Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 2): Stories of Perseverance for the Engineer
December 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That might be easy to say as a parent, but we have only to remember our own childhoods to know how hard it is to hear. Just the other night, my son was attempting to draw a human profile by following one of those step-by-step guidebooks. Diligently huddled over his paper, he suddenly threw the pencil across the room and yelled, “This isn’t working at all! It doesn’t even look like a person!” Actually, I thought, it does look like a person—just not like the one in the book. Oftentimes, we cannot see our triumphs for what they are. The creative process—its ups, its downs, its just plain hard work—is wonderfully captured in Rosie Revere, Engineer (Ages 5-8), the newest venture by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, the team that created one of my favorite picture books of all time: Iggy Peck Architect. What black-turtleneck-sporting Iggy Peck did for building designs, red-scarf-sporting Rosie Revere (yes, her namesake is Rosie the Riveter) does for engineering. She makes it look—well—cool. Second grader Rosie isn’t only a clever, resourceful inventor—fashioning scraps of trash into hot dog dispensers and hats that chase away snakes—she does it all with a sense of style, including red patent leather shoes and side-swept hair. The only problem is that she doesn’t realize how great she is—and after suffering some humiliation at the hands of a relative, she begins to hide her talents (come on, Rosie, lean in, lean in!). Fortunately, Rosie’s great-great-aunt, a former engineer herself, shows up to inspire Rosie’s greatest invention: a flying machine. With the likes of some spray cheese, a house fan, and the dismembered head of a baby doll, Rosie’s “heli-o-cheese-copter” soars up into the sky before crashing to pieces (nod to another favorite about a girl with dreams of flight, Violet the Pilot). Our despairing heroine is ready to throw in the towel on engineering until she hears: “‘Yes!’ said her great aunt. ‘It crashed. That is true./ But first it did just what it needed to do/…Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!/ Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!’” The already ultra-hip illustrations (hello, mid-century modern fashion and architecture!) get even sexier when Rosie’s aunt presents her with a journal, containing pages of red graph paper covered with graphite sketches of historic aeronautic achievements by women. Rosie can and should continue to dream big. After all, “the only true failure can come if you quit.”
Speaking of never giving up no matter how crazy you seem to everyone around you, Candace Fleming’s Papa’s Mechanical Fish (Ages 4-8) is an enchanting fictionalized account of an eccentric, real life inventor from the 1950s: a man named Lodner Phillips, who was obsessed with building a submarine in which his family could traverse the bottom of Lake Michigan. Behind every great mind is a muse—and, in Phillips’ case, Fleming imagines this person to be his daughter. With the sinking of each prototype, young Virena casually but coyly drops hints, like “Papa, how do fish move through the water?” (the next model features a motorized fin and tail), and “Papa, how do fish stay dry?” (voilà, waterproof copper!). The exuberant but gentle dialogue between family members is a joy to read aloud, but the real draw here are the illustrations by Boris Kulikov, a prolific Russian=trained artist who excels at expressive faces and dramatic contortions of scale, both perfectly suited to this story about a larger-than-life figure embarking on a larger-than-life “mechanical fish.” “It almost worked,” Papa is fond of repeating throughout the book, and given the intensity in his wide eyes, the joyful anticipation that spreads across his face with each unveiling, his frenzied returns to the studio, and his family’s celebratory dances on the docks, we too can’t help but cheer for him. My son’s favorite page comes toward the end, when the four children, their mother, and their bulldog Rex are standing on various contraptions, trying to see through the newspapered windows of Papa’s garage studio (actually, the dog is cleverly trying to dig underneath the garage). Lest we forget the enormity of the task at hand, Kulikov’s illustrations are augmented with torn pages of Papa’s journal, revealing highly intricate black-and-white sketches of his inventions (very Leonardo da Vinci). After all, the man built submarines in his garage. And you know what? One of them actually worked.
Learning through experimentation gets a delightful dose of humor in Lynne Berry’s new picture book, What Floats in a Moat? (Ages 4-8), an introduction for children to the displacement of water, a discovery first made by the ancient Greek scientist, Archimedes. If that sounds over your child’s head, it isn’t. For starters, you have to love a story about a knighted goat named Archie (the Afterward makes the historic connection) and his sidekick, Skinny the Hen. Then there’s the fantastically absurd premise: en route to deliver three barrels of buttermilk to the Queen’s castle, the two decide to take an unconventional detour “in the name of science!” Why go across the drawbridge when you can go across the moat on a barrel—and test out a few hypotheses along the way? As with any entertaining literary duo, there is a natural-born leader (read: bossy) and a skeptical accomplice (read: sucker), and the dialogue between Archie and Skinny does not disappoint (nor do Matthew Cordell’s whimsical sketches). After the first failed attempt on a full barrel of buttermilk, which quickly sinks to the bottom of the moat, Archie considers a new angle:
“‘Aha! To cross the moat,’ pronounced the goat, ‘an empty barrel might float!’
‘Empty?’ said Skinny.
‘Empty,’ said Archie. ‘Drink, Skinny, drink!’
‘Drink buttermilk?’ asked Skinny.
‘Indeed,’ said Archie. ‘For science!’
‘Ha!’ said Skinny. ‘YOU are the scientist.’
‘Ah,’ said Archie, ‘but YOU are skinny.’”
At this point, my children are already laughing their heads off, but the fun goes on as the now empty barrel spins and rolls around on top of the water, leaving Archie once again at the bottom of the moat. More sketching and hammering and tinkering ensues until the third time proves a charm: a half-full barrel displaces just enough water to float without spinning. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (Funny how that sounds so much better when it comes from a book!)