Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S. D. Schindler
Ben Franklin grew up the son of a soap maker and loved to spend his free time on summer days swimming in the river near his home. In the time of his childhood, people just did not swim or wash regularly because they thought it would make you sick, so Ben was considered rather odd for the amount of time he spent in the water. As he swam, Ben started to wonder why it was that fish swim so much better than he could. And so Ben starts to come up with inventions that would help him swim like a fish. First, he made swim fins for his hands out of wood and they did make him much faster, but they also made his wrists sore and tired. The next invention was swim sandals, but they didn’t improve things much since they slid off his feet. But Ben was not a quitter and so he took each defeat as a way to improve his idea. After all, he was a scientist through and through.
Rosenstock sets just the right playful and rather silly tone with this biographical picture book. She includes plenty of details about the society in the 1700s and how it was different from our modern one. Using different fonts and repeating words, she also emphasizes the importance of trial and error in science and solving problems. She also ties in the fact that this is how science works and how scientists learn things, along with a healthy dose of dedication and resolve.
The illustrations by Schindler are marvelous, cleverly covering up the more private parts of the naked swimming boy with splashes and waves. They have a light-hearted quality to them and also a visual lightness that makes the book even funnier as they swim across the page.
A book to inspire children to try to solve problems they discover, this is a fresh and summery look at a boy genius at play. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Queen Victoria longs to get out of the heat of the summer as well as her itchy clothes and tight corset and just be able to swim in the sea. But her lady-in-waiting collapses even considering the scandal that could take place if someone were to see the queen before she reached the water! The queen gives up the idea, realizing that there is no way that she could be properly dressed and still able to swim. Prince Albert though wants to try to figure out a way to get his beloved wife into the water. Albert came up with many ideas, but none of them worked. Then he struck upon a wonderful idea, a wheeled wooden cart that could be pulled right into the water. This true story of a queen who wanted a touch of freedom ends with an image of the restored bathing machine that is now on the Isle of Wight in England.
Whelan takes a wonderfully playful look at solving the queen’s swimming problems. She makes sure that at the base of the entire story is the adoration between Albert and Victoria, a rich love story even though they were monarchs and parents. Cleverly having a fainting lady-in-waiting who is the voice of propriety in the book helps children understand the expectations of decorum in a previous day. Whelan writes in a free rhyming verse here, the looseness of the poems feel simple by belie that skill that it takes to write in this style.
Carpenter’s illustrations also have a sprightly humor to them. They also celebrate the love of the two historical figures. Perhaps the most joyful images are Victoria finally able to swim and cavort in the water. Or maybe it is the final illustration where Victoria is happily held in Albert’s arms dripping and happy.
This piece of historical fiction is based on a true story and shows creativity and problem solving galore. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming, illustrations by Boris Kulikov
Based on a true story, this picture book reads more like a far-fetched fantasy. Papa is an inventor but has never made anything that works. All he needs is one incredible idea, but they don’t come easily. So the family takes a trip to the lake where one of the children, the narrator of the book, asks what it is like to be a fish. That gives Papa the incredible idea he was looking for. The first version of his mechanical fish is so small that Papa himself can barely fit into it. It almost works. The second version is bigger and has a fin and a propeller and seats two people. It almost works. Whitefish III is even bigger, seats three, and is covered in copper. It almost works too. The fourth version is huge, fits the entire family, and… Well, you just have to read the story to see how it ends.
The whimsy of these inventions is a large part of what makes this book so successful. From the slow progress of the machines from one version to the next to the joy of seeing them tried out in the story, this is a book where you must find out what happens next. Fleming has also written a charming story of a family that supports the inventor. There is a rhythm to the story that makes it a pleasure, each attempt and failure met with similar satisfying responses from his family. This makes the book work for a larger age range and makes reading it all the more fun.
Kulikov’s illustrations are a mix of realistic illustrations, huge fish that float past as inspiration in the water, and blueprints that let you glimpse the inside of each version of the submarine. The entire book has a wonderful frantic quality to it, engaging the reader right in the moment of Aha! and then through the different trials.
A treat of a book, this book will be inspiring to young engineers and inventors. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
This picture book version of the nonfiction book manages to translate the story of William Kamkwamba with clarity and inspiration. When a drought hit his village in Malawi in 2001 and 2002, 14-year-old William and his family were in real danger of starving. William had always through about machines and even after he was forced to leave school due to the drought, he kept reading books about them. He thought about what could be done with a windmill in his village, bringing light and water. So he hunted through the junk yard and found pieces to use. Built entirely out of scraps, his first windmill and its electric wind brought electricity to the valley. The afterword gives more details about William’s story and how it took him longer years to bring his dream of pumping water to fruition. This inspirational story speaks to the inventor, the doer, and the dreamer in all of us.
The writing here is lovely. The imagery is impressive, such as comparing the windmill to a “clumsy giraffe” and giving William’s sorrow at having to leave school a physical sense: “alone with the monster in his belly and the lump in his throat.” The book carefully captures what life in Malawi was like and what little could be done to make a difference before transforming into a book where dreams create change.
Zunon’s illustrations are exquisite. They are a captivating mix of painting and collage. Filled with texture, the textiles of the clothing come to life and the objects have weight and feel. The most impressive are the faces of the people, filled with light. The faces become the place your eyes go first, making the message of the book just that much stronger in a subtle but powerful way.
A luminous picture book version of a compelling real-life story, this book should inspire others to not only dream but to make those dreams happen. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.