Friday, 16 August 2013

On A Beam Of Light by Jennifer Berne with pictures by Vladimir Radunsky. Review by Penny Dolan.

I’ve chosen this most remarkable book because it is a current favourite with two young girls, aged eight and four. This picture book is a biography, written in simple and poetic text  in parise of the power of simply thinking. 

But who's the hero?
The story opens like this:

“Over a hundred years ago, as the stars swirled, as the earth circled the sun, as the March winds blew through a little town by a river, a baby boy was born, His parents named him Albert.”

The illustrations, by Vladimir Radunsky, are rough child-like drawings - in chalks, ink and paint – on a variety of pale wrapping-paper brown pages, with arrows and words drawn in scratchily here and there.

The young hero, however is a rather unusual (and worrying to his parents) sort of child:

 “Albert turned one year old.
And didn’t say a word.
Albert turned two
And didn’t say a word,
And Albert turned three
And hardly said a word at all.”

 Why doesn’t young Albert talk? Because he is already busy spending his time wondering and thinking.

One day, Albert’s father gives him a compass. Albert studies it and:
“Suddenly he knew there were mysteries in the world, hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted more than anything to understand those mysteries.”

And this is when Albert starts to ask questions, and to read and study so that he can find the answers to all these many mysteries – about light and sound, about heat and magnetism, about gravity.

After university, Albert takes a job in a quiet government office, where people bring their inventions, but he does not stop learning. Albert studied and wrote, and sent his letters and papers and ideas out across the word. Eventually he was, and still is, recognised as a great thinker.

The book’s full title is “On A Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein”

Einstein’s eccentricities are there in the book: his wild white hair, his love of ice-cream, how his violin playing helped him to think, his bicycle riding, and his belief that “his feet were happier without his socks.”

The pages illustrate the range of Albert’s interests: on one spread showing whirling comets, we read “He thought of very, very big things”.  

 Over the page, he is busy with a simple sailing boat. “He thought of very, very small things.” 

 Although people are shown as being amazed at Albert’s many ideas, there is no sense of our hero seeking celebrity or fame, and no mention of words like “genius” or “science” although that is implicit in the way the story unfolds. There is no earnest, off-putting mention of being clever or genius or being “stretched” or the need for “rigour” 

What the writer and illustrator capture are Albert Einstein’s sense of wonder, and his love of learning, although the book also includes a spread of additional information for anyone interested in further facts.

Page by page, this delightful book creates a wonderfully affirming story that praises wonder, and thought and the asking of questions. It shows Albert fascinated by the incredibly interesting world all around him – and what better message is there than that?

And as for that “Beam of Light” in the title? That’s the headlamp on Albert’s bicycle, the source of one of his greatest ideas. 

Originally published by Chronicle Books in America, and a Junior Literary Guild Selection, this hardback title is now available in the UK.
£10.99. ISBN 978 –0-8118-7235-5.

Note: The copy I borrowed to review was bought at the remarkable independent bookshop inside Salts Mill at Saltaire, near Bradford. Spread across one floor of the old mill, this shop has a most alluringly wide and attractive selection of books for adults and children. The photo below can be found on the author Saviour Pirotta's blog. So now you have three lovely things to look out for and enjoy - a book, a shop and a blog!

Penny Dolan



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