Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book

Book Review:

Steven Caney, Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book
Philadelphia: Running Press Kids, 2006

A couple of weeks ago at the library, AJ and I may have stumbled on the best book ever written. Or at least “the coolest book ever written,” says AJ.

Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book has it all. It’s entertaining. It’s interesting. It’s philosophical. It encourages free thinking and free play. And if you were stranded on a desert island, it might even help you survive. If you had a whole stack of these books, for instance, you could build a shelter with them, as books do a good job at withstanding compression (see pages 354-355).

The Ultimate Building Book is extremely comprehensive. It’s a big book and might be daunting if it weren’t so engagingly written. The first part of the book covers all kinds of structures, large and small. It discusses the different people involved in building and offers an overview of architectural style and history, not just of buildings, but of many kinds of structures. There’s a section on architecture in nature – how animals build things and what we can learn from them. And there’s a big discussion on tools, which doesn’t just talk about things in your toolbox. I found all of this very interesting to read and especially enjoyed some of the sidebars, particularly one discussing the bridges of Merritt Parkway, which I loved as a child growing up in Connecticut, and another telling the story of the town of Roosevelt, NJ, which I knew nothing about but am now completely fascinated with. . There are also chapters on style and scale, on invention and inspiration (and how to find it).

The second half of the book, though, is where AJ’s attention is firmly focused. It’s all about projects. Many of the projects relate to the architectural and construction ideas introduced in the first section. In the books introduction, the author says he had originally set out to write a book about making toys out of common building sets, and some of this is in evidence in the projects. But many of the projects use creative, cheap materials that are often easy to scavenge at home. There’s an entire chapter on building out of rolled up newspapers. Many of the projects use basic geodesic dome construction technology. Some of the projects are things I’ve seen before, but most are new. I was particularly taken with a set of giant Lincoln logs made out of cardboard paper towel tubes filled with expandable insulating foam. And I am seriously considering building the small greenhouse made out of PVC pipes for my garden. AJ has his eye on another PVC pipe project, a sort of sculptural sprinkler made out of a crazy array of capped pipes with holes drilled into them at a few key places. There are Rube Goldberg machines and marble tracks. There are forts and games and puzzles. There are a whole bunch of projects made out of food, including dominos made out of crackers and M and Ms, totem poles made out of fruit, and a set of building blocks made out of Jello and ice cube trays. And there are some remarkable projects made out of nothing but coat hangers and zip ties.

At the end of the book is an appendix “For Parents and Other Teachers” that talk more about the projects, the building sets he refers to and how to buy and use toys to maximize open-ended play.

I cannot put this book down. It’s overdue at the library, because every time I pick it up to take it back, I end up sitting down to read something. Then I have to show it to AJ and we end up getting up and doing some project or another. This book has made us look differently at the things in our house and at the house itself. Although we’re already somewhat prone to environmental consciousness, this book has inspired us to find new ways to use things we might otherwise have thrown away. This is why I think it may be the best book ever written. It has inspired us, given us tools, spurred us to action. This is what books for children should be. This is what any good book should be.

I regret that I have only two thumbs to give to this book. Maybe if I constructed some gigantic skyscraper-like prosthetic thumbs out of cardboard tubes and glue, my review would come across with a more accurate level of enthusiasm.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go convince my husband to let the grass grow a little so we can make a maze in our back yard. The instructions are on page 556-557.


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Cold Spaghetti said...

That IS a super-cool book!!!

It reminds me of the Castle, City, etc., series that goes layer by layer into buildings and structures. I STILL can spend hours staring at those pages... :-)