Kidlit Fiction Books Featuring Tournament Robotics
Two years ago I was looking for books featuring tournament robotics, and was sorely disappointed. While there were a slew of nonfiction books, and many fiction books with futuristic robots, the kidlit world had very few books with realistic tournament robotics. I wanted something I could use in my robotics classroom, but I was struggling to find it.
Well, two years later, and I am happy to say that has changed! There are several amazing middle grade and young adult books out now that feature tournament robotics, with more to come. I’ve listed the ones I know about below, as well as given my personal thoughts on them and ideas for how to use them in the classroom. Check it out!
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Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero
Author: Saadia Faruqi
Age Category: Upper Middle Grade
Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.
Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.
With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?
If you follow me on twitter, you know I adore this book. Not only does it take a strong look at the racism facing the Muslim community in the US, but it also delves into powerful themes of friendship, family, and STEM. It’s a well written and immersive book, full of heartfelt moments and nuanced characters. It will stick with you for a long time after reading it.
Robotics Classroom Use:
Teachers, this book features Lego robotics, with the students taking their robot to what reads very much like a FIRST Lego League competition. It goes in depth enough that students will be able to draw parallels with their own robotics experiences and will clearly recognize the elements of building a robot with lego mindstorms. From my reading and robotics experience, it tackles robotics very accurately.
The book also talks about programming, with the main character programming in Scratch, and programming a Micro:bit. The programming described and the way Yusuf worked with the Micro:bit was well done and accurate in the technical details. The descriptions are accurate enough that students could potentially recreate the projects Yusuf worked on in the story in their own classrooms.
Other Classroom Use: The book takes place around the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Between the conversations in the story and the use of journal style flashbacks to Yusuf’s uncle during 9/11, the story takes a long look at both the events of that day as well as the impacts on different communities afterwards. It delves deep into the racism faced by the Muslim community both immediately after the event and twenty years later, and has many plot points that can be used in lessons about how we treat others, finding community, and standing up for what is right.
The story also takes a nuanced look at friendships, with a friend that hurts Yusuf and Yusuf having to decide how to move forward with that friend, as well as Yusuf forming friendships with other kids that he initially judged harshly and navigating the complex dynamics of having friends that don’t always get along with each other. There’s many opportunities for Social Emotional Learning lessons with this book in the way it navigates complex friendships.
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Author: Prudence Shen & Faith Erin Hicks
Age Category: Young Adult
Charlie is the laid-back captain of the basketball team. Nate is the neurotic, scheming president of the robotics club. Their unlikely friendship nearly bites the dust when Nate declares war on the cheerleaders and the cheerleaders retaliate by making Charlie their figurehead in the ugliest class election campaign the school has ever seen. At stake? Student group funding that will either cover a robotics competition or new cheerleading uniforms--but not both.
Bad sportsmanship? Sure.
Chainsaws? Why not.
Running away from home on Thanksgiving? Nothing can possibly go wrong.
This graphic novel is a ton of fun. With well done art, a variety of interesting characters, and robotics, I really enjoyed it. The story is a quick read with a lot of fun elements, and while it does have its share of cliches it also lampshades and plays with many of them in interesting ways. The exciting take on robotics will have many students interested in trying it for themselves.
Robotics Classroom Use: The robotics in the story reminded me heavily of Battlebots. While we never get a look at the wiring, gears, and internal mechanisms moving the robot, the art is clear enough that I can see ways to make lessons analyzing the way the robot’s spike (a lever-like mechanism) works, the way it’s forklift works, and analyzing ways to improve its structure. The design is realistic and looks like something that you’d feasibly see in a battle bots match, which leads to some great pros and cons analysis opportunities.
The story also shows a solid depiction of the design process. Though we don't see the technical diagrams or the programming done, we do get a good look at the process of building, testing, and improving a robot. Several times we also see the characters discussing the science behind how the robot works in an accurate way. We see the robot clearly evolve and improve through the story, providing opportunity for many discussions about how engineers improve on their designs.
Finally, the teamwork aspects are also strong, and show great depictions of the team learning to work together and working through their disagreements.
Other Classroom Use: This graphic novel has many opportunities for classroom lessons. The first half of the book depicts two characters fighting for school president (one willing and one not so willingly). The tactics used are increasingly underhanded, which could provide opportunities to talk about ethics in elections and draw parallels to campaigning throughout US history.
The story also shows a lot of nuance in the friendship, with the robotics club arguing, fighting, and eventually pulling together and getting along. There's an opportunity to analyze the character motivations and discuss in class how things were handled well and how the students in the story could have handled things better.
