Tinker, Pilot, Maker, Oh My! 3 Picture Books Starring Girls Who Love to Build

Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books
Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books

Books about princesses and ballerinas are always fun reads, but it’s also great to find books starring heroines who also enjoy getting their hands dirty and figuring out how things work. Here are three charming and notable picture book picks featuring girls who love to tinker, fix, build, and make.

© Chronicle Books
© Chronicle Books

Interstellar Cinderella, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt

The classic fairy tale meets sci-fi in this lovely and welcome twist on the story of Cinderella. Cinderella doesn’t dream of living in a castle or meeting her prince, but of getting her own ship to fix and tinker with.

All of the familiar elements are there: the unpleasant stepmother and stepsisters, the prince, and the ball, and Underwood’s take on other parts of the tale are both clever and obviously well thought out. Cinderella’s mouse friend is a robot, she comes to the Prince’s rescue, and her response to his marriage proposal makes picking up this book worth it alone. And I’m not certain, but I like to think there’s an intentional nod to Doctor Who in there as well.

© Harry N. Abrams
© Harry N. Abrams

Rosie Revere, Engineer, written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts

Rosie loves to build and tinker, but when one of her inventions goes haywire, can she find the courage to keep trying? Not only does Rosie Revere, Engineer include both colorful characters and a great jumping off point to talk about history, the story gives the rare message that it’s okay to fail. In fact, failure can be celebrated, as long as you keep trying.

This important theme and the wonderfully detailed illustrations of wacky gizmos make this a book that we revisit time and time again.

© Dial Books
© Dial Books

Violet the Pilot, written and illustrated by Steve Breen

Violet is a mechanical genius who loves disassembling and reassembling things to see how they work. When she turns eight years old, her dreams turn to the sky. She works hard to make her own airplane, even as the other kids avoid her or tease her. Her parents support her, which I loved to see in the story, and she and her best friend Orville never give up in their work to reach the clouds.

Violet the Pilot has a vintage feel with soft illustrations, and can even begin conversations about life before selfies and social media.

Lego Goes Green and Launches ‘Are You a Lego Maker?’ Challenge

Makers work on a model of the United States during the National Week of Making. Photo courtesy of Lego, used with permission.

It’s been a busy June for Lego. This week they made the huge announcement that they’re investing $1 billion and creating 100 new jobs to find a sustainable alternative to plastic for their bricks. Lego is trying hard to reduce its carbon footprint, and we think that’s great news from a beloved company that uses 6,000 tons of plastic every year.

Then last week in Washington during the National Week of Making, Lego announced the “Are You a Lego Maker?” prototyping challenge. The company will be giving away 50 “prototyping kits” to makers ages 13 and older. Each kit includes a Lego Mindstorms EV3 kit, thousands of Lego bricks and elements, access to a Lego Mindstorms Expert Builder, and a copy of the book Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers Who Formed Our Nation.

Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for Lego, said:

The same inventive spirit at the core of the maker movement is also at the core of every Lego building experience. The introduction of the Lego Mindstorms robotic toolkit in 1998 accelerated the Lego System of Play as a prototyping tool among builders around the world. Since that time, inventors of all ages and all levels of expertise have prototyped their inventions with Lego robotic sets and bricks, creating everything from a baseball mudder to a braille printer to a pancake maker. Many of these inventors manufactured products based on these prototypes that were often patented and sold to the public, so we look forward to seeing what the next generation of makers builds to life.

To encourage that ingenuity and love of tinkering, Lego launched this contest to give young makers the right tools.

To enter, visit the Lego Maker site and tell them what you want to build. The contest is open to U.S. residents only, and it ends July 13th.

Maker Camp Starts Monday! Sign Up To Join The DIY Fun

Credit: MakerCamp.com

You don’t live near a Maker Faire. Your Radio Shack only sells cell phones. There’s no hackerspace in town. This is bad times.* But it’s OK. You can still have a maker summer with Maker Camp, which starts Monday, so sign up now!

This is the third year for this DIY summer camp, where your house is the craft room, and the counselors are coming to you through Google+. You’re trading in the dangers of poison ivy for the dangers of a soldering iron—a fair trade, if you ask me. (And I just burnt myself on a soldering iron!) All you need to participate is a Google+ account, some free time, and a little cash for parts. It’s intended for kids ages 13-18, but younger ones can participate with an adult’s Google+ account, and older ones can be teenagers at heart. You’re never too old to make.

