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Children's Books

‘Maker Comics: Build a Robot!’ — book review

Start with an electric toothbrush, stop before Skynet.

Robots have been at the front and center of a lot of heated discussions over the years, especially those of ethical and economic concerns. Love them or fear them, the current state of our world would be a disaster without them. Kids born in the last 10 to 15 years haven’t, and likely won’t, ever know a world without our mechanical friends. As such, schools across the country have begun to offer robotics courses to middle and high school-aged children.

Accessibility has been an issue; courses haven’t been made widely available to all students who want them. Additionally, adults who would like to understand robotics but think it’s overwhelming and intimidating feel like they have nowhere to turn to get started. Luckily, for those kids who have an interest but no access, or for the adults who need an ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five – or in this case, 10), writer Colleen AF Venable and illustrator Kathryn Hudson have created Maker Comics: Build a Robot!

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Beep, boop

In Build a Robot! you become friends with your family’s red toaster, who is not only adorable, but questionably evil. It’s been planning to take over the world to help humans save the world for some time, but apparently it ran into some problems. To gain your assistance, the toaster helps you with your very human problems: an annoying brother, a lazy house cat, a very dirty bathroom, and more.

As you read along, your new friend helps to explain the basics and beginnings of robotics, as well as safety standards. Each hurdle you must overcome as a character is solved by a specially designed robot, and each design comes with a parts list and is laid out step-by-step, so you can make it at home. Will the totally-not-evil toaster win your trust and succeed in world domination? You’ll need to read the book to find out!

I, Robot?

My 12-year-old, Orion, and I decided it would be a great (read: fun) idea to check out two of the builds provided in Build a Robot! We chose the “Brushbot,” a scrubby friend to aid in mess clean-up, and the “Scarebot,” a spooky, cool hydraulic spider. We took the parts list, rounded up everything we needed, and set to work. After a lot of time, confusion, and a ton effort, we had … well, we had something, but it wasn’t success.

We started with the Brushbot because it was the simplest build in the book, and its parts were most likely to be lying around the house. The mechanical toothbrush we had available was a Crayola Crayon version that had been made for little kids. The innards looked nothing like the book suggested, so we were a bit baffled at first. Perhaps if we had a different toothbrush the build would have been easier?

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The hardest part was getting the toothbrush heads to stay in place. Once secured, we found the motor was too large and heavy to sit atop the toothbrush heads; it kept making them tilt backward off the table, which made the whole machine just vibrate in place — or so we thought. We added a third toothbrush head at the back to prevent popping a wheelie, but the whole thing still just vibrated and didn’t actually budge on the table surface.

At this point, we figured we just bunged it up and decided to move on to the Scarebot which seemed like a fun build due to its use of hydraulics. FYI: I had to go to four different stores to buy enough supplies (syringes, and aquarium tubing), and it wasn’t cheap, but we thought it’d be worth it in the end.

Scarebot started out fine but it ended up what some might call “a hot mess.” There’s absolutely no way my 12-year-old could have created this alone, with enough precision to make it work properly. Even with the help of my husband (a perfectionist and robot-builder himself), what a disaster. We ended up needing more tools (sharps for making slits, drill bits to make holes, screws and nuts because NOBODY HAD BRADS, etc.), some that I wasn’t comfortable with my kid using (box cutter/Exact-O knife). Once we were done, the Scarebot just kind of flopped over on its face, with its front legs just left wiggling wildly in the air.

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It took hours to cut everything out, glue, and assemble, only for it to be non-functional in the end. Okay, so what went wrong?

At times, the instructions in Build a Robot! didn’t seem clear enough, which caused us to argue about what to do. When we decided to try to refer to the drawings, the artwork, while adorable, was completely unhelpful and even inaccurate at times. I spent hours looking back and trying to refine things, wanting to figure out what we did that made the Scarebot turn out so poorly. After several consults with the text and chats with my co-builders, we figured that without knowledge of exact materials, precision measurement and cutting, and detailed, accurate reference images, we just couldn’t make it work.

Is it good?

Build a Robot! is a short, super easy read. It’s geared to the ages of 9-13, but there’s nothing stopping anyone older or a bit younger. The story is silly and cute, and it’s very relatable to for kids. There’s a lot of information between the pages of this small comic, but it’s well balanced with funny quips and situational comedy. It’s sure to keep kids (and adults) laughing and turning pages.

But my favorite part of Build a Robot! isn’t the story (and definitely not the robot builds), it’s the illustrations. The brilliant use of style and vibrant colors bring each character and scenario to life. The little red toaster is terribly adorable, despite possibly wanting to “kill all humans.” It’s very expressive, both goofy and endearing, and provides so much evil-cuteness you can’t help but love it.

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All that aside, the builds themselves are tough, though I imagine others out there may have much more success than we did. It seems like children accomplishing these tasks, especially on their own, might be a stretch. The builds are very time-consuming and require attention and precision that most kids don’t have. Even with adults helping, there’s no guarantee these robots will come out functioning at all — neither of ours did. Additionally, Build a Robot! states that most of what you need for the builds are household items or toys you could find lying around, but that was completely false in our case, especially for the last few robots.

Overall, Maker Comics: Build a Robot! is cute and a good learning experience as far the information goes, but it’s not a good instructional, maker book. Enjoy it, but be aware that building the robots themselves will cause a lot of trauma, possibly to you and your children but definitely to the poor little creatures you make. I’m fairly certain if our little Scarebot were alive it would require more therapy than we could ever afford, but at least you won’t have to worry about an evil robot army taking over the world.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

Build a Robot
‘Maker Comics: Build a Robot!’ — book review
Maker Comics: Build a Robot!
Good for a quick read, but no more. The book is cute and easy to read for young and old alike, but unfortunately the robot builds are complicated, expensive to make, and mostly non-functional, even for older builders.
Information is solid and presented in a simple, clear way
Artwork is incredibly adorable, visually attractive
Storyline for children is relatable and funny
Robot builds are problematic -- lacking info, inaccurately drawn, require more tools/time than suggested
Book states robots made from household items, later suggests purchases to be made
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