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A Child’s Garden of Science Books: Einstein, Pi Day, and the Brooklyn Bridge

By Stuart Mitchner

When 5-year-old Albert Einstein was sick in bed, his father gave him a compass. According to Curt Wilkinson in Words That Changed the World: Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (Laurence King 2020), the boy was “entranced by the invisible forces that attracted the needle, keeping it pointed to the magnetic north.” Six years later, Einstein was given a volume that he called his “sacred little geometry book.” In time the compass and the book became “two wonders” that roused his curiosity about the way the universe worked.

After praising Wilkinson’s “approachable explanations and examples,” School Library Journal commends James Weston Lewis for “detailed illustrations that help young readers understand the physics concepts accepted before Einstein began his work.” The “shading and dimensionality” are “cleanly constructed through a bold yellow and purple color scheme, featuring strong lines and layering similar to woodcut printmaking.” I find Lewis’s cover design at once antic, cheerful, and geometrically compelling, a kaleidoscopic delight, although the severity of Einstein’s face seems at odds with the customarily more playful character of Pi Day, March 14 or 3.14, as Einstein’s birthday is celebrated here in his adopted hometown. For an image on the other side of severity, there’s the face on the cover of Bin Vo’s Einstein: The Boy Who Changed the World (Emotikids Books), which was published on Pi Day 2023 as part of the series “Grit and Glory: The Against All Odds Stories of Famous Figures.”

Emily’s Bridge

A pair of books offer colorful subtexts for the article on Emily Roebling in this issue: Rachel Dougherty’s Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge (Roaring Brook Press 2019) and Freida Wishinsky’s How Emily Saved the Bridge (Groundwood Books 2019), with illustrations by Natalie Nelson. Booklist cites Wishinsky in a starred review for the way her “quippy dialogue and well-researched storytelling capture the passion and intelligence of the extraordinary Emily,” while Nelson’s “whimsical cut-paper collages, an interplay of bright blocks of color and black-and-white photography” depict “a rapidly growing city in the flux of modernization.”

Dougherty’s cover image of Emily is as girlish as Nelson’s is matronly, and while her title seems to suggest that Emily Roebling “built” the bridge whose construction she so capably and courageously oversaw, what it actually expresses is her pride in the building of the book, a bridge in itself from the first image of a girl peering through a telescope — “Emily Warren, a bright, shiny spark who loved to learn” — to the final starry-skied spectacle of the bridge’s opening day on May 24, 1883.

In the World of Men

Emily’s interest in math and science leads to her marriage to engineer Washington Roebling, who took over the construction of the bridge after the death of his father, chief engineer John Roebling. When Washington falls victim to a long-term workplace malady called “decompression sickness,” Emily “finds herself thrust into the world of engineering, still very much the world of men.”

The first picture book by Dougherty for which she has written the text as well as created the illustrations, Secret Engineer is structured around three two-page center spreads, each devoted to key elements of the bridge’s construction — the “Catenary curve,” the “perfect natural arc of a cable held only at the ends, like a clothesline or a jump rope”; the “Suspenders,” the huge vertical cables that “shift the weight of the bridge deck to the main cables”; and the steel cables called “Stays” that descend “diagonally from the towers like sunbeams.” Within each of these images, Dougherty has cleverly draped the defining engineering term over the span in enormous shapely, swooping letters.

Secret Engineer concludes with a pair of spectacular two-page panoramas, the first showing Emily riding across the bridge in a horse-drawn carriage with a rooster in her lap “as a symbol of victory” a week before the grand opening; and in the second, the bridge looms in its glory against a sky swept with stars and streaming with celebratory fireworks as Brooklyn and Manhattan launched rockets and “bands played from steamboats below all night long.”

Temple and Ada

Two books well reviewed in School Library Journal are Julia Finley Mosca’s The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin (Innovation Press 2019), with illustrations by Daniel Rieley, and Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer (Abrams 2016).

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures is applauded for the way “rhyming verse and appealing cartoon illustrations capture Grandin’s spirit while providing an exciting, informative look at her remarkable life. Invaluable back matter contains a letter from Temple, fun facts, a timeline accompanied by family photographs, and an insightful biography.”

Robinson’s use of watercolors cut, arranged, and then photographed lend Ada’s Ideas “a rhythmic movement that allows readers to better imagine the chugging of Lovelace’s Analytical Engine” while the “citation of Lord Byron’s alliterative diminutive for his daughter — the Princess of Parallelograms — intensifies the sing-song, playful pace of the work.”

From the Library

Among the books I took home after a visit to the Princeton Public Library are A Few Beautiful Minutes: Experiencing a Solar Eclipse by Katie Allen Fox, illustrated by Khoa Le (Little Brown 2023) and George Washington Carver: More Than The “Peanut Man” by Janel Rodriguez, illustrated by Subi Bosa (Scholastic 2023).

Also in the collection but unavailable the day of my visit, Isabelle Marinov’s The Boy Whose Head Was Filled With Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble (Enchanted Lion 2021), with illustrations by Deborah Macero, has garnered numerous awards, including the New York Public Library Best Book for Kids of 2021 and the Bank Street College of Education Best Book of 2022. It also received strong reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Air and Space Magazine, as well as a notice in the New York Times declaring that Marinov and Macero “get it just right,” with Marinov “distilling Hubble’s life to the essence of youthful curiosity,” while Marcero’s “tender illustrations” remind readers “on every page that the experience of looking at a dark, starry sky shaped Edwin’s life.”

For Older Children

Two remarkable books for older children I found at the library are Richard Maurer’s The Woman in the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Helped Fly the First Astronauts to the Moon (Roaring Brook Press 2023), which Kirkus calls “an appealing biography of a quietly trailblazing engineer,” and Full of Life: Exploring Earth’s Biodiversity by Isabel Thomas, with illustrations by Sara Gillingham (Phaidon Press 2022), which received a starred review in Kirkus for its “stellar graphics and a well-organized, readable approach to its expansive subject matter.”

Einstein’s Compass

Growing up in the postwar Midwest, I was given a compass that told me to “always travel in the right direction.” This was at a time in American life when even kids destined to be math/science dummies like me were fascinated by scientific devices that could be held in the palm of their hands.

Kids growing up in postwar Princeton were told that they shared the town with the world’s wisest man. They may also have glimpsed the familiar figure walking on Nassau Street or riding his bike around town. Now flash forward to the summer of 1994 when kids of all ages are extras in scenes being filmed for the romantic comedy IQ, with Walter Matthau as Einstein. In the spring of 2022, a key moment in the hit film Oppenheimer was shot on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, with Tom Conti as Einstein. A visit to Wikipedia’s “Albert Einstein in Popular Culture” makes it clear that Princeton’s most illustrious resident is alive and well in the imagination of the world.

Loving Pi

Listening to Kate Bush sing her love song to mathematicians on YouTube and loving the music she makes of their “fascination with the calculation of Pi,” I’m staring at the luminous green full-screen symbol formed of numbers 3.141596535 and on and on, row after row, which she sings, makes sweet love to, one by one until she’s covered the top three numbered rows of the span — and I realize that out of the numerous entities the figure resembles, one of the most obvious is that of a suspension bridge.

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