The best books for world-building

Who am I?

I believe stories to be our species’ instinctual tool for discovering our best selves. Sometimes those stories are about real people in the past, sometimes they’re completely imagined people in the future — sometimes we even swap out the humans for animals or aliens, or sassy anthropomorphized objects. Whatever the case, for a story to work its wonders, its details must be believable, or we reject its premise. These books help make a story believable, and, if you get the alchemy just right, those details can even help tell the story themselves.


I wrote...

New in Town

By Kevin Cornell,

Book cover of New in Town

What is my book about?

One fine morning, the people of Puddletrunk wake up to find their bridge has collapsed. They are not surprised. After all, termites have destroyed the last 200 or so bridges. Luckily, the people of Puddletrunk have a bridge-building expert in their town: the fabulous Mortimer Gulch, who will gladly rebuild their bridge for a pretty penny. But when a newcomer to Puddletrunk does not want to pay for the repairs, Mortimer is displeased. To make matters worse, this unusual foreigner has some innovative ideas that threaten to upend Mortimer Gulch's entire business.

Here is a whimsical yet timely picture book allegory about what new people with new ideas can bring to communities.

The books I picked & why

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Why Elephants Have Big Ears : Understanding Patterns of Life on Earth

By Chris Lavers,

Book cover of Why Elephants Have Big Ears : Understanding Patterns of Life on Earth

Why this book?

If you’re gonna draw any creatures, humans included, it’s important to understand all the factors that influence their size and their shape. The temperature of their environment, the altitude, the precipitation— even the gravity of the planet itself. The book gives gives an in-depth understanding as to why animals look they way they do, and why some weird structures are not only practical, but crucial for a species to survive.


What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society

By Melissa Leventon,

Book cover of What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society

Why this book?

This is a pretty exhaustive study of how humans garb themselves, and how function, wealth and technology all influence fashion. Whether you’re telling the a tale of a doughty Georgian lace merchant, or the harrowing adventures of an inter-dimensional jazz band, you’re probably going to put your heroes in some sort of clothing, and this book gives you insight into all the various ways humans have found to do that.


The Grammar of Ornament: All 100 Color Plates from the Great Victorian Sourcebook of Historic Design

By Owen Jones,

Book cover of The Grammar of Ornament: All 100 Color Plates from the Great Victorian Sourcebook of Historic Design

Why this book?

Clothing isn’t the only residue a culture and its people leave behind. Humans are natural pattern makers, and those patterns often give important insight into what those people value, as well as what fills their natural environment. Materials, dyes, tools… all these things have an influence on how a culture decorates their world and themselves. Patterns are a very subtle way to underscore a moment in a story.


Mapping the World: An Illustrated History of Cartography

By Ralph E. Ehrenberg,

Book cover of Mapping the World: An Illustrated History of Cartography

Why this book?

You get a lot of insight into a culture from the maps they create. Not only how they view themselves, but how they view others around them. There have been times in history when cultures weren’t even concerned with their maps being geographically accurate— they were a tool for teaching religion, or indulging a yearning for the fantastic. This book gives an excellent overview as to the many ways humans have used, and designed, maps throughout the centuries.


A Museum of Early American Tools

By Eric Sloane,

Book cover of A Museum of Early American Tools

Why this book?

Nothing angers me more than when a book tries to explain something in words when it can be communicated much more effectively through illustration. That’s the beauty of Eric Sloane. The man visually recorded everything from weather phenomena to architecture to tools of bygone eras. I’m recommending the book A Museum of Early American Tools because its the one I’ve found the most useful, but I recommend checking out any of his books. At the very least, it can help you appreciate how those design decisions we take for granted— the roof of a barn, or the shape of a hammer handle— were honed by a balance of tradition, practicality, and circumstance.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in clothing, cartography, and animals?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about clothing, cartography, and animals.

Clothing Explore 23 books about clothing
Cartography Explore 17 books about cartography
Animals Explore 137 books about animals

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Great War Fashion, The Business of Beauty, and Rich Apparel if you like this list.