I know, I know. I’m up against a deadline and I really have no time to spare. But here’s the thing: I’ve had two very good writing days in a row, I firmly believe that writing begets more writing (of any kind), and, putting it bluntly, I knew I needed to write about this book so I could get the pesky blog post I was writing out of my brain and onto the computer screen. So, deadline or no deadline, you’re getting a blog post, written quickly and unrevised.
What book was so steadfastly occupying a corner of my brain? Well, do you remember back when I wrote about I, Too, Am America? That same day I picked up another book on a whim. I’ll be honest: I bought it because I was so fascinated that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (I’m linking you to an excellent article about him) had written a children’s book. Also, it was published by Candlewick and Candlewick doesn’t publish crap. But it sat unread for a while as I got caught up in other things and, well, I’ll be honest again: what if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had written a crappy book? I was nervous I’d be disappointed.
Turns out I should have had a bit more faith. As I said, Candlewick doesn’t publish crap, and I’m pretty sure Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is incapable of giving the world a poor performance. (Caveat: I know nothing about basketball, but I hear he was pretty good at that as well as at writing.) What Color Is My World? by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos and A. G. Ford is intelligent, vibrant, and beautifully laid-out.
Let’s start with a question. Have you ever heard of James West? Or Dr. Percy Julian?
Have you ever heard of Thomas Edison?
Which question(s) got a “yes” from you? (If you say all three I will be super impressed and also feel a little stupid. I had only heard of Edison.)
Here’s the thing: I had never heard of a single one of the inventors or innovators presented in this book. Not one of them. And we’re not talking about small potatoes! Each person in this book deserves his or her place there: James West invented the microphone in your cell phone and Dr. Percy Julian synthesized cortisone from soy. I bought this book on a whim, expecting to be entertained, perhaps, or expecting something that would help balance out the Changeling’s education in a few more years, and instead I found myself saying, “Wow, how did I never hear this story?” on every page.
And let me be clear: I should have heard of Dr. Percy Julian, for example. And everyone who knows the names of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell should also know the name of Lewis Howard Latimer, who worked for both of them and was instrumental in the success of their work. (In my defense, I’m afraid my knowledge of white inventors doesn’t extend much beyond Edison and Bell, but still: Latimer was clearly important.)
So how do Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld bring together so many disparate inventors and keep you turning the pages? And how do they prevent such an educational book from turning into an encyclopedia?
The story is told through the eyes of twin siblings, Ella and Herbie, who are moving into a new house– but the house is old and needs a lot of work before they can move in. Herbie is a lovable nerd and his sister, Ella, is a sassy young lady. Their mother finds a friend, Roger Edward Mital, to help fix the place up and while she’s out getting supplies, Mr. Mital enthralls the children by telling them stories derived from the commonest things around them. Ella, of course, is initially reluctant to listen to Mr. Mital’s crazy stories, but is eventually sucked in as thoroughly as her brother. (I think they’d be attractive to middle grade readers– Candlewick recommends the book for Grades 3-7, which sounds about right to me.)
As for Mr. Mital, he’s a veritable font of information. Looking at a lightbulb leads him to Lewis Latimer, electricity leads him to Dr. Henry T. Sampson (inventor of the gamma electric cell), and mention of Edison leads him to “the Black Thomas Edison,” Granville T. Woods, inventor of the induction telegraph.
Each story is accompanied by a flap to turn: the front of the flap has the inventor’s name, picture, and invention, accompanied by “Ella’s Fast Facts,” a set of quick facts about the key moments in the inventor’s life. The back of the flap tells the story in more detail. The flaps are carefully laid out so as to be convenient without in any way derailing the story of Mr. Mital and the children.
The thing is, that could have been all, and it would have been a very nice book indeed. Kids would be interested in Ella and Herbie and might be inspired by some of the inventors. But there’s something else which permeates the book, and that’s passion. These inventors, you can feel the book telling you, without ever interrupting the story, should be remembered. They did great things for the world as we know it, and the authors are passionate about preventing them from being altogether forgotten. More than that, and without preaching, they’re passionate about ensuring that children like Herbie and Ella should have role models to live up to: we’ve all had Edison and Bell, yes, but it’s time for Latimer’s name and picture to be up there, too.
I’m going to say something I don’t think I’ve said in any other post over here: I felt humbled by this book. I didn’t expect a children’s book to have such an effect on me; at most I suspected I’d learn a new name or two. Instead, I realized just how narrow and sterile and, well, white my knowledge of history was. And if that’s the case in one field, I ask myself, what does that mean for my knowledge in other areas? (OK, I think I have a pretty good handle on Wales in the fourteenth century, but that’s about it.)
In fact, I’m going to speak to parents as well as children here and say that if you want to challenge yourself, find a copy of this book. You might just find that you learn something– about history, or about yourself.