Visit our creative constructions page for more activity ideas to pair with these books.
With simple and compelling illustrations, Not a Box visually reminds us of all the different ways a box is not just a box, if you add a little bit of imagination. We love using it as inspiration for creating our own projects that use recycled materials in creative ways and taking a second look at everyday materials.
A Box Story
Kenneth Kit Lamug
This book is a compelling reminder of all of the possibilities in a simple box. What happens when we can look at everyday objects and recycled materials with a little more creativity?
The Most Magnificent Thing
A girl has a wonderful idea. "She is going to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing! She knows just how it will look. She knows just how it will work. All she has to do is make it, and she makes things all the time. Easy-peasy!" But making her magnificent thing is anything but easy, and the girl tries and fails, repeatedly.
RAMPS AND ROLLERS
Ricky, The Rock That Couldn't Roll
Mr. Jay (author) and Erin Wozniak (illustrator)
All of the rocks gather to roll down the hill, but Ricky's flat side means he can't roll like the other rocks. We like using this book as inspiration for comparing how objects of different shapes roll or slide down slopes, and for building our own rollers to test out. It introduces words like roll, slide, and bounce.
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“This is my face. It’s of my daddy...He has a mustache that’s as prickly as needles and sewing pins! For the mouth I used half of a clam shell because his voice is as soft and as warm and comforting as a clam shell."
— Olive, 2nd Grader from Mr. Limata's class
Make a character move using animation techniques like stop motion or flipbooks! All of these books serve as inspiration for creating animations using everyday objects. Artist Hanoch Piven’s book Let’s Make Faces provides a starting point for exploring how to arrange ordinary materials into expressive faces. Start by making a face and then bring it to life with animation.
Let's Make Faces
There are so many faces to discover in our world! All you have to do is look. Is a button just a button? Or is it an eye? That stick of gum sure looks like a mouth. How about some old yarn, unraveled from a scarf—that could be hair. Put all these objects together and you can make a face!
LEGO Still Life with Bricks
Lydia Ortiz and Michelle Clair
Transforming handfuls of bricks into minty toothpaste, eggs and bacon, lush houseplants, and more, LEGO Still Life reimagines the mundane and sparks playfulness in everyday life. Can you create a stop motion story out of LEGO component parts?
This beautiful book turns fall foliage into a material for making. Use the illustrations of leaves collaged into textured animals and landscapes to inspire your own creative arrangements of ordinary objects, or take your stop motion explorations outside to build your own leaf characters!
More Ideas for Tinkering with Books:
About Story Time + Tinkering
Story Time + Tinkering Reading Recordings by Peter Limata