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Picture Book Review – The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box

THE BOY WHO THOUGHT OUTSIDE THE BOX:
The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer

Written by Marcie Wessels

Illustrated by Beatriz Castro

(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)

 

TBWTOTB cover

 

I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.

The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.

 

Final Art TBWTOTB page 002
Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.

 

Final Art TBWTOTB page-003
Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”

In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.

While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.

Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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100 Bugs! A Counting Book by Kate Narita & Flying Deep by Michelle Cusolito

100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK
Written by Kate Narita
Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99, Ages 5-7)

&

FLYING DEEP:
Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN
Written by Michelle Cusolito
Illustrated by Nicole Wong
(Charlesbridge Books, $17.99, Ages 5-9)

 

are reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

 

Sharpen your math and science observation skills with two new, detail-packed STEM-rich picture books from debut authors.

100 Bugs: A Counting Book by Kate Narita cover artIn 100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK, two young summer explorers aren’t bugged by insects at all. They are on a seek-and-find counting quest from the pond to the field to the forest and everywhere in between. Armed with a butterfly net and magnifying glass, the daring duo discover and count an astonishing variety of interesting insects. Narita employs bouncy repetitive couplets to keep the mathematical and entomological journey moving at a quick pace in increasing sets of ten.

Kaufman’s bright, colorful collage-style art is engaging and cheerful, adeptly including an impressive accumulation of bugs throughout every page. A beautiful array of wildflowers and plants are also featured, complementing the detailed and intricate insects. Kaufman adds lots of birds and animals as well as an enthusiastic dog who follows the children on their adventures. With so much visual interest, young readers will be captivated. Notes at the end provide additional information on the insects and plants, making this a great STEM book selection. 

cover art from Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVINIn FLYING DEEP readers will imagine an underwater journey of exploration with the pilots of ALVIN, a deep-sea submersible. Their mission is to observe and analyze creatures and structures from the depths of the ocean floor, and to collect samples for further research at the surface. Cusolito uses a narrative logbook structure, inviting readers to ponder practical and procedural questions as if they are one of the crew members. What might you eat? How will you breathe? What will you see? Exciting discoveries and the possibility of danger raise the stakes for readers who will soak up this immersive science adventure.

Digital illustrations from Wong enrich this tale with incredible scenes from inside and outside the ALVIN. Realistic details abound, including the amazing variety of sea life and the riveted, technical components of the ALVIN itself. Wong uses light to her advantage, balancing sunlight and ALVIN’s spotlights above and below the ocean surface to focus attention on the stunning discoveries. A glossary, resources for further reading and notes from the author and illustrator round out this unique, informative book.

 

100 BUGS and FLYING DEEP were both recipients of starred reviews from Kirkus!

        • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

Read another recent #Epic18 review by Cathy here.

Where obtained: I reviewed either an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher or a library edition and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Good Reads With Ronna occasionally provides links to shop at Once Upon a Time bookstore with whom we partner monthly to share a Wednesday What We’re Reading post. GRWR blog and its reviewers receive no compensation for any titles sold via this independent bookstore, but we do hope you’ll choose a local option when making your next purchase.

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How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk – He Had Me at CODE!

 

HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE
Written by Josh Funk
Illustrated by Sara Palacios
(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

How to Code a Sandcastle book cover

 

How to Code a Sandcastle is written in conjunction with the computer science nonprofit Girls Who Code and includes a forward by its founder, Reshma Saujani

Having a website, I know a little bit about coding, little being the operative word. But author Josh Funk, a software engineer by day, knows a lot. Thankfully. So it’s no surprise that the end result of a Funk and illustrator Sara Palacios picture book collaboration, How to Code a Sandcastle, has yielded such a positive and inspiring read.

Beaches and bots, hmmmm … I had absolutely no idea before picking up my review copy how author and illustrator would pull off this phenomenal feat. I mean, millions, maybe trillions of grains of sand and machinery don’t exactly go together. That’s why I felt compelled to read on and am glad I did!

 

int illustration 1 by Sara Palacios from How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk
Interior artwork from How to Code a Sandcastle written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Sara Palacios, Viking Books for Young Readers ©2018.

 

Narrator Pearl is spending her last day of summer vacation at the beach. She’s determined to build a castle because all of her previous attempts have been thwarted by freewheeling frisbees, slamming surfers and peeing pups. Today, however, she has her “trusty rust-proof robot, Pascal,” in tow who she will code to build a sandcastle. Code, your children will learn, is “special instructions that computers understand.” But Pearl soon realizes that in order to build said sandcastle, her instructions need to be specific because without doing so, Pascal could end up constructing the castle in the ocean or in a parking lot. We also see that there’s a sequence to the problem solving, a good tip for young readers just learning about the importance and practicality of executive functioning. So after 1. Finding a suitable place to build, it’s onto 2. Gathering up the sand, encompassing a three-step process of filling, dumping and patting down. Here’s where a coding trick called looping is introduced: repeating the three step process or sequence until all the steps are done and the sand is piled in place before moving on to 3. Shaping and decorating. When Pascal brings items to decorate the sandcastle that aren’t appropriate (a lifeguard stand, a live crab and a baby’s binky!), plucky Pearl relies on a cool approach called IF-THEN-ELSE to help the robot analyze what can and cannot be used.

When a wave washes away the masterpiece, Pearl doesn’t get discouraged because she has the key to quick and easy re-construction, the code that Pascal can implement. Only now she needs to program Pascal with a way to protect the sandcastle, a code for how to build a moat! Once that’s finished, there’s no telling what else they can do with their coding know-how. What a great way to end vacation!

 

int illustration 2 by Sara Palacios from How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk
Interior artwork from How to Code a Sandcastle written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Sara Palacios, Viking Books for Young Readers ©2018.

 

Funk’s story is funny, creative and easy to follow. By using something as recognizable as a sandcastle for the coding project, How to Code a Sandcastle serves as an ideal vehicle for a gentle, accessible preview of computer science. If only we all could be assisted by robots when we head to the beach. Imagine the possibilities! In her illustrations, Palacios has combined sunshine, sand and STEM in a thoroughly modern and cheerful way. Pascal the robot, who is never portrayed as cold or remote but rather charming and accommodating, is someone any child would want as a friend. And Palacios’ diverse characters fill the pages with a realistic picture of what readers really see when they visit the beach. A two page spread of back matter, “Pearl and Pascal’s Guide to Coding,” explains all the code concepts covered.

If you never thought you or your youngster would get the concept of coding, it’s time to think again. With its goal of getting girls to embrace coding, Girls Who Code will, with the help of wonderful books like this one, succeed in closing “the gender gap” that currently exists in the technology fields. Start your own STEM-themed collection of books by visiting your local independent bookstore today.

   • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read a review of another Josh Funk book here.

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