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What’s the Big Idea? Inventions that Changed Life on Earth Forever

by Helaine Becker; Steve Attoe, illus.

Boredom Blasters and The Insecto-Files author Helaine Becker delves into the history of technology in What’s the Big Idea? Split into four chronological sections spanning 4,000 years, the book examines groundbreaking innovations and highlights a few “Big Thinkers.” Becker infuses her explanations with an engaging conversational tone, catchy quips, and occasionally obscure puns (e.g., “A Newcomen on the Scene”). She also makes a point of noting some of the many lesser-known women innovators, crediting them in the handy highlights bar that runs across the bottom of most pages.

In the first section, the line between fact and fiction can be arbitrary. Becker rightly acknowledges – as in the story of Archimedes’ eureka moment – that “no one really knows” if some of these early accounts are myth or reality. But those qualifiers are often missing elsewhere. For example, Becker states unequivocally that the first electric battery was found in “an ancient tomb near Baghdad,” a widely contested hypothesis. Sticklers for accuracy may take offence at some of these yarns being presented as hard fact.

Becker’s light touch helps balance the text-heavy passages, though significant details are occasionally omitted, leaving the reader perplexed. In a short caption about parachutes, Becker writes: “Invented to help people escape from tall, burning buildings, parachutes spun off another lifesaving invention: the disposable diaper!” But she doesn’t explain the link between the two.

Steve Attoe’s cartoonish illustrations fill the pages with humorous and helpful visuals. Where the text is lengthy and complicated, Attoe’s drawings capture the workings of various devices. The book’s lapses in accuracy and clarity are problematic, but the eye-popping cover, creative design, and engaging content should make it a popular choice for young would-be inventors.