Can Kids Relate to Structural Engineering?

I never thought my day job as a structural engineer designing bridges would ever intersect with my dream job writing for children. Right-brain pursuits never cross paths with left-brain projects. Yet somehow they have, with a little help from my VCFA advisor. Cynthia Leitich Smith nudged me in the direction of narrative nonfiction. She thought my credentials as a licensed Structural Engineer and Professional Engineer made me uniquely qualified to write nonfiction picture books about bridges.

My first thought (which I blurted out at our meeting): Nonfiction is boring. I didn’t like it as a kid, and I don’t read it as an adult unless it’s research.

Wise Cynthia asked me, “Have you read narrative nonfiction?”

I had not.

Have you?

Spoiler alert: It’s not boring!

Biographies of historical figures are very popular in the narrative nonfiction market, but there is a real desire for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics as well. Even a very dry topic like Structural Engineering can be conveyed to kids in a compelling way through the use of a child protagonist connected to the structure and a glimpse into the landscape of the time and place the structure was built.

Yes, this revelation birthed another critical essay. No, I won’t bore you with my actual critical essay. Instead, here’s a list of the narrative nonfiction and traditional nonfiction books I’ve been reading this month. I’ve zoomed in on the topic of bridges, but there are great nonfiction picture books out there on so many topics.

Guess who is researching her first narrative non-fiction project right now.

Spoiler Alert: It’s a fascinating structure nicknamed Galloping Gertie.

Bunting, Eve. Pop’s Bridge. Illus. C.F. Payne. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Curlee, Lynn. Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2001.

Editors of Yes Mag. Fantastic Feats and Failures. Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2004.

Finger, Brad. 13 Bridges Children Should Know. New York: Prestel, 2015.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building. Illus. James E. Ransome. New York: Dragonfly Books, 2012.

Hurley, Michael. Landmark Top Tens: The World’s Most Amazing Bridges. Chicago, IL: Raintree, 2012.

Johnmann, Carol A. and Elizabeth J. Rieth. Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build, & Test. Illus. Michael J. Rieth. Nashville, TN: Williamson Books, 1999.

Mann, Elizabeth. The Brooklyn Bridge: The story of the world’s most famous bridge and the remarkable family that built it. Illus. Alan Witschonke. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996.

Prince, April Jone. Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing. Illus. Francois Roca. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Sayre, April Pulley. Woodpecker Wham! Illus. Steve Jenkins. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.

Ratiff, Tom. You Wouldn’t Want to Work on the Brooklyn Bridge! An Enormous Project That Seemed Impossible. Illus. Mark Bergin. New York: Franklin Watts, 2009.

Richardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Ritchie, Scot. Look at That Building!: A First Book of Structures. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2011.

Tate, Don. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers, 2015.

Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2014.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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One Response to Can Kids Relate to Structural Engineering?

  1. Erin says:

    I want a copy of it to read to my children to inspire them. I’m at a SWE conference right now and my roomie a fellow structural engineer says yeah! Tacoma narrows bridge!!