I read this in the 1990s while living in Kentucky. Pretty sure it was a library book, although I'm not certain if it was the school or city library. The main character is a young teenage male, in either middle school or high school, Caucasian, living in a small town in the United States. I believe it had pen-and-ink drawings at a few places in the book, and I'm pretty sure it was broken up into chapters. Two things have stuck with me: one is that he is at one point babysitting an infant (maybe his little brother?), and starts reading the dictionary to the child (I remember "pusillanimous" and "susurration" being two of the words, the latter being where he realized that the S words worked best), which calms the child. I think there was a later scene where the child was using a few multiple-syllable words as part of its babble, puzzling its parents.

The other is a running thread in the books where he's doing a science project for a science fair, and his projects keep accidentally breaking things. I believe his overall theme was sources of power over history. I remember one project was a full-sized catapult, complete with a large rock in the holder, which went off when someone (the teacher?) pulled the lever, not realizing it was functional. Another was a steam engine. I think it exploded because he didn't set up the pressure valve correctly. The last had something to do with a fan and a source of smoke, maybe a demonstration of wind power. I remember he initially was going to use a burning rag for the smoke, but found a more elegant solution, I think involving chemicals to generate smoke. At the time of the fair, the teachers were hesitant, knowing what had happened with the other projects, but when he switches it on, the calamity comes when a classmate suddenly leaps back and knocks some things (including a bottle of ink, I think) over. Turns out the classmate had reversed the fan blade, thinking it would cause the smoke to blow back on the protagonist, unaware that a reversed fan blade blows the same direction as before.

I feel like I ought to remember more of the book, but those are the bits that stick out. I remember being particularly impressed with the catapult, and trying the dictionary trick with my little brother (it didn't work as well as in the book, but I learned some new words in the process).

  • I know of no such book, but it is used as a running gag in the first few chapters of the Harry Potter Fanfiction Harry Potter and the methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Maybe you could ask him? – MalayTheDynamo Sep 29 '17 at 13:48
  • Was it definitely set in the US? Sounds similar to the (British) Vernon Bright stories by Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore, although I guess "boy genius making inventions that get him into trouble" is a reasonably common trope. – Rand al'Thor Jan 17 '18 at 13:46
  • @Randal'Thor: I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure it was the United States. It was also a self-contained book, not an obvious series, and the "inventions" was more of an "implementing an existing design" setup. He built the catapult and the steam engine from descriptions and diagrams in books, not inventing them himself. – Sean Duggan Jan 17 '18 at 14:03

Sounds like Project Genius by William D. Hayes.

I'm Pete. Some people call me a genius.
Some people call me other things.
Every year our school gives a prize for the most original science project. This year it's a trip to the State Science Fair. And as I said to my pal, Chet, "I'm going to win that trip or bust!"
Oh, oh. Gotta run.
Something's about to explode!
See you inside.

There is also an element where he gets his baby brother onto a local TV program, this might be your babysitting scene, so this seems to match your description pretty well.

  • Got a link for more info? – Rand al'Thor Jan 12 at 18:57
  • kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/william-hayes/project-genius some books dont really have that much on them but heres some pretty scattered stuff @Randal'Thor – Niffler Jan 12 at 18:59
  • That looks to be the one! Hot dog, I'm going to have to locate a copy... I'd forgotten about the mirage and his belief that he'd priced the Earth flat. – Sean Duggan Jan 12 at 19:22
  • @SeanDuggan happy I could help! – Niffler Jan 12 at 19:25
  • ^_^ I got a copy of the book from the Interlibrary Loan system and just finished reading it. It's all there except for the fan blade. His third project was a (model) nuclear reactor which didn't do any damage at all. I suppose that must have been from another book. – Sean Duggan Mar 28 at 12:29

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