The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay

This update of Macaulay’s classic reference guide to technology embraces the digital revolution with wit and (mostly) clarity.

The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 399 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, 10-12way-things-work

Recommended for: ages 8-up

If you were around in the late 1980s, and had anything to do with kids or books, you probably heard about The Way things Work.  The author/artist David Macaulay, well know for his architectural books like Castle and Pyramid, went to town with a nearly-400 page oversize volume explaining everything mechanical.  The narrative thread follows a woolly mammoth and an inventor who has to figure out various challenges for weighing, grooming and making use of multi-ton pachyderms.  All the solutions involve principles of mechanics and physics, which are then used to explain How Things Work.  In the original edition, this feast of technology was divided into four sections: “Mechanics of Movement,” “Harnessing the Elements,” “Working with Waves” (such as light and sound, and Electricity and Automation.  High time for “Section Five: The Digital Domain.”  In this section, our poor woolly mammoth, the last of his breed, wanders into a compound supervised by an individual named Bob, who enthusiastically welcomes him in and introduces him to the mind-boggling world of bits and bytes, signals and systems, touchscreens and flash storage.

Since only sixteen pages were added to the new edition, some of the old material had to go.  Bye-bye typewriters, film movie cameras and projectors, tape recorders and landline phones. Some of the pages are more packed in the new edition, making the presentation a bit overwhelming, but it’s not a book to be read straight through.  The introductory material to sections 1-4 give an overview; the rest can be perused at will—even though the Digital Domain section is arranged a bit differently and the mammoth’s interactions with pumpkins, apples, and chocolate sauce may be just as confusing to the reader as to the mammoth.  But the final pages summarize major inventions and their applications to keep it all straight.  If your kids are at all mechanical, or even if not, and you missed out on the early edition, you need to get this one.  A bit pricey, but worth it for reference value.

Cautions: None

Overall rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic value: 5


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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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