Seduced by Engineering

July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert FordOne of the Great Surprises of my life came on a hot, clear summer day last August. My sister in law was visiting, and she and I decided to take the kids over to National Harbor in Maryland. “You know, Mommy, I heard they built a Ferris wheel there. I think we should ride it,” offers my eldest.

SAY WHAT? Now, I’ve read the parenting books, and I know we’re not supposed to label our children. So, in lieu of describing my seven year old as cautious, I’ll just say that he prefers to apply the road sign, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, to as much of his life as possible. If JP determines something to be of physical risk, he’ll likely avoid it all together—or spend weeks (ahem, years) ruminating on it, observing others doing it, until he’s absolutely sure he can proceed safely and confidently and without anyone’s assistance (see: bike riding). Heck, there are slides in our neighborhood that he still deems too tall to slide down.

So, I’m suddenly supposed to believe that my son is going to leave the safety of the ground aboard a giant rotating wheel that he has never actually laid eyes on? Don’t get me wrong, I was positively giddy at the prospect (wait, do you think we can start going to theme parks and rock walls?!), although I was careful to do my best nonchalant impersonation when I answered him, “Yeah, sure, we can do that, maybe, whatevs.” No need to jinx things with my shock and excitement.

On the ferry ride over, as we caught first sight of the Metal Monstrosity, hanging precariously out over the pier, I once again thought, NOT A CHANCE. And I once again was floored. “Wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought, Mommy. But we are definitely riding it.”

As we got in line and paid a mere fortune (honestly, I would have forked over any amount to reward this burst of spontaneity), I watched with trepidation as the color began to drain from JP’s face. I realized he was listening to the attendant, who was loading people into what turned out to be giant glass-enclosed cars and then pointing out the large red “panic” buttons located in each interior. “Why do they need those buttons?” JP asked me.

“Um, in case someone feels sick and they want to come down and get out. I’m sure they hardly ever get used,” I quickly responded. Although I was beginning to wonder the same thing.

And then we were bolted in, quickly rising higher and higher, until we were suspended over the water on one side and the itty bitty figures of people waiting in line on the other. And then—as is the custom with every Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on—we were paused, dangling, SWAYING, for what seemed like an eternity, as a new round of people boarded at the bottom. And we still had four more laps to go.

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I looked at JP. “How are you feeling, buddy?”

He shot me a look like, don’t you dare talk to me right now or I’m going to start screaming like a banshee. Or maybe I’m just projecting how I was feeling. That panic button was calling to me. My sister in law looked equally frozen. (My three year old, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.)

But we did it. All of us. All five laps. We oooed and we ahhhed, and then we ventured that we might, we might, do it again someday. As we stepped off, I turned and asked the attendant (out of earshot of JP), “How often do people use that panic button?” She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea,” she said. But I did.

Weeks later, I asked JP what made him decide to ride the Ferris wheel. He started rambling about metal and motors and making grand gestures with his hands—and, suddenly, it dawned on me that it was sheer engineering that had seduced him. Even before he saw it in real life—when it was just something he had seen in pictures—the lure was magnificently romantic.

As if right on cue, Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Ages 5-10), a fascinating picture book biography of the man who invented the Ferris wheel, was soon published and quickly became a favorite in our house (along with the other engineering-themed picture books listed at the end of this post).

Once again, as with the best non-fiction children’s books, I was learning alongside my children. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 2): Books Cleared for Take Off

December 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Everything Goes: In the AirThere are days, OK months, OK years, when it feels like everything is about airplanes and rockets in our house. Last year, JP chose a space-themed birthday party; this year he chose an airplane-themed one. We’ve been to air shows. I chop vegetables in the kitchen while large LEGO creations go whizzing by on little pattering feet. I have even been known to spend rainy days hanging out at Reagan National Airport, just so my kids can watch airplanes take off and land (a.k.a. Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport, minus the bratwurst balloon). For my five year old, it seems, life above ground is infinitely more fascinating than terra firma. And his enthusiasm is contagious: even my two-year-old daughter can’t resist squealing when she spots an airplane in the sky. Children’s bookstores aren’t lacking in books about air or space travel, but the trick is to choose ones that don’t compromise on art or narrative. At the end of this post, I’ve listed some fantastic fiction and non-fiction picture books guaranteed to wow any young aviator.

This fall, Brian Biggs came out with Everything Goes: In the Air (Ages 3-6), a follow-up to last year’s successful Everything Goes: On Land (which we also have at our house, for when we get tired of reading about planes). This is young non-fiction at its best, a perfect combo of action and information. Blending a kind of comic book layout with bright cartoon-like illustrations (think Schoolhouse Rock), the simple storyline of a father and son navigating a busy airport is jazzed up by zillions of sub-plots, from the mom of quintuplets whose babies have escaped (lots of seek-and-find opportunities here) to the pirate who’s trying to take his sword through security.

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