Award-Winning Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books

Nonfiction Monday: Don Brown’s Odd Boy Out – The Makings of a Celebrified Geek

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.

Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein – Written and illusrated by Don Brown

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.

“On a sunny, cold Friday in the old city of Ulm… a baby named Albert Einstein is born. It is March 14, 1879.” – p. 1
Overlooking Ulm River. Click here to be taken to the web source.

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.

Literally baby Einstein. The earliest photo of our young genius. Click the image to be taken to the web source.

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

Albert Einstein, aged 14, with sister Maja. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.

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!

The large city of Munich where Albert’s parents “encourage his independence and take the unusual step of allowing four-year-old Albert to wander the streets unattended.” Click on the image to be taken to the web source.
Young Albert’s house of cards and 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.”

Young Albert and the German schoolboys who teased and taunted him.

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.

Albert Einstein and his violin. A bit of trivia: There is a novel called The Case of Einstein’s Violin by William Sullivan. Inspired by our celebrated genius? Perhaps. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.
Max Talmud (later known as “Talmey”), Albert’s closest friend. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.

Misconceptions About Giftedness as Portrayed in Odd Boy Out

Click on the image to be taken to the web source.

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 darlingsTeachers 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

A famous portrait of Albert Einstein taken during his birthday. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.
Albert Einstein is also famous for his crazy hair. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.
Albert Einstein, in shining glory. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.

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.”

Author-Illustrator Don Brown. Click on the image to be taken to the web source.

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.”

Picture Book Challenge Update: 114 of 120

24 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: Don Brown’s Odd Boy Out – The Makings of a Celebrified Geek

  1. Wow, Fats, a really outstanding book review. I love how you have interspersed comments on the biography with additional information on Einstein. I have been up that big tower in ULM, it offers some great views of the city and beyond. It was indeed so very appropriate to add some of the misconceptions about giftedness. Paradoxically their school experience is often painful and unremarkable or even very mediocre in performance. Many schools do not have the resources to cater to their special needs.


    • Hello Joanna! Thank you for the kind words. I love to quote essential parts of the books to highlight significant points in the review. It’s the book’s way of making its point. I would like to visit Germany sometime. I met this German boy through a social networking site, and he said that if I ever do plan to visit, he could show me around!

      You made a good point on the school experience of gifted children. Indeed, there are not enough resources to cater to their needs. Also, teachers are often at a loss on how to deal with them, hence they lack the guidance and support they need to hone their gifts.


  2. You have found a goldmine with Don Brown – I didn’t know about him until after you have done this review. I checked our community library. Apparently he has also written something about Thomas Alva Edison, the young Jim Thorpe, the Titanic’s sinking and a few more. I now have more books to borrow from our library. Looks like he provides an amazing amazing resource.

    I know how very sick you are, dearest. And this review is beautifully written despite your illness. Such dedication indeed! I send you more healing energies and my hugs across the miles. Lovelovelove.


    • I didn’t know about him, either, until I found this tucked in the corner of the shelf. Don Brown’s illustrations – the light texture of his pen, ink, and watercolor art – are so appealing to the eyes that makes Albert Einstein so adorable as a child, in spite of his temperament.

      The back of the book contains a listing of other books by Don Brown. I believe I’ve seen 2 more at Barnes & Noble. I would definitely grab a copy of those! Yes, he does provide a truly amazing resource.

      Thank you for the generous words, my love. This was a random decision on my part, because I felt that if I feature an actual book for NFM, I wouldn’t be able to make it in time. With this book, however, I had no idea how the review would turn out. As I kept typing and editing details here and there, I started falling in love with it! Needless to say, this is another review that I take pride in. =)


  3. ps: I would most likely use this as a resource for my graduate classes in gifted ed – complete with misconceptions on giftedness, stereotypes, and how traditional lock-step curriculum can do more harm than good to an exceedingly smart and creative individual. Again, great work, dearest baby girl. 🙂


    • That would be fantastic! Don Brown’s portrayal of giftedness in Odd Boy Out is direct to the point. And, as you have mentioned in one of our recent conversations, you can even read this aloud to the class. I’m sure they would enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you again for the nice words. =)


  4. This looks like a great book about one of my favorite people. Great Review and accompanying pictures. I also like the additon of misconceptions of giftedness, which are only too true.


    • Hi Alex, thanks for dropping by. I enjoyed your post as always. I have an entire session in my graduate class where I merely lecture about misconceptions of giftedness. Fun! 🙂


    • Hello Alex! Nice to see you again, and thank you! =) Albert Einstein truly is a wonder, and the story of his childhood made him even more admirable. =)


  5. Thanks for the great review and additional info and photos. I’m a big fan of well written PB biographies. Will have to look for this one :).


    • Thank you Jama. =) PB biographies are fantastic reads – simple, straightforward, very laid back, and rich in illustrations. Also, in spite of the shortness of the stories of most PB bio’s, they still provide ample and significant information about the person being talked about. Definitely grab a copy! =)


  6. This is an excellent review! I haven’t read a picture book treatment of Einstein as a young boy. Has anyone had a better year than Einstein did in 1905? He literally changed the world with his papers published that year.


    • Hello Jeff! Thank you for the nice words! Neither have I. I always see those thick bio books on Einstein, and most do not have enough information about his childhood. Yes, he did change the world with his papers. His influence had been etched in the world forever. =)


  7. Yup, I second or third the appreciation for including information about the struggle gifted students can have in the classroom. I’ll keep this recommendation in mind when a student-teacher comes looking for a picture books about ‘giftedness’.
    Apples with Many Seeds


    • Hi Tammy! Thank you for dropping by! This is indeed a good resource on giftedness. I hope more people would find this picture book useful. =)


  8. Excellent review. I love the illustrations in the book.


  9. What a great and thorough review. I really love the look of the art work in this book. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!


    • Thank you for such generous words, Storied Cities. I love everything about this book. Truly a gem worth having! =)


  10. What a thoughtful and comprehensive review! Absolutely fascinating. And the quote you chose about Einstein and coping with bullying is powerful:

    “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

    Thanks for a great review!


    • Hello Jeanne! Thank you for the beautiful words! I love that quote as well. I almost forgot to include it, would you believe? Thankfully, I managed to find a way to squeeze it in and I’m glad I did. =)


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