Educational reference materials don’t have to be dry and boring. There are ways to teach important topics to children (and adults) in ways that are interesting and entertaining, but most textbooks don’t lay out their material this way; we often must turn to supplemental resources for this kind of teaching. One author, Kenn Amdahl, has written a series of books that all tackle their subject matter in interesting ways. The topics are as varied as writing and electronics, but they all approach their topics in nontraditional ways.
Each of these books is at least a few years old. For most, the cover art leaves a bit to be desired, and the page layouts are very basic. But look past this to the content inside. These books aren’t intended to be primary textbooks on their subjects, but they all show another side to the topic that can help you have a more complete understanding.
Joy Writing: Discover and Develop Your Creative Voice (2005)
This book is all about writing. But not how to form paragraphs or what words to use. Amdahl doesn’t claim to be an expert in writing. He just shares his bits of wisdom about the practice of writing. Joy Writing is broken into sections that come in the same order as writing itself does: Before You Write, Beginning to Write, Thinking about Language, The Overall Flow of any Work, and Improving. The book describes writing as being able to create your own world. Reading will take you away on a journey, but so will writing, and with writing you get to control where you go. I’d agree with that. I’ve learned that there are actually more surprises when you’re writing than there are when you’re reading.
Back to the joy of writing, though, Amdahl’s sentence sums it up: “You don’t make yourself write, you let yourself write.” I never understood what could be appealing about writing fiction until I did NaNoWriMo last year. It was such a wonderful experience (despite my lack of sleep) that I hope to do it every year.
This book also discusses the importance of writing rituals. For NaNoWriMo, my only real ritual was having the same time each day that I wrote, and that alone was enough for me. I wrote before everyone else was up, so the small sacrifice of 30 hours of sleep over a month got me to the required 50,000 words.
In Joy Writing, Amdahl gives great advice to the novice writer, with plenty for the experienced ones as well. One of the things I took away from the book is that writing something that someone else will read makes you vulnerable and will let your readers inside you a little bit. This has to be okay, or you’ll never write anything.
The book also includes plenty of valuable excerpts from famous authors’ books, and writings about their own writing. The book is also filled with so many take-away sentences that I would go way beyond fair use if I quoted them all. Reading this book would be a valuable thing for any writer, but especially those new to writing.
The section on the writing act itself doesn’t teach grammar or how to construct a sentence. It talks about how to improve your writing and what words and styles might get you there. Amdahl has filled the book with examples to back up his advice. He helps you use the tricks of the English language to help get your meaning down. And he gives plenty of other advice to keep in mind while you’re writing such as how to differentiate your writing, how to make it yours, and how to make it sound authentic.
Joy Writing: Discover and Develop Your Creative Voice retails for $12.95.
There Are No Electrons: Electronics For Earthlings (1991)
In an effort to write an engaging book on a dull (to some) subject, Kenn Amdahl brings us There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings. Praised by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, and Dave Barry, this book aims to teach electricity to those that don’t take to it naturally.
With a really humorous tack, Amdahl teaches aspects of electromagnetism with humor and narrative. This isn’t a book that just systematically teaches you how electricity works. It takes you on a journey, including you as part of a story line. The learning will come easily. This book very much reminds me of the English book Grammarland which we use in our homeschooling. That 100+ year old text for kids teaches grammar in the context of a story. It is much more entertaining than any other way I’ve seen grammar taught, and Amdahl does the same for electronics here.
Filled with examples, stories, a handful of equations and diagrams, plenty of tongue-in-cheek, and even some poetry, There Are No Electrons: Electronics For Earthlings makes a dry subject easier to read. Many concepts are addressed, and specific electronic parts (diodes, capacitors, transistors, semiconductors, oscillators, etc.) are explained.
You may not know or remember all of the equations dealing with electricity, but by the time you’re done reading this book, you’ll understand the basics. And for most of us, that’s enough.
There Are No Electrons: Electronics For Earthlings retails for $12.95.
If you are the (rare?) kind of geek who isn’t enthralled with math for math’s sake (I assume there are some of you out there), Kenn Amdahl has also written two math books with Jim Loats, Ph.D.
Algebra Unplugged (1995)
Starting off with what equations are and how they work, this book compares Algebra to a game with rules, pieces, moves, and strategies. It really does start with the basics, explaining all the different pieces to the Algebra puzzle. Then the book delves into fractions, polynomials, and graphing. For me, it was a trip down a happy memory lane. But for some of you (or your kids), it might just explain things in a way that you or they finally understand.
This book isn’t so much a story, but it explains Algebra with humor and entertainment and plenty of anecdotes. Amdahl rightly explains that you don’t have to be a “math person” to understand and use math.
Algebra Unplugged retails for $12.95.
Calculus For Cats (2001)
Later, Amdahl and Loats wrote Calculus For Cats, tackling a topic that some people never get around to learning. I was fortunate to have an excellent Calculus teacher in high school (thank you Dr. Stallings!), but many first visit this topic in college, if at all, where they’ll be unusually lucky to get a small class size that can be helpful for such a potentially tricky topic (more likely they’ll just be one of a hundred or so in a huge lecture hall).
Since I’ve probably forgotten more Calculus than I remember, this book was a great refresher to me. It covers the basics of pre-Calculus, and then covers differential calculus and a bit of integral calculus, leaving that pesky third dimension as an exercise for the reader.
Amdahl uses the context of cats as a way to make Calculus more understandable. Cats are cute and funny, and can (almost) make Calculus a cuddly topic. Inserting cats into any explanation makes it cute and funny. When cats dance the watusi, for example, that means something particular in this book.
Limits, logarithms, derivatives, integrals. Change over time. Area under a curve. They’re fun! Really. They are. Try them! Calculus For Cats retails for $14.95.
To see more of Kenn Amdahl’s books, or to see sample pages for these four, visit Amazon.com.
Note: I received copies of these four books for review purposes.