The Way Things Work
by David Macaulay
with Neil Ardley


David Macaulay's The Way Things Work
co-written with Richard Walker

Ages 9-109!


A children's book about how things work!

I approached the task of reviewing The Way Things Work with some shame.

I wasn't one of those kids who could watch a backhoe in action for hours on end. I lost interest within minutes in building model airplanes.

I was much more interested in how the comedy writers on The Dick Van Dyke Show crafted a joke.

Needless to say, I didn't grow up into someone who rebuilt old automobile engines. I don't change my own oil, and I'm lucky if I don't have to call in a plumber to fix a toilet.

Too bad I came of age before David Macaulay's brilliant The Way Things Work was published in 1988. Life could have been different for me!

Macaulay has a gift for verbal and visual explanation. I now understand how a scale, a wheelbarrow and a fingernail clippers are all related. (They all use the mechanical concept of the lever!)

Macaulay's book breaks the way things work down like this:

  • The mechanics of movement
  • Harnessing the elements
  • Working with waves
  • Electricity and automation

Now, be advised: this is not easy stuff. Macaulay's illustrations are great (he won a Caldecott Medal for Black and White) but the concepts - at least for this 47 year old - are challenging.

But if your kid is still the same kid who loved watching that backhoe - only some years older - chances are he (or she) will be motivated to take this stuff on and master it.

cutting machines from The Way Things Work

Get ready for a lot of "Did you know...?" (The signature sentence opener for a kid who is enjoying learning!)

Macaulay doesn't forget to make it fun. He introduces concepts with the aid of a wooly mammoth and a time traveling narrator. For instance, he explains why subduing a mammoth is easier if you roll a boulder up a hill before dropping it on him, rather than lugging it up a ladder.

(Inclined planes are behind a lot of inventions that we depend on without thinking. Including the zipper!)

The Way Things Work is a reference book, nothing less. It belongs on a convenient shelf where it can be pulled out frequently.

Now here's the really good news...for me!

In 1998, Macaulay updated the book with 80 new pages, resulting in The New Way Things Work. Most of the new pages fell into a new section, The Digital Domain.

This section covers the internet, email and even how a website works (finally, something I know how to build!)

Know also that if your child's interests run towards things human more than things mechanical, Macaulay created another wonder of explanation in 2008 with The Way We Work (also reviewed on this site).

And while both these books are written for bright kids in at least the 4th grade, they're also great resources for parents of younger bright kids seeking answers. If your child wants to know how the lungs work or how 1's and 0's can result in music and video, Macaulay shows you, so you can explain to your kid.

The Way Things Work (new version) is a book your child isn't likely to outgrow until he's gotten that graduate degree in engineering. That makes it a bargain at ten times the price.

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Read more of Steve's reviews.

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