In addition, the story takes many typical tropes (cheerleaders vs nerds, stuck up popular kids, awkward nerds, etc) and adds nuance to them as the story goes on, showing how the stereotypes were inaccurate. This could allow for lessons on analyzing stereotypes as well as taking time to get to know people instead of assuming based on the stereotypes.
The Trouble With Robots
Author: Michelle Mohrweis
Age Category: Middle Grade
Eighth-graders Evelyn and Allie are in trouble. Evelyn’s constant need for perfection has blown some fuses among her robotics teammates, and she’s worried nobody’s taking the upcoming competition seriously. Allie is new to school, and she’s had a history of short-circuiting on teachers and other kids.
So when Allie is assigned to the robotics team as a last resort, all Evelyn can see is just another wrench in the works! But as Allie confronts a past stricken with grief and learns to open up, the gears click into place as she discovers that Evelyn’s teammates have a lot to offer—if only Evelyn allowed them to participate in a role that plays to their strengths.
Can Evelyn learn to let go and listen to what Allie has to say? Or will their spot in the competition go up in smoke along with their school’s robotics program and Allie’s only chance at redemption?
An excellent pick for STEAM enthusiasts, this earnestly told narrative features a dual point of view and casually explores autistic and LGBTQ+ identities.
This book will be released on September 6th, 2022.
Please note, this is my book, so I am biased towards it. However, I hope my thoughts are still helpful to readers! This story is a mix of lighthearted and serious, with themes of coping with grief, finding friendship, and determination. The tournament scenes buzz with excited energy, and the build up to the tournament is full of many fun and dramatic moments, making this a fun read.
Robotics Classroom Use: While the robotics in the story is never named, it bears close resemblance to VEX robotics (specifically VRC). The story includes accurate depictions of the design process, building the robots, design notebooks, technical diagrams, talk of gear ratios and mechanisms, and some references to the programming. Students reading this book will recognize many aspects of their own robotics work, and the robotics described can be analyzed and replicated in a classroom or club.
The scenes talking about the design notebook, gear ratios, and general robot layout can also be used to review lessons about those topics in a robotics classroom. In addition, we see the design process followed as the students test and improve the robot throughout the story, making modifications to strengthen it based on their testing.
The story also depicts strong examples of teamwork, showing the students as they learn how to play to each other’s strengths and work together as a team despite not getting along at the start.
Other Classroom Use: The book has many opportunities for social emotional lessons as we watch the characters navigate making friendships and figuring out how to get along. There is room to discuss how the characters handle situations and what better choices might have been, especially early in the book when tensions are high between the robotics team.
The story also introduces several disabled/neurotypical characters in nuanced ways, providing opportunities to discuss the accommodations that help the characters (such as Evelyn’s headphones to help with her sound sensitivity) as well as opportunities to discuss the importance of accurate representation and listening to disabled/neurodivergent voices when working with their communities. The story also casually features many LGBTQ+ characters, with the main characters themselves being bi and ace. There’s room here to talk about acceptance and inclusion.
My Mechanical Romance
Author: Alexene Farol Follmuth
Age Category: Young Adult
Nerds are so hot.
Especially battle robot building nerds.
Bel would rather die than think about the future. College apps? You’re funny. Extracurriculars? Not a chance. But when she accidentally reveals a talent for engineering at school, she’s basically forced into joining the robotics club. Even worse? All the boys ignore Bel—and Neelam, the only other girl on the team, doesn’t seem to like her either.
Enter Mateo Luna, captain of the club, who recognizes Bel as a potential asset—until they start butting heads. Bel doesn’t care about Nationals, while Teo cares too much. But as the nights of after-school work grow longer and longer, Bel and Teo realize they’ve built more than just a combat-ready robot for the championship: they’ve made space for each other and themselves.
This sharply funny, academic rivals to lovers romance explores both the challenges girls of color face in STEM and the vulnerability of first love with unfailing wit and honesty.
This book will be released on May 31, 2022.
I haven’t read this one yet, but I did request it from edelweiss, so here’s hoping I get to read it early! If not, then I'll def be reading it upon release. I’ll update this page as soon as I’ve had a chance to read it. I am all about it’s adorable cover and pun filled title though!