Each week of camp has a theme with the projects revealed as you go:

Week 1: Makers in Motion
Week 2: Art and Design
Week 3: Fun and Games
Week 4: Science and Technology
Week 5: DIY Music
Week 6: Make: Believe

Read more about the themes and their virtual field trips at makercamp.com. There are also “campsites” around the country where you can get together with other local campers, although it’s not necessary to do so to participate. If you’d like to see if there’s one near you, check the camp list.

The first week’s project parts list is live: scissors, screwdriver, drill, saw, wire strippers, soldering iron, heat gun–all things that the average maker has around the workshop. There’s also a materials list, which has mostly ordinary parts (empty plastic bottles) and a few slightly more exotic (EL wire), so if you’re ready to get started, you should probably also do a little shopping. If you’re new to EL wire and don’t have time to order it online, most decent Radio Shacks now sell it.

Camp kicks off Monday with a live Google Hangout with Buzz Aldrin, the New York Hall of Science, NASA Goddard, and the James Webb Space Telescope. Then the first week of projects begins.

Projects vary in difficulty level and ease of acquiring parts. This isn’t your dissertation though. Nobody’s judging you at the end. Participate in the pieces you want, skip the ones you don’t, and follow the fun the whole way. Sign up to join in at makercamp.com/sign-up-for-camp.

* And fortunately pretty unlikely for anyone in the US and much of Europe. Want to keep making? Find a hackerspace near you at hackerspaces.org or a Mini Maker Faire at makerfaire.com.

Fund This! 10/31/13: Quidditch, Women Scientists and Makers

It’s almost the end of October and I have another great line-up of awesome crowd-funded projects that caught my eye!

photo credit: Metography

Mudbloods- A Feature Documentary

Admittedly, I am not much of a sports fan. I was secretly ecstatic when my own children eschewed participating in organized sports teams.  But this sport, I can get behind. I’ve even gone to a UC Berkeley Quidditch game, which is saying something. Quidditch is a fast growing sport in the Muggle world, and while those of us without magic may need modifications, we play it with the same amount of enthusiasm and dedication. Mudbloods is a documentary that follows the UCLA Quidditch team as they make their way to the 5th annual World Quidditch Cup in New York City in 2011, while including the creativity and organizing force of the IQA (International Quidditch Association).This campaign ends on November 12!

Marie Cure honored in jewelry. Photo via Optimystical Studio

Heroes and Inspirations Jewelry Line

Another GeekMom keyed me into this campaign and I am in adoration of Optimystical Studio’s new designs. Highlighting famous and not as famous lady scientists, this jewelry line honors the women who have made a great impact on science. This idea alone is worth developing, but they have done it in such an attractive, wearable way. I WILL have one of those Lady Scientist Dog Tags. Help them out and secure one for yourself by November 18!

photo via Verve


This Kickstarter was sent to me from a fan of my organization, thinking some of our families might be interested. After exploring it, I think it is an interesting entry point for people who have no technical or coding skills. Basically, you can use the attachments to connect physical objects to your computer. It is more consumer friendly than the Makey Makey and the price point seems about right. And in my experience, sometimes the simplest entry point can unlock the fiercest of passions. This might be a great way to get started in understanding the concepts of circuitry and coding. Designed by inXus interactive in Irvine CA, your chance to score a Verve through this campaign ends November 25th.

Photo via Paa Joe Kickstarter

Paa Joe and the Lion Documentary

This documentary completely enraptured me. Paa Joe is the “Grandfather of Ghana’s Fantasy Coffin Trade.” I think I connected with his story because he is an old school Maker. An artist, who uses his honed skills- skills he mentors to others now, who will continue his legacy- to create beautiful, functional, custom coffins to carry loved ones into the afterlife.

There is something poetic about the idea of PaaJoe spending hours on these elaborate coffins only to be buried forever. It reminded me of monks spending weeks making intricate mandalas and then dumping them in a river, exemplifying the art of accepting impermanence. I hope this documentary gets funded, not only to show Paa Joe’s amazing work but also to give him a voice. He is in danger of losing everything: his shop, his customer base, and his future. This campaign ends November 12th.

Popcade: Real Arcade Fun

A kid experiences Popcade’s real arcade fun. Photo: Amy Kraft

I saw a ton of cool stuff at this year’s World Maker Faire New York, but the thing I most wanted to bring home with me was made by a maker friend of mine. Joshua Axelrod is the creator of Popcade, a half-scale arcade cabinet that doubles as a time machine to your childhood.

On the outside, Popcade is a reproduction of a Williams Electronics Joust cabinet, at a scale of 50%. On the inside is a Dell Pentium 4 PC running Windows XP. The computer runs MAME, an arcade game emulator. While MAME is capable of running thousands of games, Joshua has curated about 100 of exactly the ones you’d want.

