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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Neo Leo, written and illustrated by Gene Barretta. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company. Raincoast, 2009. $18.99 ages 8 and up

"Leonardo believed that a single span bridge was surely possible. But like Mr. Paine, he never saw his bridge constructed. He also proved the value of truss bridges. Leonardo's experiments confirmed that a triangular truss would resist tension better than the older box structures. He proposed a two-level truss..."

As I have mentioned time and again, I really like to share books that will impact the thinking of young readers...and one of the best ways I know to do that is to introduce them to people who have made a difference in the world, and to concepts that connect us from a historical perspective. The three books I am sharing in this post do just that. Gene Barretta does a great job of giving his readers information that will make them sit up and take notice.

I should have put Now and Ben (2003) first as it was published first, but I didn't. So, here goes with Leonardo da Vinci. The subtitle suggests that his ideas are ageless and the author proves his point when he makes the link between Leo's thinking and the development through time of his many ideas. While they did not come to fruition during his lifetime, his notebooks are proof positive that he did wonder about things like parachutes, hang gliders, the helicopter, robots, even the cooking rotisserie. Amazing!

In an author's note, Mr. Barretta tells his audience that Leo used mirror writing when filling his notebooks. Of course, no one knows why. Readers are encouraged to try their hand at reading the backward writing while perusing the book. Much of his thinking was found within more than 20,000 pages of notes he left. Each two page spread in this book helps us discover the connection between his thinking and what actually happened many years later:

With the use of modern imaging technology, doctors now understand that when blood moves through the heart, it forms a vortex that opens and closes the valves.
Leonardo had already figured it out. Through detailed body dissection and simulated water experiments, he discovered and diagrammed accurate examples of vortex formation in the blood.

Today, scientists are using Leo's notes to bring his thinking to light...his ideas are being tested, and they work! There is no doubt that kids will be engaged when sharing this highly informative book.

"Ben...invented the glass armonica. He was able to create music by simply touching his wet fingers to a row of spinning glass bowls. Mozart and Beethoven were so moved by the sounds that they composed for the instrument. Today, glass armonicas are very rare. You are more likely to find one in a museum than in a music store."

This is the first in the set of three picture book biographies created using a similar format. If you know a young scientist with an abiding interest in invention, this might be just the book to get. Kids love to invent, and that is exactly what Benjamin Franklin did throughout his long life.

I love the title page which shows our world on one half, Ben's world on the other...and some of the similarities from one point in time to another. Moving into the heart of the book, we see Ben standing on a street in today's world, surrounded by some of the many inventions credited to him. Each consequent spread shows a Now page, facing a Ben page.

The Ben side of the page leads us to understand how his invention led to what we use now:

"Now...bifocals are very common. Bifocals combine two sets of lenses into one pair of glasses. The bottom lens helps see near, and the top lens helps see far.

Ben...originally designed bifocals for himself after he grew tired of switching between two pairs of glasses."

Mr. Barretta's illustrations have real appeal for his young audience. He uses watercolor to create  detailed, colorful images that are sure to entertain and invite discussion. Ben Franklin was an amazing man who left a legacy that never ceases to astonish for the breadth of his work and the way in which his ideas continue to inform inventors and scientists today...what will the future bring?

"Like a tattoo machine, the electric pen contained a small needle that moved in and out. While writing a message, the needle poked holes in the paper to create a stencil. Ink was spread over the stencil to make copies. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was a big fan of the electric pen."

The newest addition to this handsome series concerns Thomas Edison, who knew failure during his lifetime. It didn't deter him:

"Edison used his failures as a necessary part of inventing. He once said, "I know several thousand things that WON'T work." And he would always try again."

A valuable lesson for each one of us. This book is written to celebrate his many successes, and how they impact our lives even today. The facing pages of every two page spread concern the present day with what actually happened in Mr. Edison's lab. They discuss briefly how we enjoy many modern amenities that have roots in the discoveries made earlier by Thomas Edison and his staff. The pages describing his work are more detailed concerning the ideas he had and the improvements he made in already developed  technologies.   

The simple diagrams are created to help young readers understand the many concepts concerning the workings of those technologies. I know they helped me to understand both the photocopier and the tattoo needle. Will wonders never cease? Bravo, Mr. Barretta!
Perfect as fodder to get kids thinking and wondering about this talented and ahead-of-his-time thinker, this book is just what they need to send them looking for further information. To that end, the author adds a bit of a timeline for the many innovations that began when Thomas was only 12, a list of Mr. Edison's employees, a bit of trivia and a bibliography that is sure to point them in the right direction if they have a need to know more.     

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