Ideas are powerful things, and I love books that explore the stories behind big ideas. Last week I shared picture books about fictional inventions; this week we take a look at some real inventions and creations, from toys to books to revolutions.
It’s hard for me to imagine a world without libraries, but this book is about a time when public lending libraries were still a pretty new idea. One woman, Mary Lemist Titcomb, became the head librarian of the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Maryland—the second county-wide library in the nation. It was important to her that books weren’t just for “the idle and the rich,” but that everyone have access to books, especially the working class and children. To that end, she opened one of the first children’s rooms in the library, and made sure outlying village schools had a rotating book supply.
She also set up book deposit stations—the photographs remind me a lot of the Little Free Libraries that I see around the city, though these were set up all around Washington County, some even in private homes, to extend the library’s reach further into the countryside. But even those weren’t enough, so in 1905 Miss Titcomb invented the book wagon, a horse-drawn carriage specially designed with bookshelves on its sides, delivering books to people in villages and farms all over the county. The bookmobile was eventually replaced by horseless versions, but it continues to this day (in a bus version), making sure that residents in rural areas have access to books even if they can’t get to a library nearby.
I have to admit that Library on Wheels looks kind of dry; it has a lot of text and is accompanied primarily by old black-and-white photographs rather than colorful illustrations. But it’s a fascinating story about a woman who did what many other people thought was impossible, and now there are bookmobiles all over the country.
This book is all about the power of ideas, and particularly the power of words. Thomas Paine was destined to become a corset-maker, like his father, but his brief time in school as a child opened him up to the world of ideas, and he was determined to explore it. We get to read about his early adulthood, including when everything fell apart. But then he ends up in America, the right place at the right time. His pamphlet, Common Sense, became a best-seller and gave people permission to start discussing independence—the “dangerous word”—in public. Without Paine, it’s uncertain whether Americans would be an independent nation now.
The book simplifies Paine’s story into picture book format for young readers, though there’s an appendix at the back with a little more about Paine’s life after Common Sense, as well as his series of essays written during the Revolutionary War. There’s a recurring theme about the effect that words had in Paine’s life.
The Girl With a Mind for Math:The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
I’d never heard of Raye Montague before reading this book; she’s another hidden figure who had a huge impact in her field, and I’m glad this book tells her story. Montague is a black woman who fell in love with boats and wanted to become an engineer, but of course it was nearly impossible for her to get an engineering degree, let alone get a job designing ships. She did manage to get a typing job in the Navy, and eventually—you’ll have to read the book to find out how—she ended being the first person to create a computer-designed ship blueprint on a system that she perfected herself.
The book tells the story in rhyming verse, with a couple pages of facts and a timeline at the back of the book for further reading. The book depicts both the sexism and racism that Montague faced during her career, and how she persisted through them to accomplish something amazing.
Who could deny the impact that Walt Disney’s ideas have had on the world? This book tells the story of Disney’s humble beginnings and his pursuit of his dreams, from making movies to creating a theme park. I love the illustrations in the book, which weave together realistic portraits with cartoon characters. The book does mention some of the unhappy moments in Disney’s life, such as the lukewarm reception to Fantasia and the artists’ strike, but it’s mostly about Disney’s point of view, and the way that so many of his dreams were made into reality.
Some world-changing ideas are scary, or even harmful: The Secret Project is a picture book about the making of the atomic bomb. The book looks a lot like other picture books: there are large pictures, a little bit of text, and it’s told like a story rather than with a lot of facts and figures. You get to see scientists going to work, but also some people in the surrounding areas, those who had no idea what was going on at Los Alamos. You don’t learn the names of the scientists, and the bomb isn’t referred to as anything other than the “Gadget.”
The book ends with the countdown, but then the explosion itself is shown over several wordless pages. Unlike most picture books, it’s not presented as a happy ending, but rather something ambiguous: it’s beautifully rendered, but also a terrible sight. The Author’s Note at the back provides a little more context and history, for those who want more names and details, and it also gets into the effects of the atomic bomb, such as the radiation levels in people living nearby and the death tolls in Japan when the bombs were dropped.
She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala
Many consider Frankenstein the first science fiction story, which means that sci-fi celebrated its 200th birthday this year. Frankenstein was published in 1818, and I’ve seen a few books about Mary Shelley to celebrate the bicentennial. This one is a picture book that gives a fictionalized account of the creation of her iconic story. It’s based on the true story, but has been tweaked a little to make it a good picture book story, too. In it, we learn about Mary sharing ghost stories with her friends (including Lord Byron and her future husband Percy Shelley), and some of her inspirations for the story of Frankenstein.
Fulton explains in her Author’s Note a few of the differences between her story and reality; she also talks about the differences in the popular understanding of Frankenstein’s monster and Shelley’s own original—that the monster in her book can speak and read, and that Shelley’s story was as much about how terrible it was to be the monster as it was to be confronted by him. It’s incredible to me that Frankenstein was written when she was just 18 (and published when she was 20), and continues to have an impact on our storytelling today.
For a deeper dive into Mary Shelley’s life, check out Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator by Catherine Reef, a more detailed non-fiction account of her life, written for young adults.
Her Right Foot is about the Statue of Liberty; it’s pretty hefty for a picture book, at just over 100 pages, but it’s predominantly artwork with small passages of text on most of the pages. The first half is just about the statue itself: who designed it, where it came from, how it was assembled. The second half is where you get into the title of the book, based on the observation that her right foot is actually lifted. The Statue of Liberty is in mid-stride, and Eggers asks the question: where is she going? Why? Eggers gives his own theory about it, a theory that’s built on the idea of what the Statue of Liberty stands for. She stands in the harbor, welcoming people to this country as a symbol of liberty and freedom.
The Marvelous Thing is about the invention of the Slinky, brought into the world by Richard and Betty James in 1945. Gilbert Ford’s 3D illustrations portray the story with a mix of cut-paper figures and little toys and trinkets, and they’re really fun to look at. The story itself shows how an accidental discovery became a worldwide sensation, and also the partnership between Richard and Betty to make it happen. Of course, nowadays I mostly see those tiny plastic versions that can’t actually crawl down stairs, but the original metal Slinky is still fascinating to watch.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.