Joshua Axelrod, creator of Popcade. Photo: Amy Kraft

There are some lovely details, like the fact that all games include accompanying artwork. There’s a second marquee screen that shows the name of the game when it’s loaded, a truly immersive feature.

It was funny watching some little kids play, who have no frame of reference for this style of play. The coin slot was totally lost on them. As I sat down to play, the experience took me right back to the early 80s. That’s the era of my perpetual joystick blisters. It plays beautifully, and I felt victorious as I took the Maker Faire high score in Ms. Pac-Man.

Check out that high score! Photo: Amy Kraft

I find the size of it delightful, especially as an urban dweller with limited space. Joshua will build you your own Popcade for $2,500. Are you listening, Santa?

Maker Faire New York: The Next Generation

As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.

The Austin Bike Zoo carousel. Photo: Amy Kraft

Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.


Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.

Boats successfully launched into the ScrapKins lagoon. Photo: Amy Kraft

More upcycling (and familiar faces) came in the Skraptacular booth. Skraptacular is run by a mom in my neighborhood, and thanks to her booth, we now know about plarn. Plarn is like plastic yarn that you make from plastic shopping bags. They used it for weaving through fencing, with some interesting results.

One of the plarn weavings from Skraptacular. Photo: Amy Kraft

We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.

Storefront Science booth

Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.

The best upcycling of stuffed animals I’ve seen. Photo: Amy Kraft

We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!

Making a survival bracelet. Photo: Amy Kraft

Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!

LittleBits used during the Maker Faire workshop. Photo: Amy Kraft

We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.

The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.

We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.

Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.

If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Vintage Tomorrows cover, O'Reilly
Vintage Tomorrows cover, O’Reilly

Often we do, quite literally, judge a book by its cover. And like the cliché implies, sometimes what’s inside is so much more than what we expected. I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative about the cover of Vintage Tomorrows–in fact, it was the cover that first drew my eye. What I didn’t expect was 383 pages that connected so many dots for me, so many of my interests that I had no idea were related, much less that they could all draw lines back to steampunk.

The book’s subtitle, A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology, summarizes as well as so few words can what’s to be found inside, but what it really gives you a glimpse of is the duality of the co-authors, one looking back and the other looking forwards. James Carrott is the historian half, but also was once the global product manager for the Xbox 360. Brian David Johnson looks into the metaphorical crystal ball to see technology’s future for Intel. The title of the first chapter, “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walk Into a Bar,” gives you a good idea of the tone of the rest of the book (much of which was imagined over pints of beer). It’s an academic tome with distinctly non-academic language. In referring to steampunk as “‘postmodern’ like nobody’s business,” Carrott notes, “and I hope never to use this word again in the course of this entire book (scary, bad academic things happen when one invokes such demons).” I wholeheartedly agree.

Continue reading Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Playing in the Sandbox With Dale Dougherty

Last week I attended Sandbox Summit, a conference at MIT that gathers great thinkers in children’s media. This year’s theme was was about nurturing kids’ imagination in the digital age, which stood in sharp contrast to the events unfolding in Boston while we were there. Instead of gluing ourselves to the news, we pressed on with the conference. It was so reassuring to talk about inspiring kids and the good that we can do through media.

There are a ton of things that I’m still processing, but one thing I wanted to be sure to share with my fellow GeekMoms is the closing keynote from Dale Dougherty, Founding Editor and Publisher of Make Magazine (thanks to Scott Traylor of 360Kid for filming it). The way Dougherty talked about makers is the way we often talk about geeks here at GeekMom—people who are passionate about something and love to find a community to share that passion with. He also talked about the DIY movement, not as in “hey, you can make something” but as in “hey, you can make something.” Let’s all be makers. More importantly, let’s get our kids to be makers. Dougherty talks about the importance of maker spaces in schools, and I couldn’t be more in favor. Watch the video and learn more at the Maker Education Initiative.

Review: Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids

Image courtesy No Starch Press

File this under: how did I not know this existed before? Snip, Burn, Soldier, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids is exactly what it sounds like: a book of projects for you to make with your child. Most of the projects are pretty timeless and range in the level of skill and power equipment involved. There’s the delightful sock Cthulhu monster that involves only socks, stuffing, scissors, and needle and thread. There are also soldering projects, carpentry projects, and everything in between.

If you want to spend 2013 with practical hands-on learning experiences, this is is a treasure trove of ideas. Better yet, they’re all cheap ideas that you can do without buying a gigantic robotics kit or huge machinery, and there’s enough room to build on the ideas for new inspiration. The projects here are also appealing to both genders and a range of skill levels, and they explain why the project works as you build it. That would make it a great tool for teachers and homeschoolers as well as DIY enthusiasts.

