The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation
Written and illustrated by Gilbert Ford
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016
Grades K and up
In 1943, while working as an engineer for the United States Navy, Richard James watched as a torsion spring fell from a shelf and “[i]ts coils took a walk.” Once Richard’s wife, Betty, settled on the name “Slinky, he knew he had a hit on his hands. So begins the story of one of the world’s most iconic toys and of how amazing discoveries can be made when we least expect them springs to life. In The Marvelous Thing that Came from a Spring, Gilbert Ford chronicles the development of the Slinky from its “accidental” invention to its initially tenuous reception by storeowners to its sensational debut at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia. The story continues with the building of an enterprise and the Slinky’s eventual induction to the National Toy Hall of Fame. Along the way, we learn of some bumps in the road, but Ford’s concise, straightforward text centers the famous toy as the protagonist. Readers will also want to lean into each illustration, composed in dioramic fashion with paper cutouts, vintage toys, and found objects that carry the potential to be reworked into the next must-have toy. A mesmerizing read for all, especially would-be inventors.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Accidental Inventions. Provide students with a list of everyday inventions, like the Slinky, that have been created by accident. For example, the list might include potato chips, vulcanized rubber, Play-doh, and x-rays (see here and here for more accidental inventions). Have students select and accidental invention that interests them and divide students into small groups to research it. Who invented it? What were they trying to do when they accidentally discovered the invention? How did they go about developing the invention? What role does the invention play in our world today? Have students share their findings in a multimedia presentation for the class.
- Iconic Toys Across the Generations. Have students interview a number of people they know from different generations (make sure they include a younger generation, if they can!) about the iconic toys from their childhood. What made the toy iconic? Did the interviewee own that toy or ever play with one? How many people did the interviewee know who had the toy? How difficult was it to procure and purchase the toy? Once students complete their interviews, have them share their findings with the class, perhaps in a table or chart. Then, have them analyze the similarities and differences among the answers. If possible, have them bring in examples of those toys (or try to procure some yourself) for everyone to explore.
- Inventing Toys and Games. Have students brainstorm a list of toys or games they have made up and enjoyed playing. Invite them to storytell how the idea for the toy or game was conceived and how they refined it as they played. Have them then create a piece of procedural writing (also known as a “how-to” piece) that explains how to create the toy or play the game. Once written, have students share their pieces with the class, and then have the class vote on which of those toys or games they would want to try. Then, of course, have them try inventing or playing it!
- The Physics of Slinkys. If you do an online search for information about how a Slinky “walks,” you’ll find a number of explanations and experiments that help students learn about concepts in physics (see Further Explorations below for some links). Have students read, view, or try out some of these explanations, making sure to support them in understanding key concepts, such as momentum, inertia, potential energy, and kinetic energy. Then, have students compose their own explanations, restating what they have learned in their own words. Encourage them to use whatever medium and mode (e.g., a traditional informational essay, a video, a slide presentation, a comic strip, oral explanation and demonstration, etc.) best helps them explain what they know. Challenge them to teach someone else (a younger child or another adult) how a Slinky works and assess how well their explanation was.
- The Stories Behind Toys. As a large group, brainstorm a list of toys students are curious to learn more about. Have them select one or several toys to research further, either individually or in small groups. Who invented or discovered the toy? How was it developed in preparation for its sale? How was it introduced or advertised to the public? How has the toy evolved over time? After students complete their research, challenge them to write or co-write the story behind the toy, using The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring as a mentor text.
- Kinds of Springs. As the book explains, Slinkys are a type of spring called a torsion spring. What other kinds of springs are there? Ask students to collect and bring in a variety of springs to class. Have them work together as a class to do an initial sorting of the springs, according to the criteria or properties that make the most sense to them. Then, have them research the different kinds of springs that exist in the world. Challenge students to then sort the springs again into new categories, explaining the criteria and properties that now inform their decisions.
- “A Spring, a Spring, a Marvelous Thing!” The jingle that advertised the Slinky is a tune remembered by many. Share the lyrics with students and play the jingle and classic commercial for them. Have them analyze why the jingle was so effective and memorable. Challenge students to compose a jingle for another toy, individually or in small groups, making sure they explain the processes and reasons for composing the tune and lyrics as they do.
- Illustrator Study. Gilbert Ford’s artwork has graced the covers and pages of many children’s picture books and novels. Gather a collection of his work and biographical information, including interviews. Look closely at his illustrations as a class, noting similarities and differences across their formats and styles in different books. What artistic styles, media, and techniques does he employ? What themes (motifs) or symbols do they see across his illustrations? Gather information from the websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources. Ford’s portfolio and blog, both available on his website, provide a wealth of information and examples to begin your illustrator study.
- Betty’s Story. Blink, and you might miss the line of text stating that Betty James took over and resuscitated James Industries when the company foundered. In fact, Betty was deeply involved in the creation and success of the Slinky from the naming of the toy to its development into one of the world’s iconic toys. Why, then, does her story get so little attention compared to Richard’s in this book? Why did the company stumble financially in the first place? Have students research information about Betty James and the Slinky to gain other viewpoints and tellings of this story. Some online articles can be found in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. You might also ask students to research different explanations for why Richard James left the company to see how they might add more nuance to the story.
Gilbert Ford’s website
National Toy Hall of Fame
Website articles about the Slinky
How does a Slinky work?
Websites about Toy Inventors
Jones, C. (1994). Mistakes that worked: 40 familiar inventions & how they came to be. Ill. by J. O’Brien. New York: Delacorte Press.
Kehoe, T. (2011). Vincent Shadow: Toy inventor. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
McCully, E. A. (2006). Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight became an inventor. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Thimmesh, C. (2002). Girls think of everything: Stories of ingenious inventions by women. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.
Williams, M. (2013). Hooray for inventors! Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Wulffson, D. (2000). Toys!: Amazing stories behind some great inventions. Ill. by L. Keller. New York: Henry Holt.