There’s nothing I love more than a good picture book biography of a little-known historical figure; something that makes you let out a surprised “Huh!” when you turn the final page.
In honor of this week’s STEAM Festival for children (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) here are a handful of books on STEAM trailblazers that promise to fascinate the adult reading them aloud just as much as the child listening.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman
When Paul Erdos was four years old, he liked to amuse strangers by asking them their age, then announcing how many seconds they’d been alive, after just a moment of mental calculation. Paul grew up into a brilliant but eccentric mathematician – “he didn’t fit into the world in a regular way” and needed his mother and friends to see to his basic needs – who traveled the world working with other mathematicians, doing math up to nineteen hours a day, and coming up with new kinds of math. Numbers are sprinkled throughout this simply-told, charming story.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone
Society tried to thwart her at every turn, but the first female doctor in America (she graduated from medical school in 1849), wouldn’t be dissuaded. In a situation that seems laughable today but was all to real in our country’s history, all the other tenants in the building where she opened her first practice were so horrified that they immediately moved out. Today, more than half of all U.S. medical school students are women, thanks to Elizabeth Blackwell.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wellmark
Who wouldn’t be fascinated by trying to wrap their mind around the leap from the first computer to the sophisticated, lightning-fast information machine that we all now carry around in our pocket? Women have been instrumental in computer technology since its inception, starting with Ada Byron Lovelace. This thinker, tinkerer, and girl fascinated by numbers went on to write the algorithm that allowed her colleague’s Thinking Machine to work – making her the world’s first computer programmer.
Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
The Ferris wheel, that mainstay of summer amusement parks across America, got its start at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., a mechanical engineer, won a contest seeking a design more spectacular than the Eiffel Tower, which had wowed attendees at the previous World’s Fair. The fair committee thought his design couldn’t possibly work and refused to give him the money to build it. George, despite being laughed out of most banks, eventually secured a loan and paid for the wheel himself; he and wife took the first ride. The story of this feat of engineering and nostalgic piece of Americana is depicted in illustrations washed in blue and purple that evoke twilight at a state fair, alongside text bursting with fascinating bits of detail.
The little boy who designed a rope-and-pulley system so he could feed the family’s chickens while lying in bed grew up to become the entirely self-taught “father of American puppetry,” the man behind those giant character balloons that millions of people watch on TV every Thanksgiving. When Tony Sarg came to America, he designed mechanical marionettes for a Macy’s window display. Later, Macy’s asked him to come up with something more spectacular for the parade than live animals, which were frightening the children – and Tony Sarg’s innovative balloons have risen on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1928.
After finding some inspiration in these books, come down to ICPL’s STEAM Festival and do some problem-solving and discovery of your own! The STEAM Festival takes place on Friday, May 19 from 9:30-2:30 and Saturday, May 20 from 10-4.