What’s a good book about computers for a fourth grader?
December 19, 2018 7:39 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for a book for kids about computers, or digital electronics generally. I’m imagining something that will help my daughter to have a sense of how computers actually work, as well as how to use them (which is where school seems to be focused). Not “how to code” necessarily (though that’s fine too) but something that gets into the basics of zeroes and ones, how information is stored, how the internet works... like, in a fourth grade way, but still accurate at the basic level, y’know?.
posted by nickmark to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When I was about that age, one set of grandparents gave me The Way Things Work, which has simplified-but-mostly-accurate, drawing-heavy explanations of everything from the lever and the inclined plane up through late-1980s computers. There's a 2016 version, The Way Things Work Now. I can't vouch for it in particular but the original is still on a shelf about 2' to my right, today, so if the new edition is of similar quality, it's probably worth it.
posted by Alterscape at 7:57 PM on December 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

Not a book, but check out the first 30 minutes or so of the introductory lecture for the class CS50 at Harvard. That's a link to it on YouTube. (You can also get the whole course on edX if you want to do the class yourself. It gets intense pretty fast after week 1, so beware.)

The whole course is obviously beyond 4th grade level, but his initial introduction of the broad concept of electronic information, ones-and-zeros, ASCII, etc. is pretty basic and might be accessible to a 4th grader who is interested -- maybe if you watched it with her and discussed. His presentation style is breezy and his whole vibe is making-this-complicated-thing-not-scary.

I'm a grown-ass, educated woman who's pretty tech-savvy and I learned something from this lecture.
posted by mccxxiii at 8:07 PM on December 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Well, this comes with a book.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:31 PM on December 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer is rad.

Brian Kernighan's book D is for Digital does a very good job of explaining digital . . . stuff for a layperson.

edited to add that the first is behind the xkcd webcomic and the second wrote big chunks of UNIX (he's the K in AWK!), in case that's relevant to your choices.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:11 PM on December 19, 2018

Hard to do better than Dr. Kaufman.
posted by flabdablet at 2:40 AM on December 20, 2018

DK Eyewitness 'Computer' is a good read for interested kids, mine got this in 4th grade.

Something else we do is collect old/discarded electronics, either kerbside, or from thrift stores, and take them apart together in our basement 'workshop.' You'll need some basic tools - some screwdrivers, pliers/wirecutters, an electronics screwdriver kit with interchangeable tips, etc. - but once you have this sort of stuff you are set. We don't do anything complex, however just taking boxes apart, supervised, and identifying inputs and outputs and what they do, and also identifying the chips, etc., is educational. He now knows for example that these boxes all have chips inside that are the 'brains' of box. It's a super cheap hobby!
posted by carter at 5:23 AM on December 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software is a classic tour though how you might build a computer from first principles.

It might get a bit beyond fourth-grade towards the end, but I think the first parts taking you through long-distance communication, binary codes, etc, would be good at least.

The Way Things Work, with it's mammoth explanations, was my bible as a child, although I found its explanations of computers and electronics were basic. The updated The Way Things Work Now should fix this.
posted by matsho at 5:47 AM on December 20, 2018

Also came here to suggest The Way Things Work Now - I bought it last year for my electronics-obsessed 10 year old nephew and he loves it.
posted by photo guy at 6:17 AM on December 20, 2018

I feel like you would do well to clarify what you want your daughter to get out of this, and also examine whether it will be productive and reflect on how interested she is. Personally I would need clarification to give anything useful.

Warning: rant that overanalyzes and somewhat purposefully complicates your question incoming. Sorry. Hope you understand where I'm coming from though.

All the topics you mentioned are massive, quite different from each other, and learning about them will be highly dependent on interest level (and focus of that interest) and learning style/personality. Is your daughter creative? a tinkerer? head-in-the-clouds abstract thinker/reader? Need to be using her hands to build to be entertained or content with hours of silent reading?

"How computers work" on a software level is different from learning "how computers work" on a hardware level is different from "how computers work" on a how-a-typical-desktop-is-put-together level is different from "how computers work" on a socioeconomic/cultural/political level ...etc. A lot of practical "how computers work" information for your typical person is unfortunately dictated by market forces (i.e. capitalism) and quite distorted and abstracted from "how computers work" on a basic scientific level.

What do you want her to get out of it? Something practical and basic like keeping her privacy in the modern era of social media? An appreciation for the physics behind the hardware? The abstract mathematics behind software? A basic understanding of "coding" (some introduction to an interpreted language like python or javascript)? A setup for a deep understanding of low-level programming? A "wokeness" on the deceptive, manipulative practices of tech firms and their environmental/socioeconomic impact? A practical ability to make good "consumer choices" regarding computers and tech in general?

I have different and numerous recommendations for all these things, depending on interest and ability (to sit for long periods, concentrate, etc). Some books, some not.

What exactly is it you want for your daughter when it comes to this topic?
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 9:58 AM on December 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Not a book but a series of zines: BubbleSort Zines. Cute and informative and technically correct and approachable, written by the amazing Amy who was/is a web developer. The stated target for these zines is high schoolers, but I am a firm believer of letting the reader decide more what is appropriate for them, especially when it comes to informative reading.

How Do Calculators Even
How Does The Internet
Cache Cats
posted by jillithd at 11:01 AM on December 20, 2018

CS Unplugged - "Computer Science without a Computer" is "is a collection of free teaching material that teaches Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around." Not exactly a book, though there are lots of printable exercises and materials. There is this book which collects a lot of the materials
and exercises. It is intended for teachers rather than students but a fourth grader might be
able to read a lot of it. (I don't have any experience with this but it looks interesting.)
posted by JonJacky at 11:51 AM on December 20, 2018

Lift-the-Flap Computers and Coding.
posted by paduasoy at 12:52 AM on December 22, 2018

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