Monday, July 8, 2013

Non-Fiction Monday: Geniuses in the Making

Last week, I visited one of my local libraries and pigged out on picture books. Four were picture book biographies and two of them were, coincidentally, about boy geniuses so I thought I'd bundle them here.

On a Beam of Light: a story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. 56 p. Chronicle Books, April, 2013. 9780811872355. (Borrowed, but purchasing for my school library.)

How to distill the genius that was Einstein into a picture book format? By focusing on its/ his essence: curiosity. That Albert Einstein didn't speak until age three is a fairly well-known fact. Here, the author uses repetition to emphasize this and the illustrator deftly portrays the loving, watchful, worried parents who acknowledge his differences yet love him unconditionally. When Albert's father gives him a compass when Albert is sick in bed, the simple gift awakens an awareness that there are unseen mysteries in this world. How does the compass needle always point north no matter which way it is turned?

So the boy who hardly ever spoke started asking questions. Many questions. At home and at school. It is safe to assume that his questions were supported at home, but at school? Not so much. "[His teachers] said he would never amount to anything unless he learned to behave like all the other students." The illustration on this page features eighteen identical boys looking askance at Albert, who stands on the next page looking back at them, singled out by a stern and pointing teacher. 

Albert has another epiphany while riding his bicycle. "...he looked up at the beams of sunlight speeding from the sun to the Earth. He wondered, what would it be like to ride one of those beams?" He read and wondered and wondered and read. 

Again, the art perfectly reflects Albert as he ages and finds his place in the world. A two-page author note expands on some of his theories and steers readers to the Einstein Archives website. This lovely book surely deserves space on the biography shelf next to Kathleen Krull's excellent biography and the photo-biography  Genius, by Marfe Ferguson Delano, which every great middle school library collection ought to have.

Personal leakage: I would've been predisposed to this one even without all the positive reviews as the cover reminded me of a treasured memory about #4 son. He was (is) intensely curious. When he was a teeny toddler, we were always out walking and our walks were constantly interrupted whenever he spied something, which was usually tiny. But the memory evoked by On a Beam of Light comes from when he was nine. He asked me, "How many dimensions does a sunbeam have?" Damned if I know, so we asked his fourth grade teacher, who also taught the fourth grade science. He didn't know, so we turned to the Internet but never found a definitive answer. 

Other blog reviews:
Waking Brain Cells
Nerdy Book Club
The Classroom Bookshelf
Sal's Fiction Addiction

The Boy Who Loved Math: the improbable life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. 48 p. Roaring Brook Press, June 25, 2013. 9781596433076. (Borrowed, but purchasing for my school library)

Paul Erdos (apologies for not knowing the shortcut to accent properly) was born in the early 1900s to two math teachers. I guess he was genetically disposed towards math, but he showed an affinity for numbers early on. And he was a bit odd. He hated rules. He hated to sit still and he loved numbers. In fact, he not only taught himself to count, but to figure out how many seconds a person was alive merely by asking that person the date and time of their birth. Some parlor trick. That didn't make him easier to get along with though.

School was a disaster. His mother solved that problem by hiring his nanny, Fraulein, to homeschool him. Even though he was a math genius, he couldn't do most activities of daily living for himself. He returned to school in high school, where it was a bit better and he earned top scores in math. In fact, he became famous all over Hungary for his math knowledge. Yet, he still couldn't cook, butter his bread, or do laundry. He coped though he realized early that he wasn't the kind of person to live in one place, have a job or a wife and children.

Instead, he became the original couch surfer (thank you Reading Diary) and filled a suitcase with math notebooks and clothes and flew all over the world to stay with mathematicians to talk about math.

The text is infused with numbers and the exuberant, energetic illustrations remind the reader that math is everywhere in life. Plus, there's plenty more extra information in the author and illustrator notes at the end. 

Such a fun book to have around. This is high praise coming from a lifelong mathphobe.

Other blog reviews:
Reading Diary
NonFiction Detectives

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by Abby the Librarian. Pop on over there to see what other outstanding informational titles are being recommended. 


  1. Oh, I definitely want to take a look at these. Great bundle idea!

  2. Thanks much for the shout-out. Hats off to Jennifer Berne for distilling his story even further. And I love Marfe's book.