Friday, September 19, 2008

Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book by Steven Caney

Long before The Dangerous Book for Boys and its fellow travelers burst upon the scene, Steven Caney ruled as the king of kids' compendia. Now Caney is back with another fascinating book with wide appeal.

Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book begins with solid sections which cover almost everything there is to know about design and construction, from yurts to Gothic cathedrals, bridges to beaver dams. In his introduction Caney recalls his grandfather's basement workshop, with cigar boxes full of screws, scrap parts, and fascinating widgets, real tools, and a grandpa who kept an eye on his creations while letting his imagination take him where it would.

From that homey beginning, he launches forth into a mind-expanding section titled "Structures and Forms are Everywhere." Introducing the concepts of tension and compression, he shows how all constructions use these concepts to construct the geometric figures which figure in both nature's and humankind's structures. As he puts it, all architectural structure is a combination of form, function, materials, and style, and he offers wide-ranging examples, from the Pompidou Center to timber frame barns, ice-fishing "bob houses," fences, lighthouses, castles, and all kinds of arches and domes.

I found the picture sections on the history of building structures (daub and wattle, post and lintel anyone?), types of roofs, and styles of American stick-built houses worth a leisurely perusal, as I learned the difference between a gable, gambrel, mansard, and hip roof. His section on different patterns in bricklaying and what human builders owe to nature's patterns beckon to the reader to take a long, thoughtful look. Fascinating stuff!

The heart of the book, however, are Caney's extensive (and I mean extensive) sections of hands-on building projects. Caney uses the term "building" broadly to include variations of homemade building clay, forms made from paper, straws and string and straws and rubber band , toothpicks, cotton-tipped swabs, Jello cubes and marshmallows, foam board and graham crackers, snow and sand--as well as store-bought building sets from wood blocks to FisherTechnik. In fact, almost any material can be used to illustrate the scientific principles which Caney explains as he directs the builder through the process. Kids can make a straw and string terrarium, paper airplanes, or a peanut-butter/cracker house in a jiffy, or they can construct longer-term projects such as kites, tree houses, and a variety of backyard tents. For a quickie, quirky project, try the amazing, amusing, and awesome tennis ball popper which inverts itself and bounces skyward before your very eyes.

In his appendix the author sets forth his proposition that building is an important aspect of a child's education and an essential experience which develops creativity and ingenuity. As he puts it, "The building years are special." But the materials for building need not be expensive construction toys. "Open ended" materials--scrap lumber, discarded plastic bits and paper, straws and plastic bags--all provide the stuff of fun, learning, and inventiveness. His list of "play perennials" are a great guide for playthings which build brains and bodies while having fun. A glossary of shapes and forms, from the lowly circle to the highbrow rhombicubooctahedron, and a dictionary of building terms join a robust index to complete the substantial back matter.

As a reference book for the family bookshelf, a rainy-day resource, a go-to book for science projects, and a source of entertainment for inquiring minds of all ages, this is a must-have book for school, public, and home libraries, providing hours of educational reading and fun. Copiously illustrated with photos and step-by-step diagrams, it's a five-star, top-rated book large in size and scope and possibilities. Betcha can't read just one page!

Besides Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book other uncommon compendia by the author include Steven Caney's Invention Book, Steven Caney's Toy Book (Reissue), and Steven Caney's Kids' America.

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