The Inside Battle
Author: Melanie Sumrow
Age Category: Middle Grade
Thirteen-year-old Rebel Mercer lives in west Texas with his dad, Nathan, and his aunt Birdie. His dad is finally home after serving in the military, and Rebel longs for his approval. But something isn't right. His dad has PTSD, and lately he has been spending his time communicating with a racist, anti-government militia group called the Flag Bearers. Rebel doesn't agree with his dad's newfound ideas, but he turns a blind eye to them. So when his best friend Ajeet beats Rebel at a robotics tournament by using one of Rebel's pieces, Rebel begins to wonder if there's some truth to what his dad has been saying, and he lashes out at Ajeet.
Expelled from school, Rebel's dad takes him to the mountains of Oklahoma, where they meet up with the Flag Bearers. Soon his dad is engulfed in the group and its activities, and they're becoming more and more dangerous. When Rebel gets wind of a planned attack on an African American church, he knows that this group has gone too far and innocent people could get hurt. Can Rebel find his voice and stop the Flag Bearers from carrying out their plans before it's too late?
The Inside Battle is a gripping story of family, bravery, and speaking up for what's right from author Melanie Sumrow.
This was a powerful and poignant book to read, with a lot of heavy themes, heartfelt moments, and great depictions of learning to stand up for what is right. The story is gripping, and will keep readers on their toes and turning the pages right to the end. I finished it in one sitting. The robotics moments are some of the most lighthearted bits, and will have readers interested in robotics themselves.
Robotics Classroom Use: Robotics features heavily in the story, with Rebel participating in a tournament at both the start and end, as well as periodically working on his robot through the central bits.
The robotics used is never named, but the descriptions and tournament style line up with Lego Mindstorms and FIRST robotics tournaments. At one point, EV3 is even mentioned. The descriptions of how to build the robot are extremely accurate, with the character even clicking through code on the EV3 brick and detailed descriptions of connecting parts. It’s accurate enough that students can recreate much of the robotics done in their own classrooms and analyze ways to modify and improve the robots built.
The story also loosely depicts the design process, with Rebel thinking about how to improve his robot, building the beginnings of a new model during the center of the story, and finally improving on it for the tournament featured in the final chapter. Though robotics is not the central theme of the story, it features heavily enough that this story would work as an addition to many robotics classrooms.
Other Classroom Use: The story features strong depictions of racism, hate groups, and conspiracy theories. The story also features the main character, Rebel, struggling to speak up against the hate shown by his dad. There is much room in the story to talk about how to stand up for what’s right, and to discuss and debunk many of the conspiracies Rebel’s father falls into.
This story may be disturbing for some students to read, as the racism and hatred depicted may be painful to readers who have experienced that same hate aimed at them.
The story has strong depictions of hate speech, hateful acts, and blatant racism and while the main character does frequently acknowledge it is wrong in his own private thoughts, lessons surrounding how to counter that level of hate would be helpful in a classroom. The story does come with a discussion guide with questions to help guide you as you address the story topics with students.
Author: Gordon Korman
Age Category: Middle Grade
The word gifted has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It's usually more like Don't try this at home. So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he's finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.
It wasn't exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn't be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his gifts might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.
This book is a ton of fun. The main character is ridiculous and silly, the scenario that kicks off the story is absolutely hilarious, and the book is written in a way that will have readers laughing nonstop. It was a quick read and one I can see students enjoying the entire way through.
Robotics Classroom Use: Though some elements are realistic (the competition they went to reminded me heavily of FIRST Lego League), the robot itself has a large dose of fiction mixed in. Which works for the book given its entire set up and storytelling style, but may not make it the best fit for a curriculum extension in a robotics classroom.
However, the book does show great elements of teamwork, learning to embrace each other’s strengths, and friendship. The way they interact with the robot is very fun, and the excitement of the tournament is infectious. I can see this book drawing more kids into robotics!
Classroom Use: The book provides many opportunities to talk about expectations and judging based on labels. In addition, there’s room to analyze the mistakes various characters make and to discuss what might have been better ways of handling things versus what situations the characters handled well.
The story also shows all the characters going through large amounts of personal growth. Whether the main character or side characters, almost everyone in the story learns something new, improves, and changes throughout the book. This could allow for great analysis of the various character arcs.
Please be aware: The book does lean into negative “gifted” stereotypes, with most of the students at the academy being very talented in sciences and math, but having no social skills and very little skill for the arts. The book places a great deal of emphasis on how the gifted students don’t know how to be “normal”. If you read the story with your class, it would be worth discussing how these stereotypes can be inaccurate and harmful, and how in reality students are much more nuanced no matter what their level of academic achievement.
So there you have it. I hope this list is useful to any educators looking for more books to use in their classrooms or libraries. If you know of any books I missed, let me know and I’ll get them read and added ASAP.