GatheringBooks is proud to cast the spotlight on Don Brown’s picture book, Odd Boy Out, for Nonfiction Monday. Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by Tales from the Rushmore Kid.
I fished out this beautiful picture book while meticulously browsing through Barnes & Noble’s biography shelf located in a small corner of their children’s literature section. I found it rather disappointing that the store did not carry a wide selection of “eye-catching” biography books for children. Most of the books in the shelf were flat-out, straightforward biography books that either have “Who is…?” or the actual person’s name in the title.
Much to my relief, I found 5 or 6 biography picture books that have interesting titles and beautiful illustrations. I allowed myself to buy 2 that day, and Don Brown’s Odd Boy Out was one of them.
Before E=MC2, There Was a Boy Named Albert
As with most biographies, Don Brown begins his adaptation with the birth of Albert Einstein.
While most parents and grandparents rejoice at the birth of the firstborn in the family, the reactions of Albert’s mother and grandmother fell outside the norm. Mommy Einstein thought Albert’s head was too big. Granny Einstein, on the other hand, said Albert was “much too fat.” There was barely room for rejoicing.
Because Geniuses Are Humans Too
Don Brown presents the readers with both good and bad traits – if you could even describe those as such – of young Albert without trivializing or glorifying our born-to-be genius. Although it took a while for his family to hear him talk, Albert had already manifested giftedness at a young age (a topic much-loved by Myra).
“Finally, he talks, and when he does he can be clever and sharp. When he is nearly three, his parents promise Albert a surprise, and he expects a toy. When instead they present him with a baby sister, he says, ‘Where are the wheels?’” – p. 4
In spite of his giftedness – which was often times looked upon as an oddity – Albert was to remain detached from the world throughout his growing years. Don Brown proceeds with young Albert’s story by portraying his temperament. At times he was cruel to his sister Maja and he would throw tantrums to the hired tutor.
Why Fit In When You Can Stand Out
Only a boy such as Albert can teach us, effortlessly, a thing or two about individuality. Unlike most kids, he did not like sports nor did he find soldiers on parade exciting. He enjoyed spending time alone, getting lost in the city, building houses of cards, and even something as simple as looking at a compass!
Being Jewish, young Albert was taunted by the German schoolboys. In addition, his disinterest in schoolwork – except Math – displeased his teachers. One even told him that he would “never get anywhere in life.”
But Albert is Albert. He was not one to be disheartened or deterred.
“The mindless and mechanical method of teaching caused me great difficulties. I would rather let all kinds of punishment descend upon me than learn to rattle something off by heart.” – Young Albert, p. 19
Albert simply brushed off the insults and, instead, immersed himself in music and math. He particularly enjoyed playing the violin, and it was through his friend Max Talmud that his profound love for mathematics developed.
Misconceptions About Giftedness as Portrayed in Odd Boy Out
When I saw Myra’s comment last night on my recent IMM post, I realized that it would be a little treat to briefly touch on the topic of giftedness. After all, we are talking about the life of a gifted child here. I decided to juxtapose young Albert’s life with the following misconceptions about giftedness that I found here and here.
- Gifted kids are high achievers who do really well at exams. Young Albert does well in subjects that he likes and ignores the rest. Years later, when he enrolls in Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland, he fails the entrance test because he is unprepared in the subjects that he neglected when he was younger.
- Children who do badly in school and fail exams cannot be gifted. This is related to the previous misconception. As young Albert had mentioned, school works are mechanical and repetitive. Gifted children are abstract thinkers. The former and the latter are opposite ends of the pole.
- Gifted kids are always top of the class and are “teachers’ pets”; their gift is highly prized by their school and as such is rewarded. It was never mentioned that young Albert was at the top of the class, and his teachers’ treatment of him certainly does not exhibit his being a teacher’s pet. His school does not recognize his giftedness because they rely heavily upon class performance and participation. In addition, giftedness is not limited to doing well in academics. One can be gifted in the arts, in music, in sports, among others.
- Gifted children are naturally well-behaved little darlings. Teachers often will get angry at these children because they take too long to answer questions, without understanding that the gifted child may not wish to give an answer until they have fully thought out ALL of the possibilities first. They may also accuse the students of daydreaming or not paying attention, when the child may actually just be contemplating what the teacher has been talking about. More often than not, they have actually taken that thought beyond the realm of the actual discussion. Very true in young Albert’s case. Don Brown writes: “When questioned in class, Albert lingers over his responses, frustrating his teachers, who prefer quick, snappy answers. And afterward the teachers see his lips move as he quietly repeats the answer to himself. ‘Is Albert dull-witted?’ the teachers wonder.”
One of the things I liked the most about Odd Boy Out is Don Brown’s portrayal of a man whose reputation is grander than yours and mine combined. The Bulletin notes,
“Brown at his best as he zeroes in on those telling traits that trim a larger-than-life figure down to size.”
It is always a pleasure to read about famous people living their ordinary lives extraordinarily – if that even made sense to you. Another thing worth mentioning is how, throughout the book, Don Brown addresses Albert Einstein with his first name, making it seem like he was just one of the fellas in your neighborhood.
Lastly, while most biographies lightly touch on a person’s childhood, Don Brown’s adaptation – complemented by his pen and ink, and watercolor illustrations – is a celebration of the young mind: fresh, honest, and brilliant.
The Many Faces of Albert Einstein
For famous quotes by Albert Einstein, click here.
Videos Featuring Our Celebrified Geek
“Now I will add a few words unprepared. [laughter] A country becomes really a soul only in consciously serving the intellectual life, and in the case of our Jewish people it was really this endeavour, which conserved the Jewish people as a whole. We would not be in existence today, as a community of people, without this continued, or discontinued … ehh … activity into learning and in thought and in literature.”
About Don Brown.
Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of many picture book biographies. He has been widely praised for his resonant storytelling and his delicate watercolor paintings that evoke the excitement, humor, pain, and joy of lives lived with passion. School Library Journal has called him “a current pacesetter who has put the finishing touches on the standards for storyographies.”