The illustrations are black and white and mostly photographic with a few line drawings. The author chose to use more text and fewer illustrations to explain the projects. I actually prefer this to lots of pictures without enough explanation. Snip, Burn, Soldier, Shred avoids the trap of kid project books, in that it doesn’t talk down to the reader. It also doesn’t use a high level of industry terms and jargon, so don’t feel like you have to know everything about electrical engineering if you want to make the homemade electrical guitar.

My daughter is in love with the first project in the book, a lock box made of wood and containing many different types of locks. I think we’ll make it together once the weather is a little better and we can go outside for the sawing stages. Meanwhile, all our mismatched socks are going to turn into squids. I know we’re going to have a lot of fun with this book and a very crafty new year.

Full disclosure: a review copy of the book was provided by No Starch Press.

TEDActive Makers Hack Art, Urbanization, and Kinetic Energy

Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen
Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen Photo by Gina Clifford

TED is an annual, global idea conference. TEDActive is the arm of the TED conference that engages thinkers and doers in projects centered on the TED Prize. What happens when an artist, an engineer, an inventor, and a technology guru at TEDActive put their heads together around the idea of urbanization? Talk turns to making as an impromptu team emerges.

Luis Cillimingras of Ideo was the Urbanization project facilitator at TEDActive. Kiel Johnson is a fine artist with an amazing talent for working with cardboard. Kiel created a miniature city from cardboard for TEDActive. Laurence Kemball-Cook is the CEO of Pavegen systems, a company dedicated to converting human footsteps (kinetic energy) into electricity. Laurence presented at TEDActive, demonstrating how people’s footsteps on a Pavegen tile can be converted to electricity that can be used to power a radio. In his hotel room the evening before his presentation, Laurence hacked the radio (to accept power from a Pavegen tile). Beau Ambur, president and founder of AD&HD, Inc. is a technology guru who, as a child, taught himself electronics, wiring, and device hacking.

Because making things is what these guys love to do, they rapidly brainstormed a way to use a Pavegen tile (people power) to light up Kiel’s cardboard city. Luis purchased all the wiring, LEDs, and resistors required for the project. Beau, the technology guru, worked with Laurence and set about calculating resistor and power requirements. Over the next day and a half, the team wired the city up to the Pavegen tile.

Beau's calculations
Beau’s calculations Photo by Gina Clifford

As the team worked furiously to complete the wiring before the conference ended, people started making cardboard additions to the city. Someone built a yacht, another person created a TED sign. Someone even built an elevated park with resistors for tree branches.

Resistor Trees by Jenna Sampson
Resistor Trees by Jenna Sampson Photo by Gina Clifford

Finally, shortly before the end of the last TED session, the wiring was complete. The miniature city’s red lights glowed brightly as people streamed into the room and lined-up for their chance to jump up and down on the Pavegen tile. Some danced, juggled, and even laughed as they powered the city’s red lights. Literally and figuratively, this miniature city was “people-powered.”  What if real cities embraced diverse maker cultures and tasked them with innovative design and energy projects? If this project is any indication, our cities would be more beautiful, efficient, and fun.

TEDActive Attendees Power Cardboard City with Footsteps

About the Team

Miniature City Project team
Photo by Gina Clifford

Laurence Kemball-Cook is the CEO of Pavegen systems, a company dedicated to converting kinetic energy into electricity. Laurence was inspired to create Pavegen as a graduate student working at a large energy company in the UK where he was tasked with designing solar powered streetlights. Admittedly, Laurence is not a fan of corporate structure and was bored by the uninspired work he was doing. Motivated by his Sustainability and Industrial Design Engineering graduate college courses, he came up with the idea to harness otherwise wasted human kinetic energy to power lights or store the energy in batteries for later use.

Kiel Johnson is a fine artist with an amazing talent for working with cardboard. His miniature cardboard city, augmented with miniature signs, boats, hammocks, and art created by TEDActive attendees throughout the week, celebrates The City 2.0, the 2012 TED Prize.

Beau Ambur, president and founder of AD&HD, Inc. is a technology guru who, as a child, taught himself electronics, wiring, and device hacking.  It was Beau’s idea to light up the miniature cardboard city, and he definitely had the skills to accomplish the task.

Luis Cilimingras works at IDEO and facilitated the Urbanization project at TEDActive. Throughout the week, Luis worked tirelessly to facilitate conversations about improving cities as the world’s population shifts to urban environments.